Bret Bielema proved motivation can come in a million different ways Saturday, as his Fighting Illini took down No. 7 Penn State in nine overtime periods on the road.
The 20-18 upset in the longest game in NCAA history was a major step in righting what has been a pretty poor season for the first-year head coach. After enduring a week-long national media firestorm over comments he made in which he initially appeared to throw his roster under the bus, Bielema’s public call-out just might have done the trick.
The former Arkansas head coach knows a little something about these games that can change the perceived direction of a program for the better. Razorback fans well remember the last of those, which came in 2014.
Though it may not have been an overtime thriller against a Top 10 team, Bielema culminated his first two years in Fayetteville with a dominant 31-7 victory over the rival Texas Longhorns in the Texas Bowl. Former Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long was so smitten with Bielema’s “borderline erotic” victory that he gave him a two-year extension and raise.
“What Coach Bielema and his coaching staff have done for our young men, on and off the field, is something that has dramatically changed the course of our program,” Long said afterward.
“He is building a championship program in a way that all Arkansans can be proud of. We look forward to his continued leadership of our football program and the many successes yet to come.”
The success foreshadowed by that win never quite came to fruition — largely because Bielema couldn’t keep his star assistants like Sam Pittman around — but it brought immense excitement around the Razorback program for a time.
Bret Bielema: From Goat to Hero for Illini
Now, Bielema has another signature win at another program, but it came just eight games into his tenure. Could this mean that Illinois will soon break free from the chains of mediocrity within the Big Ten? Time will tell, but it does have the people of Champaign riding high for the coach just days after calls were made for his job.
After eating a 24-0 home blowout to Wisconsin on Oct. 9 in which his quarterbacks were just 11/34 passing and the offense totaled less than 100 yards, Bielema entered a bye week with a 2-5 record. (The first loss had come to UTSA, led by former Razorback assistants Jeff Traylor and Barry Lunney, Jr.)
In the off week, the Illini head coach appeared to suffer a worse loss than the one at the hands of the Badgers.
“The roster is going to have to change to get to where we want to be to win the championship,” Bielema said during Monday’s press conference. “I recognized that probably midway through the Spring last year, probably through the Summer.
“Just certain positions haven’t played out the way they envisioned them to. In particular the offensive line, I don’t believe we have a player in the two-deep that they’ve recruited here over the last three years that is significantly doing anything for us in the playing department and that’s a major concern.”
“That’s something that we have to do.”
Now, there are a couple of ways to look at these quotes.
The first of can come from a natural reaction standpoint if you assume he’s talking about current players. It begs questions of how these Illini players could show up and go to war with someone who thinks this lowly of them.
On the other side of the coin – did he lie? Could the 2021 Fighting Illini actually win a championship in any major conference, let alone the Big Ten? Probably not. People around the country know that what Bielema said is mostly, if not entirely, true. The team isn’t good enough to compete as presently comprised, but the matter of saying the quiet part out loud is where the issues begin.
Did Bret Bielema Really Disrespect His Illini Players?
The outcry from both local and national media was exceptionally interesting, though. In a time where everyone asks to see authenticity from public figures, the world seems to have lost its mind over one of first non- “coach speak” filled press conference in what seems like forever. This would have been, in theory, what everyone has been asking for — yet it was meant with fierce opposition and knashing of teeth.
Despite the media whirlwind he’s experienced in recent days, Bret Bielema told reporters Thursday he believes his viral quotes were “completely taken out of context,” and that the team was shown a full transcript of the comments Tuesday.
“I was stating facts about where we are when I mentioned offensive linemen and defensive linemen,” Bielema said. “That is a position of need because of numbers, not because of who I do or don’t have.”
“We don’t have the numbers at the offensive and defensive line, which is a premium in our program. We went from a defensive front that has two defensive lineman to now the one that has three defensive linemen, so we don’t have the numbers. That’s strictly it.
Bielema insists he has been highly complimentary and welcoming to the players left over to him from the previous tenure. Embracing the previous staff’s recruits, coincidentally, is one of the biggest reasons Sam Pittman has succeeded as Razorback head coach where Chad Morris failed.
Regardless of what Bielema actually meant in the press conference, there’s no doubt this was a bad look. Of course, this is all par for the course with Razorback fans. They have seen him goof up plenty during press conferences, whether discussing how he’s like to “hopping on” on his wife after the “Hunter Heave” victory over Ole Miss or admitting to butt-dialing SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.
Echoes of Razorback Football in Bielema’s Charge for Illini
Looking ahead, Bielema will certainly have his work cut out for him in rebuilding an Illini program that hasn’t seen a winning season since 2011. With the team off to an abysmal start and some clear displeasure with the composition of the on-field product, I’d expect to see some changes made sooner rather than later.
Fortunately for Bielema, he did wind up back in the (wild, wild) Big Ten West, which is the perennially weaker side of the conference. This year’s ship has already sailed for all intents and purposes of chasing the postseason, but the path to contention out west is as open as ever.
The slow, grinding style of “Bielema Ball” built the coach into a two-time conference champion in 2011-2012 when he was Wisconsin. For better or for worse, that’s the same brand of football which we’ll see as he hopes to rebuild the Illini program.
In the same way he attempted to bring Arkansas football back following the disastrous season under John L. Smith, Bielema will have his hands full with an complete overhaul of the roster. His recruiting philosophy revolves almost entirely around size in the trenches, but that dedication causes problems in other phases of the game.
With the evolution across the sport since Bielema was let go by the Razorbacks in 2017, there will have to be some adaptation not only to the increased use of the transfer portal and NIL opportunities, but also to the next generation of offensive lineman.
Given the comments given this week, it should be no surprise to see activity in the portal sooner rather than later for this group. That would come on the heels of six Illini entering the portal this summer within a 24-hour period.
Still, I think Bret Bielema has the ability to win in the Big Ten West against the likes of Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue. Illinois is just two years removed from a Redbox Bowl appearance, and the only true constant within that side of the conference is that the winner gets to take a trip to Indianapolis to lose to Ohio State, the perennial Big Ten East champion.
With the West unable to produce consistent winners, the path from bottom to top is arguably as open as any division in the country. The keys to success for nearly everyone but the Buckeyes since the championship game was added in 2011 have been the development of an elite rushing attack paired with a top 10 defense (essentially the same set of challenges from that Bielema faced from Alabama when he arrived at Arkansas).
Currently, Illinois lacks both, and seem centuries away from coming close to championship level in any aspect of their game. That being said, if anyone could turn one of the least glamorous programs in the Midwest into a run-it-down-your-throat and dominate-the-time-of-possession brand of football, it’d be the man from Prophetstown (Ill.) who did it before at Wisconsin.
Bielema may well have avoided a similar 3-9 season to what he saw in his debut year in Fayetteville with this most recent win, but bowl eligibility would be quite the stretch. The Illini close out 2021 with games on the road against No. 11 Iowa and a surging 5-2 Minnesota team.
With a split of two winnable games at home against Rutgers and Northwestern, Bielema may just narrowly improve over his opening season showing at Arkansas. Whether he has learned from his Arkansas mistakes to keep the momentum going is another question.
His brief time at Illinois already shows his tendency to publicly put his foot in his mouth is as strong as ever.