Get up and do it again

Illinois native Bret Bielema has picked himself off the mat and jumped back into the college fray. To reclaim his career, all he has to do now is make Illini football matter.

Bret Bielema

Bret Bielema meets the media in Champaign.

Michael Glasgow, AP

Bret Bielema thought maybe he had some Vince Lombardi in him: bold, fearless, an inspiration to all in his midst. Or perhaps he was more like Tom Landry: unflappable, self-assured, cooler than the next guy. Then again, that Bill Belichick sure was something: shrewd, always a step ahead, a force of inherent greatness.

But why choose? Didn’t Bielema, then all of 36, have so many winning qualities that he could compare himself with just about any all-time coaching great? He liked to believe that included his mentors at the college level: Iowa’s Hayden Fry, Kansas State’s Bill Snyder and Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez.

“I decided I was all of them rolled into one,” he says.

The man was on fire — in his own opinion, too — fresh off 12 victories in 2006, his rookie season as a head coach at Wisconsin. Not even Alvarez, who had handpicked and groomed Bielema to be his successor, had won 12 before. Bielema would boom with confidence throughout his seven years atop the Badgers’ program, bragging on his players and backing it up by coaching three consecutive teams to Rose Bowls.

There were blemishes along the way — some clock-management missteps in narrow losses, some trouble holding on to assistants — but the good far outweighed the bad. And when the itch overtook him to chart a new course, he was full of certainty as he left for Arkansas — after hanging 70 on Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten title game — to take on the biggest of the big boys in the SEC West.

“I’m going to love being in front of you someday talking about being the favorite, but right now we’re going to embrace being the underdog,” he said at his introductory news conference in Fayetteville. “We’re going to throw two arms around it, kiss it and make it feel good.”

Didn’t happen. Didn’t come close in Pig Sooie country for the Illinois-raised son of a Prophetstown pig farmer. In five pressure-packed seasons, the Razorbacks were 29-34 overall and 11-29 in the SEC. Bielema was fired after the 2017 finale before he even left the stadium.

“He stood there on the field and said, ‘I’ve never been fired from anything,’ ” says his father, Arnie. ‘‘That tore me up, and it did him at the time. But he also said: ‘Everybody’s got scars. It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do about it.’ ”

Illinois v Northwestern

The going has been rough for Illinois for decades.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

JUDGMENT WILL COMEfor Bielema, 51, in his new job as coach of Illinois, and it will boil down to one question above all others: Will he win more than he loses? Lou Tepper, Ron Turner, Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit and Lovie Smith all have failed — most of them spectacularly — in that pursuit since John Mackovic’s successful run from 1988 to 1991. Bielema has broken recruiting bonds in the state, especially around Chicago, to repair. Of course, he has designs on winning big, championships and all. In the big picture, though, stopping the decades-long bleeding in Champaign is his top priority.

“I know this,” he says. “I’m a better-prepared head football coach than I’ve ever been. I’m much more reserved, cautious and aware as I proceed with decision-making, and it’s just something you learn with time. You learn more in your moments of adversity and failure than you do in your moments of success. That’s just what human nature is.”

To pick himself off the mat, he had to figure out how to work for somebody again. About two months after Bielema was fired, Arnie, pushing 80 at the time, was in the hospital for surgery on his carotid artery. Bielema was in the waiting room with his mother, Marilyn, when his phone rang. It was Belichick.

“He walked out into a corridor on the phone, and his eyes kind of lit up,” Marilyn says. “He turned around and gave me a thumbs-up sign and was smiling.”

Days later, the Patriots — the NFL’s gold standard — would announce Bielema as their new defensive consultant to Belichick.

“My surgery went well, and Bret got that call,” Arnie says. “That was a good day.”

Soon, Bielema found himself walking each day from his hotel in Foxborough, Massachusetts, to the Patriots’ practice facility. The walk took only five minutes, but, coffee in hand in the dark of 4:30 a.m., he was almost bewildered by the rigidity of his daily schedule when compared to the “What unexpected thing will happen today?” reality of a college head coach.

“I’d never been in the NFL,” he says. “I told a couple of people after my first days of drills, ‘These guys are pretty good players.’ Then I said to myself, ‘Yeah, moron, they’re the best players in football.’ ”

After two seasons with Belichick, he joined the Giants’ staff for 2020. It was good, but it wasn’t right. Something that should give Illini fans encouragement is that Bielema didn’t want the NFL. He needed it, sure, but he longed to go back to the college ranks. Unlike Smith, the former longtime coach of the Bears, it’s who he is.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO IOWA, in some sense or another, where Bielema’s football life is concerned. For one thing, Prophetstown is about 90 miles from Iowa City, closer by half than it is to Champaign. More relevantly, Fry allowed Bielema to go there as a walk-on, which Illinois did not.

In 1988, Bielema was trying out for the Hawkeyes’ team. Senior quarterback Chuck Hartlieb was wearing a red jersey, which meant he was not to be touched. But Bielema broke through the line on a play, tackled Hartlieb and landed at the feet of Fry, who ordered the nameless lug to start running the bleachers. A half-hour later, Fry looked up and asked no one in particular: “Is that guy still running those bleachers? Get him back down here.”

Fry was impressed by Bielema’s work ethic and would remain so. A few years later, the defensive lineman was named a team captain. After Bielema graduated, Fry asked him what his plans were, and Bielema — a business degree in his mitts — said he’d figure it out. Fry asked him why he’d want to wear a suit every day when he could hop on the bottom rung of Iowa’s staff.

Alvarez and Snyder had coached under Fry and moved on shortly before Bielema’s arrival as a player. Years later, Fry would recommend Bielema to Snyder, who made him Kansas State’s co-defensive coordinator. After that, Snyder would recommend Bielema to Alvarez, who put Bielema in charge of Wisconsin’s defense.

Back at Iowa in the nascent days of Bielema’s coaching career, Bolingbrook star Anthony Herron was one of his first recruits.

“There’s a human end to the way he can connect,” says Herron, to this day a close friend. “Not just speaking the lingo or being casual about things. He goes beyond that to being able to communicate and really sort of emit genuine care for the people who he is connecting with at that moment. That connection that he has with people on a personal level, on a human level, has always been a special trait of his.”

Herron was being recruited by Michigan State’s Nick Saban at the time, too, but Bielema’s determination and earnestness spoke to him. Bielema put Herron in touch with fellow recruits Ladell Betts and Ben Sobieski, and relationships that would lead to Iowa City — and see each player flourish — were born. It’s the same touch Bielema had at Wisconsin and the touch Illinois needs him to have.

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Bielema and family at Illinois.

AP Photos

MAYBE IT’S EVEN TRUERto say that all roads led Bielema back to Illinois. For starters, there was the school project he did in third grade about what he was going to do with his life.

“I’m going to play middle linebacker at Illinois,” he wrote, “and then I’m going to play middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears.”

In Prophetstown, his teacher, Mr. Vavra, didn’t doubt it. The youngster wasn’t just larger than the other boys; he seemed more driven, too.

At Lyndon Junior High, Bielema played quarterback as a seventh-grader. As childhood friend Jeff Tuisl tells it, the future Illinois coach was the only kid in those parts who could heave the football more than 20 yards. But there was a lot more to it than that.

“Here was a kid whose job at the time, being raised on a hog farm, he was up scooping crap, among other chores,” Tuisl says. “You could just see football was everything to him. You can imagine not only getting to play, but having a release from having to do that kind of work he had to do.

“He was the hardest-nosed guy on the field, no doubt about it. If he didn’t have success in a drill, he could just say, ‘Let’s do it again,’ whether the coach said it or not.”

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Bielema (37) at Prophetstown High.

Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Freshman year at Prophetstown High, Bielema began to make a full-time transition to defense. By his senior season, he loomed extra-large on the field at middle linebacker.

“You’d see the defense out there and just a monster in the middle,” Tuisl says. “[Brian] Urlacher without the speed.”

These days, Bielema would prefer to loom a bit less large. At Arkansas and in the NFL, his weight got away from him. He has been working hard on it.

“Everybody’s got New Year’s resolutions,” he says, “but I’ve called it life resolutions. I’ve got those beautiful girls. I can’t wait to be with them every step of the way and want to make it last as long as I can.”

Wife Jen, 3-year-old Briella and 1-year-old Brexli are in New Jersey while their new house is being built in Champaign. When the family was on campus in December for Bielema’s unveiling, they drove the neighborhood streets and pointed out playgrounds and — oh, the excitement — fire trucks. The girls call them “uh-oh lights.”

They all will be home soon.

EVERYONE HAS A STORYabout Bielema the leader. One is told by childhood friend Jeff Detra, who fondly recalls riding the school bus with Bielema, the two quizzing each other for tests in junior high. They were, perhaps, an odd-looking pair: one of them hulking for his age, the other a pipsqueak.

Entering high school, Detra was thinking about going out for basketball, which was a potential problem only because he weighed a soaking-wet 85 pounds. Bielema’s older brother Barry, a wrestler, had told Detra more than once that he should try taking it to the mats, but Detra figured that was an even worse idea.

His large pal persuaded him to try it, so they did it together. Bielema wrestled at 185, while Detra punched above his weight as a freshman in the 98-pound class.

“I did my best, but I was not that good,” Detra says. “But Bret hammered on me to stay with it: ‘You’re better than you think.’ He really made me think I was better than I was. Every week, every meet, he would tell me I could beat the guy I was wrestling.”

Bielema was a natural, to no one’s surprise, and grew into a standout.

“Nobody outworked him,” Detra says. “And he would always take the younger, bigger guys under his wing. He would run with someone who was trying to cut weight. He was a leader, either in his actions or his words, all through high school.”

Bielema has two older brothers and two sisters. He didn’t just tag along with his dad and brothers when they worked the farm or shopped for equipment. He had ideas, opinions, and often took the lead.

“If he thought we could do something a better way, he’d tell us,” Arnie says. “And from when he was little. He was always thinking like that. I always said he was different.”

As a new teenager, Bielema was given the task of rounding up friends to work at the farm. Baling hay was at the center of it.

“We paid them well, and Marilyn fed them well,” Arnie says. “A lot of farmers say you can’t get any help. I say you’ve got to pay them and you’ve got to feed them.”

One night when Bielema was 14 or so, he went to his dad, troubled: One of his friends wasn’t pulling his weight. Dad laid it out simply: You hired him, you fire him. Man, it wasn’t easy, but he did it.

TOUGH, SMART AND DEPENDABLE.Those are the words Bielema has used with his players in every team meeting since he took the job at Illinois.

“That drew me in,” says Illini center Doug Kramer, a senior whose interactions with Bielema convinced him to return for one more season. “Those are three traits I want to have as a player and have worked for the past five years.”

Bielema won over many players in an early meeting with the team in the auditorium of its football facility. He ran through his career and what each stop — even the one at Arkansas — had taught him. He showed the players photos of his family and of his assistants’ families. He promised them he wouldn’t just coach them, but he’d get to know them and have relationships with them.

There was laughter, warmth and lots of energy — Kramer doesn’t want to diminish Smith in any way, but he admits this was different — plus a needed dose of tell-it-like-it-is.

Bielema believes wholeheartedly in what he calls “complementary football.” An offense must play a certain way because of a defense’s strengths or shortcomings and vice versa. Put special teams in there, too. This can change week by week, depending on the opponent, but there’s a rhythm to it all that beats clearly in Bielema’s brain.

“I don’t think right now there’s even a concept of what that means here,” Bielema says. “I have to build it.”

And it has to stick, or Bielema’s career might go bust.

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Bielema alongside Alvarez at Wisconsin.

AP

When he got the job at Kansas State, Snyder gave him this advice: “The greatest thing you can do moving forward is to be Bret Bielema. You’ve had great mentors, but don’t try to be something you’re not. You got this job because of who you are.”

Early on as head coach at Wisconsin, Bielema was advised by Alvarez not to be so prideful. The don of Badgers football said: “You’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear. You’re going to get questions you don’t like. Just believe in what you’re doing.”

Just believe. And Bielema wants the future of Illini football just to believe in him.

“Young men in today’s world gravitate to people they can trust, that they know truly look out for their best interests,” he says. “Sometimes they’re going to tell them things they don’t necessarily want to hear. And that can get you to a place where growth can really happen.”

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