CHAMPAIGN — After a disappointing home defeat to Texas San Antonio last Saturday night, Illinois football coach Bret Bielema thought his group needed a pick-me-up.
He’d also been doing some thinking.
So, at 7 a.m. on Wednesday during the Illini’s regular team meeting at the Smith Center, Bielema called down a group of players while discussing the game plan for Virginia.
Among the mix were five walk-ons: Bryce Barnes, an outside linebacker and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley graduate, tight end Tip Reiman and three other linebackers in Ryan Meed, Sean Coghlan and Isaac Darkangelo.
Bielema hadn’t told anyone in the program what he was about to announce: All five players would receive scholarships.
He had made a similar move in the spring, placing Tailon Leitzsey, Michael Marchese, Alec McEachern and Christian Bobak on scholarships after calling them down to demonstrate a new drill.
By the time the words “scholarship” left Bielema’s mouth in the spring, the four were swarmed by gleeful, cheering teammates, and the Illinois football program shared a video on social media of Bielema’s sly presentation and the ensuing celebration.
This time, Bielema wanted to handle the life-altering news for these players differently.
“I not only wanted to surprise the players and the teammates, I wanted to surprise my coaches,” Bielema said. “So I didn’t even tell my coaches what I was going to do. I put a little spin on it that kind of caught everybody off-guard. I know if I rattled off those five players that were all non-scholarship, they would’ve been like, ‘Oh, I’m onto Coach,’ and ‘I’ve been down this rodeo,’ but I kind of disguised it.”
Later, on his Wednesday night radio show, Bielema told host and Voice of the Illini Brian Barnhart about the moment.
“I just felt we needed to have a little energy boost,” he said.
On Thursday, Bielema explained why he didn’t want to share this particular team moment on social media. The video of the spring announcement racked up almost 80,000 views and plenty of engagement on Twitter, but an intimate team moment holds more value to Bielema than social media traction.
“I’m also a guy that, a little old school, I think that’s us,” Bielema said. “That belongs with us. That happened in our team meeting room, and that moment will live forever with those players and those coaches and me as something that the outside world never gets to see. That’s the privilege of being in our room.
“And it probably would’ve been great, media and all that other stuff, the story is out there,” he continued. “People understand it. But the moment that we shared as players and coaches, I didn’t want the outside world to see.”
What Bielema has seen, though, from the five new scholarship players during the last nine months since he took the Illini job last December is what led him to award them scholarships.
“You’ve got Sean, a walk-on from the Chicago area in his final season, and has done everything right, from A to Z,” Bielema said. “Tip is a non-scholarship player from the Dakotas that has come in and really been a very valuable third tight end for us (and) a great complement to their guys.”
“Ryan, walk-on from New York that is just — everything from recruiting to weight room to academics, everything, (he) stands for all that’s right in college football, especially here at the University of Illinois,” Bielema said. “Bryce, right down the road from Gibson City, played a lot last year, played for us. I use him as a shield on punt. Just an awesome, awesome young man that represents our state. And then Isaac, who actually was a transfer from (Northern Michigan), a Division II school, came in and just has done a tremendous job here.”
Bielema remembers what it was like walking onto the team at Iowa under Hayden Fry in the late 1980s, and he understands the meaning that a scholarship has in a young athlete’s life.
Fry, who became a coaching mentor for Bielema, put him on scholarship after his second season with the Hawkeyes. The practice of rewarding walk-ons with scholarship spots continued while Bielema served as Bill Snyder’s defensive coordinator at Kansas State in 2002 and 2003.
“I was a former walk-on myself, and really wasn’t able to earn a scholarship until my second year, after I proved what they saw on practice became reality on the field, that I would be able to contribute,” he said. “All five of those guys, I’ve been very impressed with since the day I got here.”
At Wisconsin, Bielema made name for himself with a number of walk-ons-turned-stars, notably J.J. Watt. It’s a development that helped the Badgers secure three straight Big Ten titles during his tenure.
Along with Watt, who has 101 career NFL sacks, offensive tackle Rick Wagner, free safety Chris Maragos and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis all went onto NFL careers after walking on at Wisconsin.
With the frequency of injuries in football and the rotating door reality of the transfer portal in 2021, a coach that uses walk-ons well can squeeze crucial production and playmaking out of a roster.
“I call those guys erasers,” Bielema said. “A lot of times, they erase recruiting mistakes. Guys that maybe don’t ever perform at the level you expected them to, or (had) an injury or something happened that you’re missing a scholarship player at a certain position. That’s something I believed in as a player. That’s why I walked on a the University of Iowa.”
Bielema also believes each of the five Illini players he put on scholarship this week are capable of much more than helping this season.
“I’ve had a lot of former players go on to do great things,” Bielema said. “Play in the NFL. Go on to run companies. Very successful people. And I think these five guys are great examples of what that could be.”