Bret Bielema has truly changed the entire outlook of Illinois football.
I know Illinois has yet to play a game, but this feel, new approach, attitude and results in recent recruiting have other foes in the Big Ten worried.
No disrespect to former Illinois coaches Tim Beckman and Lovie Smith. They said all the right things when it came to recruiting the state of Illinois, the Midwest and the rest of the country, but did not accomplish it. Bielema has.
When Bielema was hired, he said, “I don’t care what size the school is; I don’t care if it’s public or private, north, south, east, west, in the middle of the state: They will have contact with my staff. We’ll have a general contact, as well as with anybody that believes they have a player that can help Illinois win a state championship, or a national championship, a Big Ten championship. We want them in our program."
The first-year coach has done that.
His staff has assigned areas of the state and region, but what comes with that is a report back to Bielema about who made contact, what other coaches were involved and what was the athlete's response.
Two weeks ago, a hand selected group of media members viewed The Henry Dale and Betty Smith football center and what takes place when a recruit is brought on campus.
That started with the weight room, indoor facility, nutrition, locker room, players’ lounge, recruiting lounge, a photo shoot area, NFL wall and a rooftop terrace with putt-putt golf.
This facility is rated by ESPN as one of the top 10 in the country.
One example that impressed each of us on the tour was the locker room, led by defensive backs coach Aaron Henry. Typically when you walk into a place like that, the room often has an odor of its own. In this place, players are able to take equipment off, put it in their own lockers to be cleaned and air-dried in a matter of minutes.
"This is a place we want our student-athletes to feel welcome, know it's home and when they come in to get a haircut (yes, there's a barbershop there too), you will be greeted by family," Henry said.
Illinois has 11 committed scholarship players for its next class, something the program has not witnessed in years. But these are not just players; they are guys who can help Illinois win games and upgrade their roster.
For the past 20 years or so, Iowa has been able to go head to head with Illinois with a football recruit, and 99.9% of the time, Iowa won that battle.
Recently, Eian Pugh, a 6-foot-4, 170-pound wide receiver from Oak Park, Ill., committed to Cincinnati but had a change of heart.
Sources close to Pugh had him locked up to attend Iowa. Illinois came in, was able to get Pugh to commit to play for the Illini; while doing so on Twitter, saying, "Home is where the heart is."
Charles Nimrod, a 6-4, 180-pound wide receiver from Bentonville, Ark., recently made the visit to Champaign; he currently has 18 Division I offers but came away in awe of his visit.
Wide receivers coach George McDonald did his work that day laying out the red carpet for Nimrod.
"That entire staff welcomed me and my family, the campus was unreal and the new practice facility: wow!!! They talk a lot about family there. When you walk in the facility, there's a big picture of a player that shows that word, (family); it's real there," Nimrod said.
When the media event was over, Bielema had lunch with us.
While doing so, he took to the big screen and broke down how football games can be lost a lot earlier in a contest than what most would think.
Then he told us that all the things we say today was great, but it all comes down to winning football games.
Bielema is a proven winner at the college level; he has already caught the eyes of top recruits and other Big Ten coaches.
No one can truly predict how this will play out, but what is certain, Bielema is standing by his word.