Bret Bielema to Illini: Reasons for Hope, Concern and Ambivalence



The best way to describe Illinois hiring Bret Bielema as their next football coach is.. well, I don’t dislike it. It’s not a bad decision. It’s not exciting or a home run hire, but you can’t really knock it either. The Lovie Smith hire was unexpected, outside the box and overly hyped up beyond absurdity.

The Lovie experiment failed, so steady and safe was probably the way to go now, even though I would have much preferred Todd Monken. The circumstances and situation made for the perfect time and space for the Monken hire right now.

That said, the Bielema hire was a solid decision, as the program badly needs to win conference games again finally. He’s the one guy you could get right now, who knows the conference through and through, and has a track record of winning the league.

Without further ado, here are reasons to be hopeful, pessimistic and have mixed feelings about Bret Bielema to Illinois

Why You Should Feel Excited

Bret Bielema has an Iowa Hawkeyes tattoo on his leg from his playing days under Hayden Fry. He also has three Big Ten championships (2010-12) and Rose Bowl appearances, to gol along with six consecutive bowl games and a 68-24 record (.739) from his days at Wisconsin.

He has prairie state cred, as he’s a native of Prophetstown, Illinois, born at a hospital named “Illini.” Bielema’s initial contract is for six years beginning with an annual salary of $4.2 million. So he has to win, right off the bat, period. Illinois hasn’t had a winning conference season since 2007, and no one will take them seriously as a program, until they finally end that skid.

Bielema, who also has NFL experience that includes working with Bill Belichick at the New England Patriots, is the safe choice for getting that done.

Cause for Concern

His overall record of 97-58 (.626) better reflects the losing mark he had at Arkansas. While many regard his time in Fayetteville as a “failure,” he went to three bowl games in five seasons there. Imagine going to a bowl game 60% of the time in Champaign?

The coach who does that would get a lifetime contract and half the athletic facilities on the campus named after him, Bielema made it clear in the interview posted above, he’ll play a base 3-4 and recruit the state. Illinois seems to have a good floor here now, but they might have a ceiling too- being Wisconsin Light or Diet Iowa.

Also, to build an offense around Isaiah Williams the second coming, Bielema is going to need a splashy new offensive coordinator. His system won’t work well with Williams.


Reasons to Feel Conflicted 

There seems to be a fair amount of backlash in the base about this hire. Why?

Well, his personality seems to run a lot of fans the wrong way, for some reason. It seems like he’ll have to do some brand management, to get this started off on the right foot.

Honestly, I don’t see what the real issue is in that regard. I do know that his wife, Jen Bielema, has had a major gaffe or two on social media, especially the #karma debacle from a few years ago, but again maybe the brand managers and impression management professionals will make sure she doesn’t become a major distraction.


But overall, there is no perfect formula here. Lovie was a really nice guy and vanilla with his public presentation, but he couldn’t win games. In order to win some games, maybe you need a dude who isn’t liked by absolutely everybody, and also has a wife who attracts less than totally positive attention online.

Life isn’t filled with magical men from happy land who live in a gumdrop house on lollipop lane. You as an Illini fan certainly already know that.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of  “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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