New Illinois coach Bret Bielema to make homegrown talent a priority

Terry Towery
Associated Press

Champaign, Ill. – New Illinois coach Bret Bielema said Monday he hopes to have a staff in place by early January and is already concentrating on homegrown recruiting.

“I called (the Illinois Department of Transportation) and told them to put up roadblocks so kids won’t be allowed to leave the state,” he joked at his introductory news conference. “Seriously, I can’t tell you how many Illinois high school football coaches I have talked to already. We are making Illinois kids a priority here.”

New Illinois football coach Bret Bielema.

Bielema, a native of tiny Prophetstown in northwestern Illinois, replaces Lovie Smith, who went 17-39 overall in his five-year tenure and posted a 10-33 Big Ten record. Bielema’s initial contract is for six years beginning with an annual salary of $4.2 million.

The university will pay Smith $2.3 million to buy out the remainder of his contract.

Bielema, 50, has 24 years of college coaching experience, including seven seasons as Wisconsin’s head coach (2006-12). The Badgers won three straight Big Ten titles under his direction (2010-12), sporting a 68-24 record while playing in six bowl games. He was less successful at Arkansas, going 29-34 over five seasons.

Smith was often criticized for his recruiting efforts, especially from among Illinois high schools. Both Bielema and Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said they understand the need to concentrate more on homegrown talent.

“If you are a player from Illinois playing somewhere else, I want you to come here,” Bielema said. “I want you to know I am listening to you.”

Whitman said Bielema checks all the right boxes for such a high-profile job.

“We had no pre-determined outcome in mind (when starting the search),” Whitman said. “We weren’t chasing a particular person, but a profile. We wanted someone with leadership qualities who could attract and retain quality people.”

Bielema called putting together his own coaching staff “a work in progress.”

“I have no set plan at the moment,” Bielema said. “It’s a process right now, but I do hope to have most of the coaching staff, or least the offensive and defensive and special teams coordinators, in place by early January.”

He declined to say whether he plans on retaining any assistants. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith coached the team in its season finale Saturday, a 56-21 loss at Penn State.

“I plan on meeting with the staff today and will start to make those decisions going forward,” Bielema said.

Bielema played for and coached under Hall of Famer Hayden Fry, helping Iowa 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 at Kansas State under another 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 Barry Alvarez and moved into the head coaching role in 2006.

Bielema has spent the last three seasons in the NFL, his first two with the New England Patriots. This season, he was the outside linebackers coach for the New York Giants.