New Illinois coach Bret Bielema focused on building program through in-state recruiting, stability

INDIANAPOLIS — The last time Bret Bielema was in Lucas Oil Stadium, he was on top. Then, his Wisconsin Badgers upset Nebraska 70-31 in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game, completing a championship three-peat at the school. 

Fast forward to 2021 and Bielema is back at Big Ten media days, this time as the head coach of Illinois. Unlike his previous team, Illinois football hasn't seen the top in quite some time. 

Bielema is inheriting a program that hasn't had a winning season since 2011. His first game as Illinois coach: "Week Zero" against Nebraska, Aug. 28, in the literal first game of the college football season.

He sees an opportunity to showcase the new era of Illinois football

"It really has come full circle," Bielema said. "The overall commitment to get Illinois to where we want to be, but (also) to get Illinois to stay where we want to be. In 2021, to have a program that's in a position to be discovered for the long term, is a very exciting time." 

University of Illinois head coach Bret Bielema is shown during an NCAA college football news conference at the Big Ten Conference media days, Thursday, July 22, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

Bielema is an Illinois native and, in his first recruiting cycle, the 2022 class, he has prioritized in-state talent. 

"I really believe this," Bielema said. "For Illinois to be successful like they've never been in the past, they have to recruit the state of Illinois better than they have in the past." 

So far, they have. 

In their 2022 class, eight of the Illini's 15 commits are in-state, making up 53% of the group so far. In the previous four recruiting cycles combined, only 17.5% of their total signees were in-state, including zero in-state signees in the 2020 class. 

According to the 247Sports Composite, Illinois has the 35th-ranked class currently, compared to an average No. 67 ranking over the past four seasons. 

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One school in particular that had previously taken advantage of Illinois' lack of in-state focus was Iowa. However, so far in this cycle, Bielema has won head-to-head recruiting battles against his alma mater, most recently with three-star athlete Aidan Laughery.

In addition to the home state, though, Bielema is looking to return the favor to programs like Iowa and cross state borders on the recruiting trail. 

Jul 22, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema speaks to the media during Big 10 media days at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

"For us to be successful at Illinois, we have to recruit in the state," Bielema said. "But we also, the states that border us, right, so they come in our state, so we can go into theirs as well. 

"A kid that grows up in down-state Illinois is very similar to a kid that grows up in the middle of Iowa, the kid that grows up in the middle of Wisconsin, the kid that grows up in the middle of Ohio, all those things transcend to what we think we can bring here, right? So it's an exciting time." 

And if Illinois loses the recruiting battle on signing day, Bielema has a plan in place for later on. 

"Within our personnel department, I have a traditional high school wing," Bielema said. "As soon as a player signs, even the ones we didn't get last year, we already have a file working on anyone from the state of Illinois that signed with another institution.

"We're going to track their careers because, at some point, all of a sudden they raise their hand and say, 'I'm in the transfer portal and I want to come home.' Then we want to be there."  

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In regards to his current players, Bielema has worked to quickly build relationships with the roster he inherited. Of the possible 22 seniors from last year, every single one decided to return for their extra year granted due to COVID-19. 

One of them, All-Big Ten selection Owen Carney, entered the transfer portal when previous coach Lovie Smith was fired. After several conversations with Bielema, Carney returned to the team and is one of Illinois' three player representatives at Big Ten media days. 

University of Illinois head coach Bret Bielema speaks during an NCAA college football news conference at the Big Ten Conference media days, Thursday, July 22, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

"I want to get a feel of what's real and what's a facade," Carney said. "My meter definitely detected that coach (Bielema) was a real individual and that's held true to this day. 

"He kept it real with me in what I did well and where I could improve on and off the field. He has a lot of wisdom and I want to soak it all in over these next few months." 

Illinois was picked to finish last in the Big Ten West standings in 2021. Against rivals Iowa and Northwestern, they've lost seven and six consecutive games, respectively. The priority right now for Bielema is to lay the foundation for a winning culture. 

And that comes down to one thing, according to Bielema: sustainability. 

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"(Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman) brought this to my attention," Bielema said. "He stated when (I) was at Iowa, it was built and created by Hayden Fry's legacy. Then I went to Kansas State, which was built on Bill Snyder then to Wisconsin which sustained success through (Barry Alvarez). 

"Now Illinois, who's had flashes of success but haven't been able to sustain it. So one of the common phrases amongst Josh and I is sustaining success. Anyone can have flash in the pan but the key is to get it, build it and keep it.

"I played for a guy who coached for as long as he wanted to coach and was replaced by Kirk Ferentz and he's coached as long as he wanted. Bill Snyder, coach Alvarez and (Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald) has been there since I took over (at Wisconsin in 2006). I think this is a conference where, if you do it the right way, you can build a career and lifetime out of it." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com