DeKALB – As Bret Bielema stood at midfield of the Chessick Indoor Practice Facility on the Northern Illinois University campus last Wednesday, just a few hundred yards away from Huskie Stadium, he reminisced a bit about his first trip to DeKalb.
The Prophetstown native, who walked on at Iowa before getting into the coaching profession, watched high school kids running through drills and sprints and recalled his own experience doing the same thing during his playing days with the Prophets.
“My very first unofficial visit when I was a student-athlete was here; I came here to Northern Illinois,” Bielema said. “Coach [Jerry] Pettibone was the coach, Golden Pat Ruel was the recruiting coordinator, and I took my first unofficial visit here with a couple buddies to watch a game. So it’s been fun to be back here.”
Bielema was back for one of the Huskies’ annual camps, a 1-day event open to high school players. Bielema and his coaching staff from Arkansas were in attendance, as were James Franklin and the Penn State coaches. Other schools, including Western Illinois and Southern Illinois, were also at the camp.
It’s one of the annual camps Rod Carey and the NIU coaching staff host throughout the summer, but it’s the first time Power Five coaches have been a part of the proceedings.
It was basically a trip home for Bielema, who is going into his fifth season as the head coach at Arkansas. He loved the chance to get back near his old stomping grounds.
“Rod is a guy that I’ve known forever,” Bielema explained. “One of my first O-line coaches [at Wisconsin] was Bob Bostad, who’s his cousin, who worked with them here at NIU this past year. So I’ve known him a long time, and when these opportunities came about 2 years ago, we kind of got surprised by them late and didn’t have time to really get in where we wanted to.
“We’ve been so good in the North recruiting, since I’ve gone to Arkansas; our best O-lineman – really the best player on our team – is from Minnesota, and we signed a kid out of the Chicago area this year. A lot of the SEC schools, they don’t do a lot of recruiting up here, so it’s kind of nice to come in and not compete against them.”
Bielema, who started as a graduate assistant at Iowa, then went to Kansas State and Wisconsin as a defensive coordinator before spending seven seasons as the Badgers’ head coach, left the comfort of the Midwest in the December 2012 and took on the daunting task of being an SEC head coach.
The opportunity to coach in the league that has been considered the strongest in college football over the past decade-plus was too much for the
Illinois native to pass up.
“Two things: I’ve always kind of wanted to try it, even when I was in the Big Ten,” Bielema said. “I had an opportunity years ago to join as D-coordinator in the league and turned it down at the time to stay at Wisconsin. When the opportunity came to be a head coach in this league, especially in the West, it was something that was really kind of intriguing to me.
“Bottom line, that’s what I made the jump to try and do. This year will be our fifth year, which will be all of our players that we’ve recruited and brought in and developed, so I’m very, very excited about that and to see where that goes. Obviously, each year we’ve gotten better and I like where we’re at. I think it’s our best team to come.”
The Razorbacks went 3-9 in his first season, including 0-8 in the SEC, but have gone 22-17 in the last three seasons and earned bowl bids each year. Bielema is 25-26 at Arkansas, 10-22 in the SEC, and owns a 93-50 record in 12 seasons as a head coach.
He’s enjoying life in the Fayetteville area, noting that other than the “different intensity that’s pretty unique,” coaching in the SEC isn’t that much different from being at Wisconsin.
“It hasn’t really been that much of a change in our daily living,” Bielema said. “On the field, though, it’s been a challenge – but one that’s been very fun. I think the SEC, unequivocally, is the conference that everybody looks to, turns to, and to be on that stage week in and week out, there’s no bye week, there’s no off weeks. It’s a different animal, but it’s a lot of fun. It allows you to recruit a certain type of player that maybe we weren’t able to be exposed to in the past.
“And in Arkansas there’s no pro football, baseball, basketball, so it is very unique to that same scenario as in, say, Iowa, where it’s just kind of unique in the fact that there’s not a lot of states where you can say that now, especially in the SEC. That’s what really kind of drew me to Arkansas.”
Bielema says he gets back to the area as much as he can; 2 weeks ago, he attended his godson’s high school graduation in Prophetstown, and says he tries to “sneak it in when we can” to visit his family and friends.
And the Bielema family is about to grow just a bit bigger: Bielema’s wife, Jen, is due to give birth to their first child, a daughter, in about 4 weeks. He says the chance to build a life in Fayetteville is an exciting prospect.
“It is a good fit for us,” said Bielema about Arkansas. “We’d only been married a year, and it was a chance for us to kind of grow together, a chance for us to take on something new together, and kind of give us an opportunity to have a clean start. It’s been a lot of fun, and I think it’s only going to get better.”
Hometown: Prophetstown (class of 1988)
College: Iowa (class of 1993)
Coaching career: Iowa graduate assistant, 1993-2001; Kansas State co-defensive coordinator, 2002-03; Wisconsin defensive coordinator, 2004-05; Wisconsin head coach, 2006-12; Arkansas head coach, 2013-present
Coaching stats: 93-50 record (37-19 Big Ten, 10-22 SEC), 10 bowl games (2 Rose Bowls), 3 Big Ten titles, 6 times ranked in final AP Top 25, Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2006, national Coach of the Year finalist in 2006, 2010 & 2011