He's only one month into the job, but Bret Bielema is proving why he was the right choice for Illinois
Illinois hired the right guy.
When Josh Whitman announced that Bret Bielema was going to be the next head coach of the Fighting Illini, there were plenty of people who were skeptical of the move. One of those individuals who was left scratching his head is the guy sitting behind this computer screen.
A month later, I’m still scratching my head. Yes, I’m wondering why I was so opposed to this decision when it was revealed in December before Illinois played its final game against Penn State. Bielema hasn’t probably even had the time to fully decorate his office yet and he’s proven that he was the guy who deserved the job. The one who can turn Illinois into a winner.
For me, the icing on the cake came earlier this week when Bielema was speaking with the media after assembling his staff, putting the finishing touches on the 2021 recruiting class and preparing for winter workouts and spring football. Bielema made it clear: he has no interest in doddering in Champaign.
“I’m trying to get the best players so we can have the best team we possibly can this year,” Bielema said on Thursday. “I’m not gonna skip a step to get to where we wanna be, but I’m trying to be good now. I don’t want to wait three years from now. I think the way the rules are set up right now, I think you can kinda try to do that.”
Quite the change in attitude, isn’t it?
Bielema has been in the business long enough to understand that winning games is the most attractive pitch on the recruiting trail. And improving recruiting is the only way to cure the inconsistency the Illini have endured over the past decade (or longer).
Lovie Smith never really took that initiative. The sense of urgency to build a winning program or bring in highly-rated recruiting classes was rarely seen. Sure, the 2019 season was fun for the Illini, but one bowl trip in five years will never be labeled a success at any level.
Attempting to build a winner quickly, Bielema has invaded the transfer portal over the last month, landing players like former SEC defensive backs Eddie Smith (Alabama) and Prather Hudson (Georgia), as well as ex-Notre Dame wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, all of which can make an immediate impact.
Bielema was able to convince major contributors like quarterback Brandon Peters and defensive linemen Owen Carney Jr., Roderick Perry and Jamal Woods to return for one more year in Champaign.
Before that, Beliema was on the phone with head football coaches across the state of Illinois. He spoke in his press conference about barricading the roads to keep in-state talent at home. He wants all of his coaches recruiting Illinois from top to bottom and side to side.
The message? Not only can Illinois develop into a consistent program in the B1G, but it can do so with in-state talent.
Smith never sent out that memo.
Winning isn’t going to come easy for Bielema, and Illinois isn’t going to instantly transform into a contender in the B1G West. But Bielema believes with a more physical approach to practice and a little more tough love, the Illini can make a splash in 2021.
“I know we’ve got a lot of work to do, they’ve not had one practice where I’ve been at the helm, deciding how practice is run,” Bielema said. “We’re going to do things a little bit different. The physicality that we’ll practice with, the detail that we’ll practice with will probably be something they haven’t seen before. …So, there will be a transitional phase here that we’ve gotta work through.”
Bielema has plans for short-term and long-term success in Champaign. Perhaps more importantly, he believes Illinois is capable of producing results early in his tenure while also building a consistent program that is competitive in the future.
Illinois is getting the Wisconsin version of Bielema, not the one who struggled at Arkansas. I’ll be the first to admit that my initial skepticism was unfounded and wrong.
For the first time in a long time, Illinois has the right guy on the sideline.