Jan 29, 2021

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I've heard from a fair number of people saying the same thing: "when Bielema was hired I was quite skeptical but man, after a month, I'm completely on board". I have a theory as to why. Yes, every new coach brings hope and excitement (well, unless you're a Tennessee fan), but this seems to be something different. The way I see it: Bielema's transparency is quite refreshing for this fanbase.

I landed on this on Wednesday during the Zoom press conference. I had seen lots of "Lovie didn't care about recruiting but Bielema does" talk, but to me, that didn't really explain this fanbase about-face. Every coaching change is going to result in things like hefty praise for recruits who would have garnered "great, another low three-star" a month prior. As I've said before, when you sniff the new car smell, everything seems better.

But this was something more than that. It wasn't "hey, this is a pretty good staff - maybe he knows what he's doing", either (although that definitely helps). Something was causing this blast of heat which caused the fanbase to warm to Bielema very quickly. And I think I figured it out: I think it's his transparency.

When compared to the previous staff, to me, this is the part that is night and day different. "Lovie didn't care about recruiting!" I don't think that was the case. He put a lot into his NFL-like "player personnel" department and enjoyed getting out on the road when head coaches are allowed to leave campus. He just couldn't sell his vision. "Lovie was just mailing it in for his retirement check!". That's not what I observed. He cared a fair bit and had a firm plan - he just couldn't execute it (or the plan was bad). "Lovie was so secretive and closed-off that fans couldn't like him even if they wanted to". Totally agree.

This was the one thing I think I was fairly outspoken about. Lovie did not want one ounce of information to leave the building unless he was required to release it. Injuries? Not talking about them. Media interviews? Only when absolutely necessary. Help shape the narrative around the team by releasing certain bits of information at certain times? No chance.

I wrote about it this summer in the post where I talked about how Jeff Brohm smartly sold his 2019 Purdue season as injury-plagued while Lovie refused to even acknowledge the injuries until one hour before the final game. That roster (the Illinois roster for the Northwestern game last year) had the deepest injury list of any Illini game I've covered, but Lovie wouldn't even discuss it. If I'm the coach - and yes, you have to be careful with excuses - I'm saying "look, guys - I'm down to three scholarship wide receivers and am missing 19 of the 44 guys on my two-deep". If I've been upfront in talking about those things in the past, even when it means saying "injuries weren't the issue today - we simply can't lose to Eastern Michigan at home", then talking about it when it's an actual issue has merit.

That's not how Lovie operated. If the Big Ten doesn't require you to talk about injuries like the NFL did, then he's not talking about them. His policy was basically "don't ask".

Writing that reminded me of writing something about this before. I will now look it up.

Found it. It was from this post last January. I was trying to guess the org chart for the assistants because Lovie wouldn't talk about it. I was trying to guess how the defensive staff would be organized based on the new assistant coach salaries that had been published online. And I commented on why I had to guess:

Why don't we know that that's the case and why do we have to guess based on salary tiers? Because Lovie is a need-to-know coach, and you don't need to know. That's not combative nor secretive - it's just Lovie's personality.

I also would talk about the injury thing a lot on Twitter. Some examples from 2016, 2018, and 2019:

Part of it was "I don't want them to be able to gameplan for our left tackle and left guard being out". But part of it was what I said a year ago: Lovie was a need-to-know coach and you don't need to know. If the information doesn't have to be out there, it won't be.

In that sense - if Lovie was a 2 out of 100 in transparency - Bret Bielema is a 68. I don't know how he'll handle injuries, or if he'll close off media from all info during the season, or anything else. But purely in terms of transparency in his interactions with the public and the media this first month, Bielema is night-and-day different from Lovie.

Take the example of coaching staff organization mentioned in my Org Chart post above. In that post I was guessing at how he'd organize his revised coaching staff based on the salaries each coach was making for the next season. I did that because Lovie wouldn't talk about things like that. For Bielema, he gave a three-minute answer yesterday when I asked about it. That may not seem like much, but again, I'm comparing it to the answer we would have gotten from Lovie (15 seconds of "it's my staff, I'll figure it out, you'll see once training camp starts").

Again, these aren't shots at Lovie - coaches can do whatever they want. The NFL coach most similar to Lovie's "you'll get nothing and like it" stance towards the media is Bill Belichick. But when you're trying to get buy-in from fans and haven't built the program yet, transparency is very helpful.

Side note: every time I talk about Lovie I feel I need to check myself. When I write something like "when you haven't built the program yet", I need you to know that I once wrote that the moment between Daniel Barker catching the touchdown pass at Michigan State in 2019 and the Illini fan section erupting once we realized it was a touchdown was "the rebirth of Illinois football". I still have penance yet to pay.

Anyway, here's that video again (from my post yesterday). Bielema's answer to my coaching staff organization question starts at 1:30

I'll say it one more time since this is important. For Lovie, who would sidestep questions like that (to the point where most stopped asking), allowing the media access to that information was never a consideration. Telling reporters specifically how he's going to set up his defensive staff (and going into detail about who has what responsibility) would never, ever be discussed. I believe he saw it as giving opponents something they could use. If he doesn't disguise all information, someone is going to know the fastball is coming.

Bielema appears to be more the "here comes the fastball - try to hit it" type. With one question, I understand how his staff will work:

  • Tony Peterson designs the offense, Ryan Walters designs the defense. They'll have input from their whole staff, obviously, and with the head coach, but their main responsibility as "coordinators" will be scheme and playcalling.
  • George McDonald is in charge of the offensive roster, and Kevin Kane is in charge of the defensive roster. Bielema keeps his coordinators focused on the X's & O's and lets his "Assistant Head Coach" and "Associate Head Coach" organize the Jimmies & Joes. The person tracking the development of the redshirt freshman cornerback to see if he'll be ready soon or if they might need two corners in the next class instead of one will be Kevin Kane.
  • After that, there are three additional assistants on each side of the ball. Cory Patterson, Bart Miller, and Ben Miller on the offense and Andy Buh, Terrance Jamison, and Aaron Henry on the defense. I'm assuming, but don't know, the he'll be relying on these six guys for a lot of the recruiting legwork.
  • Because of this setup, he looked to hire coordinators he had never worked with. He wanted different sets of eyes. Once he had those in place, he worked out from there to hire his AHC's and his position assistants.
  • He also noted in that statement that Pat Embleton would be the person coordinating those roster moves with George McDonald and Kevin Kane. So that means Embleton (recruiting assistant under Beckman, director of recruiting under Lovie) will be sticking around.

This is the key difference, as I see it, and the reason I think fans are warming so quickly:

It's not that Lovie didn't have a plan. I've seen all of this "Bielema his this detailed plan and Lovie just visited his vacation homes". Lovie had a plan. It failed, but Lovie had a plan. We'd eventually learn of that plan as new positions were posted on the website - a "Director Of Man Development" who oversaw the maturation of every young man on the roster, an NFL-like scouting department with one of his former NFL scouts in charge of reviewing film - but Lovie never told us of that plan. He shared as little as possible. We didn't need to know.

Bret Bielema wants us to know. It's refreshing. I mean, he agreed to join me for a half-hour interview on We Love No Other. This is not a media request that Lovie would have approved. The less information he shared, the better. "Just trust that there's a plan and you'll see it rolled out." Time after time during press conference Lovie would say the same thing over and over: "You guys know me. Is that a question you think I'd answer?" He wanted to be known as the coach who would share as little information as possible.

Again - that's fine. That's how Bill Belichick does it. To each his own. But for Illinois fans desperate for a rebuild, Lovie's "just trust me, we have a plan" eventually only had about nine supporters (including yours truly, whose wife once told him he had the "patience of Job"). At some point, you have to be more transparent about what you're trying to do. You have to articulate it.

(And then you have to produce wins, of course, which Lovie failed to do.)

That's how I see it, anyway. The reason for the fanbase going from "Bielema?" to "Bielema!" so quickly? Transparency.

Now let's hope it leads to the actual rebirth of Illinois football.


IBFan on January 29, 2021 @ 12:46 PM

There was a distinct odor of pretentiousness with Lovie. From the word choices, the tone, and mannerisms he used when addressing the media. Also, Lovie didn’t have some great secret or was giving up some tactical advantage on many of these issues. He excluded fans, alums, and media because we were beneath him. I was a huge Lovie supporter but I can’t even begin to discuss his level of indifference for alumni, donors, former players in general over the last year plus. If you offered help or publicly questioned his decisions it was handled in the passive-aggressive Lovie way. Hard to “buy in” when you are not included. I hope that this turns out great for the university and you Robert. How awesome will it be if the school has a relevant football program and you are there for it full time? Full time with a coach that understands that you, we are part of the program.

Nall23 on January 29, 2021 @ 01:59 PM

Many of us expected that Lovie would act the way he did to the media because we saw how he operated when he was with the Bears. We didn't think necessarily expect other stakeholders (e.g. former players, alumni, football coaches) would feel like they were getting similar treatment. Now, I recognize that to some extent, those groups may always feel a bit slighted - but there sure feels like there is a lot more smoke here than a usual coach departure.

Then again, winning cures all. I think that had Lovie acted like he did to the media (and potentially to other stakeholders), we would still love him because we were winning. Alas (spoiler alert), that was not the way to be.

I'm fairly certain that Lovie was ultimately a good person, but it sure seems like there was arrogance in how he approached certain aspects of the job. In contrast, we're inheriting a coach who has publicly acknowledged that he has been I think the fan excitement is a combination of the transparency but ALSO humility that we can see. I don't think Bielema would be getting the kudos he has been without the humility that he has demonstrated.

mrmill on January 30, 2021 @ 08:12 AM

Agreed. It was mildly annoying with the bears, but he won. It looks way worse when you are losing and openly hostile to the media.

The belichek example is a good one. Win that much in one place and you can be as big of an ass as you want. If he goes somewhere else and loses 75% of his games in 5 years, everyone will hate him.

Efremwinters84 on February 2, 2021 @ 06:25 PM

HUMILITY. Great observation! Humility was absolutely the last personality trait I was expecting to see out of Bret Bielema. I've been a Bielema fan since he left Wisconsin --- and I've always hoped he would return home to Illinois when the opportunity surfaced. But I certainly never expected him to be talking to the media about hog farming and tuba playing. I don't think he could have done much more (to impress the fan base) in his first month-and-a-half in the job.

ohioillini77 on January 29, 2021 @ 01:03 PM

I think openness is important now as we have to sell the "sizzle" because we might not have much steak yet. I think recruits and their families will appreciate this and we can get some fast buy in from players, coaches and fans.

Brave Illini on January 29, 2021 @ 01:47 PM

You nailed it. It helps that he talks sense and has a good personality (Beckman?). Some people are better off not being transparent. It also helps that Bielema has recruited and assembled what appears to be a very good staff, and recruited some good players (including some of our own) - tangible results on top of the transparency. I also think Bielema will not be afraid to be held accountable. By putting his markers out there - "we want to win now" (not just put in building blocks for the future), he is giving all of us more information on which to judge his, and the team's, performance. I like his courage.

mac2212 on January 29, 2021 @ 02:07 PM

Lovie failed the last 4 years. It seems to me Coach Beilema looked at what Lovie said and how he did things and made the decision he will do the opposite.

iluvrt on January 29, 2021 @ 05:50 PM

Opposite George

O&B4life on January 29, 2021 @ 02:56 PM

As you said, fans want to believe. And when you haven't had much on-field success for 30 years, you have to give them reasons to believe. Transparency does that. And with that transparency, fans are seeing that Bielema: 1) truly cares about building a winning program at Illinois and 2) has a plan for doing it. I feel that great leaders are able to articulate a vision and rally people toward a common goal. That's what Bielema seems to be doing here.

As a fan, I can't ask for much more from my head coach.

illinizeeman on January 29, 2021 @ 05:13 PM

Off-topic: Lovie's decline started when he fired "Chico" (Ron Rivera) as DC in Chicago. From that point, the talent steeply declined, the schema didn't work, and as the pressure increased, the circle of trust shrank. At UI, he was a well-respected person that gave them a return to integrity and notoriety in the sense that "this place has the ability to attract a big name." The fact that Bielema started eyeing this job two or three years ago means he wants to be here. That's huge.

Chuck on January 29, 2021 @ 05:24 PM

I’ve converted from a Bielema? to a Bielema! Though a completely different person, this hire reminds me of the Mike White hire. He has charisma, which I didn’t expect. Mackovic was our last great coach. His demeanor was more like Lovie’s, but he won, so he was tolerable. Lovie and Mackovic’s personalities weren’t conducive to a small college town. White’s, and seemingly Bielema’s personalities are.

Duce20 on January 29, 2021 @ 10:47 PM

Lovie sucked. He carried the arrogance of Saban with worse results than Beckman and yes he was lazy in recruiting. He stole from the State and the University.

Brave Illini on January 31, 2021 @ 10:04 AM

Have to say, been a fan for a long time, and have never had this level of excited, positive anticipation about next season. Wins and losses for the first season under the new regime are actually secondary for me, and instead am looking more forward to how the team is prepared and performs, realizing the potential of their talent.

TdogIllini on January 31, 2021 @ 09:06 PM

Great article Bob, so TRUE. I never liked how Lovie handled the press in Chicago, I thought he was an arrogant ass. And he brought that to Champaign. He is now the DC at the Pro Texan team...If he plans on using his old fashion defense there.. Good Luck, he will be gone shortly. I always thought he was in over his head.

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