Former Hawkeye Bret Bielema ready for next chapter of Big Ten career with Illinois

Bielema, who played at Iowa from 1989-92 and coached the Hawkeyes’ linebackers from 1996-2001, is entering his first season as the University of Illinois’ head football coach in 2021-22.


Jerod Ringwald

University of Illinois head football coach Bret Bielema speaks during Day 1 of the 2021 Big Ten Media Days at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, on July 22, 2021.

Austin Hanson, Sports Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — At first glance, newly-hired University of Illinois head football coach Brett Bielema’s left leg looks quite ordinary. Upon further examination, however, the presence of a black, University of Iowa-themed tattoo on Bielema’s left calf becomes a bit more obvious.

Bielema’s tattoo features the UI’s Tigerhawk logo, underlaid by the letter “I.” Within the “I” are two words: believe and achieve.

The Prophetstown, Illinois, native’s ink is a nod to both the school he played at in college and the conference he’s coached in for the better part of the last 25 years.

From 1989-92, Bielema played defensive line under former Hawkeye head football coach Hayden Fry. In 1996, Bielema returned to the UI to coach the Hawkeyes’ linebackers.

“I got a Tigerhawk tattoo when I was 19,” Bielema said at a Big Ten Football Media Days press conference Thursday afternoon. “It was a great idea then, not so much now. I think that it’s important to realize that that is an important part of where I am today.”

At Iowa, Bielema learned from the likes of the late Fry, current Hawkeye head football coach Kirk Ferentz, former Kansas State head football coach Bill Snyder, former Wisconsin head football coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez, and former Iowa State head football coach Dan McCarney.

“I think the one thing I’ve always tried to tell our players is, as a coach, I want to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses,” Bielema said. “. . . I really felt that I was affected a great deal by the coaches I played for [at Iowa] — Dan McCarney, Kirk Ferentz. Just a tremendous influence on me, as a person, because they always talked about maximizing our strengths and minimizing our weaknesses.”

In 2002, Bielema left Iowa to join Snyder’s coaching staff at Kansas State. After two years of work as the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator, Bielema moved on to the University of Wisconsin.

Bielema was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach at Wisconsin in 2006, taking over for Alvarez.

During his time at Wisconsin, Bielema won the 2006 Big Ten Coach of the Year award and the 2010, 2011, and 2012 Big Ten Championships.

Bielema moved on from Wisconsin in 2013 to take the University of Arkansas’ head coaching job.

“I also know I wouldn’t be where I am today, in the position I’m in, if I hadn’t [left Wisconsin for Arkansas],” Bielema said. “At that point, I’d been [at Wisconsin] seven years, been to three-straight [Big Ten Championships], done a lot of really great things . . . I was a newly-married guy that I think, as a man, I needed to grow, just do something with my wife, and you know, that was a big part of it.”

“We had a great time [at Arkansas],” Bielema added. “Obviously it didn’t end the way I wanted, but also, I would not be the man I am today if that had not happened. I’m fortunate that I went through and it happened.”

Bielema was fired by Arkansas in 2017. He then spent the next three seasons coaching in the NFL with the New England Patriots and New York Giants.

Now, Bielema is back in the Big Ten at Illinois, coaching in the same state he grew up in. While the Big Ten has changed in the years since Bielema departed from Wisconsin, he believes his familiarity with the state of Illinois and the conference will benefit him during his tenure with the Fighting Illini.

“Well, when I played in [the Big Ten] there was actually only 10 [teams],” Bielema said. “That’s probably why it was called the Big Ten . . . I do think the familiarity of this conference was instant the day I took the [Illinois] job. The first recruiting calls I make, now all the recruiting battles we’re in. I obviously played at Iowa, coached at Iowa, and worked for Kirk.”

“[The Big Ten] has changed a lot, but it’s still the same,” Bielema added. “The recruiting has changed, the transfer portal — the dynamics of that — NIL. Those are all variables that are added into it right now. The Big Ten is still the Big Ten, in that people are passionate about this program. There’s a tremendous commitment to character and academics that’s second to none. Obviously, we’ve got a group guiding this conference that is looking to always put us at the forefront, not just from an athletic standpoint, but everything else, which is what intrigued me to come back.”

With about 25 years of coaching experience now under his belt, Bielema is ready to begin his first season with the Fighting Illini and pass the wisdom he learned from the likes of Fry, Ferentz, Snyder, Alvarez, Patriots head coach Bill Bellichick, and Giants head coach Joe Judge on to his players.

“I think, in this world, a lot of people will talk if you listen,” Bielema said. “I challenge our players all the time. We can all hear things, but very few people want to listen. We all hear the noise and respond, but I think if you truly listen, absorb, and take in what’s being told, either directly or indirectly . . . Yeah, it’s great you believe in me, but I have to believe in you, and the only way you can believe in someone is to get to know them.”

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