Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman made a big splash with the football team when he hired Lovie Smith four years ago. Now, he's made another big-time hire by luring in former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema as the new coach of the Illini.
Bielema's deal is for six years with an annual salary of $4.2 million. He grew up in Prophetstown, Illinois, making this a homecoming for the 50-year-old coach. Bielema was a defensive lineman at Iowa and has spent 17 years coaching at his alma mater and Wisconsin in the Big Ten.
"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 in a statement announcing his hire Saturday. "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."
"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 a statement. "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.
Illinois fired Smith on Dec. 13, one day after losing to Northwestern 28-10. Smith went 17-39 in five seasons with a 10-33 mark in Big Ten play with just one bowl appearance, a loss in the 2019 Redbox Bowl to finish 6-7 on the season. While Lovie leaves the Illini in better shape than he found it -- he took over a poor roster and was an instrumental part of a nearly $80 million facility being built -- he never had the on-field success to match.
Bielema last coached in college at Arkansas, which fired him in 2017 after a 4-8 season. He coached the Razorbacks for five seasons, going 29-34. Though he led the team to three straight winning seasons from 2014-16, he never won more than eight games and things quickly went downhill in his final year.
An Illinois native and a former player at Iowa under Fry, Bielema has much stronger Big Ten roots with most of his success as coach coming at Wisconsin from 2006-12. He led the Badgers to three straight Big Ten titles and victories in the first two Big Ten Championship Games (2011-12). Wisconsin went to the Rose Bowl in each of his final three seasons. Overall, the Badgers enjoyed four 10-win seasons under Bielema.
Bielema has most recently been serving as an assistant with the New England Patriots and New York Giants in the NFL.