Column | Sorry, Coach Bielema, but I’m betting on the jockey

At Monday’s press conference, Illinois head football coach Bret Bielema made the fatal error in the age of sound bites.

“As a head coach, you’re only as good as your roster,” Bielema said. “I learned that at the Kentucky Derby. No one’s betting on the jockeys.”

Now, when I first heard this clip, I was livid. Why would Bielema infer that his roster isn’t good enough for success? Why alienate his locker room? 

In a perfect world, I wish he didn’t say it, given how the media likes to run on any perceived error. While I don’t think he had any malicious intent in saying that, I hope that Bielema realizes Illinois is counting “on the jockey” as the Illini try to move on from a losing culture, and I hope he realizes that talent is only part of the equation. Just ask Louisiana State University.

LSU has more talent than most collegiate programs, with an incredibly rich in-state recruiting pipeline. When head coach Ed Orgeron had star coordinators and a NFL quarterback, the jockey could hide behind his horse. However, since Joe Brady left for the Carolina Panthers, Dave Arranda left for Baylor and Joe Burrow graduated, LSU is 10-8. 

The problem is the talent. They have the roster, but they didn’t have the coach, as Oregeon is gone after the season and failed to replace his lost assistants with adequate replacements.

Does anybody think Nick Saban, Ryan Day or Jimbo Fisher would struggle to stay over .500 with the assets LSU possesses? Of course not, and the Tigers’ athletic director knows that, too. 

While Les Miles was head coach of the LSU Tigers, he recruited stars such as Odell Beckham Jr., Leonard Fournette and Jeremy Hill. 

But since he failed to fire his offensive coordinator Cam Cameron fast enough and fully embrace the spread offense like his rival Saban, Miles was fired mid-season from his position because of a lack of scoring against top competition. 

Is it not fair to compare the Illini to the SEC-affiliated LSU Tigers? Fine. Let’s talk about the Ron Zook era at Illinois then. 

In 2004, the Florida Gators fired Ron Zook because the program went from 11 wins a year with Steve Spurrier to eight wins under the future Illinois head coach. But the problem wasn’t the recruiting; it was the X’s and O’s. 

When the Illini hired Zook, Illinois knew they were getting a proven recruiter, and Zook nailed that aspect of the job. Despite only winning four total games in his first two seasons, Zook landed the 12th-ranked recruiting class in 2007 and the 16th-best recruiting class in 2008. 

However, despite Michigan being the only conference rival to out-recruit Zook in each of those years, the Illini failed to become a Big Ten contender, as Zook made only three bowls in seven seasons. 

I don’t care how talented the roster is. The buck stops with the head coach, as he is in charge of replacing assistant coaches, overseeing what playbook is run, managing the clock and deciding who gets the start at quarterback.

The Illini could have the best offensive line and running back in 2025, but if Illinois starts a quarterback resembling Brandon Peters, the Illini are in trouble. Remember, Bielema, you’re the guy who asked Peters to come back so he could replace Isaiah Williams at quarterback, a dual-threat signal caller who played significantly better than Peters last season.

I hope Ryan Walters stays, but Bielema is the one in charge of replacing him with someone just as good, not the roster. When it’s fourth-and-1 against Maryland or fourth-and-two against Purdue, it’s Bielema’s decision to punt, not the roster’s decision. 

It’s way too early to project how the Bielema era will pan out in Champaign. But with all due respect, Coach Bielema, I am counting on your ability as a jockey to turn around this program, and even with the ideal roster, outdated offensive schemes could be a roadblock in your desire to turn Illinois into a successful program. 


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