By Gavin Good/IlliniGuys.com Football Contributor
Monday’s spring game at Memorial Stadium is just a scrimmage when it’s all said and done.
But for Illinois football, which has a new head coach in Bret Bielema and hasn’t played in front of a home crowd in more than a year, Monday night might feel more like Opening Day or Homecoming.
At long last, as the pandemic begins to wind down, the program has entered a new era after a disappointing fall prompted athletic director Josh Whitman to move on from Lovie Smith.
For months now, Bielema has been brewing up a buzz around Champaign, and now he finally gets to showcase what his group has been working on. About 7,500 fans will line Memorial Stadium’s stands for Illinois’ own version of Monday Night Football under the lights and broadcasted on the Big Ten Network.
Though the season-opener on Aug. 28 against Nebraska is still far away, the Illini seem eager to prove themselves to the fan base and the new staff on a primetime stage and in a game-like setting.
For his part, Bielema is itching to get out there and soak in the game-day setting at his new stomping grounds, and he’ll be making tons of evaluations on the field.
“I have to balance the ability to put on a show that we can show the nation,” Bielema said, “but on top of that we’re still trying to get a great work day for our players.”
“Really no restrictions as far as how we’re going to line up and play and execute things offensively and defensively,” Bielema said. “The pure element of that is going to be a good thing to put a quantitative measure on, but we’ve got a long time between now and fall, too. It’s practice number 13 on Monday, and we’ll have two practices after that. A lot of prep time in the summer and fall camp to get ready for Nebraska, but it is a good evaluation tool.”
Illinois is returning much of its core from a 2-6 season in 2020, and it was an achievement for Bielema and his then-in-progress staff to convince so many players to return.
Returning seniors like Vederian Lowe, Jake Hansen and Alex Palczewski are all proven Big Ten-caliber starters and are important presences and leaders in the locker room.
Weekend commitments from Rochester wideout Hank Beatty and Iroquois West standout lineman Clayton Leonard are the most recent early returns from Bielema’s all-in blitz on in-state recruiting.
“For us here at Illinois, we’ve had some great momentum here in the last, I would say 10 days, and some good news coming for us in the recruiting world,” Bielema said. “And I think more of that is coming our way. So a lot of the diligence and hard work that we’ve been working on is beginning to pay off.”
Bielema has spoken about finding the next Ayo Dosunmu, or his version of Illinois basketball’s program-changing recruit, within the state. I’m not sure if that player is going to come out of Danforth, Illinois, like Leonard, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?
After the in-state pipeline had all but dried up, Bielema’s Class of 2022 ranks eighth in the Big Ten and No. 42 nationally by 247Sports.
Although there’s a long time to go and Bielema has yet to land the more high-profile recruits that will be needed to raise the talent level in the program, Smith was never able to land a class that graded out higher than No. 10 in the conference and above No. 46 in the country (and that was Smith’s first class in 2017).
Bielema has also lined up the services of several transfers who could help raise the floor for this fall, including Notre Dame wideout Jafar Armstrong and former Alabama safety Eddie Smith. Chase Hayden, who played for Bielema at Arkansas before transferring to East Carolina, and Calvin Hart, an outside linebacker from North Carolina State, are already getting settled within the team this spring.
Illinois hasn’t had a winning season under a new head coach since Lou Tepper went 6-5-1 in 1992, but he went just 19-25-1 after that.
His predecessor, John Mackovic, was the last coach to truly produce perennial winners, and he left to the brighter and bolder pastures of Texas after compiling a 30-16-1 record (.649) and taking Illinois to a bowl in all four of his seasons.
There have been 24 coaches to lead Illinois for at least one full season, and only 12 of them left the job with a winning record. Mackovic and Mike White (47-41-3 from 1980-1987) are the only ones to have done so after 1959 — when Ray Eliot retired after nine winning seasons and two Rose Bowl victories in 18 years.
In what is becoming a common refrain in Bielema’s early tenure, he alluded on Saturday to Illinois being the “flagship of the state,” something Smith often also referred to.
In reality, the Illini have trailed far behind Northwestern when it comes to on-field results, while schools like Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin have picked off plenty of in-state recruits from within reach.
Bielema is well-aware of how Illinois is perceived throughout the state.
He played a prominent part in convincing some of the state’s talent to turn north to him at Wisconsin in the early 2010s, and he is quickly familiarizing himself with the state’s high school coaching ranks, which seemingly has grown even more disenchanted with Illinois since Smith’s arrival in 2016.
“For us to be the flagship of the state and for us to be the University of Illinois and build this, it’s going to have to start with the kids from Illinois to get onboard with the coaches, to get onboard with the players and ultimately to get players in our program that believe in those same things,” Bielema said.
“We as a program have to reflect the state. The only times I’ve seen great organizations succeed for a long period of time is when they reflect the area they’re from. To be here in Illinois and represent this state and the hardworking mentality of the people that make up the state, the background of our alumni, is going to be very important.”
Monday night also marks Bielema’s first time coaching a college football team in a game since he was fired at Arkansas in 2017. After a messy departure, you can bet he’s going to enjoy his chance to start over in a more welcoming environment in Champaign.
While out at an area park with his daughters recently, a fan approached Bielema and told him he couldn’t wait to get back into Memorial Stadium on Monday.
“I was sitting there on a swing set trying to decide whether we were going to go to the swings, the balance beam or the jungle gym next,” Bielema said. “A gentleman walked up to me and basically welcomed me and said, ‘Excited to see you here,’ saw my girls and said, ‘can’t wait to get in there Monday night, it’s been a long time.’”
It’s the sort of thing that Bielema, once beloved by Badger fans in and around Madison, has missed while spending a few years as an assistant in the NFL, though he says he learned valuable lessons from Bill Belichick and Joe Judge in New England and then New York.
“It kind of just took me back to being in a community, right? Being a normal person in this community, and then also the outreach we will have,” Bielema said. “It’s the first time we’ve had people in Memorial Stadium in a long time.”
He hopes to make a good first impression in his new home.
“It’s the first time the community has been able to see this new edition of what we are at the University of Illinois. I know there’s a lot of excitement, and for that, I’m excited.”
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