Let's just start here:
In my estimation, Bret Bielema knows what wins in college football. This does not mean that he will win at Illinois, but after 10 months of covering him, I am fairly certain that he understands what it takes to build a winning college football program. Application of that understanding? We have no idea. Understanding? I've seen enough to make this declaration: he gets it.
Before we get started, I should note that this is not something we've always been able to say around Champaign. In 30+ years of coaches attempting to rebuild one of the five worst programs in major conference football, there have been questions at the start of every new regime. Maybe our starting point here should be the questions that dogged each coach:
- Lou Tepper - Great defensive coordinator and has a knack with linebackers, but is he head coach material? John Mackovic had this program humming, but does Tepper know how to tune a motor?
- Ron Turner - Understands NFL offenses and can probably build his pro-set offense here, but does he know how to build a college program?
- Ron Zook - Absolutely knows how to recruit and will likely upgrade the talent immediately. But can he put all of the pieces together? That's the part he couldn't figure out at Florida.
- Tim Beckman - He's implementing everything he wrote down in that binder the last 20 years while working for Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel, and Mike Gundy. But are they his principles or just some instruction manual?
- Lovie Smith - Still has cachet in Chicago and built great NFL defenses with the Rams and the Bears. But does he understand how to build a college program? He's been out of the college game for 20 years.
If we were to apply a question to Bret Bielema in the same way, I think it would be "he sustained the program that Barry Alvarez built at Wisconsin but he couldn't replicate it when he set out on his own at Arkansas. So can he build something without Barry as the guide?" Which is probably closest to... Tim Beckman I guess? A paragraph or two of explanation here before your heads explode.
Tim Beckman often spoke of his "bible", a binder he had assembled in all his years as an assistant. He'd learn this from Mike Gundy, it goes in the binder. He'd learn this from Jim Tressel, it goes in the binder. So at the first Tim Beckman training camp, when they started doing the whole "put a black stripe on every freshman's helmet and then hold a 'de-striping' ceremony when each freshman had earned the right to no longer be viewed as a freshman" thing, well, that was 100% an Urban Meyer thing. Beckman saw it, it went in the binder, and then he applied it when he got a Big Ten job.
The problem, as we saw, was being the leader. You can't just read from a binder. Every organization must have a leader at the top who makes decisions with conviction, not just "let me check to see what my binder says". I'm not saying Tim Beckman did that in every instance, and nobody asked me here, but the issue that led to the investigation and his downfall, in my opinion, was emulation. In his attempts to be Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, and Pat Dye, he violated player safety boundaries because it wasn't leadership, it was emulation. No great leader can be derivative.
I don't see the same from Bret Bielema. In fact, I see more conviction than I did with any of the coaches listed above. I'll say it again, this time with a period after each word - this. does. not. mean. he's. a. lock. to. rebuild. this. program. - but I do see conviction. This is not just "I saw Bill Snyder and Barry Alvarez do these things, so now I'm going to try to do those things." This all comes from a place of conviction. He learned a lot of it from them, to be sure, but in 10 months of attending his press conferences, he seems to draw from his own experiences, not the experiences of others.
OK, groundwork laid. That's our starting point here. A program that really hasn't had a coach who could communicate his "this is how I believe a college program should be built" strategy now has a coach who stands at the lectern every Monday and walks us through the floor plans. As an Illini fan - yes, media members reading this, I'm the dreaded fan-in-the-pressbox - so I want it to work in the same way that I wanted Lovie's "start over and play all of the freshmen" to work and I wanted Beckman's "here's everything I saw Jim Tressel do" to work and I wanted Zook's "just recruit every problem away" to work. I'll always want everything to work because I want my team to win. But you're not going to hear me say "this is going to work" because, well, nothing has ever worked.
Yesterday, during the Monday press conference, I tweeted something. I rarely tweet during a press conference - always after. But Bielema's comments on roster construction made me pull my phone out of my pocket:
From the "I guess I have to clarify this" department:— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) October 18, 2021
I do not mean "shots fired" at the players. Many are already gone. All of the offensive linemen in the 2020 class (3 HS, 1 transfer) are already gone.
Shots fired = "the former staff left me no depth on the offensive line".
I linked that as two tweets there (with my clarification tweet which came an hour after the first one) because some of the responses I received focused on the players part of that. (I should also note that I later figured out he was discussing 2018-2020, not 2019-2021). Within the structure of the question and the overall answer, I did not hear his statements as referencing the players. I believe the "shots" that were "fired" were directed at Lovie Smith. Specifically, Lovie's staff seemingly emphasizing OL recruiting early and then just playing those same players year after year without recruiting reliable reinforcements.
That was clunky. Let's see if I can unpack that paragraph so everyone can understand what I'm saying.
In 2017, there were four freshmen on the offensive line: Vederian Lowe, Alex Palczewski, Doug Kramer, and Larry Boyd. Boyd was then dismissed from the team and another recruit from the 2017 class, Kendrick Green, became a starter on the line. Those four guys (Green, Lowe, Palcho, and Kramer) have been the anchors of every line since (all but this season, of course, with Green having declared for the draft last spring).
So to anyone who follows this program closely, that has been the offensive line talking point for years. It's the same guys on the OL year after year, so what's the succession plan? Fast forward to this summer with all of the OL recruits in the 2020 class (Griffin, Sparks, Tyler, and Jones) transferring out and Jordyn Slaughter breaking his ankle and we get to the point that Bielema made in the press conference today (in the other answer where he referenced Julian Pearl). On the offensive line, it's five seniors (Lowe, Kramer, and Palcho plus one-year grad transfers Jack Badovinac and Blake Jeresaty), another guy from the 2017 class who redshirted so he's technically a junior (Alex Pihlstrom), and then Julian Pearl. From 2018 through today, the only guy to move up through the OL program and onto the field has been Julian Pearl.
Now, if Rod Smith and Bob McClain were allowed to retort, they would point to guys they recruited who Bielema won't play. They had Verdis Brown as an anchor of their future lines (and they started him at guard all last season); Bielema moved him to defensive tackle. They saw Brevyn Jones and Blaise Sparks as the future answers at tackle; Bielema did not (Jones transferred to Jacksonville State; Sparks transferred to Delaware). So it does get muddy. Smith and McClain would claim they planned to develop Jones and Sparks into Big Ten offensive linemen; Bielema would claim there's a reason they transferred to Jacksonville State and Delaware.
My point: such discussions will always be murky. The new staff will say "the cupboard was bare" and the old staff would say "we left you a 4-star offensive guard who started every game last year and you won't even play him" and the new staff will say "because he's a defensive tackle playing offensive line" and the old staff will say "because you don't know how to develop offensive linemen" and off we go. There's no way to determine who is "right". Is Verdis Brown a future All Big Ten offensive guard who isn't being developed properly or is he and out-of-position defensive tackle who needed to be moved to defense? Honestly, we'll probably never "know".
Which is why I feel like we should just ignore all of that. Yes, I started this post with 1,500 words I want you to ignore. If you hated Lovie it's easy to go with "Bielema has nothing to work with." If you dislike Bielema because of the Maryland and Purdue fourth-down decisions it's "Bielema is showing he's in over his head in this press conference." If you're Team Bret, it was "he was talking about the harsh realities of the roster he inherited" yesterday. If you're Team BERT, it was Bielema tossing all 120 players under the bus.
Doesn't matter. Ignore all of it. Listen to me for the next 10 minutes. If, at the end, you want to dismiss what I have laid out here, that's fine. But please tune out all distractions and listen for the next 10 minutes. I have some things I want to tell you. This is what I've observed.
Josh Whitman hired Bret Bielema because of his experience at Iowa, Kansas State, and Wisconsin. It's nearly the first thing Whitman said at Bielema's introductory press conference. He looked at programs in the Midwest that had found the secret formula for longevity - Kansas State, Iowa, and Wisconsin - and he landed on a guy who had coached at all three. Bret Bielema was the linebackers coach when Kirk Ferentz took over the Iowa program. He then became the defensive coordinator at Kansas State when Bill Snyder won 11 games in back-to-back seasons in 2002 and 2003. And then he was defensive coordinator at Wisconsin when the Badgers went 9-3 and 10-3 in 2004 and 2005. After the 2005 season, Alvarez stepped down and handed the program to Bielema as the next head coach.
You know Bielema's history from there. Won at Wisconsin. Struck out on his own at Arkansas but was fired after five seasons of 29-34 football. Then, after three years as an NFL assistant, he's back in the Big Ten at Illinois. Where he has, in my view, produced a fairly impressive set of floor plans. It's just paper for now, not brick and mortar, and if the builder isn't any good, the structure won't be very impressive, but the plans remain impressive. Here's how I read them:
From the moment he arrived he started talking about the benefits to the Covid waiver. Much of the focus has been on the Super Seniors, but that was never the whole point (at least the way I saw it). As a coach taking over a program needing to be rebuilt, he saw opportunity in one year with no scholarship limit. Bring back every available student athlete and find a rotation of players - from sixth year guys to true freshmen - to begin to install the culture. If he could have found a way to put 160 scholarship players on the practice field this summer, he would have.
The way that was discussed (and yes, some of it could be found here), the focus was on 22 Super Seniors trying to win right away. But it was more than that. He saw that absence of a scholarship limit as an way to not only bring back as many seniors as possible but to also audition as many actors as possible for a role in future productions.
An example: nine walkons have been put on scholarship in the last 10 months. These are all one-year scholarships that might not be renewed for next season, but with the scholarship limit lifted, Bielema has gone out of his way to recognize players who have pushed their way into the conversation at their respective positions. Some have become part of the regular rotation (Tip Reiman, Alex McEachern), some have just played a lot on special teams, but this is another part of Bielema's "with no scholarship limit for my first year, I'm going to cast the net as wide as possible" plan. My title for it, not his.
Once he had that established, the 15 spring practices were a way to begin evaluating his inherited roster. In June and July, eight players transferred out, likely after heart-to-heart talks with the staff saying that it was unlikely they would find playing time here. Four of those eight were offensive linemen, which is somewhat the basis for that quote yesterday. But we've already been over that.
The June/July transfers were just a precursor for what's about to happen. I believe this upcoming offseason will see the largest roster overhaul of our lifetimes. Auditions are nearly complete - those who haven't gotten on stage have been able to perform during dress rehearsals - and after the season the cast list will be posted. (I probably need to stop playing with that and really focus in.) The first 11 months were all about expanding the roster to evaluate as many players as possible. The 12th month will see dozens of players depart and a maxed-out recruiting class brought in.
Maybe this is the best way to frame it for Illini fans. Think if Brad Underwood had been allowed unlimited scholarships his first season. The scenario we saw play out (13 players on the 2017/18 team, a few graduated and 6 transferred out, meaning only four players - Frazier, Williams, Nichols, and Jordan - returned for 2018/19) would have been something like "19 players on the 2017/18 roster with six returning for 2018/19". Underwood auditioned 13 guys, but if he had an opportunity with this Covid waiver like Bielema has, he might have auditioned 19 guys.
These last 10 months for Bret Bielema have been an attempt to evaluate as many players as possible. Just look at the nine walkons put on scholarship and moved into the rotation, the high school recruits being added in March and April (Odeluga and Curry) as blueshirts, the transfers being added from January (Hart and Hudson) through August (Bryant), all in the name of "no scholarship limit in 2021 so let's max this out." In a few months, the cut-downs begin.
I've written about the looming "cut-downs" several times in the last few weeks, but here's the math again:
- Upwards of 100 players on scholarship right now (the number I have is 96, but that might be off by one or two). That needs to go back down to 85 next season after the NCAA's one-year "unlimited scholarships due to Covid returnees" waiver expires.
- The NCAA raised the single-class scholarship limit from 25 to 32. As long as you have 7 players transfer out (Illinois might have four times that), you can bring in 7 players over the former limit of 25. This staff will absolutely do that.
- So if this staff is going to add 32 players, and the limit goes back to 85, we have the number where the roster will land at the end of this first year: 85 - 32 = 53 players will return.
- If we use my scholarship number of 96 right now and 22 are Super Seniors, that means once those players graduate there are 74 scholarship players with at least one more year of eligibility on this roster.
- 74 players with eligibility... need to be at 53 to make room for the 32 high school recruits/transfers... 21 players are headed out the door in a few months.
I just now realized that 53 is also the NFL number. That's probably the easiest way to frame this. December 19, 2020 through the day after the Northwestern game next month = one long NFL training camp. By the end, they have to be at 53. So they maxed out their draft picks, signed as many street free agents as possible, and put every possible player who could help them through a series of drills. In the end, 90-something will get cut down to 53.
That's the answer to every question you have. "Why hasn't Shammond Cooper played?" They like other linebackers more and have to cut down to 53. "Why give even more walkons scholarships in the fall of 2021 when you're already well over the limit?" Because they want to let players like freshman walkon Tip Reiman know that he's a big part of their future plans. "Why would Bret talk about Lovie's staff leaving him with very little to work with on the offensive line?" Because he evaluated 19 offensive linemen, determined that only 7 are ready, and has noted that six of the seven are grad students. In his view, he was given only a one-year supply of offensive linemen.
What might your NFL team do when they have a one-year supply of offensive linemen with five of them retiring after the season? Go sign free agent after free agent after free agent. What was Bret Bielema suggesting he's going to do this offseason? Scour the transfer portal for offensive linemen.
Every Monday, Bret Bielema steers his answers towards these things. From what I've observed, he gives short answers when asked what he sees on film from Maryland and long answers when asked about roster management. He doesn't want to talk about the renderings. He wants to discuss the floor plans.
Will it work? I can't answer that. I thought that Lovie Smith playing 22 freshmen in 2017 would mean win after win in 2020. Those players are still around in 2021 thanks to Covid and they were 2-6 last year and 2-5 so far this year. Not only did it not work, it got significantly worse after those players went to a bowl game as juniors in 2019.
But "work" isn't the point here. Again, we're talking plans, not the actual structure. And as far as I can see, there's a lot of solid math in these plans. Evaluate 104 scholarship players. Take 96 with you into the 2021 season. Then slice that all the way down to 53 so that you can immediately add 32 of your own recruits.
Solid way to go about it, in my view. Math that leads to a good foundation. Should be durable. An innovative approach to a changing landscape.