CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema has had Saturday’s game against Wisconsin circled since he arrived at Illinois and got a look at the 2021 schedule.
Not for the obvious reason, however.
Yes, Bielema spent nine seasons in Madison, Wis., coaching the Badgers, including two as Barry Alvarez’s defensive coordinator and seven in charge of the program after Alvarez stopped coaching to focus solely on his athletic director duties.
But Bielema put a little extra emphasis on Saturday’s game just like he did the Week 0 game against Nebraska and just like he’ll do for the Nov. 27 regular-season finale against Northwestern.
Either Wisconsin or Northwestern has won the Big Ten West in each of the past five seasons.
Those titles were won, Bielema has consistently told his team — and the media — because the Badgers and Wildcats took care of business at home against divisional rivals.
So that’s why Saturday’s homecoming game is important. Even if there’s a little something extra to it given Bielema’s time at Wisconsin.
“I know everybody will say it’s just another game, but come on, man,” Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “We can’t ignore the elephant in the room — Coach B. was there. Go ahead and talk about it. It is what it is. I don’t think that adds added pressure. I just think that’s something to be aware of and to pay attention to.”
Bielema is certainly leaning toward “just another game” when it comes to the matchup between his current team and the program he led to 68 wins and three Big Ten championships in his seven years at the helm.
The Illinois coach said he told his team, without equivocation leading into this week, that his time in Wisconsin is fully in his rear view mirror and has zero bearing on anything related to Saturday’s game.
“My preparation for any game is the exact same,” Bielema said. “The attitude that I carried into Nebraska preparation to the next week against UTSA and then to Virginia, to Maryland, to Purdue and last week against Charlotte and this week against Wisconsin has been the exact same. I’m not going to do anything more or less. I’m just not wired that way and that’s the way I teach our players and our coaches to go about it.”
The level of connection Bielema still has to the Wisconsin program, though, has to be mentioned.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst was co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach during Alvarez’s final season, and then became Bielema’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Wisconsin associate head coach Joe Rudolph was Bielema’s tight ends coach, inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad was Bielema’s tight ends and offensive line coach and both Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and tight ends coach Mickey Turner played at Wisconsin. Leonhard for Bielema the defensive coordinator and Turner for Bielema the head coach.
“I said this one time jokingly, when I was back there, I said there were two important people I met in Vegas — one being my wife and the other was I actually met Paul Chryst in Vegas on a recruiting trip,” Bielema said. “He was actually working at Oregon State, and Coach Alvarez introduced us and crossed our paths, because he knew what was going to happen in the future. I didn’t. Met a lot of great relationships. I could go on and on. You guys know me well enough, I’m a very sentimental guy. Stories mean things to me. ... Just a million (different stories). There’s just so many different things, I can’t put a price tag on them.”
What Bielema was a part of at Wisconsin — furthering the program that Alvarez built starting in the early 1990s — is what the first-year Illinois coach wants in Champaign. “Sustained success” has been a common phrase since Bielema was hired last December.
“For us to get to where we want to be, I’ve defined (Wisconsin) and several others in the Big Ten West as models of what we’re trying to get to,” Bielema said. “Not necessarily schematically or personality-wise — everybody is uniquely different, every fan base is completely different — but I would say the respect for the success they’ve had in the past and the ability and desire to want that here is what makes this big.”