Bret Bielema Will Win at Illinois

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Illinois announced this morning that they are hiring former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to a six-year deal. Since he was fired at Arkansas, Bielema has been an assistant for the New England Patriots and New York Giants. This is a great hire by Illinois.

The opinion that Bielema will succeed represents a pretty strong about-face from me. My first story at OutKick, about eight years ago, as an outside submission to the site’s bullpen, was expressing pure unbridled joy that Arkansas hired Bielema away from my alma mater Wisconsin. My argument was that Bielema feasted on cupcakes and the dregs of the Big Ten, was bad at managing the clock, and would not succeed in the SEC.

While that opinion wound up being accurate for his performance at Arkansas, there are elements of Bielema’s coaching that I have come to realize that I underrated while he was coaching the Badgers. He was brusque and aggressive, and this attitude helped him land Russell Wilson as a transfer from NC State for what wound up being the most fun Wisconsin season in recent memory.

The Badgers replaced Bielema with Gary Andersen, who tried to turn the team from a meat and potatoes smash-mouth football roster into a more finesse operation, with disastrous results. Wisconsin won the Big Ten three times with Bielema, and has not won it since he left.

The program has been on the upswing with Paul Chryst and I believe there are very bright days ahead especially in the Graham Mertz era, but in my opinion Wisconsin has still not gotten back to the level of physicality that they had under Bielema and Barry Alvarez.

I’m not saying that Bielema will win the Big Ten at Illinois. That is going to be very rare for anybody other than Ohio State to do at least until an NFL team hires Ryan Day to be their head coach. That being said, I think Bielema will build a program that could win the Big Ten west, and give fits on any given Saturday to Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State. That’s about as lofty a goal as Illinois could feasibly hope for at this juncture for their program, and they hired the ideal coach to set about achieving it.

Written by Ryan Glasspiegel

Ryan Glasspiegel grew up in Connecticut, graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and lives in Chicago. Before OutKick, he wrote for Sports Illustrated and The Big Lead. He enjoys expensive bourbon and cheap beer.


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  1. I’ll bet he doesn’t. He was atrocious at Arky once his bad recruiting classes started coming in. Alvarez ran Wisconsin then just like he does now.

    I don’t get hiring a bad retread coach when you had a lot of group of 5 up and comers to choose from.

  2. I think your argument from 8 years ago was spot on. However, I still think he can get 6ish wins at Illinois as long as they stick to a weak non-con schedule.

    He showed up at Arkansas with a lot of bluster and immediately started running his mouth. He left Arkansas humbled a little bit.

  3. Bielema should have never left UW. He had a good thing going with UW, but mistakenly thought Arkansas would be an upgrade. He probably thought that being in the SEC coupled with recruiting better athletes gave him a legit shot at a national championship. It didn’t go that way and he has been wandering in the wilderness ever since. I don’t think his fortunes will change much at Illinois. Not even Lovie Smith could turn the program around. Illinois is Illinois for a reason. Forever to be a Big 10 bottom feeder.

    • This is how I feel. He was actually on a great run for a while there. People forget that under Alvarez we didn’t win in the double digits many years and had some really bad years. Not taking anything away from what Barry built because that was amazing, and he did win big bowl games, but Bielema actually moved the bar higher to the point that Wisconsin should win 10 games a year, every year. Yes he had a few duds too but outside of his poor coaching in big bowl games he took the Badgers from meh, let’s win 9 games every few years to the de facto power in the West winning 10 every year.

      Chryst has now taken them even higher, outside of this year.

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