For Illinois’ Bret Bielema, a bit of calm amid the chaos is a most welcome Christmas gift

A contract extension, a new recruiting class and some precious time at home are happy, hopeful things the Illini coach can hold on to during a trying holiday season.

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Bret Bielema coaches during Illinois’ early-October win at Wisconsin.

Bret Bielema coaches during Illinois’ early-October win at Wisconsin.

John Fisher/Getty Images

It was some December or another in the late 1990s, and a certain kind of chaos that all major-college football coaches know swirled around young Bret Bielema. Then an Iowa assistant in his 20s, Bielema was always going hard at the job, plowing ahead, churning for any edge. Christmas? Who had time to think about Christmas?

But the 23rd of the month arrived, and Bielema, on the recruiting trail in Los Angeles, flew to Cedar Rapids and drove the two hours from there to Prophetstown, Illinois, to do what a dutiful son does: visit Mom and Dad for the holidays.

By God, it was just what he needed.

“I’ll never forget the calmness that I had when I sat down and knew I was around my family,” he says.

Lately, Bielema, 52, keeps thinking back on that time and others like it. Not that there has been much time to think for Illinois’ coach, whose last five weeks have been a dizzying blur of travel, stress, program milestones, bowl prep, career affirmation and personal anguish.

Bielema lost his mother and father-in-law, both unexpectedly, six days apart in November, and traveled to his hometown twice and to South Florida twice to mourn during an almost unnavigable final two weeks of the regular season. He flew to Tampa in early December to sign a bowl contract, recruited in 14 states over 10 days in the run-up to this week’s early signing period, hosted recruits on campus, signed a six-year contract extension and led practices for the ReliaQuest Bowl against Mississippi State on Jan. 2.

Amid all that, Bielema absorbed the blow of Bulldogs coach Mike Leach’s death Dec. 12 after a massive heart attack. A cloud of sadness will hang over Raymond James Stadium when these teams meet, and Bielema will feel the absence of an old friend.

“There was a moment after Mike passed where I was just like, ‘Holy cow, how much of this can I be around?’ ” Bielema says. “But I’ll try to remember the memories that we shared. He and I had some great memories that are truly just between us, and it brings a smile to my face to know how awesome and special they were. They’ll be remembered forever.”

The Illini leave on Christmas Day for Tampa, where Bielema’s wife, Jen, is from. Greg Hielsberg is gone, but the Bielemas will fondly remember one of their final interactions with him. They were in the car and on the phone with little Briella and Brexli’s grandfather as his powerful voice boomed from the speaker, saying silly things and making the girls cackle.

“Why don’t you just make it easy on me?” he said to Bielema, perhaps presciently. “Go to a bowl that’s here in Florida so I can just drive to the game.”

It’s not unlike what Marilyn Bielema said to her son in mid-October when he shared — after back-to-back-to-back victories against Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota — that Illini athletic director Josh Whitman wanted to extend his contract for a long while.

“She said, ‘We’re just two hours down the road, and for all those years you’re going to be able to come see us,’ ” Bielema says, his voice catching.

“There’s no doubt in my mind she knew how happy we were. But this is the time of year when you just have that feeling that you want to reach out and talk.”

The contract extension comes with — as does a new recruiting class — a sense of renewal for which Bielema is grateful. These are happy, hopeful things to hold on to during a trying holiday season. So, come to think of it, is the power of cinnamon rolls.

When Betsy Bielema died in a tragic accident at 27, her brother Bret was only 20. The loss had him spinning, but a pastor intervened and asked him to share one thing Betsy loved to do because it made others happy. The answer was cinnamon rolls, which she baked in abundance for practically everyone she knew. For 30-plus years, Bielema has heeded the pastor’s advice to stop any time he sees, smells or tastes a cinnamon roll and tell someone near him about his beloved sister.

Just the other day, an Illinois academic advisory representative left a dozen cinnamon rolls outside Bielema’s office as a simple — and completely coincidental — gesture of kindness. Bielema shut the door, placed the box on his desk and wept. When he got home past midnight, he set the box on the tiny table where his girls, not yet school age, like to eat together.

Back in the office the next morning, he FaceTimed the girls, who were sitting and squealing, frosting all over their faces. Bielema captured the image to include in the daily journals he keeps for both of them, to be handed over as they turn 16.

The Bielemas will spend their first Christmas Eve in their brand-new house in Champaign. The first of many, hopefully.

“Being there, I feel that old calmness again, like I had when I was young,” he says. “And at a very hectic point, that’s a good thing.”

It’s more than that. It’s a gift.

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