Bret Bielema is not only undefeated on his Illini football honeymoon, he has struck the right chord generally.
His upbeat manner has attracted a new “FAM-ILL-Y” of youthful, energetic staffers, while also influencing a dozen or more UI seniors to take advantage of a special pandemic rule and play an additional season.
He is pushing the right buttons with Illinois high school coaches, media, donors and fans.
But every coach can use a little advice, and what follows is a baker’s dozen of well-intended suggestions and observations as we inch toward the autumn season of 2021.
(1) Lovie Smith believed in “one voice,” and restricted the appearances of his aides, other than offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
Bret, you should turn these new coaches loose. Flood the community with sharp spokesmen like Bart Miller, Aaron Henry and Terrance Jamison. They could fire up my lifeless fireplace. And so could Cory Patterson, who already knows his way around.
(2) You’ll find it hard to reconcile cable TV opinions that “China is our biggest enemy” with the fact that this campus has nearly 9,400 international students, including about 5,200 from China. Too bad they don’t play football because they’d be easy to recruit.
(3) Do not electrocute yourself. Avoid, by all means, all public discussions of a mascot or the departed Chief Illiniwek, now 14 years gone but still the Illini’s cultural third rail. Too many folks on campus have squandered too much time wrestling with this.
(4) Speaking of wrestling, word has circulated that you’ve already visited Jim Heffernan’s grapplers. Next time, check the volleyballers at Huff. Chris Tamas directs the No. 1 women’s sport on campus, and they’re part of a Big Ten Conference that shows nine NCAA champions since 2006. Illinois came in second in 2011, and the last two champs at Stanford were led by former UI coach Kevin Hambly.
(5) Check when Shahid Khan is in town and give him a visit at Urbana Country Club. Khan has the NFL buzzing after bringing Urban Meyer out of retirement, and his Jacksonville Jaguars have the No. 1 NFL pick (Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence?) plus $100 million in salary-cap space.
(6) Gary Andersen, who followed you as head coach at Wisconsin, was frustrated by UW’s high admissions standards and left in a huff after losing to Ohio State in the 2014 Big Ten playoff. You’ll find academic rules similarly difficult here, particularly with junior college transfers. Maybe Josh Whitman can make some of the institutional inroads that Barry Alvarez did after Andersen departed.
(7) Years ending in “1” sometimes have stunning results for Illini football. The 1951 team had only one negative (a 0-0 tie at Ohio State) against a perfect season, and defenders like Chuck Boerio (“Send Ameche at me!”) and Al Brosky (29 career interceptions) were bigger names than backfield stars Tom O’Connell and John Karras. Ron Turner’s 2001 team gave Illinois its last Big Ten championship.
(8) Open team practices when possible. Fans and media reps will spread the word, and don’t know enough to provide meaningful information to the opposition. As for decamping to Rantoul in August — they would bend over backwards — check it out and decide what’s best.
(9) Put Krannert on the family agenda. There will be events that your two girls will enjoy. You can’t spend every minute on football. And there’s also Urbana’s Sweet Corn Festival and multiple musical events in downtown Champaign in July-August, if the pandemic relents.
(10) Be thankful that the new $80 million Smith Center put Illinois near the top in the facilities war — huge locker area, bowling alley, barber shop — but don’t get too comfortable with your two-sided fireplace. A warm fireplace sometimes makes me drowsy.
(11) Work to see that football opener in Dublin moved to Champaign. Even if COVID-19 rules won’t allow a packed Memorial Stadium, it would be preferable to play Nebraska at home ... regardless of the date.
(12) In making your rounds, don’t forget the campus. Not that you can reach 1,800 registered student organizations, but the north end zone cries out for student spirit like basketball’s Orange Krush. There are lots of packed campus stop-offs — Ikenberry Commons, Illini Union, Activities and Rec Center (ARC) — in the 3 miles from University Avenue on south to the Research Park.
(13) A football portal with 2,000-plus names is bubbling with possible fill-ins. Yes, transfers are good for the short term. But any effort toward a “FAM-ILL-Y atmosphere” is best served by athletes who feel a sincere connection here and want to build a lifelong link with the university. Or is that thought just an octogenarian babbling about a better century?