There was a day back in 1985 when young Bret Bielema, age 15, was helping his father and two older brothers on the family’s hog operation outside Prophetstown when a conveyor belt he was using to unload hay bales malfunctioned.
The belt jammed and as Bielema tried to untangle the mess, a chain broke loose and partially tore all the fingernails off one of his hands. The kid never flinched. He calmly grabbed a pair of pliers, ripped the nails the rest of the way off his hand, wiped away the blood and went back to work.
Thirty-five years later, he’s the same guy. Relentless. Unflappable. And tough. Really, really tough.
All of those things make Bielema an excellent choice to be the new head football coach at the University of Illinois.
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman obviously thought so. He and the university named Bielema to replace Lovie Smith last Saturday, just six days after the school parted ways with Smith and just a few hours before the Illini took the field for their final game of the season at Penn State.
The timing was odd. You wouldn’t normally name a new coach on game day. But it’s as though once Whitman found his man, he didn’t want to wait any longer to pull the trigger.
Smith wasn’t the worst coach in Illinois history. He did a decent job of bringing in talent and certainly few men anywhere know more about defensive football than Lovie. But somehow it never equated to great on-field success as he finished with a 17-39 record (10-33 in the Big Ten).
Smith was a placid, laid-back person and sometimes it seemed his teams reflected his personality on the field. There were games in which there didn’t seem to be a lot of fire and grit in the way the Illini played.
That’s not ever going to be an issue under Bielema, who fought his way up from walk-on status to become a starter at Iowa and who always, as both a player and coach has had a bold, brash, never-back-down style.
After Iowa defeated Iowa State for the 10th straight time in his senior season. Bielema walked over to ISU head coach Jim Walden and said “Coach, I just want to say it's been a pleasure kicking your butt for the past four years."
He later sent a letter of apology to Walden, who was more envious than offended. He said he wished he had more players on his roster with that sort of swagger.
Under Bielema, we should see more fight in the Fighting Illini.
He should be a good fit for other reasons.
While his personality is vastly different from that of Smith, his football philosophy is similar. He believes in solid defense and a relentless power running attack with a large, physical offensive line.
The Illini already are equipped for that sort of style. Although they were only 2-6 this season, they finished second in the Big Ten in rushing yardage.
Bielema’s presence also should pump some new life into border rivalries with Iowa and Wisconsin. He played at Iowa and got his start in coaching there under Hayden Fry, then spent a few years on the staff of current head coach Kirk Ferentz. As far as we know, he still has a tiger hawk tattoo on one of his ankles.
He later became an assistant coach under Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin and was personally anointed as Alvarez’ successor. He went 68-24 in seven seasons as the Badgers’ head coach and remains close to Alvarez, who still is Wisconsin’s athletic director.
Matchups with the Hawkeyes and Badgers will have an added edge of intrigue and interest now.
Perhaps most importantly, Bielema will bring a different recruiting philosophy to the job.
Under Smith, the Illini loaded their roster with transfers and imports from warm weather states. Of the 14 high school players signed by the Illini last week, only three were from Illinois. Six were from Florida.
The transfers are OK as stopgaps but that’s not a way to build a stable, long-term program.
Only about a third of the players on the roster this season were instate products. For a state as heavily populated and as deep in football talent as Illinois, that number should be well beyond 50%.
"We want the young men playing football in the state of Illinois from Freeport to Cairo and from Quincy to Danville dreaming of wearing orange and blue and playing at Memorial Stadium," Bielema said when he accepted the job.
"I look forward to reconnecting with the high school coaches around the state making it clear we intend to keep our players home."
With Bielema on the job, we might even see a few local kids show up on the roster. Unbelievably, there has not been a Quad-Cities player earn a varsity letter at Illinois since Rock Island’s Jason Reda wrapped up his career as the Illini placekicker in 2007.
Some of the homegrown players may not be quite as physically gifted as the mercenaries who come in from USC and Georgia or the high school prospects Smith imported from Tampa and Dallas, but they’ll work hard and fight hard because they’re playing for the home-state university. It’s a phenomenon that has proven true at Iowa and Wisconsin and you’ll start to see it at Illinois now.
Somewhere out there right now there is a kid helping on the family hog farm in some off-the-beaten-path corner of the state who would give anything and everything to be able to someday suit up for the Illini.
Under Bielema, he’s probably going to get that chance.