Ah, honeymoon season with Bret Bielema.
The Fighting Illini are already deep into it with their newly hired head coach. Arkansas fans know the feeling. Fighting Illini fans and school officials are touting all the same positives for Bielema that the Razorbacks heard when he first arrived in Fayetteville huffing and puffing about his plan to bully ball the SEC into submission.
Most of the brag sheet revolves around Bielema’s time at Wisconsin, when he took over an already very healthy program under Barry Alvarez. In his first year, at age 36, he reeled off a 12-1 record including a win over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl.
“I might have felt my oats at the time,” he said during his introductory press conference. Bielema added he thought he was “Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Bill Belichick, everybody wrapped into one.”
In 2009, Wisconsin won 10 games and the Champs Sports Bowl. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, Bielema led the Badgers to a 30-10 record and made three straight Rose Bowl appearances. In Bielema apologetics, that three straight Rose Bowl thing is as commonly recited as Deshaun Watson and the Clemson connection are mentioned by Chad Morris defenders.
“I love that Bielema knows what it takes to get to the highest levels of college football,” Rees Woodcock wrote for, ahem, Writing Illini. “The man led Wisconsin to three-straight Rose Bowl appearances. He made a bowl game every year he coached the Badgers. That experience will now be passed onto the Illinois football team. He can coach the Illini players to the degree he needs to, so they can get to a bowl game every year.”
But good luck getting that kind of consistency going forward, Illinois.
The Big Ten is a more difficult beast to slay now than when Bielema’s Badgers were winning conference titles. In that period, Ohio State was in the midst of coaching turnover between Jim Tressel, Luke Fickell and Urban Meyer, while Penn State was shaken from the Jerry Sandusky/Joe Paterno scandal. Now, even with Michigan down, Ohio State is a juggernaut, Penn State is much more competitive and Iowa and Indiana are emerging powers under coaches Kirk Ferentz and Tom Allen.
Sure, the conference isn’t as hyper-competitive as the SEC, but Bielema will still have a long road ahead of him in order to resurrect a program that’s wandered for decades in the wilderness and went 10-33 in the Big Ten in the last five years under Lovie Smith.
Only by winning consistently at Illinois, and not hopping off for greener pastures, will Bielema shake off the stigma from his last two stops. He is, after all, nowadays remembered in Madison as a “guy who impetuously left the Badgers in the lurch,” the Chicago Sun-Times’ Steve Greenburg wrote. “Nowadays in SEC country, he’s remembered as a guy who shot out like a cannon only to fizzle amid disastrous defensive showings, some bungled staff hires and, in the end, uninterrupted dominance by the traditional powers in the SEC West.”
Expect him to start off just fine, like he did at Arkansas. Bielema recruited well to begin his Razorback tenure, signing a great running back in Alex Collins and great offensive linemen like Denver Kirkland and JUCO transfer Sebastian Tretola. After a rough first year (2013) at Arkansas, Bielema’s team surged at the end of his second season when they became the first team in NCAA Division I history to shut out consecutive ranked opponents (LSU, Ole Miss) as an unranked team.
Those Hogs also blew out Texas in a bowl game win Bielema would dub “borderline erotic.” That strong finish got him an extension from former UA athletic director Jeff Long that raised Bielema’s annual salary to $4 million and put him in line for a $15.4 million buyout that’s now the focus point of his lawsuit against the Razorback Foundation.
Not bad for someone who had gone 2-14 in the SEC until that point.
Then, in Year 3, Arkansas lost to Patrick Mahomes’ Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Alabama, but should have beaten Toledo (12-16 loss) and Mississippi State (50-51 loss). Those 8-5 Hogs were good enough to win 10 games.
Turns out, the end of 2014 and a third-place finish in the SEC West in 2015 would be the high mark of Bielema’s Arkansas career.
The wheels started falling off after that point.
Why Bielema Failed at Arkansas
There are at least three, interrelated reasons Bielema flamed out at Arkansas and was ultimately fired at the end of the 2017 season.
For one, he could not establish consistency on the defensive side of the ball despite his vow to install a strong 3-4 scheme when he first arrived. Instead, he cycled through schemes and defensive coordinators (Chris Ash, Robb Smith and Paul Rhoads) like they were Keurig coffee pods.
Instability at the coordinator position led to instability at the position coach level. At first, Bielema hit his assistant coach hires out of the park. He nabbed standouts like linebackers coach Randy Shannon, a former Miami star who played a big role in Bielema’s Florida recruiting efforts. At Arkansas, Shannon coached Martrell Speight, one of Arkansas’ few all-SEC linebackers at a position where the program is historically weak in its SEC era.
But Bielema usually didn’t follow up his initial assistant coach hires with coaches of equal or superior abilities, as longtime Razorback sportscaster Alyssa Orange said.
In an interview with Illini Nation, Orange pointed out that Bielema brought in two great running back coaches in Joel Thomas and then Jamal Singleton, but after Singleton left for bigger things, he filled the position with over-the-hill Reggie Mitchell (who had been a former Illinois RBs coach).
The same issue played out on the offensive line, where Bielema started with position coach Sam Pittman. Pittman, now the Hogs’ head coach, helped recruit and develop one of the biggest, best offensive lines in the nation before he left for Georgia.
His replacement, Illinois native Kurt Anderson, was a total dud — although he has done better since returning to the Big Ten where he coaches Northwestern’s line.
Orange, a sports anchor on Pig Trail Nation, said Illini fans need to see if similar problems crop up in Urbana-Champaign. “It’s really about the guys that he hires around him, and then if those guys happen to leave, who he replaces them with, and if he is able to hold up that standard.”
The co-hosts of 247 Sports’ Illini Inquirer podcast agree.
Jeremy Werner, Ryan Easterling and Isaac Trotter pointed out that Bielema’s predecessor, Lovie Smith, whiffed early on his first hires for offensive coordinator (Garrick McGee [was also an OC under Bobby Petrino at Arkansas]) and defensive coordinator (Hardy Nickerson): “Both of those blew up in his face. And that was a big reason why they were behind the eight ball, could never really get over the hump. And so I think this staff is the most important thing.”
In the podcast below, they likened Bielema’s task to what Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood has already accomplished in finding great assistants. “We saw with Underwood, can you find your [Orlando] Antigua? Can you find your “Chin” Coleman? Can you find your Stephen Gentry? If Bret Bielema can do that, then he’s going to have a chance to do some really good things at Illinois.”
Already, Illini athletics director Josh Whitman told Illini Inquirer that Illinois has “committed to at least $5 million” for Bielema’s staff of 10 assistants. Last year, the 10 Illinois football assistants combined made about $4.055 million.
On top of that, Bielema will get an extra $2 million for support staff (analysts, graduate assistants, recruiting staffers and strength and conditioning staff).
Bielema said he aims to have his entire staff in place by early January.
In his last few seasons at Arkansas, Bielema put on considerable weight.
Known as a hard-partying guy who had originally met his wife, Jen, at a blackjack table in Las Vegas and loved hanging out at the private club Ben’s Apartment on Dickson Street, there was speculation Bielema was starting to drink too much.
In the video below, Illini Nation’s Marlee Wierda asked Alyssa Orange directly about those rumors and if they should be a concern going forward.
“Obviously, rumors are rumors and they start somewhere,” Orange said. Then she said that Bielema is no longer the childless new husband he had been in Fayetteville, fresh off the years of living the bachelor life in Madison. He now has two young daughters.
So it’s important to remember that “he’s in a little bit of a different place in his life. I don’t necessarily know if that’s going to put those rumors to rest, and I will let you read into that as you will. But I do think that he’s got a family now and understands the importance.”
She added: “We definitely saw maybe a little bit of a weight gain” with Bielema before he lost much of that weight in the NFL with New England and New York. “I think everyone goes through lulls in life and maybe Bret Bielema’s handling [of] some personally towards the end of his tenure at Arkansas, was hurting him in recruiting, hurting him with keeping coaches.”
No matter how Bielema does on the field, he’s guaranteed to win the press conference game.
At Arkansas, he came up with golden catchphrases like “borderline erotic” and wasn’t afraid of throwing shade Kliff Kingsbury’s way. While he was winning, Arkansas loved him. Only when things turned south on the field did the brashness off of it get old.
Yet Bielema is already using his failure at Arkansas as a positive in the story he’s telling to Illini fans.
“We all grow,” Bielema said at the introductory press conference.
“I was 32 years old when I was told I was going to be the head coach at the University of Wisconsin. You go 12-1 first year I thought I was Vince Lombardi…. The thing I gained is perspective. I have seen a lot of good examples of how to handle your demeanor and be a lot more even keeled.”
At the least, Bielema will inject new life into a Fighting Illini program that had grown stale under Lovie Smith’s taciturn gaze. He should be a much better fit back in the Big Ten, a conference he once essentially called weak sauce when compared to the SEC.
See the interview with Alyssa Orange here:
See Bielema chat about some of his more wild and controversial times as coach of the Razorbacks:
For more insight into both the good and bad of Bielema’s time at Arkansas, and how that will translate at Illinois, listen to Trey Biddy at the 24:15 mark here: