As a child of the 80’s, I grew up thinking that Illinois football was good, and should always be good. I didn’t know any better. Growing up down state, I was infatuated with the men’s basketball program, so my love for the state school was only cemented by the fact that they had a very solid football program. In the early 90’s, I was uprooted to the South Bend, IN area. I literally had no feelings on Notre Dame football, but I quickly learned it was an obsession here, and I had no choice but to absolutely love them or absolutely hate them.
In the fall of 1992, I was a pretty angry young man. I was a high school sophomore that didn’t know a single person in the school or town I suddenly found myself living in, and I was surrounded by people that were obsessed with Notre Dame football. There was hardly a belief that there could be anything bigger or better out there that this prestigious program, unless you were one of the many die-hard Michigan Wolverine fans that live in this area. Either way, Illinois football was a clear after-thought in these parts, so being the angry young man that I was at the time, I doubled down on my love for Illinois sports. After all, the basketball team had recently gone to a Final Four and captivated the entire country. However, the football program was still on very solid ground, and seemed to be a destination for top talent.
When my new friends would brag about Notre Dame or Michigan football in 1992, I could talk about how Illinois football had recently won the Big Ten, had a number 1 overall draft pick, and were on their way to their fifth straight bowl game. They also had some young defensive prospects on that team that would eventually win back to back Butkus awards and feature a pair of future top five NFL draft picks. I took my fandom to the point where I won a bet that said I could where a different Illinois shirt to school for two straight weeks. I may have had to borrow one of my dad’s shirts for the clincher, but I did it. When I graduated, I was known in high school for two things, the kid who wore shorts year round and that one guy that loved Illinois sports.
After high school I started dating my now wife. That was the fall of 1995, and the end of Illinois football being an annually competent and competitive Big Ten football program. While I was a freshman at Purdue, I still wore my Illinois clothes around campus and obsessed over their games. I remember them tying Wisconsin 3-3 on the last game of the season, before Wisconsin is the program they are now, and it literally ruined my day. They were going to miss out on going to a bowl game. My future wife made it clear to me that day that if our relationship was going to last, that my reaction to a football team’s win or loss was going to have to change. Since our relationship was new and I was trying to give off the best impression possible, I decided that she was right and I needed to change. Little did I know that she was setting me up for learning how to deal with a lot of frustrating and infuriating Saturdays in the future.
Since that 5-5-1 season in 1995, Illinois football has had only had 12 seasons where they have managed 5 wins, and only 5 winning seasons. Compare that to when I really started paying attention to Illinois sports around 1988, when from 1988-1995, Illinois football only had 1 losing season. It is just sickening to think that this program I once stood so proudly behind had fallen to such great depths. And to compound things even more, despite having just 5 winning seasons in the last 26 years, Illinois football has appeared in the Rose Bowl in 2007 and Sugar Bowl in 2001. Seeing the program rise to such heights after falling off only reeled me in further to believe that they could and should remain a highly competitive program in the Big Ten on a yearly basis. That’s what has made the 13 years since the Sugar Bowl in 2001 where Illinois football has had 2 or fewer conference wins so agonizing and frustrating. Those of us who are in our forties have seen sustained stretches of success at Illinois, and we’ve seen the program reach prestigious bowl games, so how could a program reach those levels and yet somehow not even be competitive for 60 percent of the seasons played this century?
Those are the questions that Illinois football fans have lamented and tossed and turned over for years. Whether it was poor facilities, poor recruiting, or horrible hires under an overwhelmed athletic director, all of those factored into Illinois football becoming a perennial doormat in the conference. While they have not had a winning record in the conference for football since the 2007 Rose Bowl season, the 10 conference wins over the last three seasons are the most in any three season span since 2007-2009 where they managed to win 11 conference games, which included the Rose Bowl year.
So is Illinois football on the rise? Should we be encouraged by the fact that we’re coming off our best three year stretch in over a decade? Should we believe that brighter days are ahead after a 47-14 drubbing of Northwestern? Should we believe that Bret Bielema is really the guy who is going to bring back sustained success to a dormant program? I’ll answer those questions with one simple word, YES!
When Illinois hired Lovie Smith to be their coach in 2015, I was skeptical but curious. I thought Bill Cubit did a nice job with the mess he inherited, and his staff seemed to be competent and willing to work hard to keep the program competitive. I understood why a new athletic director wanted his own person in the position, and if nothing else, adding a name like Lovie Smith raised the profile of the program. Lovie always seemed to be a guy in the NFL that never got as much out of his teams as he should, but they were disciplined and competitive. It felt like Lovie’s name and character would help convince recruits who might have gone elsewhere to come play in Champaign. While most coaches are typically only as good as their talent, football seems like a sport at the college level where you have a handful of teams with superior talent, and most of the rest rely on coaching and scheme. Illinois football is never going to be the program with superior talent, so they were relying on Lovie’s defensive mind to out-scheme some college coaches that might have had less experience than him. As the years went on in the Lovie era, it became apparent that his scheme was not going to work without superior talent, and he just didn’t have the interest to outwork people or bring in dynamic coaches that could do that for him. He certainly did not leave the cupboard completely bare for Bielema, but the one thing he seemed to leave behind were kids that wanted to get everything out of their college football experience.
The Covid season of 2020 was supposed to be the season where everything came to a culmination under Lovie Smith at the University of Illinois. They were coming off a bowl appearance, and they had just about everybody back. It really felt like Illinois and Lovie were primed for a breakthrough. One of those seasons that Illinois football only gets sporadically these days. Instead, 2020 was a horrible flop due to players in key positions missing games due to Covid and teams taking advantage of scheme that showed little change or different tendencies after four years. By the end of the year, I don’t think there was a single Illinois football fan that wasn’t ready to move on from Lovie Smith, hence his removal before the last game of the season.
There were lots of wild rumors going around about who may or may not be the head coach, but I was hoping for one person, Bret Bielema. When he left Wisconsin for Arkansas, it seemed like the most head-scratching coaching move this century. He had sustained and continued to build a powerhouse program in the Big Ten, and decided to leave for a bottom third program in the toughest conference in the country. On top of that, his style of football was in steep contrast to those of the highly successful programs that had ruled the conference for years. As an outsider, it seemed like a horrible fit, and the results didn’t take long to show that. Bret Bielema is a Big Ten guy, and he had been humbled. There was no doubt when he returned to leading a college program he was going to be hungry to prove that he could win again and build a program like he did at Wisconsin. So how will that translate to success at Illinois?
Bielema came to Illinois with a plan. As an Illinois native, and as a man who played and coached elsewhere in the conference, he knows that there is good football talent in his home state. It may not be as good as the top talent in Florida or Texas, but how likely is a program that hasn’t had a winning season in 10 years to go into those states and win big time recruiting battles? Instead, he isn’t focused on bringing in the elite talent from all across the country. He is focused on keeping his direct competitors from feasting on the top talent in his own backyard. The top talent in his home state this is likely just as good as the talent they can hope to get from states like Texas and Florida. Programs like Northwestern, Minnesota, and Iowa, have risen and had prolonged success by feasting on talent from Illinois. Lovie seemed to be holding the door open for recruits to exit the state of Illinois, which only encouraged those schools to feast on its top prospects. Bielema knows that if he keeps some of those kids home, it will help his program while weakening his competitors. Iowa and Minnesota don’t have the prospect depth like the state of Illinois, so by keeping more kids home he’s forcing them to turn elsewhere to get recruits. He managed to beat two of those three schools this year, so that only helps on the recruiting trail. His first recruiting class is filled with in-state or regional guys who held offers from other Big Ten programs, so he’s already making those strides on the recruiting trail.
Speaking to that point, Bielema seems to embrace the challenge of recruiting and matches it with energy and effort. Lovie Smith had the profile and coaching net to make waves with recruiting, but he never embraced the hard work it required. Bielema has surrounded himself with other hungry coaches as well. Having coached and worked with guys that have a strong work ethic, it sets the tone for the rest of your staff when the leader is out front leading the charge and refusing to be outworked. Ron Zook had that when he first came to Illinois, but after those initial years and recruiting efforts, he seemed to lose interest and his staff deteriorated. Could the same thing happen to Bielema? There is little doubt that if he keeps building like he did this year he will have some assistants that will be attractive to other schools. Yet, it feels like this is where Bielema wants to retire. He is out to prove something at Illinois, and at this point in his career it doesn’t feel like he’s looking at Illinois as a stepping stone to something bigger. He knows that if he can build and sustain success here, he will go down as one of the all-time greats at the school. Some coaches have had short-term success and then either moved on or fallen off, but Bielema seems committed to the long haul and building a legacy.
Bielema will achieve those goals because he has a vision for what he wants his program to look like. We have seen this blue-print in the past at Wisconsin. It is the same one that was laid out before him and has remained since his departure. Bielema wants guys that play a physical, nasty game. While more and more teams are spreading the field and throwing the ball all over, Bielema wants a more traditional type offense that features the running game and pro-style quarterbacks. He’s not out looking for players that light up recruiting boards, he’s out looking for his guys. Wisconsin rarely makes the top 10-15 in recruiting rankings each year, yet they find themselves in that range of programs perennially because of player development and finding the right guys for their program. It won’t be long before Bielema does the same thing. Right now, the recruiting bar is in the forties on a national scale, but as Bielema and his staff gain on field success and continue to work their tails off recruiting, the bar will be raised to the thirties and twenties in terms of national recruiting class rankings in the future.
Besides having talent, a good coach knows how and when to push the right buttons and make adjustments. While it is easy to feel good coming off a 5-7 season with 4 conference wins and a beatdown of your rival in the last game, us diehard fans look at the season as a whole. It is impossible not to wonder “what if” when thinking about the UTSA, Maryland, Purdue, and Rutgers games. This team really had a great shot at being 9-3. Coaching, play-calling, and personnel decisions in those games really inhibited Illinois at crucial moments. Is that a sign of things to come down the road, or was that part of the learning process? For me, I think it was the latter. I found it very telling how Bielema and his staff benched seniors who had been starters for a while, and yet those seniors responded and bounced back when given another opportunity. That showed that there was good communication between players and coaches. As Illinois fans, we’re used to seeing a season completely derail and spiral after bad losses, but the coaching staff never allowed that with this group. To me, that is another great sign that this staff is different than previous ones. Bielema and his staff seemed to learn from some of their early mistakes and game management issues. The offense still has a long way to go, but there were much better stretches and schemes the last few games against better opponents. The biggest question will be how long will Bielema stick with Tony Peterson as his OC. I don’t think Bielema will budge until Peterson has his QB and wide receivers will more playmaking ability. Will that be to the detriment of his success at Illinois, or will be see the full vision of this offense once those pieces are in place? I think it will be the latter as I have no doubt Bielema and his staff are going to work to find those pieces they can plug in immediately in the coming months.
All arrows seem to be pointing upward, so what should Illinois fans expect in the upcoming years. Well, if you asked me before Bielema’s first recruiting class has even signed, I’d argue that Illinois’ record could be worse next season while progress is still being made. The 2021 Illinois football team should have been competitive, for the same reasons the 2020 team should have. They had veterans in the trenches on both sides of the ball and at quarterback. Looking ahead to next year, there are some big concerns up front on both sides of the ball and no clear answer at the quarterback position. Recruiting seems to be addressing those needs on offense, and the transfer portal could help fill more holes and gaps in the coming weeks, but there are usually reasons guys transfer, and most of those reasons likely deal with playing time and past performance. A change in scenery, scheme, and coaching helps unlock some guys ability, but for others it only plays out the same as their previous school. Expecting Bielema and his staff to hit homeruns on all of their transfer portal acquisitions is a huge ask and hope. The need to hit the transfer portal so hard demonstrates the previous staff’s lack of consistency with recruiting and filling needs.
Illinois has some big holes at key positions heading into next year, and the schedule only seems to get stronger when looking at it on paper. I am glad that Illinois football is not going out and playing a weak non-conference schedule to pad its win total artificially every year. Josh Whitman has raised the bar for expectations, and that is reflected in the schedules. While Chattanooga appears to be a win on paper, Wyoming and Virginia are games the Illini should expect to be very competitive. A 2-1 non-conference record would be good. Then looking at the conference schedule, Illinois sees Maryland and Rutgers drop off to be replaced by Michigan and Michigan St. Despite losing to both Maryland and Rutgers this past season, those games seem to be far more winnable than Michigan and Michigan St. on paper in late November of 2021. Purdue loses a lot after this season, but Northwestern will be better and Nebraska should stop finding ways to lose at the quarterback position next season, while Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota all seem to be built for sustained success.
Bottom line, it is going to take a while before Illinois fans should expect winning seasons in Champaign. However, I don’t think there is any question that Bielema and his staff are going to quickly sustain competitiveness and competence at Illinois. Illinois football isn’t staring down trying to dethrone Ohio St., Penn St., and Michigan each year, so it is easy to get excited about the possibility of quickly ascending to the top of the Big Ten West, but that isn’t likely. However, it is hard to envision this staff having the 0 to 2 win conference seasons Illinois fans have seen for sixty percent of this century. Right now, many Illinois fans love Bielema and the direction this program is headed. This past Saturday perpetuated that even more. Had Illinois won 17-14, maybe their wouldn’t be the same high level of optimism moving forward as there is following the 47-14 drubbing. However, I ask that Illinois fans break the norm and stick with this coach and staff as they endure the loss of many super seniors and a tougher schedule next year. Don’t panic and get too low after a disappointing loss or start projecting bowl berths after a big win. The road to annual relevance is still long, but thanks to Bielema, brighter fall days are ahead in Champaign, just maybe not next year, but we have a man with a plan.