Big Ten Media Days: Bret Bielema says Illinois turnaround can ‘happen’

By Zain Bando - IlliniGuys Student Correspondent

July 30, 2022

(Cover photo courtesy Sports Illustrated)

INDIANAPOLIS – Bret Bielema’s positivity beamed with excitement as he addressed the media for his individual podium session during day two of Big Ten Media Days on Wednesday. The second-year Illini head coach is looking to build off a 5-7 season that included upset wins of Minnesota and Penn State, both of which were away from home.

A decade removed from departing Wisconsin as the head man, Bielema hopes to bring the Badgers’ treatment to Champaign and restore Illinois toward greatness once again. To do so, the old ball coach knows that the Illini need to rise above the competition. Doing that also brings extra exposure, and Illinois will get to experience two night games during the first month of play.

“Listen, if I could play every game Saturday at two o’clock, I’d do it, right?” Bielema said. “I think everybody who is a purest would say that, but the fact that we get a Thursday night game where we’ll be the only show on...there might be one or two games. Friday night, I love high school football tradition, but it’s a part of reality now, so they give us that spot. Obviously, there will be limited menu options for people, so we should be one of the only games on in that timeslot on that Friday night. So, I think that when we’re a program like Illinois when we’re trying to build our overall exposure, those are positive things.”

Bielema also expressed a goal that he’d like to get to soon by becoming part of the discussion amongst the Big Ten’s elite.

“The University of Illinois, in my opinion, there’s not a lot of things left in this world that can get discovered still, right?” Bielema said. “I know Illinois has been great at periods of time way back, and, you know, getting into modern era, there’s been flashes. But I would say, to be the head coach at Illinois, partnered with Josh [Whitman], kinda what’s going on in Illinois athletics, is something that you can’t find in the rest of the…they’ve already happened, right? Iowa’s already happened. Wisconsin’s already happened. Like, in our conference, Northwestern’s kinda already happened. I think Illinois can happen, and I love the excitement with where we’re at right now.”

Bielema returns to Madison to start off Illinois’ October portion of football in Week 6. Although he looks forward to facing his former team, Bielema understands that the Illini need to win that game to establish national prowess and a new identity in the process.

“Well, I think anytime you have an upset, right, like, that’s defined by the outside world,” Bielema said. “I’ve been upset many times because I have a mentality that like, you go into every game trying to win, right? You know, those wins against Penn State and Minnesota, they did things for our locker room. But it probably did a lot of things for us outside of the locker room, right? For our fanbase that were trying to excite to be back. It was brought to my attention today that student ticket sales are up 70% since I came there, right? They were up last year and they’re up almost 40% for this coming year. So, a lot of positives on the outside world from those things. I know I had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I watched the Penn State game. I watched the Minnesota game.’ The Wisconsin game is a very important game because it’s a division West opponent, right? From every game that we play in this division, we have to have success if we want to be able to win a title, and that’s really the driving force.”

Illinois upset Wisconsin on Homecoming, 24-23, in 2019 to revitalize an eventual bowl season. 2022 is less than a month away, can it happen again?

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