Bielema aims to avoid replicating Badger blueprint in Champaign


Jackson Janes

Bret Bielema talks to reporters during Big Ten Media Days at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday. Bielema says he has changed a lot since coaching Wisconsin 15 years ago.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

In college football, a new head coach trying to succeed the trailblazing legend ends in a buyout and failure quite often. Ron Zook attempted to sustain the success Steve Spurrier built at Florida. He was let go after three seasons. Frank Solich – despite winning multiple Big 12 titles – couldn’t compare to Tom Osbourn’s three national championships at Nebraska. Lane Kiffin — Pete Carroll’s successor — was fired at the airport while he was the USC head coach. 

From 1964 to 1989, the Wisconsin Badgers produced six winning seasons. But once Barry Alvarez was hired, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator built a winning culture, resulting in three Rose Bowl victories and yearly Big Ten contender status. When it came time to step down, Alvarez handpicked 36-year-old Bret Bielema to lead the program. 

Bielema had no head coaching experience. Being only a coordinator for a mere four combined seasons at Kansas State and Wisconsin, Bielema was tasked to build on Alvarez’s unprecedented success.

Tough task? Well, Bielema coasted through his first season in Madison, finishing the year with a then-program-best 12-1 season. 

“I thought I was Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Bill Belichick, all in one,” Bielema said. 

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Since his inaugural season as a head coach, Bielema has remained confident, though he admits some think he’s cocky — in his ability to be a leading head coach in the nation. The Iowa alum’s success with the Badgers didn’t slow down either; he accelerated through the finish line, with the tenure ending with three straight Rose Bowl appearances. 

As the new Illini head coach, Bielema doesn’t shy away from the success he had with his new division rival. Bielema even went on the record to state that his two championships he won in Lucas Oil Stadium are the proudest moments of his coaching career. Although he inherited a program in decent shape from Alvarez, Bielema was able to elevate the Badgers by putting his own mark on the program, specifically utilizing the transfer market. 

While he claims the conference is still built on the same foundation, his task of rebuilding Illinois won’t involve a carbon-copy footprint of how he achieved success in Madison. Instead, Bielema, who says he’s matured over the course of 15 years, wants to adapt Illinois to what suits them best, claiming that his schemes will look a lot different than it did in Madison.

“When things were pointed out to me that I didn’t agree with, rather than understand the situation, I would try to fight it,” Bielema said. “I told Josh (Whitman) when he hired me that, ‘The great thing is that you’re getting the greatest version of myself that anyone has ever had.’”

The circumstances surrounding Bielema’s second chance as a Big Ten head coach are a lot different than his first effort in Madison. Instead of inheriting a winning program, Bielema is taking over a program that hasn’t clinched a winning season since 2011. Billed as Lovie Smith’s best team yet, the 2020 Illini stumbled out of the gate en route to a disappointing 2-6 season. 

But Bielema has gained a lot of experience since leaving Madison. Of course, he had a highly publicized exit from the Badgers when he took the job with the Arkansas Razorbacks, which ended differently than he wanted. But that setback led Bielema to a new level of football: the NFL. Learning under Belichick and coaching the linebacker position, Bielema gained football knowledge that he believes can be used to help develop key players in his program — which worked as a recruiting tool when trying to keep senior linebacker Owen Carney Jr., who recently switched from defensive end, on the roster. 

“I watched a couple of games of Owen, and I looked at his rushes and run plays and I thought, ‘This is a guy who’s good, but I can really help him,’” Bielema said. “And that’s what I shared with him. I just spent three years coaching (his position group) in the NFL, and what (he) wants to become.” 

Trying to teach him new techniques, Bielema and Carney have had moments of tension during practice, but the linebacker has a sense of respect for his new head coach, and he’s excited about the program’s future as well as his own personal future. 

“(Our relationship) makes me want to go hard for him,” Carney said. “I’m waiting to get coached up by him.”

Bielema, who successfully out-recruited the Auburn Tigers for the services of Russell Wilson 2011, wasted no time bringing back much of Smith’s 2020 roster. Adding 22 seniors from last year’s squad, Bielema was able to keep key pieces of the roster, including fellow linebacker Jake Hansen, who appeared to be all-in on the NFL draft process. 

Bielema, inheriting a defense that struggled to sustain success without the help of multiple turnovers under Smith, is providing a new look for the Illini with his multiple scheme. But more than anything, Bielema believes the success on and off the field will rely on its ability to maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses. 

“First, we have to figure out the formula to win football games,” Bielema said. “(But) the easiest way to lose a game are penalties, mental errors and turnovers. We have to eliminate those things, and to win games, we definitely have to be the most prepared.”

But perhaps the biggest change Bielema brings to the program is energy and a fresh message. For the majority of his tenure in Wisconsin, Bielema was a bachelor. Flash forward to today and Bielema is married with two young daughters. Bielema claims to be the same outspoken coach who can get in a player’s grill. But he’s also discovered family, and it appears to be the defining trait for his program so far. 

He came into Illinois staring at a bunch of COVID-masked athletes who just had their head coach fired. He inherited a veteran team that could have looked a lot different this season if the NCAA hadn’t granted players an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But his players have welcomed his fired-up, “feisty” approach after the more low-key presence Smith provided, and they feel like the team has a newfound confidence.  

“What you see on Twitter and Instagram, it’s not a facade,” Carney said. “We always say family and that’s what we mean. We have definitely shown brotherhood and camaraderie this summer, and through the spring, we have grown closer and tighter.”



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