Bret Bielema named Illinois football coach to replace Lovie Smith

Current NFL assistant Bret Bielema will replace a celebrated Illinois football coach in Lovie Smith to lead the Fighting Illini program.

Nov 3, 2019; Baltimore, MD, USA; New England Patriots defensive line coach Bret Bielema stands win the sidelines before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

After stints with Wisconsin and Arkansas, Bret Bielema is getting his third shot to be a college football head coach at Illinois. Bielema was announced on Saturday as the next Fighting Illini coach, succeeding Lovie Smith, who was fired after almost five seasons.

Smith got the pink slip prior to the team’s regular-season finale against Penn State, paving the way for Bielema to be hired.

Bret Bielema to succeed Lovie Smith as Illinois head coach

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Bielema’s contract with the Illini is for six years that starts with an annual salary of $4.2 million.

The school published a news release that featured remarks from Bielema, who was born in Prophetstown, Illinois, and is making it a priority right away to land top in-state recruits:

“We want to build a program that makes Illini Nation proud and regain the passion that I’ve seen when Illinois wins. We want the young men playing football in the state of Illinois from Freeport to Cairo and from Quincy to Danville dreaming of wearing the Orange and Blue and playing at Memorial Stadium. I look forward to re-connecting with the high school coaches around the state making it clear we intend to keep our players home. “We will build an outstanding staff for both player development and recruiting.”

Source: FightingIllini.com

Bielema was enjoying a rather successful tenure at Wisconsin before leaving for the SEC to coach Arkansas in 2013. It was a bold challenge to embrace, and it proved too difficult to surmount, as Bielema was fired after five seasons and a 29-34 record, including a 2-1 mark in bowl games. Since his departure, though, the Razorbacks have been a mess, recording only seven victories.

Following that underwhelming stint at Arkansas, the 50-year-old Bielema has acquitted himself well in the NFL. He worked as a consultant to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in 2018, and was the Pats’ defensive line coach the next year.

Thanks to the connections made in Foxborough, former New England special teams coordinator Joe Judge brought Bielema along as part of his New York Giants staff, where the latter served as outside linebackers coach and senior defensive assistant.

It’s been quite a fall for Smith, who once led the Chicago Bears to two NFC title games and a Super Bowl appearance. Following a failed two-year tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Smith went back to the Prairie State to try his hand in the college ranks. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out with the Illini either, with Smith posting a 17-39 record.

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Illinois football forecast after Bret Bielema hiring

Can Bret Bielema turn Illinois football around?
Nov 11, 2017; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema walks the sidelines against LSU during the game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Some of Smith’s old-school tendencies evidently haven’t resonated with more modern players. Bielema has succeeded in the Big Ten before, going 68-24 with Wisconsin and 37-19 in conference play from 2006 through 2012. He’s had his own rather abrupt fall in coaching, but has built good will of late in proximity to the all-time best in Belichick.

The Illini’s identity is bound to be more physical under Bielema’s watch. Whereas Smith’s defensive expertise is rooted in the Tampa 2 scheme, Bielema deploys more of a smashmouth, downhill style. He’s traditionally preferred a 3-4 alignment predicated on stopping the run and aggressive blitzes against the pass. That’s what the Giants have run in 2020 under defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.

Hopefully Bielema can use some of his recruiting ties to the Midwest from his Wisconsin days — combined with whatever equity he built up during his time at Arkansas with players typically targeting the SEC — to upgrade Illinois’ overall talent.

There’s really nowhere for Bielema and the Illini to go but up from where they’ve been. Good news: the Big Ten West division had an underwhelming 2020, so with a strong initial recruiting push and development of incumbent players, it’s possible Bielema could spark Illinois to be far more competitive sooner than would be expected in 2021.