The Lovie Smith era in Champaign started out with much fanfare, but it will go out with a whimper. The Illinois Fighting Illini football program has made another change on the sideline after Smith posted just a 17-39 record, with just one bowl game appearance (lost the 2019 Redbox Bowl). After the '19 season, it looked like Illinois was finally turning the corner. Especially after the Illini posted their first winning season since '14.
This past season, unfortunately, was more of the same for the Illini. At the end of the day, Smith only went 10-33 in Big Ten play, struggled against Top 25 teams, struggled even more in recruiting, and failed to defeat Northwestern at every turn (0-5). It was time for the university to move on. To get this team back on track, Illinois hired a coach who's very familiar with the Big Ten.
Former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema will now run the team. He's very familiar to the Illini faithful and has the proven track record that this team sorely needed. You can't fault Illinois for taking a chance on Smith, especially with his NFL pedigree, but this team needs a coach that has a better understanding of the collegiate gridiron. Here are five reasons why Illinois should have success in '21, and beyond, with Bielema at the helm.
1. He's an Illinois native
Bielema grew up in Prophetstown, Illinois, which is 130 miles west of Chicago and roughly three hours northwest of Champaign. Bielema has spent the majority of his career in the Midwest. In addition to his coaching career, Bielema played his college ball in the region (more on that shortly) and played professionally for the Milwaukee Mustangs of the old Arena Football League (1994).
2. He knows the Big Ten landscape very well
Bielema played his collegiate ball at Iowa where he was a defensive lineman for Hayden Fry (1989-92). After his playing days were over, Bielema returned to Iowa City and worked as an assistant under both Fry and Kirk Ferentz. He started off as a graduate assistant (1994-95) before becoming the Hawkeyes linebackers coach (1996-2001). After two seasons as the defensive coordinator for Kansas State (2002-03), he returned to the Big Ten.
He took his coaching talents to Wisconsin, where he was the defensive coordinator for the legendary Barry Alvarez (2004-05). Alvarez then handpicked Bielema to take over the program upon his retirement at the conclusion of the '05 campaign. Bielema would then lead Wisconsin for the next seven seasons (2006-12), before taking over Arkansas' for five years (2013-17). Bielema has spent the last three years as an NFL assistant. He spent two years with the New England Patriots (2018-19) and worked this past season as the New York Giants linebackers coach.
3. He's a proven winner
Between Wisconsin and Arkansas, Bielema posted a 97-58 record. He's had four seasons of 10 wins or more (2006, '09-'11), he's only had two losing seasons in his career ('13, '17), and he's coached in nine bowl games (4-5 record in those games). Bielema coached the Badgers to three straight Big Ten Conference titles ('10-'12), led them to five Top-25 finishes ('06-'07, '09-'11), and he's undefeated against Northwestern (3-0). He has the track record to get the Illini back on track.
4. He has proven assistants on his staff
Bielema didn't waste any time in creating his new staff. Among the more notable hires is offensive coordinator Troy Petersen, who was pulled from Appalachian State. The Mountaineers this past season finished 23rd nationally in total offense (452.0 ypg) and 25th in scoring offense (33.8 ppg), and App State posted the third-best record in the Sun Belt Conference (9-3). The Illini should see instant improvement on offense.
Bielema is also retaining Cory Patterson from Smith's staff, who will switch from tight ends coach to running backs coach. Former Missouri defense coordinator Ryan Walters will hold the same position at Illinois. Walters oversaw a Tigers team that ranked fifth in the SEC in pass defense last season (245.8 ypg). They were also tied for fourth in the conference in sacks (20), trailed only Alabama in forced fumbles (9), and held three of last year's opponents (Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt) to 10 points or fewer.
5. He has a better understanding of the nuances of college football
One area that should instantly improve under Bielema is recruiting. His experience on the college gridiron gives him a full understanding of how that area of the game works. Recruiting was a struggle for Smith, whose classes ranked 13th ('16), 10th ('17), 12th ('18), 13th ('19), and 14th ('20) in the Big Ten during his time at Illinois. Smith also had difficulty landing in-state prospects, which is essential for any team, but especially this one with hotbeds in the Chicago and East St. Louis areas.
Six of Bielema's seven recruiting classes at Wisconsin ranked in the Big Ten's top 10 or higher (2006-11), as did three of his SEC classes at Arkansas ('13, '16, '17). Not only was Bielema able to sign in-state recruits, but he's also been able to add talent from all over the country. Overall, Bielema is better suited to coach at the collegiate level. You can't fault Illinois for taking a chance on Smith, but Smith's skill set is better suited for the NFL.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @IlliniFootball