Building a family: How one word inspired, reinvigorated a struggling Illinois football program


Photo Courtesy of Sam Anderson/Fighting Illini Athletics

Vederian Lowe, Owen Carney, Doug Kramer and Bret Bielema pose for a photo at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. The idea of family has become a recruiting tactic for Bielema and his staff, with all three players choosing to return after hearing their pitch.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Illinois. Penn State. A cold, wet game in State College with no fans. A Big Ten divisional crossover game that meant little to either team when looking solely at conference standings.

It seemed like a game destined for disaster. The Illini limped into Happy Valley with little optimism or hope after head coach Lovie Smith was shown the exit following a disappointing 18-point loss to the Big Ten West champion Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston one week earlier.

The team struggled all year with staying healthy — starting quarterback Brandon Peters missed three games after testing positive for COVID-19, an issue that sidelined several other key players early in the season — and consistency. 

With offensive coordinator Rod Smith taking over head coaching duties for the game, a familiar face lurked on the sidelines, someone the Illini had hired hours earlier. Though he had never donned the colors of orange and blue, he was born and raised in Illinois and had previous success in the Big Ten.

That man was Bret Bielema.

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Despite watching Illinois get embarrassed by Penn State 56-21, finish 2-6 and sit dead last in the Big Ten West, Bielema knew what he was taking on. During his first team meeting, Bielema acknowledged his new task and the challenges ahead, but he ensured that he wasn’t just going to be the team’s new head coach; he would be the newest member of their family.

“I wanted them to know that I was the newest family member in that room, and from this point forward we’re going to walk this walk together,” Bielema said.

That idea of family immediately resonated with the entire team, leading 22 seniors to take advantage of the free year of eligibility granted to all student-athletes and return for one more season.

For offensive lineman Vederian Lowe, family means everything. Already married and the father of two children, Lowe immediately bought in to the message and was one of the first players to announce their return for a fifth season.

“Family means everything to me,” Lowe said. “I have a wife, I have two beautiful sons and I also have guardianship of my brother. Family is everything; it’s really all I’m about. And then with Coach B, you know, that’s all he preaches.”

The offensive line will be one of the most experienced in the Big Ten this season, as Lowe, Doug Kramer and Alex Palczewski have made 117 starts between the trio, something that will significantly help the Illini if they can all stay healthy.

Kramer calls the offensive line group a “brotherhood” that spends a lot of time together, both on and off the field.

“The offensive line is predicated around the brotherhood,” Kramer said. “It’s five people whose sole job is to protect for other people on the field. And if one person has a bad game, then all five of you are gonna have a bad game. So you’re really relying, you’re trusting on the guys next to you to be able to execute, you know, what the coaches want you to do. 

“That brings you closer together. You end up spending a lot of time around each other because you want to be able to trust them. And that’s a massive part of the offensive line.”

Defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Owen Carney initially entered the transfer portal when Lovie Smith was let go, and Bielema admitted it took a lot of work to convince the Miami native to stay in Champaign.

“We continued to have conversations and to kind of re-recruit him, and there’s probably not a player in our program that had more individual time, contact meetings with, to get to where we are today,” Bielema said.

Carney now feels at home under Bielema and his new staff, as the coaches have invited players over to their houses several times this summer, something Carney feels contributes to Bielema’s belief in creating a football family.

“I feel like we’ve been building that with just the whole brotherhood and camaraderie of the locker room,”  Carney said. “And not just that, but with the coaches as well. They invited us over to their house. We’ve met the kids and their wives.”

Family has become such an integral part of Bielema’s philosophy that he uses it as a key recruiting tactic. Players and coaches have all adopted the “#famILLy” identity, which has helped turn a program around that struggled with in-state recruitment.

With eight of the Illini’s 15 Class of 2022 verbal commits hailing from the state of Illinois, Bielema is creating a culture that revolves around family, togetherness and unity.

Despite entering the transfer portal, Carney couldn’t be more excited about the things Bielema has done to transform the team.

“We’re really building a bond here,” Carney said. “And I’m loving it.”



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