Skip to main content

Watching Illinois get steamrolled by Kansas on Friday night—the Illini trailed 34-7 before losing 34-23—I seemed to remember something: Didn’t I stump for Lance Leipold when Illinois hired Bret Bielema? Or is my senior-citizen mind playing tricks?

So I took Casey Stengel’s advice. I looked it up. And there it was. . . right here at TMG Sports, December 15, 2020. . . In a piece I wrote when Lovie Smith was shown the door, I said Leipold made the most sense in Champaign.

Just don’t ask me to pick against the spread. There’s no logic in that.

Hey, it was only one game. If the Illini knock off Penn State next week and roll through the Big Ten. . . yeah, right.

I guess the point is, hiring Bielema made a lot of sense, too. He was a proven winner at Wisconsin. He said all the right things—which have proved to be true—about maturing from the misguided decision to leave Wisconsin for Arkansas. He is a good football coach who’s working his butt off. And he’s a Downstate native.

The other point is, Leipold would have been a riskier hire. But he sure seems to have Kansas poised to do a lot of good things in his third season. Can Illinois say that? Nope.

It’s all hindsight now. The point is, even though we wonder what the world is coming to when we hear about the salaries that coaches command, hiring the right guy makes a huge difference. We really don’t know how much either Leipold or Bielema are going to accomplish. Football at Illinois and Kansas tend to be uphill battles.

But it will be interesting to watch it play out.

Here’s how I sized it up in December of 2020 when Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman was looking for the next Illinois football coach. When it wasn’t hindsight:

The big question now is, where does Illinois go from here?

It’s one thing to fire the head coach. Finding the right replacement is the big key.

That’s not an easy deal at Illinois.

Since the legendary Ray Eliot retired in 1959, only two coaches have left Champaign with a winning career record at Illinois. One, John Mackovic, left for another job (Texas). And the other, Mike White, left under a cloud due to recruiting violations.

And yet, it’s an attractive job. If Whitman can find the right guy, there’s no reason why Illinois can’t be competitive. . . .

Between the financial privileges that come with Big Ten membership and the recruiting possibilities in the state, especially Chicago, Illinois has the ingredients to achieve the football stability it craves. Whitman already has shown a strong commitment to facilities.

So who is the right guy?

That’s the question Whitman has to answer correctly.

The name that stands out to me—and a lot of people—is Buffalo coach Lance Leipold, who is 17-4 in Mid-American Conference games the last three years. Not only will the Bulls play for the MAC championship after going 5-0 this COVID-abbreviated season. Buffalo leads the nation with 50.8 points a game, led by running sensation Jaret Patterson.

Before taking the Buffalo job, Leipold won six Division III championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he went a dazzling 109-6 in his eight seasons. Here’s the thing that catches my eye. As AD at Wisconsin-LaCrosse in 2010-2014, Whitman saw a good amount of Leipold. Whitewater and LaCrosse are in the same conference.

At 56, Leipold is a bit older than the trend for new coaches these days. But that shouldn’t be a huge hurdle for Whitman, who’s a bright and creative thinker. Neither Smith nor Illini basketball coach Brad Underwood, Whitman’s other major hire, constituted a youth movement.

That said, the hot guy isn’t always The Guy. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When Tim Beckman was hired, an important segment of Illini Nation was stumping for Kevin Sumlin, when Sumlin went to Texas A&M. Since that high point, Sumlin’s stock has dropped considerably. Meanwhile, Beckman’s offensive coordinator at Toledo, Matt Campbell, turned out to be an exceptional coach at Iowa State.

I keep hearing Bret Bielema, and that makes sense to a degree. Bielema, 50, a native of Prophetstown, Ill., who played at Iowa and was Barry Alvarez’s handpicked successor at Wisconsin, certainly knows the culture. He had a very good seven-year run in Madison. But the way he left Wisconsin for Arkansas greenbacks, and the little squabbles there, would warrant serious consideration.

That said, if Whitman does his homework and wants Bielema, go for it.

The real keys to winning at Illinois are recruiting and being a good CEO. Find players you can win with. And find coaches who can put those players in the right position to be successful.


As I said, it’s only one game in September. But as anyone who follows college football knows, the impact of coaching hires is monumental. And there’s a boggling amount of luck and timing involved.