116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Bret Bielema’s tattoo of Iowa’s Tigerhawk logo above his left ankle is no secret.
“The famous tattoo,” Bielema called it this week in his Monday news conference. “A hell of an idea when you’re 19.”
The Tigerhawk inked for eternity on his left leg is just one sign of the connection that remains between the Illinois head coach and his alma mater.
Bielema was a four-time letterwinner as a defensive lineman at Iowa, worked as a graduate assistant in 1994 and ’95 and coached linebackers from 1996-2001. Many of those memories, a couple decades later, are fresh in Bielema and Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz’s minds.
A young Brian Ferentz came to prospect camp at Iowa as a linebacker while Kirk Ferentz was coaching in the NFL with Bill Belichick.
“Brian came to camp here somewhere in the nine years I was gone, and Bret looked out for him there, too,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Bret had a great reputation.”
After three or four days of camp, Bielema, a “big believer in the power of the pen,” wrote a letter to Kirk Ferentz talking about coaching Brian.
"I don’t know if he’s going to be a Big Ten linebacker, but he’s a football player, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh,” Bielema remembers writing.
Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, four days ahead of coaching against Bielema’s 4-1 Fighting Illini, he still remembers the note Bielema sent more than two decades later.
That impression might have been helpful for Bielema after the 1998 season when longtime coach Hayden Fry stepped down and Iowa hired Ferentz. As usual for coaching changes, Bielema’s status as linebackers coach was not immediately certain with the new coach.
“He had fired everybody else,” Bielema said at the Big Ten’s annual media days in July. “Everybody kept walking into his office happy and walking out sad.”
Bielema was sitting in his office at the end of the hallway of the old football facility when Kirk Ferentz walked in.
“He said, ‘Hey, I got to run to an event,’” Bielema said. “’I can’t talk. We can talk tomorrow morning.’”
“Coach, I’ll be here,” Bielema said to Ferentz. “’Midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m. You tell me, I’ll be here.’”
After waiting for much of the next day, Bielema walked into Ferentz’s office for the much-awaited meeting.
“Hey Coach, I know Jim Woods told you to hire me, I know Bob Bowlsby told you to hire me and I know the people around you have said this, but I only want to be here if you want me to be here,” Bielema said, remembering the conversation.
It was a “you say it, but don’t really mean it” message. Thankfully for Bielema, Ferentz did want him there.
Bielema and quarterbacks coach Chuck Long were the holdovers from Fry’s staff while many others packed their bags.
“(Bielema) had done a good job as a young coach,” Ferentz said. “It's not surprising based on what I knew of him as a player. … He cares about people. He's a good football coach, works at it.”
Bielema said he “learned more football” from working on Ferentz’s staff with Norm Parker and Phil Parker “probably than any other point in my career.”
“I have great respect for Kirk,” Bielema said. “When we get in a recruiting battle, I know what I’m getting.”
Brian Ferentz, now Iowa’s offensive coordinator, doesn’t remember much from working with Bielema at the prospect camp. After all, it was more than two decades ago. But he has a fond memory of Bielema from his time as a player at Iowa.
It was 2001. Brian Ferentz was a freshman offensive lineman. The team was practicing on the old fields where the university’s West Transportation Center now stands.
He remembers “getting my a-- kicked for 2 1/2 straight hours for the eighth week in a row.”
“I was playing center on the scout team and being very discouraged at that point in my career,” Brian Ferentz said. “And wondering if I was good enough and wondering if I made a really huge mistake coming to the University of Iowa.”
Then came the Bielema moment Brian Ferentz will “never forget.”
“I didn’t know how Bret had noticed that I had that look, but he saw it,” Brian Ferentz said. “Bret put his arm around me as we walked back inside and just told me to hang in there, that I was doing a good job and that I was going to be all right.”
Bielema’s simple action for the offensive lineman questioning himself was “very meaningful to me, and it still is.”
“At 18 years old, I needed to hear that at that moment,” Brian Ferentz said. “I will forever be grateful because I don’t know that my football career at the University of Iowa would have turned out the way it did if Bret hadn’t put his arm around me in that moment...”