CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois is turning to former Arkansas and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema to lead its football program.
Athletic director Josh Whitman announced Bielema’s hiring Saturday morning. He replaces Lovie Smith, who was fired Sunday after compiling a 17-39 record in five seasons.
Bielema enjoyed his greatest success as coach at Wisconsin from 2006-12, where he posted a 68-24 record in six seasons. He then left to take the head job at Arkansas, where success was more fleeting. Bielema posted a 29-34 record in five seasons leading the Razorbacks, and was fired after a 4-8 campaign in 2017.
He spent the last three seasons working in the NFL. Bielema was with the New England Patriots from 2018-19, before heading to the New York Giants this season as Senior Assistant Coach, working with the outside linebackers.
Bielema is a Prophetstown, Illinois native who played under Hayden Fry at the University of Iowa from 1989-92. After a brief professional football playing career, he served as an assistant coach at Iowa, Kansas State, and Wisconsin before becoming the Badgers’ head coach.
In a statement released Saturday morning by the U of I, Bielema expressed excitement at this new opportunity.
“Illinois and the Big Ten is home for me, and I can’t be any more excited about the opportunity in front of me with the Fighting Illini,” Bielema said. “We want to build a program that makes Illini Nation proud and regain the passion that I’ve seen when Illinois wins. We want the young men playing football in the state of Illinois from Freeport to Cairo and from Quincy to Danville dreaming of wearing the Orange and Blue and playing at Memorial Stadium. I look forward to re-connecting with the high school coaches around the state making it clear we intend to keep our players home.”
The university says Bielema signed a six-year contract with an annual salary starting at $4.2 million. Smith received a buyout of about $2.3 million when he was fired on Sunday.
Bielema is scheduled to address the media at a virtual news conference Monday afternoon. He is attending Saturday’s Illinois season finale against Penn State at State College, Pa.
Bielema spoke with the Big Ten Network Saturday morning about taking the head coaching position at Illinois.