Bret Bielema knew exactly what he wanted to say when he walked into his first team as the head coach of Illinois on a cold midwestern day in December. What he didn’t know was how it would be received.

The message? Anyone on Illinois’ roster in the 2020 season was welcome to return. On the surface, it sounds like a pretty standard comment to make, especially following a year derailed by a pandemic. But it’s one that yielded incredible results.

Illinois will have 40 players on the roster who are labeled as seniors or super-seniors for the 2021 season — a pretty good foundation for Bielema to start construction on the Illinois program.

“I was floored, to be quite honest,” Bielema said of the buy in from the super-seniors. “I was just trying to build a relationship with these guys who were going to leave out of that meeting and literally go home. They weren’t in classes, classes were out. I realized over the next four weeks we were going to have to build a relationship without being together.”

Bielema was able to get a large contingency of last year’s squad to buy in to his message and his vision. But it didn’t come without plenty of hard work on the head coach’s end.

The meeting that set the tone

Walking into a room full of unfamiliar names and faces can be a daunting task for anyone. It was especially challenging in the midst of the pandemic with masks covering half the faces of dozens of Illinois players.

Bielema hadn’t been a college head coach in three seasons. He didn’t know what to expect and he was pushed into a situation where he had to make a great first impression and develop a connection in the blink of an eye.

Looking back, though, it became clear that Bielema won over the room.

“One of the moments I really go back to is that first opportunity to watch the team play at Penn State the last game of the year,” Bielema said. “To come back and meet with the team (the next week), I offered everyone in that room an opportunity to come back. I didn’t watch a stitch of film, I didn’t care if they were a great player or last on the depth chart, I wanted them to know I was the newest family member in this room.”

Bielema isn’t alone in thinking his first message to the team was the most important.

All three players that made the trip to B1G Media Days on Thursday — Doug Kramer, Vederian Lowe and Owen Carney — all pointed to that initial meeting with their new head coach. That was when they started to understand the vision of the new man in town.

“Coach B came in after our last game against Penn State and had a team meeting with us and just immediately said how he was the newest member of this family and I think that was a tone-setter,” said starting offensive lineman Vederian Lowe. “The way he viewed himself and the way he viewed our team and the culture that he set for us, I think that played a huge part (in coming back).”

So many guys had thought about entering the transfer portal, declaring for the NFL Draft or just ending their college football careers after a tumultuous year, one unlike any other. But Bielema had several in that room rethinking their future.

In his first meeting with his team, Bielema delivered on his promise — recruit players from the current roster to return to Illinois. His pitch was well received, but not everyone jumped back at once.

A timeline of decisions

Kramer didn’t need much time to make his decision. Living out his dream in the blue and orange, the starting offensive lineman was quick to inform his new head coach that he was returning for another season.

All it took was a single one-on-one session with Bielema.

“It was one big team meeting with everyone and then I had an individual meeting with him,” said Kramer. “In that meeting I told him I was coming back.”

Kramer was the first domino. After he decided to return, his teammates up front decided to follow in his footsteps. Lowe was next, then Alex Palczewski. All three had individual meetings with Bielema, and all three liked what they heard.

Lowe confessed that he was drawn to the salesmanship of his new head coach.

“Coach B is a very convincing guy. He’s got that smooth voice, he talks out the side of his mouth,” Lowe said. “So he’s definitely a smooth guy, he’s very convincing. Coach B, being the great leader he is, makes you wanna follow him.”

Not everyone was sold so quickly.

Carney still decided to enter his name into the NCAA transfer portal after listening to Bielema’s initial pitch. He wanted to explore all the options in front of him before making a final call. That might’ve been the smartest move for the linebacker.

Reflecting on his decision to hit the portal, Carney said it was then that he learned a lot about himself and what he was looking to accomplish. During that time, he also saw that Bielema cared more about him as a person than as a talented football player.

“He’s very genuine,” Carney said. “When we talked — even though you guys might recognize me as a good player — he lets me know what I’m doing right, what I’m doing wrong, how I can improve on the field and off the field. He’s got a lot of wisdom.”

Carney’s return after entering the transfer portal was the first sign that Bielema wasn’t going to allow players to walk out of Champaign without a fight. But his next challenge was even greater.

Linebacker Jake Hansen had his mind made up, declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft. He had an impressive career for Illinois and believed it was his time to start pursuing a professional career.

That didn’t stop Bielema from pestering Hansen on a regular basis.

“Jake Hansen, I tried to recruit him until he literally got pissed at me and said, ‘Coach, I’m going. I’m leaving,'” Bielema said. “Then I waited like five days and called his dad and said if the door ever opens, let me have a chance.”

Bielema’s relentless (and obnoxious) effort with Hansen paid off.

“About a week later I got a call,” Bielema said, “we got an NCAA waiver and we got him back.”

All about FamILLy

In that first meeting, Bielema emphasized the importance of family. In order to have any sort of success at Illinois, he’d need everyone in his locker room to buy in to that mentality.

Since taking over the program, the word “FamILLy” is seen all over Illinois’ social media pages. From the outside, it’s viewed mostly as a clever slogan used on the recruiting front. Inside, though, it’s a word that has significant meaning.

It played a big role in Kramer, Lowe and Carney coming back.

“Coach B always talks about family and you see a lot of people around the country talk about family, but I think it shows we are a true family,” Kramer said. “We have that many guys come back, we have that many guys buy in to the system. It’s not just words. It’s something we truly believe in.”

The connection between Kramer, Lowe and Palczewski is a strong one. All three have received All-B1G honors at some point in their careers and they love playing together. There’s a sense that, with that core group back up front, Illinois can do some special things in 2021.

None of them wanted their careers at Illinois to end with a 2-6 record.

“With me having the experience and being able to still be on the offensive line with Doug. You know, Doug had already made the decision that he was gonna come back and (Palczewski) was already gonna stay another year,” Lowe said. “I just felt like those are my guys, those are the guys I want to ride it out until the end with, those are the guys I want to be successful with.”

Carney was the most hesitant of the three representing Illinois at B1G Media Days to agree to return for another season. He would’ve had a lot of offers to play elsewhere if he had kept his name in the transfer portal.

When you hear him talk, you understand why he did return and he’s happy he made the choice to spend one more year with his family.

“We get an extra year with our brothers. That’s extra playing time, extra reps against Vederian. Extra time to catch up and build team comradery,” Carney said. “I’ve been loving it.”