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J. Thomas McNamara

Bret Bielema is the new Illinois football head coach, Illinois Athletics Director Josh Whitman announced this morning (Saturday, Dec. 19).  He becomes the 26th Fighting Illini Head Football Coach in the 132-year history of the program.

     “Illinois and the Big Ten is home for me, and I can’t be any more excited about the opportunity in front of me with the Fighting Illini,” Bielema said. “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. The University of Illinois has incredible facilities and is known as one of the world’s outstanding academic institutions. We will hold the young men on our team responsible both on and off the field while coaching them to be champions in life. Jen and I, along with our girls, are excited to get to Champaign-Urbana and get started on the journey. Go Illini!”
     A native of Prophetstown, Bielema (pronounced BEEL-ma) has 24 years of collegiate coaching experience and compiled a 12-year record of 97-58 (.626) as head coach at Wisconsin and Arkansas.
     “Bret Bielema is a proven winner. With three Big Ten championships to his credit, few coaches can match his familiarity with, and success within, the Big Ten Conference,” said Whitman. “In our conversations, it became clear to me that he is a life-long learner who is continually looking to grow and improve, and he has enjoyed unrivaled mentorship from some of the game’s most distinguished coaches, including Hayden Fry, Kirk Ferentz, Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez, and Bill Belichick – all of them current or future Hall of Famers.
     “Importantly to me, Bret, a native of our great state, grew up an Illini fan and is committed to seeing the football program at our state’s flagship grow and prosper,” continued Whitman. “Bret’s blue collar work ethic and genuine, authentic manner will allow him to form strong connections to his players and staff and positive relationships in our community and our state. These qualities, combined with his commitment to education and his track record of success, give me great confidence in his leadership of our football program.”
     From 2006-12 Bielema was the head coach at Wisconsin, where he led the Badgers to three Big Ten championships (2010-12), six consecutive bowl games and a 68-24 record (.739). Bielema then spent five seasons as head coach at Arkansas from 2013-17. After inheriting a depleted roster and enduring a difficult first season, he led the Razorbacks to three consecutive bowl games, including victories against Texas in 2014 and Kansas State in 2015.
     In Bielema’s debut season at Wisconsin in 2006, the Badgers finished 12-1, including a victory in the Capital One Bowl against Arkansas. He was the first coach in Big Ten history to win 10 games in his first season, the first Wisconsin coach to win 11 games prior to a bowl game and became the third coach in NCAA history to win 12 games in his first season. Bielema won 17 of his first 18 games with the Badgers. The Badgers shared or won Big Ten championships three straight seasons from 2010-12 and led Wisconsin to victories in the first two Big Ten championship games.
    Bielema’s coaching pedigree and list of football mentors matches that of any coach in the nation. He played for and coached under Hall-of-Famer Hayden Fry, helping the Hawkeyes share the 1990 Big Ten title with Illinois. After two years as a graduate assistant and six seasons as linebacker coach at Iowa, Bielema spent two years as Co-Defensive Coordinator at Kansas State under Hall-of-Famer Bill Snyder, helping the Wildcats win the 2003 Big 12 Championship. Two seasons later, he was named Defensive Coordinator at Wisconsin under Hall-of-Famer Barry Alvarez and moved into the head coaching role of the Badgers in 2006 when Alvarez retired.
   He has spent the last three seasons in the National Football League. His first two seasons in the NFL were with the New England Patriots as a consultant to six-time Super Bowl champion head coach Bill Belichick in 2018 and as the team’s defensive line coach in 2019, when the Patriots won the AFC East with a 12-4 record and had the NFL’s best defense. In Bielema’s first season with the Patriots, New England was 11-5 and defeated the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. He has been the outside linebackers coach and senior assistant for the New York Giants during the 2020 season.
    Bielema was a defensive lineman at Iowa from 1989-92, when he was a four-time letterman under Fry. After joining the team as a walk-on, Bielema earned a scholarship after his first year, started as a junior and was named a team captain for his senior season. Bielema graduated from Iowa in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing.
     Following his graduation, Bielema signed a free-agent contract with the Seattle Seahawks and ended his playing career in 1994 as a member of the Milwaukee Mustangs of the Arena Football League.
     He and his wife, Jen, have two daughters, Briella Nicole and Brexli Nichole.
    Bielema’s initial contract is for six years beginning with an annual salary of $4.2 million. He will begin his duties at Illinois immediately and will attend the game Saturday (Dec. 19) as a guest of Whitman’s when Illinois plays at Penn State in State College, PA.
     I will have more on this developing story in a future print edition of the Decatur Tribune.

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