Photo courtesy of Illinois athletics
It’s been a few weeks since Illinois officially hired Bret Bielema as the 26th head coach in the program’s 132-year history.
Bielema is an Illinois man. He is from Prophetstown in Northwestern Illinois, and was actually born in an Illini hospital. This has been seen as a good hire in the football community, with even the likes of Bill Belichick saying it was a great hire.
Bielema isn’t just an Illinois guy, but he’s a Midwest guy. That’s exactly what Illinois needs in its coach. He played at Iowa and coached at Wisconsin before Arkansas.
He’s got some good recruiting connections in the Midwest. This will help a ton with recruiting at Illinois — a spot where the Illini have struggled mightily over the past few seasons.
To get a better look into what exactly Illinois is getting in its coach, we talked with Fifth Quarter’s Arkansas contributors Tyler and Will. They gave some great insight on what to expect with Bielema at the helm.
What is Illinois ultimately getting with Bret Bielema as its new Head Football Coach?
Basing off of what Bielema was like while he was at Arkansas, Illinois is getting a guy who really does care a ton and has a great relationship with his players. He was still pretty young for a head coach while he was in Fayetteville. We imagine he’s grown even more as a person and coach since his time in the NFL with the New England Patriots and New York Giants.
Arkansas had three top-25 recruiting classes under Bielema. He obviously was able to reel some talent into Fayetteville. Was he not able to develop these to their full potential, or what went wrong?
Bielema had some good classes on paper, but he missed a lot in recruiting. A guess is that he tried to recruit players that would fit better at Wisconsin and in the Big Ten, instead of players that match the style of play at Arkansas and in the SEC.
Bielema didn’t like how cutthroat SEC recruiting was. Instead of going after the players that other SEC schools were going after, he went elsewhere to try and find kids. That being said, he did bring in guys like Denver Kirkland, Hunter Henry, and Alex Collins — all of whom were highly-touted recruits.
What were some of the things that Bielema did well at Arkansas?
Bielema did a very good job of buying in to being a Hog. This was for a guy who had no affiliation with the university or area before becoming the head coach ofthe Razorbacks. He really did represent the university as a whole well.
He was very likable to the media and has an entire reel of hilarious moments in pressers. In the beginning, he did a great job of establishing an identity. We’ll get to how that changed.
What were some of the things that he struggled with?
The ultimate downfall of his tenure at Arkansas – staff. His initial group of assistants were great. But as these guys left, he struggled to replace those guys. His biggest mistake was hiring guys who didn’t fit with his style of offense whatsoever.
It just didn’t mesh well at all. Around the time he was at Arkansas, SEC football started going the way of the spread. Bielema got lost in staying with his style. He didn’t keep to the direction that SEC football was going. Along the way, Arkansas lost its identity it once had.
Arkansas went three straight years making a bowl game, winning two of those bowls. In those three years, the Razorbacks went 7-6, 8-5, and 7-6. That doesn’t seem like a failure. Why weren’t Arkansas fans so high on Bielema anymore towards the end of his tenure?
Bielema lost the fan base at the end. He lost big leads to Missouri, and Virginia Tech in their bowl game, in back to back games. The following season, he appeared to be lost. There seemed to be a lot of personnel decisions on the field, and a lot of back and forth.
Overall, most fans here liked Bielema a lot. They also saw that he was being overtaken by the SEC and it was time to move on. People think SEC folks beat their chests and say the SEC is by far the best league, but seriously, it can eat you alive in a hurry if you’re not ready.
One of his biggest problems was he seemed to get complacent when Arkansas went on a good run at the end of year 3 and the start of year 4. Hopefully, he has grown from this, and with his time away from the college game, he’s grown a lot as a coach. This isn’t a bad hire at all for Illinois. Illinois is exactly the place where Bielema can thrive.