“Hayden Fry would slap me upside the head if I showed up here without a suit and tie,” Illini football coach Bret Bielema said while on dais at Big Ten Media Days on Wednesday.
This was one of several references that Bielema made to the legendary former Iowa head coach, a man that led the Hawkeyes to three Big Ten championships, three Rose Bowls, and 14 bowl games over the course of his time in Iowa City.
Fry, who inspired the namesake of the main character on the ’80s Craig T. Nelson sitcom “Coach,” embodied Big Ten football, and Bielema is this generation’s version of that motif. He played as a tackle at Iowa under Fry, coached Wisconsin to league glory and the Rose Bowl, and he now looks to bring Illini football back from the dead.
In an era where bowl games aren’t much tougher to get than participation trophies for Big Ten teams, Illini football has just two since 2012.
“Beating Nebraska in week zero last year, I think some of our players thought this would be easy.” Bielema said at the podium today regarding his rebuilding project.
Crazy that week zero is a thing, and it’s even crazier that Bielema will be leading his team into a week zero match-up during each of his first two years in Champaign. It’s exactly a month away now, and it will see Illinois hosting Nebraska.
The aforementioned victory over Nebraska last season was the very first college football tilt of 2021, and it gave the Illini football program, one that is always in the state of rebuilding, some much needed juice.
It didn’t last, and the end result was a 5-7 season that most of us predicted would happen, but nobody predicted how they would get those five Ws and 7 Ls.
The 12th annual Cleveland.com poll picked Illinois to finish 6th in the Big Ten West, ahead of only Northwestern. Understandable given how they have the least returning statistical production of anyone in the Big Ten.
— Andy Olson (@WCIA3Andy) July 27, 2022
“I’m really excited they split this event up into 2 days. I’m sure you guys have mixed feelings about that,” Bielema said to the assembled media today.
I’m sure the Marriott hotel group, who partner with the Big Ten, and have all those properties adjacent to today’s event, are REALLY excited about it.
But it’s true, this is something that could easily be done in one day instead of two, because it’s just talking season. Illinois comes into this season with a new Offensive Coordinator, desperately needed as they were putrid on O last season.
However, Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters was rewarded with a contract extension, and deservedly so, as he brought the unit up from 97th to 29th nationally in total defense.
Still boggles the mind that Lovie Smith, a man synonymous with defense, never had a halfway decent one his entire time in Champaign.
But maybe behind stellar running back Chase Brown, an okay offensive line, led by sixth year man Alex Palczewski, they can just enough on O to complement their D, and maybe enough to get Illini football over the hump to a bowl game.
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Bank (TheSportsBank.Net) and author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” as well as “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”
He has regularly appeared in WGN, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune, and he co-hosts the After Extra Time podcast, part of Edge of the Crowd Network. Follow him and the website on Twitter and Instagram.Follow paulmbanks