Notes | Bielema wants Illinois to be 'last rodeo'

INDIANAPOLIS — Bret Bielema used his 15 minutes at the podium to start Big Ten Media Days to casually break some news Wednesday morning.
The contract extension approved for the Illinois coach in January — bumping his annual salary to $6 million with $150,000 annual raises plus other bonuses — apparently also included some unique language.
“I wanted this to be my last rodeo,” Bielema said. “Signed a contract that literally has a no-compete with anybody in the Big Ten because I found my home. I know where I want to go.”
That type of contract addendum would appear to preclude Bielema from potentially returning to his alma mater should Kirk Ferentz ever step down. (The long-time Iowa coach actually being fired seems unlikely). Bielema’s new contract also calls for automatic one-year extensions through 2033 should Illinois post six or more wins.
“When we got into our contract talks after this last season, there were a lot of points to those discussions,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. “Longevity was central to that, and his willingness to commit to the university was notable and something that was really exciting for all of us.
“The chance to work together and know we’re going to have that kind of runway in front of us changes some of your thought processes. Some other environments, you have to make decisions that are based in what’s in our next, best interest. Occasionally, that conflicts with what might be in our best long-term interests. When you’re both acting on the long-term future of a program, it allows you to align more holistically around many different elements.”
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Bielema is responsible for most aspects of the Illinois football program. That includes providing his own transportation to Big Ten Media Days.
It’s become a tradition.
The third-year Illinois coach handles his own travel to Indianapolis and brings the Illini’s player representatives with him. The two-hour trip allows Bielema to pepper his players with questions they might face when they take the podium the next day with the conference media contingent gathered at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“The whole time I’m driving, I’m asking them questions,” Bielema said. “Questions that they’re going to get. Isaiah Williams, you caught (82) balls last year. Do you have to catch 85 balls to be a successful season? He answered it the way I thought he would answer it. We’ll talk about it, critique it.”
Williams made his second Big Ten Media Days appearance Wednesday. The Illini wide receiver was ready for Bielema’s questions this time.
“He just drills us with questions trying to get us to stutter,” Williams said. “I can truly say this time was way easier than the first time. I remember the first time, last year, the first question (Sydney Brown) literally froze. Couldn’t say a word.
“The drive is great, though, when it comes to the conversation. Him telling us stories. Us connecting with Coach B. on a personal level and learning from him. I don’t take that for granted.”
Illinois defensive tackle Johnny Newton rode shotgun from Champaign to Indianapolis. Williams and Illini defensive tackle Keith Randolph Jr. had the second row, and director of football branding and creative media Pat Pierson was in the back.
Randolph was interested in using the two-hour drive to nap.
Bielema, of course, had other plans.
“He kept asking questions,” Randolph said. “That just shows how much he cares. We basically had a mini practice. This is game day.”
All three Illinois players said Bielema’s question-and-answer session helped them Wednesday. Their schedules were booked to the minute with media availability after media availability.
“It was a lot of questions that people have asked,” Newton said. “He helped me know how to answer those questions. I feel like he prepared me great for media day. (Tuesday) was the mock game. (Wednesday) was the real game.”
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Williams had a specific focus this offseason. Working with as many pros as he could — learning from them — was important. Training with David Robinson, an NFL skills coach who has helped more than 50 athletes get drafted, and East St. Louis wide receivers coach Terry Fenton created that opportunity for the Illinois wide receiver.
Williams was able to train alongside former Crete-Monee and Western Illinois standout Lance Lenoir, who has spent time in the NFL, USFL and XFL, in addition to Kansas City Chiefs rookie Rashee Rice and Los Angeles Rams rookie Tyler Hudson.
Deep balls were Williams’ ultimate focus. The St. Louis native showed he had the ability to take a short pass and turn it into big yardage last season at Illinois, catching 82 passes for 715 yards and five touchdowns. Adding the deep ball to his repertoire was important.
“I want to take my game to the next level being able to catch the ball 50 yards in the air,” Williams said. “Be an explosive player.”
Helpful in hauling in deep balls — and all passes, really — is being able to track the ball effectively.
“A lot of times as a receiver I feel like you might try to make a move before you fully catch the ball,” Williams said. “That’s where some of my drops last year may have come from. I was trying to catch the ball while making a move and making somebody miss. This summer, I focused on looking the ball all the way in.”
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Bielema reached out to Jim Leonhard on Oct. 2 with congratulations and support. Illinois’ 34-10 win against Wisconsin the day prior brought an unexpected immediate end to the Paul Chryst era in Madison, Wis., with Leonhard getting a promotion to interim coach while holding on to defensive coordinator duties.
Bielema reached out to Leonhard again in late November when Wisconsin decided to go in another direction at head coach. The Badgers opted not to retain Leonhard — a legitimate candidate — and hired Luke Fickell away from Cincinnati instead.
“I said, ‘What are you looking for? I don’t have an on-the-field position, but would you be interested in an analyst role?’” Bielema said. “I wasn’t in a hurry. I knew he had to process some things. It kind of continued to build. Really, after spring ball in May, I said, ‘This is what I’m thinking. What are you thinking?’”
Leonhard was officially added to the Illinois football staff Tuesday. The three-time All-American Wisconsin safety and 10-year NFL pro will be a senior football analyst for the Illini. That role includes zero on-field coaching and no recruiting, but Bielema intends for the 40-year-old Leonhard to assist the program offensively, defensively and on special teams.
At least Sunday through Thursday.
Leonhard won’t be with Illinois on game day and will use that time to be with his family instead.
“It was simple on my end,” Whitman said about bringing Leonhard on board. “When you have an opportunity to hire somebody like Jim, it doesn’t require a lot of deliberation on my part. I give Bret a lot of credit for having those kinds of relationships and being in position to attract somebody like Jimmy. I think it speaks volumes to what we are building here and the way he’s viewed within the industry.”
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Leonhard is the highest profile coach Bielema has hired as an analyst during his time at Illinois. It’s a practice, though, the Illini coach has used in other ways, with an open-door policy if coaches just want to swing through for a week or two.
Bielema twigged to that notion when he worked for Ferentz at Iowa. Having Barry Alvarez as athletic director at Wisconsin didn’t make the practice all that necessary — the former Badgers coach was free with his opinions — but Bielema got back to it when he took the Arkansas job.
“I had Dave Wannstedt come in for a week,” Bielema said of the former Chicago Bears coach. “When Wanny left, he had pages of notes on what he saw. It was things that don’t pop up on my radar every day. I started doing some analyst hires at Arkansas that were really very positive and really made an impact on our game plans and also for me as a head coach.”
Bielema has continued to bring in former head coaches at Illinois. Clay Helton spent a couple weeks in Champaign after being fired by Southern California in 2021. Now, Bielema will have Leonhard around five days a week.
“I really learned the value of having other people come in and tell you what they see,” Bielema said about his experiences with Ferentz at Iowa. “Like I tell players, competition brings the best out of you. I think when you have good coaches in the building, it brings good coaching.”
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Questions about hazing were at the forefront Wednesday in Indianapolis given the recently uncovered events at Northwestern.
The issues in Evanston, which now include multiple sports, provided Whitman reason to look inward to make sure nothing of the sort was happening — or would happen — at Illinois.
“I think any time there is, call it a crisis, on any campus across the country in any fashion, any administrator would be missing the boat if they didn’t take that opportunity to look at their own program and make sure you’re tightening your policies and reinforcing your messaging,” the Illinois athletic director said. “We’ve certainly done that at the University of Illinois. Again, Northwestern has policies. They have education. They do a lot of the same things we do. So it’s trying to identify where any gaps might exist and reinforce some of that messaging back to your coaches and ultimately to your student-athletes as they come back this fall.”
Bielema is concerned about what’s happening in his program. He, in fact, pointed out that Illinois was tied for second fewest outgoing transfers this offseason.
“What that’s telling me is kids like being in our program,” Bielema said. “They like the way they get treated. They like the way they get coached. … I’ve been a head coach 15 years, and I think about what I learned as a player, as an assistant, and it’s so important in today’s world, is to stay on top of everything that touches our players’ lives. Not only when they’re in the building. We literally have some things on the doors when you’re walking in and walking out that gives you a way to think about where you’re at and what you’re doing, and I couldn’t be happier.
“I don’t mention the word ‘culture.’ I never have. I’m not a guy who thinks it’s a buzzword. It’s something that’s never set well with me. But I talk about what we do. To have a season like we just had and the talent we have returning and to have the highest GPA in school history, it tells me we’re doing a lot of good things.”
Scott RicheY

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