Amid a blur of bad news, stress and sadness, Illinois’ Bret Bielema finds a reason to smile

Sometimes life comes at you so hard. “It’s indescribable,” Bielema said after the Illini’s 41-3 win against Northwestern.

SHARE Amid a blur of bad news, stress and sadness, Illinois’ Bret Bielema finds a reason to smile
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Illinois’ Bret Bielema coaches Saturday at Northwestern, at the end of a very tough week.

AP Photos

As it turned out, Illinois’ 41-3 win at Northwestern in Saturday’s regular-season finale didn’t give the Illini passage to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. But it did give coach Bret Bielema a reason to smile during a recent blur of bad news, stress and sadness.

Just think of the week he had. The visitation for his mother, Marilyn Bielema, who died unexpectedly Nov. 17, took place Sunday in Prophetstown, Ill., the family’s hometown. At the funeral a day later, Bielema eulogized her. Back on campus Tuesday afternoon, after a meeting with players to discuss the game plan for Northwestern, he found out his father-in-law, Greg Hielsberg, had died. Bielema left the football facility immediately, flew to Florida on Wednesday and didn’t see his team again until late Friday night.

Life, man. Sometimes it just comes at you so hard.

“It’s indescribable,” Bielema said.

Two days before the game, Bielema was in his father-in-law’s office and saw a yellow pad with a handwritten note on it:

“Saturday, 3:30, Big Ten Network, watch Bret.”

A yellow-pad man himself, Bielema was deeply moved. Tears came as he recalled the moment, saying, “I think today he watched us.”

By Saturday evening, leaning hard on a podium during a postgame press conference, Bielema had to be somewhere well beyond gassed. Emotions: fried. Sleep: a rumor. Home: not soon enough.

But he’d told his players and coaches all season they needed to be at their best when things were at their worst. Friday night, reunited, he let them know that went for him, too.

So win No. 8, yes, it sure was nice. And it sure was needed.

THREE-DOT DASH

Bielema also choked up Saturday as he shared that Pat Fitzgerald was the first Big Ten coach he heard from after his mom died and after his father-in-law died. Friendly foes, indeed. …

Michigan v Ohio State

Michigan players celebrate a fourth-quarter touchdown in Columbus.

Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images

Ohio State took the opening kickoff against Michigan, drove 81 yards for a touchdown and the revenge rout was on. Buckeyes fans started packing their bags for Indianapolis. Quarterback C.J. Stroud began fiddling with his Heisman speech. Woody Hayes stood and applauded while Bo Schembechler stewed wherever they were watching, hopefully together.

But then — could it be? — the Wolverines started flexing their muscles. Like a year ago when they finally beat their bitter rivals, they started winning all the battles up front. By the end, they were ahead 45-23 and had completely turned the tables in college sports’ premier border war. Just like that, Jim Harbaugh is the hottest coach in the country all over again. Just like that, Harbaugh owns his Columbus counterpart, Ryan Day.

So dramatic, and such a welcome development given how predictable the rivalry became as OSU won every meeting but one from 2004 to 2019. …

One voter’s ballot for the Davey O’Brien Award, college football’s top QB honor: 1. USC’s Caleb Williams, 2. Alabama’s Bryce Young, 3. Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, 4. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, 5. LSU’s Jayden Daniels. …

Anyone who pokes fun at the scoreless World Cup tie between the U.S. and England doesn’t get soccer and/or doesn’t want to. It was great to see how far the Americans have come with their first touches, passing and possession. Better finishing in the final third would be a wonderful thing, but we’re getting there. …

The Jets are second in the NFL in QB hits? Since when were they second in anything? Be careful, Justin Fields. And by “careful” I mean, maybe watch Sunday’s game from the Tony Baloney’s in Hoboken. …

Jets 26, Bears 9. Getting sleepy just thinking about it. …

What a moment Friday as the Canadiens’ Kirby Dach iced a win with a shootout clincher at the United Center. Talk about awkward, right? But not as awkward as the night in 2019 when a bumbling loudmouth met the Blackhawks’ brand-new first-round pick in the Wrigley Field press box. I introduced myself, welcomed him to town and offered the following advice:

“Now remember, it’s ‘Cracker Jack’ — no ‘S’ at the end — and it’s ‘I don’t care if I NEVER get back.’ Please be the one guy who gets those lyrics right.”

The 18-year-old Canadian looked at me like I had two heads. Only after I returned to my seat did I discover that he wasn’t even there to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

THIS YOU GOTTA SEE

World Cup: U.S. vs. Iran (Tuesday, 1 p.m., Fox-32, Telemundo): It’s win or go home for the young Americans, who are just crazy enough to think they’ve got what it takes to get through to the knockout stage and stick around awhile.

Bethune-Cookman v Indiana

Trayce Jackson-Davis leads the Hoosiers.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

CBB: North Carolina at Indiana (Wednesday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN): The most popular picks to win the ACC and the Big Ten square off on the third and final night of the conferences’ 14-game showdown.

CFB: Purdue vs. Michigan (Saturday, 7 p.m., Fox-32): The mother of all Big Ten title games, it ain’t. But a sawbuck says it beats last year’s Michigan 42, Iowa 3 waste of time.

ONLY BECAUSE YOU ASKED

From James, via email: “Why has Northwestern football fallen off the shelf so suddenly the last couple of years? Has Pat Fitzgerald lost it at both the recruiting and coaching levels? Is it time for NU to boot him?”

Boot him? It would be an outrageously bad move. Ten teams have gone to bowl games on Fitzgerald’s watch. Two recent ones have won the Big Ten West. Who’s going to top that? There might not be anyone out there who would (1) take the Northwestern job, (2) know what to do with it and (3) successfully see it through.

The Wildcats live on the edge of the shelf even when they’re good. In their best seasons, they win close games, are led by a handful of standout players and take advantage of the powerhouse-less division in which they play. In their worst seasons — like this one — it might even seem hopeless, but it isn’t. The gap between the bad teams and the decent ones in college football is pretty small.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

Ryan Day: Somebody should let him know it’s within the rules to go for it on fourth down, especially if you have the most talented offensive skill group in the country.

Northwestern QBs: OK, Trevor Siemien, let’s see how you top your alma mater’s six-turnover display against Illinois when you get the call to start Sunday for the Bears.

“Monday Night Football”: Don’t the three-win Steelers and the four-win Colts have sock drawers they could be rearranging?

Hot Stove Season: Is it just me or does nobody else smell anything good cooking?

NBA tanking: By the time we memorize the spelling of Victor Wembanyama’s name, some of us just might not care anymore.

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