Bielema Head Coach Academy

Jan 27, 2021

(Free post.)

"Here at BHCA, we pride ourselves in being the top developmental academy for future college head coaches. You'll get the resources and training necessary to become a top-flight college head coach some day. Training under the leadership of three-time Power Five Head Coach Bret Bielema, BHCA is committed to preparing YOU for the coaching job of your dreams. Enroll today!"

Or something like that. That's how I see this. My #take after attending 10 Zoom calls with 10 assistant coaches (plus Tank Wright, the strength coach) is that this feels like a group of leaders. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll be great coaches - a company with a delegator in every chair and no worker bees probably won't be successful - but that's how I see this staff.

I'm sure you've read the statistics on all of the assistants, so I thought I'd go in a different direction with my evaluation of the staff. This is a "here's my general sense" post, not "here's what each coach said in their presser". My gut reaction, if you will. It's a fine-tuned machine, my gut.

Basically, while attending these 11 pressers, I wanted to know what Bret Bielema had in mind when hiring each of these coaches. I tried to listen like I was the hiring manager sitting in on a Zoom interview with several candidates. Looking at the hires, it seems to me that everything centered around two things:

1. Networking was the key. So many of these coaches worked for, or played for, or worked with, Bret Bielema.
2. Being someone on the track to becoming a head coach some day was very important.

I'll list out the reasons for the first one and then really dig deep into the second one.

Actually, first I need to make this point. The two hires who don't really fit this "head coach vibes" mold are the two coordinators. I know that sounds strange (we think of football in terms of "you become a coordinator and then you become a head coach"), but that's not the takeaway. Tony Petersen seems to be an OC lifer. He's been an offensive coordinator at South Dakota, Marshall, Minnesota, Louisiana Tech, Appalachian State, and now Illinois. So it seems like OC is what he'll always be.

Ryan Walters seems to be more on the "scheme" side and not on the "future CEO" side as well. He's fairly soft spoken and doesn't have a similar "commanding presence" to someone like Bret Bielema. He's more the pensive, analytical type (which can be great for a coordinator). I'm not sure he'll be much of a go-get-'em recruiter, but that's OK I think. I like the idea of a younger, analytical defensive coordinator studying modern offenses and how to stop them. He was named co-DC at Missouri at age 29 and was then their full DC at age 33, so that speaks to a lot of older coaches looking at him and saying "this kid has some great ideas".

OK, on to the two main themes.


For the eight non-coordinator hires (seven "position" assistants plus strength coach - Cory Patterson was obviously just retained from the previous staff), here's the networking connections:

  • Tank Wright (Strength Coach) was hired by Bielema as an assistant strength coach at Arkansas. Followed Bielema's strength coach (Ben Herbert) from Arkansas to Michigan.
  • George McDonald (WR Coach), besides obviously having played at Illinois, was hired by Bielema at Arkansas in 2013. He then left three weeks later when offered the Syracuse OC job. He then joined Bielema's old Wisconsin DC (Dave Doeren) at NC State.
  • Kevin Kane (OLB Coach) was a Graduate Assistant under Bielema at Wisconsin in 2008 and 2009 and then a Quality Control coach (analyst) in 2010. He then followed Bielema's Wisconsin DC (Dave Doeren) to Northern Illinois.
  • Bart Miller (OL Coach) was a Graduate Assistant under Bielema at Wisconsin in 2011 and then became the OL coach two games into the 2012 season when Bielema fired his OL coach. He also coached at Air Force in 2017 with TE Coach Ben Miller.
  • Andy Buh (ILB Coach) was the linebackers coach for Bielema at Wisconsin in 2012.
  • Terrance Jamison (DL Coach) played for Bielema at Wisconsin and was then both a student assistant and Graduate Assistant under Bielema at Wisconsin. He also coached the DL alongside TE coach Ben Miller at Air Force in 2019.
  • Aaron Henry (DB Coach) played for Bielema at Wisconsin for four seasons. He was then hired by Bielema at Arkansas as a defensive GA. When Bielema's former DC Chris Ash got the Rutgers job, Henry joined him (his first full-time assistant job). After that he joined Dave Doeren's staff at NC State (alongside George McDonald).
  • Ben Miller (TE Coach) is the only one who never worked for Bielema as a GA or an assistant coach. His connections to the staff are that he worked with Terrance Jamison and Bart Miller at Air Force. Also worth noting: he was a GA at Illinois under Ron Zook.

So that's one big Wisconsin tree, right? Now I want to look up the state tree of Wisconsin.

The Sugar Maple. This is the Sugar Maple Staff. Want to fix your college football program? Send me an SMS.

(Big fan of the Sugar Maple, by the way. Acer Saccharum. Not to be confused with Acer Saccharinum, the Silver Maple. Silver Maples grow all twisted and gnarly and are power line destroyers because they grow fast and week and drop massive limbs in the wind. Sugar Maples, on the other hand, grow low-and-slow, baby. Takes forever to get some shade but once you do, it's perfect. No better leaf to crunch through in the fall than a Sugar Maple leaf. This has been Robert Uses His Degree For Once.)

So yes, the key to getting on this staff was, apparently, connections to 2006 through 2012 Wisconsin football. We like that.

Bielema Head Coach Academy

That's my main sense when watching the Zoom interviews with all of these assistant coaches. So many of them have head coach qualities. I'll go through a top-4 below, but first, a disclaimer paragraph.

Please don't get this confused with "they're totally awesome and will produce double-digit wins every season". "Head coach qualities" does not mean "some of the best assistants in the country". They might not have what it takes to win a three-way battle with Iowa and Wisconsin for a particular recruit. They might be great in a press conference but awful when teaching their players not to take a false step. I'm simply saying they have one quality: the type of commanding presence necessary to become a head coach some day.

If I had to handicap the eight non-coordinator assistants on "chances they'll have their own program one day just based on how they command a press conference", this would be the top four of those eight:

  1. Kevin Kane (OLB Coach) - I feel like you can say for certain that Kane will be a head coach at some point. I don't know if he has the football side of things to make that happen, but he does have the press conference side. If he interviewed to be your latex salesman tomorrow, you'd hire him.
  2. George McDonald (WR Coach) - I think the same of McDonald. He'll be a head coach some day. Maybe I'm blinded by the fact that Bielema named Kane as the "Associate Head Coach" and McDonald as the "Assistant Head Coach", but both just have that quality. "I know what I'm doing, and I can get other people to buy in."
  3. Aaron Henry (DB Coach) - As I said elsewhere, if Aaron Henry started a church tomorrow in Champaign, I'm there on Sunday. He's just the kind of guy you want to listen to for 30 minutes every Sunday. Let's call him "inspirational". I don't know if the other skills are there (organizational, etc), but I'll subscribe to his podcast if he ever has one.
  4. Bart Miller (OL Coach) - He's more the "see that wall over there - go run through it" kind of motivator. This might come off as having a negative connotation, but if he's on an infomercial selling me a flashlight that's better than what the military uses, I'm buying. Maybe I should refer to him as Sergeant Major Bart Miller.

There's 130 FBS head coaches and 1,300 FBS assistants so yeah, it would be very difficult for four coaches from one staff to go on to become FBS head coaches. But that's the vibe here. That's my sense.

And it made me think of this photo ("gross, it's Iowa" warning):

That's Hayden Fry's 1983 Iowa staff with Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Bill Snyder (K-State), Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin), Dan McCarney (Iowa State), and Kirk Ferentz (Iowa). One of those "now THAT'S a coaching tree" photos. Even though it's Iowa.

{rings disclaimer bell}

I am NOT saying "oh my God you guys Bielema's staff is Iowa's 1983 staff!". I will walk you thought my thinking on this issue.

Josh Whitman led off the Bret Bielema introductory press conference with a long opening statement where he talked about studying the Kansas State, Iowa, and Wisconsin rebuilds (among others). What helped Bill Snyder make Kansas State successful after decades of failure? What helped Barry Alvarez build Wisconsin after three full decades of losing? And he then discussed how Bielema had experience working at all three places - working for Hayden Fry at Iowa, then Bill Snyder at K-State, then Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin.

So when I hear that, I obviously think of this picture. I think about how Hayden Fry built Iowa, and I think about how he built it with future head coach types. And then I think about how two of those guys went on to build Wisconsin and K-State. And after that I think about Josh Whitman hiring someone based on that profile. And finally I land on "you know, that seems to be the type of coach Bielema is going for here".

Again, it doesn't MEAN anything. It's an observation. And with Bret Bielema's second press conference happening today, it was what I wanted to ask him. Here's my two questions about this and his two answers:

There's a lot to digest there. And there's a whole other post coming about his answers to the second question. But I thought what he had to say was interesting. No, he doesn't specifically approach it like that, but he does want great communicators and great leaders. I'm guessing that's at least somewhat similar to what Hayden Fry was looking for with his 1983 staff.

And since we're talking about 1983 and coaching staffs, this is where I should probably reference Mike White's early-80's coaching staffs. You old-timers have been thinking about it ever since I started wandering into this territory. That staff:

  • Brad Childress (WR then RB coach) went on to become Barry Alvarez' offensive coordinator at Wisconsin before eventually moving on to head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in 2006.
  • Walt Harris (QB coach) went on to become head coach at Pitt and Stanford.
  • Bill Callahan (OL coach) went on to become head coach of the Oakland Raiders and then, later, head coach at Nebraska.
  • Shawn Watson (GA and then TE Coach) went on to become head coach at Southern Illinois. After he was fired there he's been offensive coordinator at Colorado, Nebraska, Louisville, and Pitt.
  • Chip Myers was offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings when he died suddenly at the age of 53 in 1999, and many thought he would have eventually become a head coach in the NFL.

I should also note that two coaches saw their coaching career end at the Mike White Head Coach Academy. Max McCartney and Gary Horton. They were caught up in the NCAA investigation (so was Rick George, if we're expanding the list), and their career trajectory went the wrong way. I know that Gary Horton went into scouting after that - not sure what happened to Max McCartney.

Anyway, the point here is that this has happened in the past at Illinois. "This" being what I'm predicting here - that this staff has several head coach types. White put together a great staff, went to the Rose Bowl, and then recruiting sanctions got the best of him. Bielema, I believe, has put together a great staff. Let's hope the second thing happens but not the third thing.

And again - I feel like I really have to hammer this - it doesn't really "mean" anything. I'm not saying "Bret Bielema: Mike White II". This doesn't mean "Illini football is saved!". There's a long road between "hired really bright coaches, several of whom will be head coaches some day" and "Illinois football, competitive in the Big Ten West". If there's no recruiting prowess, no innovative schemes, then this ends with a simple "good staff on paper, but they just couldn't put it together".

I should also note that lots of head coaches put together good staffs of future head coaches. Probably the best example of this is - wait for it - Tim Beckman's first staff at Toledo. His entire offensive staff in 2009 at Toledo:

  • Matt Campbell (Offensive Coordinator) - current head coach of Iowa State
  • Scott Satterfield (QB coach) - current head coach of Louisville
  • Jason Candle (TE coach) - current head coach of Toledo
  • Alex Golesh (RB coach) - current offensive coordinator at UCF
  • Tom Manning (Graduate Assistant - offense) - current offensive coordinator at Iowa State

Yes, take that for what it is: Beckman hired a great staff at Toledo, it got him the Illinois job, and then he made recruiting hires, not scheme hires for his offensive coordinators (Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty), and... you know how all of that ended up. The point: some Toledo blogger could have called that the Beckman Head Coach Academy and they would have been right. Now that Josh Heupel is taking the Tennessee job, who knows, maybe UCF promotes OC Alex Golesh and then Beckman's entire 2009 offensive staff would be head coaches.

Back to Bielema. And it's time to wrap this up. I've been writing this post across three days.

On paper, I think the staff looks great. I was really fascinated today by the fact that he mentioned he wanted to hire two coordinators from outside his "coaching connections" tree - get some fresh eyes on college offenses and defenses. The part I wrote above (wrote it Monday evening, I think) about how the coordinators seem different from the rest of the staff, well, there's why. And it was also very fascinating (in the video clip above) where he talked about how the "Assistant Head Coach" and "Associate Head Coach" titles given to George McDonald and Kevin Kane mean that they oversee the offensive and defensive rosters. They're almost "recruiting coordinators" where they are the watchdogs over "we really need a juco or 5th-year safety this spring". Again, more to come on that in another post.

On the field, we have no idea yet. We don't even know the schemes. If they change a lot, we might find ourselves desperate for bigger, bulkier offensive linemen and taller, rangier safeties (or whatever) and then we might be in for a big roster overhaul. That information will trickle out over the next eight months.

For now, though, this my takeaway. We've signed up for Bielema Head Coach Academy. This class is full, but get your name on the waiting list now if you're interested in becoming a college head coach.

At BHCA, famILLy is our number one priority.

I don't do this enough, but I should. If you enjoyed this post and want more just like it (like, a whole year's-worth), please consider a subscription. Once you create an IlliniBoard account (login is top right - that's free and allows you to comment), subscription options are available here.


Sean on January 27, 2021 @ 03:43 PM

Good stuff all around.

"Robert Uses His Degree For Once" made me laugh out loud.

iluvrt on January 27, 2021 @ 04:08 PM

I did not know Robert was a botanist

ItsTBaggins on January 27, 2021 @ 07:36 PM

Landscape architect! What are ya, new?

Brave Illini on January 27, 2021 @ 04:12 PM


Maybe a side hustle for you - Coach's new home will need a landscaping plan (money should be no object).

Brave Illini on January 27, 2021 @ 04:21 PM

Is it possible the stars are becoming aligned, finally, to awaken the sleeping giant from its decades-long slumber? An AD that is smart and energetic, and has shown he can sell athletic facility development to our wealthy alumni. A Board of Trustees that at least doesn't get in the way, and is willing to spend the money it takes to attract quality athletic coaches and staffs. Facilities that are at least on a par with other leading athletic programs (not sure about all sports but football for sure). A head football coach that is at the right point in his career, with the right kind of experience and success, and being an Illinois native and fan, to take over as H.C.; with the charisma and relationships to attract other high-level coaches and recruits; with an apparent desire for this to be his ultimate and last head coaching job. Like you said, Robert, what we have does not yet mean success, but the foundation being laid seems to be a sturdy one on which to continue to build a winning football team, and winning in a way for which we can all be proud.

Efremwinters84 on January 27, 2021 @ 09:43 PM

Wow, nicely stated! And as for me, I'm fully onboard the train.

thegoah on January 27, 2021 @ 04:53 PM

As with every new hire, I’m excited because we have not yet lost any games by 63 points. It’s natural. And who knows what will work....

That said, I’m impressed with the planning and the reasoning and the strategizing. It seems like he has a plan.

My honest question—do you think the difference is that he has a detailed plan, or just that he’s more willing to articulate it to us?

Robert on January 27, 2021 @ 07:06 PM

Everyone has a plan. The difference so far (and really all we have to go on) is, as you say, the "willingness to articulate it to us".

I got a text from another reporter after the presser saying that it was an impressive press conference. My one-word response to him (and the title of my next post on this): "Transparency!"

Brave Illini on January 27, 2021 @ 05:15 PM

To me, it is both that he has a plan and that he has described it publicly (at least the portions that he can). With Lovie, he didn't explain his plan, at least in any detail, and so we had little way of knowing what his plan was, except as observers like Robert could discern it from watching practices and the games. I will say I also is impressive that Robert has the discipline, and wisdom, to be circumspect about all of these new developments, and to avoid band wagon jumping. That seems to be born in part by the "we're Illinois and can't be trusted" ways of the past. So let's not get ahead of ourselves, but celebrate the positive steps and results along the path, and have hope.

Robert on January 27, 2021 @ 07:07 PM

Well said.

rfowler on January 27, 2021 @ 05:53 PM

Great article! It seems like we are finally hiring a coaching staff suited to the college game(schemes, recruiting, game day prep, etc...). One small suggestion from "One of the Seventeen", no more free shit. People should pay for your content. It was disheartening to read about people using multiple devices to get around your paywall. Not telling you how to run your business, but I do think people will pay up when they can no longer keep stealing your content.

NC_OrangeKrush on January 27, 2021 @ 07:43 PM

Agreed! Fewer free!.. But glad you plugged the site to get them to pay up.

It's worth it... At $60.. Even $90... And at $30.. Yikes.. Don't give anymore away.....

Robert on January 27, 2021 @ 08:11 PM

A couple things:

  1. There are always going to be articles I designate as free. Yes, people get two free clicks and can sometimes access our stuff without being a subscriber, but for the articles that give people an example of what they'd be signing up for if they subscribe, I plan to always make those free. You put out a single on the radio in hopes the people will buy the album. (At least you used to.)

  2. Because of what I'll simply term "privacy on the internet", there's no way to completely close every back door to the site (well, there are, but we're not comfortable with any of them). So really, it just comes down to an individual decision for everyone who hits the paywall. We've made our decisions and restricted access the ways we think are fair. Beyond that, for me, all I can do is create content that makes people feel like they should pay me for it.

22 on January 27, 2021 @ 09:41 PM

agree. think of your free content, which is yours to choose, as your marketing allowance. You're much more likely to expand your subscription base via curated glimpses of content vs word-of-mouth, the latter being the only option for the "no more free" path.

That said, and this is Brumby's dept, people gaming this by reading over the limit via multiple devices, suck, as said elsewhere. on January 28, 2021 @ 03:03 PM

Nice pic of that 1983 Hayden Fry staff... Impressive list... Sooo, this is the staff that Mike White's team (and staff) beat 33-0 ... Or has my memory faded totally... (Just joking with you Robert - Keep up the good work). on January 28, 2021 @ 03:26 PM

Tried to edit this, and then tried to delete... I realize I posted this BEFORE reading the entire piece... Sorry ...

212Daniel on January 28, 2021 @ 03:50 PM

"On the field, we have no idea yet." Absolutely, BUT some people attract the best people to work with them; some people have family & friends. I've actually seen both models work but the odds favor one far over the other.

I have thought (and have posted on here) that UI football had been reduced to nice days in the Fall with going to eat at old & new haunts. But a couple days ago, I caught myself looking at the grants in aid page again.

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