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B1G 2021 // Is Bret Bielema The Beacon Of Basic Competence That Illinois Fighting Illini Football Needs?

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A panel of experts debate the merits going into Year 1 of the ReBERTh

NCAA Football: Missouri at Arkansas
bring it in buddy. my head is bigger than your helmet.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
inquisitive thumpasaurus

Welcome to the show, Big Ten football fans and other assorted miscreants! I’m Inquisitive Thumpasaurus here with Off Tackle Empire and today, we’ll be discussing the new football coaching staff at the University of Illinois. Former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema has returned from a brief NFL exile to take the helm of the Good Ship Illini after it was run aground at the negligent hands of one Lovie Smith. Spring practice has come and gone and Bielema has been busy assembling a coaching staff and establishing a direction for his Fighting Illini program.

I am not overstepping my role as a neutral host by saying that, it just seems that way because that’s not a thing Illini head coaches have been doing as of late. By contrast pointing out that Bielema is doing a basic part of his job seems like praise, but I digress. I’m pleased to be here for the first time in a couple years after some major chaos in the sports world and the greater world.

Since this is, in fact, a fictional setup and you don’t want pandemic life in your fiction (DO YOU HEAR ME, NETWORK TELEVISION? NOBODY DOES.), this will not be a Socially Distanced Thumpasaurus Roundtable Discussion, but instead just a regular Thumpasaurus Roundtable Discussion. It’s my great pleasure to once again introduce my panel of Fighting Illini analysts, Depression Thumpasaurus, Pragmatic Thumpasaurus and Belligerent Thumpasaurus.

sauruses

Welcome to the show, gentlesaurs!

pragmatic thumpasaurus small

Glad to be able to contribute.

depression thumpasaurus small

dusting this format off again

we’re really out of ideas huh

belligerent thumpasaurus

BIG TEN CHAMPS NO ASTERISK IF MICHIGAN WANTED TO CHALLENGE US FOR IT THEY SHOULD HAVE BEATEN OHIO STATE IN THE SEMIFINALS. COME OUT AND FIGHT ME LIKE A MAN, KEVIN WARREN!

inquisitive thumpasaurus small

Pragmatic Thumpasaurus, when you three were last here, you predicted a 2019 victory over Wisconsin while also proclaiming it wouldn’t turn Lovie Smith’s program around. How in the world you threaded that needle I’m not sure, but here we are two full seasons later and as two of you predicted, the Lovie Smith era is over.

belligerent thumpasaurus

OBJECTION! YOU NEVER INTERVIEWED ME BEFORE THE 2020 SEASON!

inquisitive thumpasaurus small

Indeed I did not. Would your outlook have been different if I had?

belligerent thumpasaurus

.......MAYBE.

inquisitive thumpasaurus small

Moving on, the reasons that Lovie Smith failed at Illinois are numerous and have been covered in great detail. Lovie was kind enough to leave absolutely no doubt as to whether or not he deserved to get fired, going 4-26 in the Big Ten West. Illinois acted quickly and decisively in hiring Bret Bielema to helm the turnaround. What was your initial reaction?

depression thumpasaurus small

(mournful barf)

belligerent thumpasaurus

JOSH WHITMAN IS A MAN AFTER MY OWN HEART. I ALWAYS WANTED THE ILLINI COACH TO BE LIKE ME.

A LOUD OBNOXIOUS HALF DRUNK ASSHOLE FROM ILLINOIS!

pragmatic thumpasaurus small

If I’m perfectly honest, I was disappointed because it felt like Josh Whitman was aiming for a candidate with possibly a higher floor and a lower ceiling than candidates such as Dave Clawson or Lance Leipold.

depression thumpasaurus small

by the way kansas just hired leipold

we have a home and home with them in 2023 and 2024

we are going to lose to kansas everyone

great job

pragmatic thumpasaurus small

I think it’s a bit premature to jump to that conclusion at this point because Bielema does have more experience coaching at the power 5 level than Leipold, and the fact of the matter is that this is a totally different game where sometimes being a Good Football Coach can be a liability

belligerent thumpasaurus

LOOKING AT YOU, JEFF BROHM. YOU CAN BE BILL WALSH ON STEROIDS AS A TACTICIAN AND IT DOESN’T MATTER IF YOU HIRE BOB DIACO

pragmatic thumpasaurus small

That is actually a surprisingly well-thought-out point, and it definitely supports my thesis that in the modern P5 game, being a football tactician might be one of the least important attributes for a head coach to have. Program management, networking, recruiting skills, PR savvy, a good eye for talent in players and coaches...these things are much more important to this game.

depression thumpasaurus small

good thing we have bert

sam pittman certainly never left arkansas because he couldn’t stand working for the guy or anything

inquisitive thumpasaurus small

Let’s talk about that, actually. Bret Bielema had tremendous success at Wisconsin, but his time at Arkansas, started in the wake of the John L. Smith season after Bobby Petrino’s scandalous exit, is perhaps more relevant. What do you make of his resume prior to Illinois?

depression thumpasaurus small

it really is as simple as a guy taking over a great situation at wisconsin and simply not driving into oncoming traffic

the dui wrangler must have been a highly paid position

he built up this clout and used it to leave after years of pissing matches with fellow asshole barry alvarez

then he took that clout as far as it would get him at arkansas

which was 4 years and change

then he decided to become part of the bill belichik coaching tree, cementing his cursed status

belligerent thumpasaurus

BILL BELICHICK ASSISTANTS HAVE WON SEVEN NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS AT THE FBS LEVEL AS HEAD COACHES

depression thumpasaurus small

all that fat belichick assistants have done as college head coaches is tank notre dame

belligerent thumpasaurus

SO, DOING THE LORD’S WORK, GOT IT

depression thumpasaurus small

— and taken over a moribund P5 program and made it worse somehow

belligerent thumpasaurus

IF WE’RE GONNA COMPARE BART BURLYMAN TO A FAT KANSAS COACH IT’S GOTTA BE ANOTHER ONE OF THE BIGGEST ASSHOLES IN THE COACHING PROFESSION: NOTED SHITHEEL MARK MANGINO.

AP

LOOK AT THE SHEER GIRTH. IN AWE OF THE SIZE OF THIS LAD. ABSOLUTE UNIT.

BERT’S NOT QUITE THERE YET BUT CHAMPAIGN IS HOME TO THE LAST REMAINING FAT SANDWICH COMPANY AND THERE’S NEARLY FOUR MONTHS LEFT TIL THE START OF THE SEASON

depression thumpasaurus small

whatever it takes for you to ignore that bielema took over less of a shitshow than illinois is now and failed there

pragmatic thumpasaurus small

If I may, I’d like to take this opportunity to get a word in edgewise. If Bret Bielema did at Illinois what he did at Arkansas, he would tie Bob Blackman for the 9th most career wins of any Illini coach, equaling Beckman and Lovie’s combined 29 wins. He’d have the best winning percentage at 46% since John Mackovic left in 1991. He’d have the best conference winning percentage at 27.5% since Ron Zook’s 32% mark, and he coached in a very tough SEC West.

He won seven or more games three years in a row. Illinois has never made three consecutive bowl trips. If he literally does just what he did at Arkansas, he’ll be one of the more successful Illini coaches of my lifetime.

depression thumpasaurus small

oh is that how low the bar is now

belligerent thumpasaurus

YES.

THE BAR REALLY IS THAT LOW. IN THE LAST TEN SEASONS WE’VE WON 18 OF 84 BIG TEN GAMES. WE’RE A HAIR ABOVE THE MENDOZA LINE, HAVEN’T HAD A WINNING CONFERENCE RECORD AND OUR SINGLE BEST SEASON IN THAT DECADE HAD A HOME LOSS TO EASTERN GODDAMN MICHIGAN.

I DEFY THIS MAN TO BE MATERIALLY WORSE THAN LOVIE SMITH.

inquisitive thumpasaurus small

Okay, that’s about enough Lovie Smith discussion. Let’s talk about how Bret Bielema might actually improve the football situation at Illinois, starting with the coaching staff. Given a $5M salary pool for assistants, Bielema brought in a number of coordinators and position coaches with extensive FBS and Power 5 resumes, keeping only Lovie’s ace recruiter Cory Patterson. Are you satisfied with these developments?

belligerent thumpasaurus

WE’RE BRINGING BACK THE ARCH RIVALRY IN A FEW YEARS, SO WHAT BETTER WAY TO PREPARE THAN BY RETAINING OUR ST. LOUIS GUY AND POACHING MIZZOU’S DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR?

GET FUCKED MIZZOU. GET FUCKED FOREVER.

pragmatic thumpasaurus small

Ryan Walters had been at Mizzou under longtime DC and eventual HC Barry Odom, and in addition to experience under a respected P5 DC and P5 DC experience himself, he brings recruiting experience. The Lovie Smith experience showed us just how important that is. Patterson was the one coach I really wanted carried over from Lovie’s staff, and it was the first move Bielema announced.

Bielema also announced a plan specifically for in-state recruiting, assigning each coach a specific area of Illinois to recruit. Patterson will of course recruit Metro East. This alone demonstrates much more focus on in-state recruiting than we ever got from Lovie Smith, whose staff simply stopped visiting Illinois high schools over the years.

In my post-mortem of the Lovie Smith era, I hoped the next coach would be more adaptable.

Enter OC Tony Petersen, who has put together successful running offenses and successful passing offenses during his career ranging from Minnesota to Appalachian State and various stops in between. Left with a weird-shaped roster, Bielema brought in a guy who has actually called multiple different styles of offense in order to adapt the system to the players he has available. Notably, failing to do this is a major reason Lovie Smith is no longer the head coach.

Many position coaches have FBS coordinator experience. It’s almost like Bret Bielema is trying to put together the kind of staff you’d expect to see at a Big Ten school.

depression thumpasaurus small

doing the opposite of what the last guy did is no guarantee of success

we have simply progressed to the next phase of the cycle

we have hired an SEC flameout to replace an NFL guy who replaced an internal promotion who replaced an up-and-comer who replaced an SEC flameout who replaced an NFL guy who replaced an internal promotion

belligerent thumpasaurus

AND THE LAST COACH WE HAD WHO WAS A REAL ASSHOLE WAS JOHN MACKOVIC, WHO WENT ON TO BE FIRED FROM ARIZONA AFTER A TEAM MUTINY STEMMING FROM HIM BEING SUCH A RAMPAGING ASSHOLE.

DUDE WENT 30-16-1 AT ILLINOIS.

SURE WHATEVER, EVERYONE CAN CLAIM THAT HE’S MELLOWED OUT AND GROWN UP AFTER SPENDING TIME IN BILLY B’S HALFWAY HOUSE FOR MISFIT COACHES AND HAVING DAUGHTERS, AND THAT MIGHT EVEN BE TRUE

BUT IF IT IS AND WE GET WAXED BY NEBRASKA, I’LL SNAP HIM OUT OF IT

TWO HANDLES OF CANADIAN LTD. ONE FOR ME, ONE FOR BERT. ROOM TEMPERATURE. NO CHASER. HE WON’T BE ABLE TO RESIST.

THEN WE’LL WALK DOWN GREEN STREET LIGHTING OUR BURPS ON FIRE, SPEWING CHEAP WHISKEY FLAMES ON HAPLESS PASSERS BY, AND THEN TELLING THEM “YOU’RE A BIG PRICK. IT’S BEEN A PLEASURE BREATHING FLAMES ON YOUR ASS THE LAST FIVE MINUTES

inquisitive thumpasaurus small

Let’s wrap this up with one final question to tie it all together and get some key takeaways. With spring ball complete and recruiting well underway, what are your impressions of how Bielema has handled the job so far?

depression thumpasaurus small

he brought in art sitkowski

belligerent thumpasaurus

THAT JUST TELLS ME HE’S RIGHT WHERE HE NEEDS TO BE: BLACKOUT DRUNK TEXTING LEADING TO A HOOKUP HE REGRETS IN THE MORNING.

FUCK THOSE FRIDAY BEERS, MY BOY’S THINKIN BOUT THAT TUESDAY MORNING ABSINTHE

pragmatic thumpasaurus small

Sitkowski is a decision I don’t really understand, although I suppose we’re screwed if Peters goes down regardless. That is however just about the only one that hasn’t made sense. He’s picked up some 2022 recruiting traction, as his class currently sits 26th nationally thanks to four top-1000 players. This group includes two offensive linemen from Wisconsin and Indiana, as well as a pro-style QB and a tight end. 2021 transfers from P5 players have also bolstered the roster that was already reinfoced by Bielema taking the only-rare-at-Illinois step of convincing some players to stay for one more year. Jake Hansen and Owen Carney will be huge boosts to the defense.

depression thumpasaurus small

oh cool, he got some guys from a terrible defense to return

pragmatic thumpasaurus small

It’s not just the experience returning, it’s the statement made by rallying the troops here. It shows that Bielema understands that winning in year one matters and it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation. That tells me we’re not going to have any of this trial-by-fire playing-for-the-future stuff like we had with both Lovie and Beckman where they just kind of put “being competitive” on the back burner in service of playing for two years from now. Look at Greg Schiano’s first year back at Rutgers to see how meaningful even the most meager of improved results in Year 1 can be. I wrote on Monday that this year, like most Illini seasons functionally doesn’t matter. It sounds like winning in 2021 matters more to Bielema than winning in 2016 and 2012 mattered to Smith and Beckman.

Honestly, Bielema’s first offseason has been quietly competent. He’s outlined a strategy, changed offensive and defensive schemes to better suit both existing personnel and new recruiting philosophies, and generally said all the things fans want to hear in interviews. Outside of Sitkowski, which is a minor nitpick for a position at which Illinois has a lot of incomplete players, I haven’t seen a misstep so far.

depression thumpasaurus small

it does kind of seem like he is pretty focused right now

maybe he figures if he doesn’t get drunk til the fall and instead spends this whole offseason assembling a decent program then maybe it’ll run itself like wisconsin did and he can live at the bars again after a season or so

the jury’s out on that. illinois tends to get the worst version of football coaches personally and professionally, and the worst version of bret bielema is a nightmare

belligerent thumpasaurus

I’LL TELL YOU WHAT’S A NIGHTMARE

A WORLD WHERE YOU CAN’T COUNT ON ILLINOIS BEING THAT SAFETY BLANKET EASY WIN TO TUNE UP THE UNIT THAT’S STRUGGLING THE MOST BEFORE AN IMPORTANT GAME

A WORLD WHERE, WITHOUT ILLINOIS TO OCCUPY THAT LAST PLACE SPOT BY DEFAULT, SUDDENLY YOUR TEAM IS A CONTENDER FOR IT

NOBODY OUTSIDE OF ILLINI FANS HAS ANYTHING BUT MEMES TO SAY ABOUT MY BOY BRATS BELLYMAN

SO THEY’LL KEEP WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD AS HE SETS UP THE BEST ILLINI COACHING STAFF IN MODERN MEMORY BY JUST NOT BEING AN IDIOT, HIRING THE PEOPLE YOU’D EXPECT A BIG TEN SCHOOL TO HIRE, SAYING AND DOING THE THINGS YOU’D EXPECT A BIG TEN COACH TO SAY, AND HAVING A PLAN LIKE YOU’D EXPECT A COACH TO HAVE.

AND THEY HAVE TO, BECAUSE WHEN BUTTER BALL’O’MAN LIFTS THE ILLINI OUT OF THE BASEMENT

SOME OTHER BIG TEN TEAM MUST TAKE THEIR PLACE

LAUGH IT UP WHILE YOU CAN. THE PAIN TRAIN BASIC COMPETENCE BUS IS COMING, AND THE DRIVER HAS MASTERED THE ART OF KEEPING HIS BAC RIGHT AT THE LEGAL LIMIT ALL DAY.

inquisitive thumpasaurus small

Well, gentlesaurs, it has once again been a pleasure. With any luck, we’ll be seeing you all again in August. Thank you for coming on the show and thank you, reader, for watching, reading, listening or consuming this content by your preferred content delivery mechanism. I’m Pragmatic Thumpasaurus, signing off.

belligerent thumpasaurus

THE ROAD TO THE GUARANTEED RATE BOWL RUNS STRAIGHT THROUGH CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS.