Illinois hires former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema

Chris Cwik
·3-min read

Bret Bielema is returning to the Big Ten ... and the Midwest. Bielema was announced as the 26th football head coach in Illinois history Saturday.

Bielema — an Illinois native — takes over a program previously run by Lovie Smith, who was fired Sunday after five seasons with the team. Bielema was rumored to be among the many coaches Illinois would consider for the position. His contract with Illinois will run six seasons and include an annual salary of $4.2 million.

Illinois director of athletics Josh Whitman called Bielema a “proven winner” who should be familiar in the Big Ten.

“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.”

Bielema comes to Illinois with plenty of coaching experience. He has 24 total years of college coaching under his belt, including 12 seasons as a head coach. From 2006 to 2012, Bielema led Wisconsin to a 68-24 record. The team won at least 10 games in four of Bielema’s seven seasons and won three Big Ten titles.

From there, Bielema surprisingly left Madison to take the Arkansas job. Bielema lasted five years in Fayetteville, including three straight winning seasons and two bowl wins. However, the university fired him after a 4-8 2017 campaign.

In 2018, Bielema joined the New England Patriots as a consultant. The following season, he became the team’s defensive line coach. Bielema left the Patriots after two seasons to become the outside linebackers coach and senior assistant for the New York Giants.

While the Giants are still playing games, Bielema will begin his role with Illinois immediately and will attend Illinois’ game against Penn State on Saturday. Rod Smith will serve as Illinois’ interim head coach during the contest.

"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.”

Illinois looking for more success under Bret Bielema

At Illinois, Bielema inherits a program that hasn’t had much success lately. Under Smith, the team went just 17-39. Illinois failed to finish over .500 in each of those seasons, though it was able to play in the Redbox Bowl in 2019. They lost that contest 35-20 to California.

The program’s struggles go beyond Smith. The last time Illinois finished over .500 came in 2011, during Ron Zook’s final season. That was also the last season Illinois appeared on the AP Top 25 poll.

The program hasn’t won double-digit games since 2001.

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