INDIANAPOLIS — First-year Illinois football coach Bret Bielema isn't a stranger to the Big Ten or Lucas Oil Stadium. In fact, his most recent trip to Lucas Oil Stadium, prior to Thursday for Big Ten football media days, was as the head coach at Wisconsin nearly a decade ago. Bielema guided the Badgers from 2006-12, capped off by a 71-30 victory over Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 1, 2012.
He still remembers the confetti.
"It kind of comes full circle for me, coming back in here to Lucas Oil," Bielema said. "The last time I was in this building, it was my last game as a head coach in this conference. We played Nebraska, so to open up the season this year against Nebraska is the completion of a journey that brought me to where we are. To be at the University of Illinois now, being Illinois born, I played high school football in the state, coming back to this conference as a former player, former assistant coach, former defensive coordinator and head coach in this league, especially in the Big Ten West, it really has come full circle."
Bielema, a Prophetstown, Illinois, native and former Iowa defensive end, was hired in December to replace former Illini coach Lovie Smith, who was fired after going 17-39 in five seasons. Bielema brings along an extensive coaching background. After leading Wisconsin to three straight Big Ten championships from 2010-12, he coached at Arkansas from 2013-17 before eventually reaching the NFL ranks. Bielema spent two seasons on the sidelines with the New England Patriots, winning Super Bowl LIII in 2019, and one year with the New York Giants.
A lot has changed since Bielema's last stint in the Big Ten, as the conference has expanded from 12 programs to 14 programs. However, he acknowledged that he's changed and matured as well.
Bielema won 17 of his first 18 games at Wisconsin, but his time at Arkansas wasn't as successful. He was fired after going 4-8 in 2017.
"12-1 my first year (at Wisconsin), I thought I was like Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Bill Belichick all in one," Bielema said. "I thought I knew it all, and when things were pointed out to me that I didn't agree with, rather than understanding the situation, I tried to fight the situation. So that part I've definitely grown."
With a bit more humility this time around, Bielema will officially begin a new chapter in his career when Illinois hosts Nebraska in a Week 0 matchup on Aug. 28. During his first seven months on the job, Bielema said he has placed a heavy emphasis on building close relationships with all of his players, the majority of whom he didn't initially recruit.
One of those players is Owen Carney Jr., who accompanied Bielema at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday. The fifth-year linebacker claimed he was the best-dressed player at Big Ten football media days, which Bielema will take partial credit for.
"He's got one of my time pieces on," Bielema said, smiling. "He loves my watches, so he asked if he could wear one of my watches (Thursday) so he was all giddy about that. I'm getting it back, I'm not letting him keep it."
Aside from borrowing a watch, though, Carney said the real reason why he and several of his teammates have already gravitated toward Bielema is because he's shown he'll go above and beyond for them.
"Coach B is a busy guy," Carney said. "He has about three cell phones, so the fact that he can pick up for me and he can open his office door and sit down and chat with me, it means the world to me."
Carney, who entered the NCAA transfer portal after the 2020 season, added that Bielema was the main factor in his decision to return.
"When the season gets here and we play whatever team, I know that following day me and him are gonna meet and we're gonna talk, so just those types of conversations, I'm waiting to have," Carney said. "I'm waiting to be coached up by him, and I just can't wait for it."
Bielema emphasized several times Thursday that he wants Illinois to not only return to prominence in the Big Ten, but to stay there. As he takes another step in his "full circle" journey, he hopes that this season can be the foundation of turning that lofty goal into reality.
"One of the common phrases (Illini athletic director Josh Whitman) and I have in our conversations constantly is sustaining success — building something and maintaining it," Bielema said. "Anybody can have a flash in the pan or do something, but the key is to get it and build it and keep it. ... This is a conference I think if you do it the right way and build it the right way, you can build a career and a lifetime out of it."
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