Illinois’ Bret Bielema on old friend Mike Leach — and one last, laugh-filled conversation

They weren’t just colleagues and counterparts, after all. They were pals from the coaching road.

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Mike Leach coaches his final game, Mississippi State against Ole Miss.

Mike Leach coaches his final game, Mississippi State against Ole Miss.

Justin Ford/Getty Images

CHAMPAIGN — A day after Bret Bielema learned Illinois would be matched up against Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2 in Tampa, he started texting with Mike Leach.

A day after that, they gabbed on the phone for half an hour.

These weren’t just colleagues and counterparts, after all. Bielema and Leach were old pals from the coaching road.

“It was the Mike Leach conversation I’ve always had,” Bielema said.

They talked about football and their teams. They got into the weeds with some non-football topics, as Leach was famously and charmingly wont to do. They laughed. Bielema told Leach he looked forward to seeing him at the upcoming bowl-game press conference in Tampa.

“Absolutely, brother,” Leach said back.

That was over a week ago. But the press conference came, and Leach wasn’t there. Then, last Sunday, Leach suffered a massive heart attack at home in Lubbock. Only 61, he died the following evening in a Jackson hospital.

Back on campus after a recruiting trip, Bielema recalled some of the “priceless” moments and conversations he enjoyed with Leach through the years. The first chapter in their friendship came early in Leach’s time at Texas Tech, when he was something of an unknown and Bielema was beginning to climb the ladder as an assistant. At various offseason events, they — along with then-assistant Mark Stoops, now Kentucky’s coach — enjoyed memorable times together.

When Bielema was coach at Arkansas making annual winter trips to Nike-sponsored retreats for college coaches, he, Leach and David Cutcliffe — quarterback guru to both Peyton and Eli Manning — would steal away from the crowd to go shoot pool or take in live music.

“ ‘Cut’ and I would just constantly be mesmerized by the conversations we’d get into,” Bielema said.

Before Leach took the Mississippi State job a few years ago, he sought counsel from Bielema on life in the SEC. If only they’d known they’d soon be coaching head-to-head in a bowl game, right? Alas, it’s not to be. Such a shame.

THREE-DOT DASH

The Cubs could’ve done worse in free agency than shortstop Dansby Swanson, center fielder Cody Bellinger and pitchers Jameson Taillon and Brad Boxberger. This could be a winning team in 2023. Does 85-77 merit a parade? …

Speaking of the Cubs, Hall-of-Famer Fergie Jenkins turned 80 on Tuesday. He celebrated in his Canadian hometown, where his kids threw him a heck of a bash. Originally planned for up to 100 guests, it ballooned to 170 — with dozens of Jenkins’ childhood hockey and basketball teammates surprising him.

“I didn’t know they’d be there,” he said. “My goodness, that was so special.”

More important: “I don’t feel 80 at all. I might live another 15 years. Who knows?” …

As the Knicks were finishing up a 14-0 run to put the imploding Bulls down by 30 on Friday, announcers Adam Amin and Stacey King entertained each other by imagining Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau singing Christmas carols. Funny! Sort of. How about next time they call out the train wreck that is this team? …

Illinois defensive stars Devon Witherspoon, an All-American cornerback, and Sydney Brown, an all-Big Ten safety, announced Saturday they’ll opt out of the team’s bowl game to focus on the NFL draft.

Seated alongside Brown and Bielema, Witherspoon called it “just a bittersweet moment, honestly.”

Brown choked up describing how hard it was as a team captain to make this decision.

“I love this place and where it’s taken me,” he said. “I’ll forever be in debt.” …

Ryan Walters, the Illini defensive coordinator who left to become head coach at Purdue, probably should be thankful he isn’t coaching the Boilermakers against LSU in the Citrus Bowl. After a flurry of key opt-outs, the Boilers have gone from 5½-point underdogs to 14½-point ’dogs. That’s a mess best left for somebody else. …

An email arrived with results of a survey of roughly 20,000 NFL fans. It turns out Bears fans rank in the top 10 in the categories of loyalty and anger, and in the bottom 10 in happiness and optimism.

Take all the time you need to get over the shock. …

Eagles 34, Bears 17. No extra charge for saving you the three hours.

THIS YOU GOTTA SEE

World Cup: Argentina vs. France (Sunday, 9 a.m., Fox-32, FS1, Telemundo): A Tom Brady-vs.-Patrick Mahomes Super Bowl is nothing compared to a Messi-Mbappe Cup final. And if you try to disagree, I’ll heave myself to the ground in make-believe agony.

“Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” (Tuesday, 9 p.m., HBO): The year-end roundtable review always delivers.

CBB: Illinois vs. Missouri (Thursday, 8 p.m., SECN): The terrific “Braggin’ Rights” series continues, although, come to think of it, when was the last time you heard somebody brag about a trip to St. Louis?

THE BOTTOM FIVE

Connor Bedard: Where does this 17-year-old center get off being such a great prospect, the utterly unwatchable Blackhawks have lost 20 of 23 games in hopes of selecting him with the No. 1 pick?

Coach Prime: Colorado-bound Deion Sanders talks a mighty big game for someone whose Jackson State squads have now been upset — as enormous favorites — in back-to-back Celebration Bowls.

DePaul: The men’s basketball team lost by 38 points at Northwestern on Saturday, answering the age-old question, “Is it possible to lose by 38 points at Northwestern?”

Third-place games: Seriously, World Cup? Like it isn’t hard enough to remember who’s playing in the first-place game.

The Colts: They led 33-0 after two quarters before the Vikings came all the way back and beat them. I don’t know what coach Jeff Saturday’s halftime speech was, but I’m guessing it concluded with the words, “And remember — we’re the Colts!”

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