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For new Illinois coach Bret Bielema, a lifeline of an opportunity has emotions running high

One couldn’t be certain what was swimming inside Bielema’s head as he gripped a podium at his introductory news conference and fought back tears more than once. It made sense, though. Time has caught up with the man and brought him home.

Bielema in 2015 after unranked Arkansas went on the road and hammered No. 9 LSU 31-14. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

When Briella Bielema sees her football-coach dad with a travel bag in his hand, heading off to do whatever in the world football-coach things are, sometimes she just needs to ask where he’s going. It’s a 3-year-old’s right to know, after all. So he tells her, and then he points to her heart.

“I’m right there,” he promises.

How Briella chooses to keep 1-year-old Brexli up to speed from there is strictly between sisters.

The sweet innocence of tiny children waiting at home is something all parents, especially those who travel for work, can relate to. Far fewer can relate to experiencing those moments for the first time at 50.

Bret Bielema — once the brash young coach of Wisconsin, a bold-talking lug with a booming baritone and Big Ten success coming out of his ear holes — married Jen at 42, before his seventh and final season atop the Badgers’ program. By the time they welcomed a child, he was fighting for his career in Year 5 of an inglorious stint at Arkansas.

Winning in Fayetteville just didn’t stick. Winning at Illinois — his new gig, in case you haven’t heard — hasn’t stuck for anyone since John Mackovic went 30-16-1 from 1988 to 1991.

“I think about all the great things that have been accomplished, but the things that really motivate me are the failures,” he said during his introductory news conference in Champaign. “When I left my previous institution, they gave me a letter that said I was fired without cause because I didn’t win enough games. I know what I accomplished in that building, and it wears on my heart to this day.

“To be able now to have my own ship again, to run it the way that I know can bring success, is tremendously rewarding.”

One couldn’t be certain what was swimming inside Bielema’s head Monday as he gripped a podium — speaking to reporters via Zoom, of course — and fought back tears more than once. It made sense, though. His parents and siblings were watching and listening. The Prophetstown native was marking his return to his home state, where he hasn’t lived full-time since high school. And as for his career, well, he has a chance to fully revive it now after a few seasons toiling in the shadows as an NFL assistant. The Illinois job is a lifeline.

The brash young coach is lost in the rearview mirror. Bielema isn’t the king of the hill he was for a while as a Madison, Wisconsin, bachelor. He’s not even remembered by all as a winner.

When he went 12-1 as a first-year head coach in 2006, he thought he was “Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Bill Belichick, everybody wrapped into one,” he said. But nowadays in Madison, he’s remembered as a guy who impetuously left the Badgers in the lurch. 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.

But there’s no faking a 97-58 career record. There’s no faking three Rose Bowl seasons that came after anyone could’ve accused Bielema of driving predecessor Barry Alvarez’s car. And there should be no denying Bielema’s potential as a coach who can strengthen Illinois football’s backbone while building desperately needed relationships with high school coaches throughout the state. That’s still his wheelhouse, folks.

And there’s this to think about, too: Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald finally has a worthy adversary 150 miles south. Bielema has sent nearly 100 players to the NFL and seen eight of his assistants secure FBS head-coaching jobs. His final season at Arkansas was really ugly, but he knocked off seven ranked foes during the three seasons preceding it. Rumors that Fitzgerald might be a candidate for the Bears aside, remember that Bielema’s record stands up to his rival’s in a big way.

You can bet the hiring of Bielema sent a jolt through Evanston, Iowa City and the rest of the Big Ten West. In Nebraska, they’re still stinging from the 70 points Wisconsin scored in the 2012 league title game. Turned out that was Bielema’s farewell, three days before he set sail.

He’s back now. Illini Nation should be plenty excited.

Just sayin’

Some of us are old enough to remember when Illinois’ basketball team was ranked fifth in the country. The Illini have lost to Baylor, Missouri and Rutgers since then, teams that are all ranked higher now than the No. 18 Illini.

It’s a lesson, people.

Illini hoops fans have long been given to proclaim greatness that isn’t there. For more than a decade after the Final Four run of 2005, they swore the program’s rightful place was among the top 10 or 15 in the land. Coach Brad Underwood said likewise after he took over a few years back. It was silly. In reality, the Illini had become afterthoughts.

And fans were sure this team, led by terrific Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, would be a world-beater. But other schools have ballers, too. Schools such as Baylor, Missouri, Rutgers and a bunch of others the Illini will have to outplay — not just out-name — to get the respect they crave.

• Northwestern is a slight favorite against Auburn in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl. My first take: Every one of Auburn’s players will be auditioning for Bryan Harsin, the replacement for fired coach Gus Malzahn. Show me a field full of desperate Tigers, and I’m not sure the Wildcats can deal with that.

• Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney is as charming a fella as you’ll ever meet, but he sure can be sneakily unlovable. In the latest coaches poll, he voted playoff foe Ohio State 11th. No one else in the 61-coach poll had the Buckeyes outside the top 10.

Do you, Dabo. Just don’t expect everyone to buy it.

• Bears 34, Jaguars 14 — and print it.

Look, don’t yell at me just because you’re dying to draft a quarterback.