Illinois hires Bret Bielema as head football coach, replacing Lovie Smith

Tim Stebbins
·2 min read

Fighting Illini name Bret Bielema new head football coach originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Fighting Illini have a new football coach, one who's well acquainted with the Big Ten. 

Illinois announced Saturday they've hired Bret Bielema as their head coach, replacing Lovie Smith.

Bielema, 50, has 24 years of college coaching experience, including seven seasons as Wisconsin's head coach (2006-12). The Badgers won three straight Big Ten titles under his direction (2010-12), sporting a 68-24 record while playing in six bowl games.

"Illinois and the Big Ten is home for me, and I can't be any more excited about the opportunity in front of me with the Fighting Illini," said Bielema, a Prophetstown, Ill. native. "We want to build a program that makes Illini Nation proud and regain the passion that I've seen when Illinois wins."

Wisconsin played in a seventh straight bowl in 2012, but Bielema left the program that December to take over as Arkansas' head coach. The Razorbacks went 29-34 in five seasons under Bielema, playing in three bowls, before Arkansas fired him near the end of the 2017 season.

Bielema joined the NFL coaching ranks in 2018, serving as a head coach consultant with the Patriots. He became New England's defensive line coach in 2019, moving on to the Giants in 2020 as a senior consultant and outside linebackers coach. 

"Bret Bielema is a proven winner," Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. "With three Big Ten championships to his credit, few coaches can match his familiarity with, and success within, the Big Ten Conference.

"In our conversations, it became clear to me that he is a life-long learner who is continually looking to grow and improve, and he has enjoyed unrivaled mentorship from some of the game's most distinguished coaches, including Hayden Fry, Kirk Ferentz, Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez, and Bill Belichick – all of them current or future Hall of Famers.

"Importantly to me, Bret, a native of our great state, grew up an Illini fan and is committed to seeing the football program at our state's flagship grow and prosper. Bret's blue collar work ethic and genuine, authentic manner will allow him to form strong connections to his players and staff and positive relationships in our community and our state.

"These qualities, combined with his commitment to education and his track record of success, give me great confidence in his leadership of our football program."

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