First things first: Bret Bielema off to a good start making Illini relevant again
For a first-year head coach, the challenges come in waves. Roster attrition, personnel adjustment, establishing a coaching staff, recruiting, recruiting, recruiting … but most of all, establishing a culture. It’s a challenge in any job.
Now, impose those challenges at a program that last had a winning season in 2011, that last had a team that climbed above mediocre in 2007, and that last played nationally relevant football 20 years ago. Consider these difficulties for a program that hasn’t had a coach leave town with a winning record since 1991.
Before Bret Bielema can make Illinois great, he has to make Illinois interesting.
Fortunately, he’s showing definite progress on that front.
It’s not so much that the Illini have been bad, although they have been. It’s that aside from the crash-and-burn experiment that became the Lovie Smith era, there’s not even anything definitive to remember about the past decade of Illinois football. Was Tim Beckman actually a Big Ten coach for 3 seasons or did central casting just make up a guy and give him a football-coachy name? The last time an Illinois player went in the first round of the NFL Draft was in 2012.
Bielema stands to be a cure to the anonymous mediocrity that Illinois had settled into. First, the guy has personality. Everybody knows that.
“I got a Tigerhawk tattoo when I was 19,” he told the assembled media this morning. “It was a great idea then. Not now.”
The reaction to that comment could well be a soundtrack for the transition in Illinois football.
Not that it was all yuks and chuckles.
“Recruiting is personal if you do it the right way,” Bielema said in a more serious moment.
This came a few days after the Illini got a commitment from wide receiver Shawn Miller from IMG Academy in Florida, who credited Bielema for his decision in choosing the Illini over West Virginia, Miami, Indiana and Arizona.
It takes chutzpah to go into living rooms with a vision and a plan and to emerge with players, and Bielema is very much on the job.
Second, he’s a winner.
Bielema was 68-24 in 7 seasons at Wisconsin, including 3 seasons finishing in the AP top 10. At Arkansas, his 29-34 mark is better than in looks, because of an ugly first season spent building up talent and his final season. In between, he took Arkansas to 3 consecutive bowl games. The Hogs haven’t played in one since they fired him.
“I’ve learned things through success and I’ve learned things through failure,” he admitted Thursday morning. The good news for Illinois is that there actually has been more of the former than the latter.
Third, he’s relevant.
Looking through the back pages of Illinois football history, most of the recent hires are the equivalent of a 3rd-and-20 halfback draw that picks up 4 yards. They were methodical, reasonable hires that simply did not move the needle. They didn’t signify any real commitment on the part of Illinois to outpunch its weight class. And even in the weaker of the Big Ten’s two divisions, that’s how you wind up being favored in 5 conference games in 5 seasons, as Illinois was under Lovie Smith (that’s 4 games against Rutgers and 1 against Northwestern).
Given the positive elements that Bielema brings to the program, how high should expectations be for Year 1 of a substantial rebuilding project? He went 3-8 in his first year at Arkansas, where he inherited a few players left from an 11-2 team 2 seasons prior. There’s reason to think it could go better at Illinois.
The cupboard is not bare. An initial headcount suggests as many as 18 returning starters on both sides of the ball, including 3 QBs who got experience last year, the team’s top 5 rushers, 2 of the top 3 receivers and the top 6 tacklers. Owen Carney and Jake Hansen are both standout defenders who could play — and probably star — for any team in the conference. An experienced offensive line and sophomore Chase Brown suggest the kind of personnel that Bielema used to establish churning ground attacks in both of his previous two stops.
“I’m really excited with where our offense is at,” Bielema said.
And the schedule matters. Look it over again. No Ohio State. No Michigan. No game against Indiana and Michael Penix. Wisconsin is a home game, and dare it be mentioned, the last time Wisky came to Memorial Stadium, they entered as a 30.5- point favorite and went home with a loss. Penn State is a tough cross-division game, but home games against Rutgers and Maryland could both be winnable.
Granted, 6 wins for Illinois in 2021 would be rabbit-from-the-hat kind of sleight of hand. Again, the Illini are at a decade and counting since the last winning season. But there’s good reason to look at that schedule and see 4 or 5 wins … and if Illinois could go 2-1 against its first 3 conference opponents (home vs. Nebraska, home against Maryland, and at Purdue), they could overachieve their way into something very interesting.
Illinois football and interesting– funny to see them together again. With Bret Bielema at the helm, get used to it.