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Kimball: In defeat, Illinois football rallies around coach Bret Bielema

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Illinois Michigan Football

Illinois head coach Bret Bielema watches against Michigan on Saturday in Ann Arbor. Bielema coached the game just two days after the death of his mother.

Bret Bielema told his fellow coaches he was blown away.

Bielema's mother, Marilyn, died on Thursday. When Bielema checked his phone, he had been bombarded with messages from colleagues and players.

One of the people who reached out to Bielema after the news was Dallas Clark.

Bielema recruited Clark to Iowa as a walk-on linebacker, and then Clark transitioned to tight end and became an All-American with the Hawkeyes and a Super Bowl champion with the Indianapolis Colts. He gave Bielema some timely encouragement.

"He said something to me in a text on Friday," Bielema said. "He unfortunately lost his mother a little prematurely in life and he said something to me to the effect that you know, mothers are at their happiest when they watch their sons do what they love. Right?”

Bielema made the decision to coach that day, and was on the sideline during the Illini’s 19-17 loss to Michigan that went down to the final seconds in the Big House.

He had emotion while cheering and directing his players. He was out there for his team despite dealing a monumental loss in the past 48 hours.

“I know my mom, she definitely knows I love to coach,” Bielema said. “She's probably gonna get on for being mean right now or mad or angry, but I do know that she's probably smiling today in certain regards."

The Illini played a nail-biter on the road at the No. 3 team in the country, putting the Wolverines on the ropes until the end of the fourth quarter.

After the last-second loss, Illinois won’t claim any kind of moral victory. It needed this game to stay in realistic contention in the division. Its offense didn’t get a first down when it needed to after it got the ball late in the fourth.

A couple of short punts meant there was another week with some special teams miscues — a 30-yard punt with 2:15 left gave the Wolverines a short field for their game-winning field goal drive.

Illinois expects to win these kinds of games under Bielema and not just go toe-to-toe with big opponents, and fell short Saturday.

“We didn’t just come here to play Michigan,” safety Sydney Brown said. “We came here to beat Michigan. When there's an expectation, the standard to that, it's hard when it doesn't go your way."

Bielema also voiced some displeasure at the officiating. One of those decisions was late in the fourth, when the first pass interference call of the game was made with less than a minute on Illinois corner Devon Witherspoon on the game-deciding drive.

Purdue Illinois Football

Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm, left, and Illinois head coach Bret Bielema meet after Purdue's 31-24 win over Illinois in Champaign.

"I’m extremely ... very angry. Very upset," Bielema said. "I think our kids did a lot to win the football game and to continually have things go against us, very frustrating. You have to stand up for the people you believe in. I believe in that locker room big time. I know they’ll rise up to the challenge once again."

All of those things don’t fully negate the response the team had — not only after two losses in the past two weeks against team Illinois was favored against, but after the past few days their head coach has dealt with.

Bielema said he was blown away from the response he got from former players, current players and staff after he broke the news. Clark sent one of countless texts or messages to him. Players followed.

"I feel for him, I prayed for him," Brown said. "And, you know, at the end of the day, I really give it to him for being out there coaching with us. It shows how strong he is and how resilient he is."

It’s still a tough time for Bielema, who will return home to Prophetstown for a funeral next week. His players will do their best to be there for him.

"Everybody's got Coach B's back," linebacker Isaac Darkangelo said. “We supported him, whatever he needed, we would do for him. … That’s not easy for anyone and he knows we’ve got his back."

A large portion of the current Illini players are still ones who were recruited under previous coaching staffs, but they’ve flocked to support Bielema all the same after the relationship he’s cultivated with them.

"I'm so happy I have him as my coach," offensive lineman Alex Palczewski said. "He obviously had a terrible thing happened to him, but he was able to put on a strong face and be able to overcome it. Now obviously, it's still a terrible situation, but I mean I love our coach; I love Coach B. I'll do anything for him."

The Illinois team came up short against Michigan, but it was the latest example of where the program is trending. The response from the players and staff this week gave a glimpse into why that’s happened.

"It's very frustrating, but it does set a precedent and an understanding in that locker room that we can literally play with everybody in the country," Bielema said. "And hopefully we can take this and continue to grow. The growth where we are right now from where we were a year ago at this time is astronomical, but it doesn't take the feeling of what we're experiencing right now any better."

Follow Anderson Kimball on Twitter at: byAndy Kimball

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