EVANSTON — Bret Bielema had a moment earlier this week when he wasn’t sure if he would coach in Saturday’s game at Northwestern.
Less than a week after Bielema’s mom, Marilyn, died unexpectedly, the Illinois football coach and his family were dealing with another tragedy. Greg Hielsberg, the father of Bielema’s wife, Jen, also died unexpectedly Wednesday.
Bielema said his wife told him he should coach Saturday against Northwestern. But it wasn’t until he saw that his father-in-law had written down the kickoff time and TV information for the game on a yellow legal pad in his office with a note to “Watch Bret” did Bielema know for certain he would coach.
“That was on his list to do,” Bielema said through tears in his eyes after Illinois’ 41-3 win against the Wildcats. “I think he watched us. I kind of had a rough couple days where I didn’t know if I was going to do this. My wife was emphatic. Then, when I saw that on Greg’s notepad the game was scheduled, I knew I was going to coach in this baby.
“My wife lost an incredible man in her life. He was an awesome, awesome dude. I won the lotto in two categories — first with my wife, but then with my father-in-law. I always say he’s my favorite father-in-law. He’s my only one. He and I did fishing trips. I even took him to Vegas. Who takes their father-in-law to Vegas? I did. I still remember seeing the smile on his face.”
Bielema also made sure to mention Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald for reaching out in support during the last two weeks.”
“Two weeks ago when I lost my mom, the first Big Ten coach I heard from was Fitz,” Bielema said. “The other night when I lost my father-in-law, the first Big Ten coach I heard from was Fitz. Lot of respect for this place and what he’s done.”
Bielema leaned on defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. to get the Illini ready for Saturday’s game. He said he was comforted by the fact he felt he had a group of coaches and players that knew what it took to prepare for a game.
“I felt all week when I kept catching up with Ryan and Barry and (special teams coordinator Sean Snyder) these guys were locked in to play a good game,” Bielema said. “I always tell our players, ‘I need you to be at your best when it’s at its worst.’ That was my message to them (Friday) night. When it was at its worst for me, I needed to be at my best for them. On the flip side, they needed to pick me up, and, obviously, they did that tenfold.”
Offensive linemen Alex Palczewski and Alex Pihlstrom said the Illinois players wanted to rally behind their coach. The way the team operated without Bielema for most of the week was something Pihlstrom said he wasn’t sure would have happened last year, but did now because of how the program has changed under Bielema’s leadership.
“Everything he does is to put us in the best possible position to win,” Palczewski added. “We knew he was going through something with his family. He always has our back, and we had to have his back.”
A trip to the medical tent in the first half for Chase Brown could have been problematic. The Illinois offense hasn’t operated all that well when the nation’s leading rusher has been off the field. But the Illini didn’t miss a beat Saturday in Evanston with backup running back Reggie Love III.
Love rushed 11 times for 85 yards and a touchdown and gave Illinois the spark it needed with its offensive leader in and out of the game.
“It had kind of sucked the wind out of the team,” Love said of Brown’s injury. “I knew I needed to go in and keep the energy up. Every time I get on the field I feel like I want to make a statement. That’s just me. I work hard every day.”
Love has taken a page out of Brown’s book on the preparation front. Love watched and learned as Brown backed up Mike Epstein earlier their careers.
“When Mike Epstein was here, I saw Chase work every day,” Love said. “Mike Epstein was the starter, and Chase prepared like he was the starter. When Chase was the starter, he did great things. I just try to do the same.”
Love has had several runs this season where it looked like the initial contact had him stopped cold only for him to break out of the mass of defenders and gain several more yards. That didn’t change Saturday, as he averaged 7.7 yards per carry.
Bielema wasn’t surprised.
“What Reggie does that is very unique is Reggie plays with incredible low pad level and keeps his legs moving,” the Illinois coach said. “That’s why you’ve seen him four or five times where everybody things the play is down and he comes out the back side.”
That running style is something Love said he and Illinois running backs coach Cory Patterson work on all the time.
“The run hard mentality,” Love said. “We’ve got a mantra. DHBG. Downhill bully gang. Always making the first defender miss is what I want.”
Illinois has to wait a week before it finds out which bowl game it will play in next month or in early January. The Illini last played in a bowl game in the 2019 season, and they’re excited at a shot at what Pihlstrom called “a premium bowl game.”
But ask Palczewski and the when and where doesn’t matter.
“Wherever we get to go play one more time with the boys is what I want to do,” the veteran Illinois offensive lineman said. “I don’t care if it’s Siberia. If it’s with the boys, it’s all I want.”