Coach Bret Bielema Hoping to Finish Season Strong in Tampa
By Joey Johnston
Bret Bielema loves Tampa. It's one of his favorite spots. So when he led the Illinois Fighting Illini to a turnaround season in his third year as head coach, he was particularly delighted with an invitation to the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2 at Raymond James Stadium.
"I've been here as a coordinator and a head coach (at Wisconsin),'' Bielema said. "When you have success as a football team, people start talking about where you're going to end up (in a bowl game). As soon as Tampa became a possibility, I reached out to Jim McVay (the bowl's president and CEO) and told him, 'We've love to come to Tampa!' I've enjoyed every minute I've spent in Tampa.
"When you go to bowl games, you get a pretty good indication from dealing with the bowl committee and the people on what the place is all about. Tampa has always been a first-class, special place to me.''
Bielema's wife, Jen, is from Tampa (St. Lawrence Catholic School and Gaither High School graduate). Members of the family always call Bielema during the Gasparilla Parade (he's usually recruiting). Bielema said he and his wife have designs on building a second house in Tampa.
But first, Bielema would like nothing more than the Illini (8-4) to make themselves at home against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4) and capture the first Illinois' nine-win season since 2007.
"It's a warm-weather site and there are a lot of fun things to do down here,'' Bielema said. "But make no mistake, we're coming down here to prepare the right way and win the football game. It would be a great way to finish a really good season.''
Beyond the eight victories - and Illinois was one play away from knocking off Michigan, the Big Ten Conference champion and a College Football Playoff selection - Illini athletic director Josh Whitman said he's most pleased by the culture that Bielema has installed.
"It's as strong as I've ever seen and I've been around football my whole life,'' said Whitman, a former Illini player.
It's spelled out with one word - #famILLy.
"When you come together as a family, when it's part of your DNA, you can work together efficiently,'' Bielema said. "That's what we try to do here. We're looking for talented players always, but we want players who fit our culture and will become part of this family.''
On the field, fans might think Bielema is looking for a specific type of offensive player - a grind-it-out, run-first skill set. That thinking has evolved since Bielema's Wisconsin days. Illinois features diversity and versatility.
"We're in an up-tempo, no-huddle system,'' Bielema said. "You ask about style of play. We mostly try to be efficient. We play fast, we play slow, we play medium. We do it all. Whatever it takes to win the game. And we've been a very successful defense, I think, because of the way we play on offense.''
Iliinois has clearly taken a step forward under Bielema. Whitman said an appearance in the ReliaQuest Bowl is more evidence of that progress.
"To be playing in Florida on New Year's (weekend) just speaks volumes about Bret's leadership and the vision he has for the program,'' Whitman said. "I think it really bodes well for the future of our program. Hopefully, it puts us on a path we can use as a springboard moving forward.
"Bret Bielema is just a solid football coach. I don't know if you can necessarily say he reinvented himself. He has continued to grow and evolve. Playing defense and running the ball are still core to our identity. But he has adapted to new wrinkles and changes in the game. I think we're getting the best version of Bret Bielema.''