Bret Bielema told his fellow coaches he was overwhelmed.
Bielema’s mother Marilyn died on Thursday. When Bielema checked his phone, he was bombarded with messages from colleagues and players.
One of the people who reached out to Bielema after the news was Dallas Clark.
Bielema recruited Clark to Iowa as a walk-on linebacker, and then Clark transitioned to tight end, becoming an All-American with the Hawkeyes and Super Bowl champion with the Indianapolis Colts. He gave Bielema some timely encouragement.
“He said something to me in a text message on Friday,” Bielema said. “He sadly lost his mother a little early in life and he told me something about how mothers are happiest when they watch their sons do what they love. Right?”
Bielema made the decision to become a coach that day, standing on the sidelines during the Illini’s 19-17 loss to Michigan, which lasted until the last second in the big house.
He had emotions while cheering and directing his players. He was out there for his team despite suffering a monumental defeat in the last 48 hours.
“I know my mother, she definitely knows that I like working out,” Bielema said. “She’s probably going to be mean or angry or angry right now, but I know she’s probably smiling in some ways today.”
The Illini played a nail biter on the road with the country’s No. 3 team and got the Wolverines on the ropes by the end of the fourth quarter.
After the last-second defeat, Illinois will no longer claim a moral victory. It took this game to stay realistic in the division. His offense didn’t get a first down when it needed to after getting the ball late in the fourth.
A few short punts meant there was another week of some special team misjudgments — a 30-yard punt with 2:15 left gave the Wolverines a short field for their game-winning field goal drive.
Expecting to win these types of games under Bielema and not just take on big opponents, Illinois came up short on Saturday.
“We didn’t just come here to play Michigan,” said safety Sydney Brown. “We came here to beat Michigan. When there’s an expectation, the standard for that, it’s tough when it doesn’t go your way.”
Bielema also expressed some dissatisfaction with the administration. One of those decisions came late in the fourth when the game’s first pass interference call was made with less than a minute on Illinois corner Devon Witherspoon on the game-winning drive.
“I’m extremely… very angry. Very upset,” Bielema said. “I think our kids did a lot to win the football game and constantly let things go against us, very frustrating. You have to stand up for the people you believe in. I believe very much in this dressing room. I know they will rise to the challenge again.”
All of those things don’t completely negate the team’s reaction — not only after two losses in the past two weeks to Team Illinois, who the team was favored against, but also after the last few days, which their head coach has grappled with.
Bielema said he was overwhelmed by the response he received from former players, current players and staff after breaking the news. Clark sent him one of countless texts or messages. players followed.
“I feel for him, I’ve prayed for him,” Brown said. “And at the end of the day, I really give it to him for training with us. It shows how strong he is and how resilient he is.”
It’s still a tough time for Bielema, who will return to Prophetstown for a funeral next week. His players will do their best to be there for him.
“Everyone stands behind Coach B,” said linebacker Isaac Darkangelo. “We supported him, whatever he needed we would do for him. … It’s not easy for anyone and they know we have their backs.”
A large proportion of current Illini players are still those recruited under previous coaching staffs, but they have nonetheless flocked to support Bielema following the relationship he has shared with them.
“I’m so lucky to have him as a coach,” said offensive lineman Alex Palczewski. “Something terrible obviously happened to him, but he was able to put on a strong face and overcome it. Of course it’s still a terrible situation but I mean I love our coach; I love Coach B. I would do anything for him.”
The Illinois team fell short against Michigan, but it was the latest example of where the program is headed. The reaction from players and staff this week gave some insight into why this happened.
“It’s very frustrating, but it sets a precedent and an understanding in this dressing room that we can play with literally anyone in the country,” Bielema said. “And hopefully we can take this and keep growing. The growth from where we were now a year ago is astronomical, but it doesn’t take any better off the feel of what we’re experiencing now.”