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Sports Saturday

Illinois’ Bret Bielema zeroes in on his debut, a matchup with Nebraska to start everything

This game was supposed to be played across the pond in Dublin, which has witnessed about as many must-see Illini and Huskers contests in recent years as the folks in Champaign and Lincoln.

Bret Bielema makes his Illinois debut on Saturday against Nebraska.
Bret Bielema makes his Illinois debut on Saturday against Nebraska.
Doug McSchooler/AP

In a sense, it’s almost a cruel joke Illinois and Nebraska are playing on themselves by meeting Saturday for a “Week Zero” opener in Champaign: The loser of the very first game of the college football season won’t even wait until Week 1 to put a first “L” on the board.

Don’t the Illini, 10 years removed from their last winning season, and the Huskers, mired in a miserable four-season bowl-less streak, have enough stacked against them as it is?

But excuse me for lacing the punch bowl with negativity again. Old habits die hard.

It’ll be a beautiful day for the winner, and especially for the winning coach in either case.

Illinois’ Bret Bielema is steering a ship for the first time since 2017, his fifth and final season of a 29-34 comeuppance at Arkansas. Last time Bielema was on a field as a head coach, he was fired before exiting the stadium.

As for Scott Frost, a Huskers hero as a national title-winning quarterback in 1997? Warm and fuzzy have exited the equation. He’s on the hot seat — with a 12-20 record and a new, no-nonsense boss in athletic director Trev Alberts — and his program is under NCAA investigation.

This game was supposed to be played across the pond in Dublin, which has witnessed about as many must-see Illini and Huskers contests in recent years as the folks in Champaign and Lincoln. But maybe this situation is better for Bielema, whose nationally televised debut comes at noon on Fox-32 with fans — and recruits — in the Memorial Stadium stands for the first time since 2019.

After meeting the media Thursday on Zoom, Bielema followed up a game-week radio blitz with an appearance on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

“The name of the game is recruiting, right?” he said. “That’s probably what drives my decisions to do media more than anything.”

The word “unsexy” — which Bielema used a lot during a successful run at Wisconsin that included three straight Rose Bowl appearances — still applies. As do “tough,” “smart” and “dependable,” three words he says these days on a loop. Old habits die hard, too, for a former defensive lineman who walked on at Iowa and became a team captain.

But Bielema is an image-conscious coach, so much so that he dove into what the Illini will wear Saturday. He says he “attacked” the team’s orange helmets, ordering stripes down the middle and white trim around the blue block “I.” He changed the facemasks to white because he remembered how white ones “popped” three decades ago when he played against the Illini. There will be white gloves, socks and shoes and a block “I” with trim on the pants — all new details.

None of which would seem to amount to a whole lot in the 60-minute swirl, but who’s to say?

“I can do things to the uniform,’’ he told his players, “but you guys have to take care of the uniform. I gave it to you. Now you have to represent it. Now you have to go out on the field and make everybody understand what that uniform represents.”

Late Wednesday night, after a long time at the office, Bielema steered his car to the edge of a parking lot. His mind on football, he almost got clipped by a van rolling down the street that turned out to be an Uber. The van was festooned with Illini flags and, across its back, orange and blue lights. Bielema turned and sped after it, catching up at a stoplight and lowering his window.

“I love the flags!” the big man on campus yelled.

But he went unrecognized.

“He had no idea who the hell I was,” Bielema said. “I was excited to see him giving a little bit of Uber love, displaying the flags on game week, but obviously I didn’t make an impression on him.”

There’s really only one way to win everybody over, and that’s by winning. And winning more than losing at Illinois hasn’t happened for any coach since John Mackovic, whose teams were 30-16-1 from 1988 to 1991.

The last Big Ten game Bielema coached was against the Huskers in the 2012 league title game. Wisconsin hung 70 points on their humiliated foes, with the obscenely good running back trio of Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon rushing for 539 yards.

An outing like that is beyond Illinois’ capability now. Maybe someday?

“We haven’t played a game yet, right?” Bielema said. “It’s easy to get excited about something you haven’t seen. But I would say this: I hope there’s equal excitement after we get done playing. …

“For people to support us, they have to believe in what we’re doing and they have to see hope. I’m not sure where we’re going to land Saturday, but I hope to instill a lot of hope in a lot of people that have been looking for it here in the Illinois program for the immediate future and for years to come.”

Zero in, everybody. A new Illini era is upon us.