Commitment, family will help lead Bielema in recruiting

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Football head coach Bret Bielema speaks to the media during his frist press conference since his hiring on Wednesday. Bielema will focus on recruiting players from Illinois and restructuring the team in general.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

Head coach Bret Bielema, who is on a tour to rebuild his image after his Arkansas exit, has contacted high school football coaches, former players, college assistants and current players in his attempt to rebuild the Illini while knowing exactly what he wants from his new program: something different. 

“I can’t control anything Illinois has done or been a part of in the past, (but) I can control is what we do in the future,” Bielema said he tells recruits. “There isn’t going to be a program in the country that’s going to recruit you harder to come to your home state.”

Bielema understands the impact Lovie Smith had on his players. He understands Smith is a good man who just happened to lose too many football games, and he tries to not hurt the team’s feelings by criticizing him. But he also understands the former head coach’s flaws, especially with recruiting. Bielema plans to reaffirm the flagship school’s commitment to its high school talent.

The state of Illinois doesn’t produce a hotbed of five-star recruits like Georgia or Texas; however, that doesn’t mean the high school athletes should be ignored. Illinois produced nine four-star recruits, with P.J. Fleck and Minnesota signing three of them while Lovie Smith signed zero. Smith’s lack of success with in-state talent was more than error; it was a symbol of not caring.

Offensive line coach Bart Miller’s territory involves the upper Chicagoland area, which carries him up to Wisconsin, where he was an assistant coach and has connections.

Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen will operate the Northwest corner of the state, as he has connections to the Minnesota region. 

Bielema’s only holdover from Smith’s staff, Cory Patterson, has the responsibility of the St. Louis area, where he has a successful track record of signing several players from the region, an asset that probably guaranteed him a job. 

“I never knew who Cory Patterson was,” Bielema said. “When I met (Smith’s) staff, I was engaged with his personality. After an interview, I told him to just hang tight.”

Bielema’s recruiting philosophy requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, with each Illini assistant having a territory of the state that eventually branches off to recruiting at a national level in places like Dallas, Texas, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina. 

But for the players that did return to Illinois, Bielema doesn’t want to hear about other teams or surface-level goals. He doesn’t care that someone wants to be an All-Big Ten selection or an NFL draft pick. Bielema is more focused on how that player will get there via training. 

When defensive lineman Owen Carney left the transfer portal, he and Bielema butted heads over what needed to be done for Carney. But Bielema was able to describe his track record to assure Carney made the right decision.

“If you want to be an NFL (defensive) lineman, I just coached in the NFL; I did pretty good,” Bielema told Carney. “If you can be the best Owen Carney in the fall, you will check a lot of boxes in areas you’ve never checked before.”

While Bielema plans to shake up the Illini’s standing on the recruiting trail, the theme of family will help define the program as a whole. 

When Bielema’s assistants are introduced, the Iowa alum sends flowers to each assistant’s wife, letting them know they weren’t forgotten when they were forced to move from town to town for their husband’s profession. He also has assistants bring their whole family to the press conference to show they are more than a coach.

Bielema is 51 years old and has two young daughters. While he’s relatively new to parenting compared to his peers, Bielema’s girls impact every facet of his life, even with the pandemic playing a role in keeping distance between them, and family is a big reason why he takes COVID-19 seriously. 

High schools in Illinois are about to find out whether a football season can occur in the spring. When Bielema speaks to athletes and coaches, he knows the anxiety they feel with the season in question. He empathizes with them, as he remembers the impact sports had on him as a teenager. 

But at the same time, he has two 80-year-old parents with preexisting health conditions and knows the virus could be lethal if it reaches him. COVID-19 reins in Bielema’s big personality and makes him think about the logistics. 

 “When I heard 50 and overweight is a category, I was like, ‘Hey, that’s me,’” Bielema said. “We got to be aware that it’s a thing in our society today, and it isn’t going away.”

 

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