By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
November 9, 2022
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Bret Bielema and the University of Illinois have executed a plan to have the same offensive play-caller for several years.
The Illinois athletics department announced in a university media release that offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. has agreed to a one-year contract extension that will carry him through the conclusion of the 2025 football season. When Lunney was officially hired on Jan. 8, 2022, the contract agreement originally carried a three-year term with a starting salary of $675,000 plus incentives. The new extension, pending approval by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees at its meeting next week, calls for Lunney’s salary to increase to $800,000 for the 2023 season and $825,000 for the 2024 and 2025 seasons.
Sources inside the athletics department and close to the Illini football program have pointed out that this contract extension is largely symbolic to show the partnership between Bielema and Lunney Jr., who worked together for five years at Arkansas before being joined together last January, is planning to be in Champaign for several years.
“Last year we really only had one position change and obviously that was one I think we made for the better,” Bielema said Monday during his weekly media conference. “The more continuity you can have offense and defense I think gets kids excited about coming back and playing, not only with players but with coaches. If I could measure the quantitative excitement from our offensive players and coaches every day in our building since Barry has come in, it’s worth its weight in gold.”
Bielema hinted at an extension being done for Lunney Jr. on Monday and compared the commitment of athletics director Josh Whitman and athletics administration at Illinois to make sure raises and extensions have been given to his assistant coaches is a promise being kept from Dec. 2020 when Bielema agreed to become the Illini’s 26th head coach in program history.
The announcement of Lunney’s deal is just short of a calendar year from when Illinois announced a new three-year contract extension for defensive coordinator Ryan Walters calling for him to be the program’s first ever seven-figure salary coordinator through the 2024 season.
“The excitement it has created in recruiting and Josh was very clear when I took the job what he was going to be able to provide from an assistant coaches’ salary pool and last year the proactive measures he took with Ryan (Walters) and again this year,” Bielema said. “Ryan is a very talented coach and is going to have opportunities in front of him. I think Barry is the same thing, Barry is just kind of a year behind. It’s fun to be in that type of world to know that support exists.”
In 2022, Lunney has improved the Illinois offense by 83.3 yards per game from last season, the biggest improvement in the Big Ten Conference by more than 20 yards. Lunney’s offense currently features the nation's leading rusher, Chase Brown, the No. 2 quarterback in the nation in completion percentage, Tommy DeVito, and an offensive line that is in contention for the Joe Moore Award.
“I think (Bielema) has got an incredible gift for (program building). I don’t think, I know he does. I saw that and I was able to experience that working for him for five years at Arkansas. I saw the way he went about the culture. He doesn’t use that word, but a lot of people use that word in sports and business and in particular football and basketball with the culture that you build,” Lunney said on Monday. “He has a unique way of building it without banging the drums saying, ‘This is our culture.’ These are our expectations. This is how we operate on a daily basis. He has a unique ability to get coaches and players to conform to that without ruling with an iron fist and I think that’s what makes him really unique in this business. He’s got a lot of experience, a lot of success, a lot of wisdom, and he continually, through consistency, is the same guy every day. I’ve learned a lot of those things about how to manage that from him. It’s something I’m continually learning from on a daily basis. Even when you handle success winning six games in a row and then how you handle failure because that’s part of this business and part of this job and I think he does a great job of that.”
Illinois has made tremendous year-over-year improvement in the national rankings on offense, jumping 121 spots in completion percentage (3rd from 124th), 74 spots in passing efficiency (47th from 121st), and 59 spots in yards per game (53rd from 112th). With Lunney's quick-paced and efficient offense, Illinois has become the most improved passing team in the country with a 20 percent or more improvement in completion percentage, by far the best in the nation.
“Barry Lunney has provided a needed spark to our offense, which has been among the most improved in college football," Whitman said in the university release. "He has brought an exciting, efficient system and has guided several of our student-athletes to career years that are earning national recognition. Stability in key leadership positions in the Smith Football Center is important to continuing our upward momentum toward and realizing our championship goals. We are grateful to Barry, Janelle, and their sons for their commitment to the Illinois family.”
Lunney was the only change among Bielema’s assistant coaches from 2021 to this season and Whitman had to approve a contract buyout of over $1 million to execute the termination of Tony Petersen and the hiring of Lunney.
“I give Bret a lot of credit. He made a hard decision in the spring to go a different direction on the offensive side of the football,” Whitman said in June during his annual local media roundtable discussion. “Barry has come on board and really, I think, made a seamless transition. He’s got, I think, a great philosophy. The players have bought into what he’s doing."
Lunney's offense has amplified the production of running back Chase Brown, turning the two-time All-Big Ten running back into a Heisman candidate and a candidate for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back. Brown leads the nation in rushing yards (1,344), all-purpose yards (1,485), rushes of 10+ yards (41), and 100-yard games (nine). Brown has already eclipsed his totals for rushing yards and all-purpose yards from last season and he is on pace to shatter Illinois' single-season rushing record.
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