Column | Bielema’s blunt style proves he’s built to save Illinois football program

Football+head+coach%2C+Bret+Bielema%2C+walks+onto+the+field+during+the+Homecoming+game+against+Wisconsin+on+Oct.+9.+With+Bielemas+straightforward+approach%2C+it+may+help+in+improving+the+team+in+the+future.+

Cameron Krasucki

Football head coach, Bret Bielema, walks onto the field during the Homecoming game against Wisconsin on Oct. 9. With Bielema’s straightforward approach, it may help in improving the team in the future.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

Bielema is a straight shooter, and those traits will make his experience dealing with testing positive for COVID-19 a lot easier. The first-year head coach, who has said he’s a person who could be at risk of the virus, has been vocal about COVID-19 safety, and his words are backed up with actions — with getting a booster shot as evidence. 

The Bielema era has made me boil at times, as it’s very plausible that the Illini should only have a singular conference loss so far. But I’ll admit, I have had a history of jumping the gun too quickly regarding Illinois coaches. 

After the Illini men’s basketball team dropped a late December game to Missouri in 2019, I had serious doubts whether Brad Underwood was the right man for the job. But Underwood made adjustments with the defense, and his own guys were able to mesh together, setting the foundation for the Illini’s rise as a Big Ten power. 

The product on the field has undoubtedly been better for the football program. Wisconsin scored 45 points on Lovie Smith’s team, but it only scored 24 on Bielema’s team. Penn State scored 63 points on Lovie Smith’s team, but it only scored 18 on Bielema’s team. Minnesota scored 41 on Smith’s team, but it only scored six on Bielema’s team.

Regardless, if the Illini sat at 4-6 in a couple of years, I wouldn’t be happy with the program. But I need to realize that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It took Frank Beamer five years to make a bowl game at Virginia Tech. It took P.J. Fleck three seasons to develop a winner at Minnesota. James Franklin suffered back-to-back 7-6 seasons at Penn State before he made the Rose Bowl. 

The biggest problem with the Illini under Smith, in my view, was that the former Chicago Bears head coach lacked the fire in his stomach to rile up a team. Smith’s press conferences were better suited for putting toddlers to sleep than promoting a vision for a program. Bielema doesn’t have that problem, and his ability to articulate important issues with no filter and a realistic approach is why he will save the program from mediocrity. 

“If you want to play and continue to even think about playing beyond here, this is it,” Bielema said to quarterback Brandon Peters after a disappointing start to the season. “You’ve either got to do it, or it’s not going to get done. So let’s let it all hang out.”

In summary, Bielema went up to his quarterback’s face and bluntly told him he’s been bad this year. He told the former four-star Jim Harbaugh recruit that if he wants to do more than work an office job, the product on the field needs to be better — and it worked. 

Since that conversation, Peters has played productively and efficiently, and his last two games resulted in his highest QBRs of the season. The improved play has slingshotted the Illini to having a good chance to make a bowl, which would allow the team to have an extra 15 practices before the offseason. 

Bielema has taken charge with his staff as well. Knowing that he has found a gem with Ryan Walters, Bielema extended the coordinator’s contract to 2024, and the pay increase made him a top-10 paid assistant. But guess who wasn’t extended? Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. 

Imagine you work for a company and your boss gave your colleague with similar job duties a lucrative raise while you received nothing. That’s what Bielema did with Walters and Petersen. Bielema could’ve played the safe route and extended both of them, signaling that the overall plan is working. But by only extending Walters, he is telling Petersen that the offensive production is not good enough to earn job security, which may force Petersen to make serious offensive adjustments.   

Instead of pretending that the program’s future with its offensive line is solvent, he was blunt when saying that the program has no depth at that position. Sure, he may hurt some feelings, but the message is simple: Offensive linemen who want to transfer can find significant playing time right away if they commit to Illinois. 

Bielema is cocky, and I’ll admit it has at times driven me nuts. He once defended his Arkansas tenure because they once shut out LSU and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks. He said that he would punt 100 times over on fourth-and-2 against Purdue. But when it comes to the actual substance of developing a winner, he has succeeded in improving the product on the field. 

How he acts with COVID-19 is symbolic to how he runs a program. He understands that he is at risk of hospitalization or death if he contracts the virus without a vaccine, which explains his decision to get the booster shot. Regarding football, he understands that Peters needs to play better, that Tony Petersen needs to be sent a message and that the offensive line needs to be rebuilt. And his blunt actions to fix those issues will result in the greatest era of Illini football in generations. 

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