Bob Asmussen | In the middle of a busy football time, Bielema following hoops too

Apr. 8—CHAMPAIGN — In his 17th season as a head football coach, Bret Bielema has never had a basketball player on his teams.

But the fourth-year coach at Illinois is open to the idea, with he and Illini forward Coleman Hawkins playfully toying with the idea last week in a social media exchange on X.

"I think there's a lot of really good basketball players who would make ideal tight ends," Bielema said Saturday when he met with local reporters. "It's a different sport. But at certain positions, there is a lot of crossover about the ability to score and to make tings happen in the red area, especially."

The exploits of one basketball player cost football some potential stars.

"I grew up in the era of Michael Jordan and then began to recruit the state of Illinois in the mid- to late-90s," Bielema said. "I always used to say Michael Jordan ruined a lot of really good football players. A bunch of 6-2, 6-4 guys think they are going to be the next Jordan."

I had more basketball questions for Bielema, who didn't offer a pick for the men's Final Four. Purdue meets Connecticut in Monday night's title game at Glendale, Ariz.

"I don't go that far," he said. "I don't know enough about basketball. I just sit there and watch."

His choice for Sunday's women's title matchup between Iowa and South Carolina didn't need to be spelled out since Iowa is his alma mater. South Carolina, however, won 87-75.

"I've always been close to it," Bielema said. "When I went to college, I was friends with a lot of the women's basketball players. To see the growth of that sport has been pretty (awesome) for me."

Bielema was home alone Friday night and, of course, tuned in to see the national semifinal between Iowa and UConn that the Hawkeyes won 71-69.

He had an exchange with Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman as they gleefully watched the tournament.

Bielema congratulated Shauna Green and the Illinois women's basketball team, which just won the WBIT title last week.

"She's my neighbor," Bielema said. "I give her a honk every day. I watched that the other night. I couldn't be more happy for Brad (Underwood) and Shauna for what they've been able to accomplish in the postseason."

Fitting in

Three new Illinois assistant coaches participated in their first scrimmage Saturday. Archie McDaniel (linebackers), Clint Sintim (outside linebackers) and Justin Stepp (wide receivers) have made a smooth transition.

"I've been very impressed," Bielema said.

McDaniel is at a position where Bielema got his start in coaching.

"I literally learned from him on his interview and it's been a steady process, extremely intelligent," Bielema said. "I think our guys would tell you the detail of his work is pretty impressive."

Stepp has made an immediate impact at a position that lost standouts Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington.

"The growth of that wide receiver room has been pretty apparent since he's arrived," Bielema said.

Sintim joined the program more recently and has jumped in.

"I know they are excited to be here," Bielema said of the three coaches.

One opening remains the 10-person staff after the unexpected departure of secondary coach David Gibbs for medical reasons early last week.

Bielema plans to finish spring ball before filling the position.

"I've got a folder of 24 names. I've had over 50, 60 people reach out to me," Bielema said. "I'm kind of narrowing it down to guys I'm generally interested in."

Bielema plans to get together with defensive coordinator Aaron Henry on Monday to discuss the opening.

"The other X factor is not only is it in-season for us right now in spring, I think there a lot of people that might have interest but they are in the middle of spring ball and they don't want to complicate matters there," Bielema said. "I'm going to let spring ball pass. I want to get the right guy in. I'm going to take my time."

Making progress

Illinois held its first scrimmage on Saturday behind closed doors. Another one is expected this Saturday before the spring game on April 20.

How did the first one go?

"A lot of really good work," Bielema said. "First and second groups got over 60 plays of really, really good live football. I thought we did a pretty good job with the ball as far as security."

Officials were used for the first time this spring. Bielema praised the work of quarterbacks Luke Altmyer and Donovan Leary.

"Donovan had one interception and responded really good after that and played extremely well," the Illinois coach said. "He's really been awesome the first three weeks."

If a quarterback is going to throw a pick, now is a good time before they really count.

"All spring, we really haven't had a lot of turnovers, a lot of interceptions," Bielema said. "When they have adversity, guys have responded very well."

One injury note from Saturday's workout: receiver Ashton Hollins got banged up.

Bielema singled out the play of the running backs Saturday, mentioning former Gibson City-Melvin Sibley standout Aidan Laughery and Josh McCray. Likely starter Kaden Feagin, an ex-Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond star, is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.