Bret Bielema gives Illinois a chance to be relevant in Big Ten
Illinois fans aren’t asking for much. This isn’t a football program that expects to win Big Ten titles or even win the West. It isn’t a program that views missing a bowl game as an abject failure.
All Illinois football wants is to be in the mix every few years, and every now and again, rise up and challenge for a division title in a winnable Big Ten West—kind of like Northwestern has been doing lately.
Bret Bielema can do that.
Illinois announced Saturday that the former Wisconsin head coach would replace Lovie Smith as head coach. It’s a chance at redemption for Bielema, who flamed out at Arkansas after 5 unspectacular seasons. And it’s a chance for Illinois to move past Smith’s uninspiring tenure.
But forget Arkansas, the job Bielema was fired from in 2017 after a 4-8 season put him at 29-34 overall. Let’s focus on what Bielema has already accomplished in the league in which he’ll be coaching. He took a good program under Barry Alvarez and made it really good. Bielema went 68-24 in 7 seasons with Wisconsin. Sure, Wisconsin had won a total of 19 games in the 2 seasons prior to Bielema taking over, but don’t forget that coincided with Bielema being hired from Kansas State to take over the Badger defense. In the 3 seasons before Bielema arrived, Wisconsin was 20-19, losing at least 6 games in all 3 seasons. (And for what’s worth, Paul Chryst has continued that momentum after Bielema bolted for Arkansas.)
It makes way too much sense to not take a chance on a coach that has already been such a big part of winning in the Big Ten.
Besides, head coaches who have gotten fired from high-profile jobs, like Ed Orgeron and Lane Kiffin, are getting second chances in a conference they know well. So why not Bielema? He has spent the last 3 years as an NFL assistant, and it’s a perfect time for his return to the Big Ten. The Illini’s last great season (they reached the Rose Bowl in 2007) came at the helm of another SEC castoff, Ron Zook.
Bielema is the biggest name that Illinois could have gotten. And this isn’t a big name in this same vein as Lovie Smith, who hadn’t coached in college football in 20 years. Bielema is a guy who has led a winning college program.
Some may have been hoping for 2 of the MAC’s rising head coaches, Buffalo’s Lance Leipold and Kent State’s Sean Lewis. Leipold would’ve been an interesting hire, as he has elevated a Buffalo program with just 2 seasons over .500 since returning to Division I football in 1999. The Bulls (5-1) lost in the MAC Championship Game on Friday night, but they are guaranteed to finish .500 or better for the fourth straight season under Leipold. Lewis is also a candidate for a lower-tier Power 5 job after Kent State hadn’t won more than 4 games since 2012 until going 7-6 in 2019.
And someday, Jeff Monken will get a chance to shed the label that he can only be successful at a service academy. The Illinois native would’ve been a good hire for Illinois.
In fact, all 3 of them would’ve been good hires. They are the kind of program-builders that Illinois needs after just 1 bowl game in 5 years under Smith.
But I’d still take Bielema over them. With all due respect to the MAC and Army, Power 5 football is an entirely different ballgame. So when you have a candidate who has already succeeded in this conference and knows what it takes to win, you hire him. When you have a candidate who will be highly motivated to rebuild his reputation, you hire him. When you have a candidate who was Big Ten Coach of the Year, you hire him.
Bielema should have a much different go of it in Champaign. His knowledge of the Big Ten (he also played at Iowa) and his knowledge of the Midwest (he is a Prophetstown, Illinois native) should make for a much happier marriage than he had at Arkansas.
It’s possible to win at Illinois, even if the program hasn’t won double-digit games since 2001. For one, Champaign is within a few hours of Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis, so he will have access to plenty of talent on the recruiting trail. On the field, the Illini don’t have to contend with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan on a yearly basis since they play in the West. And Bielema can take time to rebuild this program, as there won’t be the same pressure year-to-year as he faced in the SEC.
Bielema was the best hire Illinois could have made. Whether it works out is TBD. But at the minimum, Illinois has the chance to be relevant for the first time in far too long. At this point, that’s all Illinois fans can ask for.