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Willie Nelson has written some songs.
One came to my mind as I prepared to write this. It’s called “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Versions of it made it up the country and soul charts. Elvis Presley recorded it. So did the Spinners. The Spinners were so good.
Nelson and Glen Campbell recorded it as a duet on Campbell’s final album, called “Adios.”
Time slips away. Funny how that happens. It has been 11 years since Bret Bielema coached a game in Kinnick Stadium. I’d have said six or seven.
Bielema’s Wisconsin Badgers beat Iowa at Kinnick in 2010 on its way to the Big Ten championship. The start of Marc Morehouse’s story from that game told it all:
They're big, they're brass. That's all you have to know about Bret Bielema.
Fourth-and-4 from Wisconsin's 26. Down six points. About six minutes left.
The Iowa Hawkeyes dropped off in a punt return. Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman pulled the ball down and burst up the middle for 17 yards and a first down.
That spark lit the fuse for Montee Ball's 8-yard TD run and for No. 10 Wisconsin's 31-30 victory before 70,585 fans Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Bielema also showed some brass when he left Wisconsin after the 2012 season for Arkansas. Brass isn’t always golden. He was 68-24 in seven seasons in Madison, and was 3-2 against Iowa. At Arkansas, however, he was just 29-34 and got fired after the 2017 season.
The SEC is hard. Beating Alabama and the rest of that league when you’re Arkansas is harder.
Now Bielema is in a happy place. He’s in his home state, coaching Illinois. For the first time, his team is in the same division as Iowa. Wisconsin was in the Leaders Division and Iowa was in the Legends when the league went to divisions in 2011.
Leaders and Legends. Iowa and Wisconsin (and Iowa and Illinois) not in the same divisions. We were young and naive then, weren’t we?
Illinois wouldn’t have reached out to Bielema had all been well for it in football. It hasn’t been for, oh, a long time. The Illini’s last winning season was 2011 when they went 7-6 courtesy of a season-ending win in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
It’s 2021, and Bielema’s back, baby. His first team isn’t likely to win oodles of games, but it’s almost a lock that Illinois will quickly get more interesting than it has in eons, football-wise.
The guy can recruit. He brought a lot of first-rate players to Iowa once upon a time as a Hawkeye assistant coach. I was in the Fort Lauderdale kitchen of Vanessa Brown, the mother of former Iowa receiver Maurice Brown, in late 2001. She had a photo on her refrigerator of her son, a few of his Iowa teammates from Florida, and Bielema. “Coach Bret,” she called him fondly.
Bielema had already left Iowa by then, to join Bill Snyder’s Kansas State staff. But he had been a Hawkeye, all right. He was a walk-on who became a good college player, and eventually was a team captain. Now he’s trying to keep top Illinois high school players from leaving their state for the clutches of Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa program, and is off to a very good start.
Bielema says nothing but good things about Ferentz and Iowa. But here’s the deal: If this rivalry gets competitive in time, it will get heated. There are Iowa-Iowa State and Iowa-Minnesota and Iowa-Nebraska rivalries, but they are nothing like that bad blood that could come from a genuine Iowa-Illinois rivalry.
We still remember how ugly it got between the two in men’s basketball back in the Deon Thomas/Bruce Pearl/Jimmy Collins days of yore.
Iowa/Illinois in football will be a lot of recruiting battles in a lot of high schools and parents’ houses. At some point, the lid on the pot won’t stay put.
This isn’t about silly slogans, though Bielema’s FamIllv is pretty silly. This is a guy who is 3-2 against Iowa and has won two Big Ten football titles since the last time the Hawkeyes won one.
This is a guy who knows all the territory, unlike when he was at Arkansas. He knows what makes Wisconsin tick, he knows what makes Northwestern tick, he knows what makes Iowa tick. He’ll make Illinois tick.
It will be interesting to see him back in Kinnick. It will be even more interesting when he returns in 2023.
Just because Illinois has been down a long time doesn’t mean it will stay down. The right coach at the right place wins in college football. That’s Ferentz at Iowa, Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, anyone at Ohio State. I’m betting it also will be Bielema at Illinois.
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