In a year of uncertainty, plenty of college football programs remained business as usual, adding to the cutthroat style that the sport has been known for by dismissing their head coaches. High-profile names like Gus Malzahn, Will Muschamp, Lovie Smith and Kevin Sumlin all received pink slips at some point this season, creating vacancies at Power 5 schools such as Auburn, South Carolina, Illinois and Arizona.
Long-time Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer's son, Shane, was recently named the new coach at South Carolina, replacing Muschamp for his first head gig in college football. And while Auburn and Arizona (among others) continue their searches, it didn't take long for the Fighting Illini to find Smith's successor after he was just dismissed a week ago.
Illinois Hires Bielema
Bret Bielema takes over for Smith in Champaign, agreeing to a six-year contract with a starting salary of $4.2 million. Bielema is back in the Big Ten, where he roamed the sidelines for Wisconsin for seven seasons, before departing for Arkansas and the SEC following the Big Ten Championship in 2012.
The 50-year-old was fired as the Razorbacks coach in 2017 after compiling a 29-34 record and moved on to the NFL, where he spent three years as an assistant with the New England Patriots and, most recently, the New York Giants.
Bielema made the rounds on Saturday, first appearing on ESPN College GameDay before arriving in Happy Valley to watch his new team take on Penn State in Beaver Stadium in person.
"This is about a chance to take Illinois to a level -- during my lifetime, I've seen them have success, and obviously had some times where they've not had much success," Bielema said Saturday on ESPN.
"Illinois and the Big Ten is home for me, and I can't be any more excited about the opportunity in front of me with the Fighting Illini," he said in a statement. "We want to build a program that makes Illini Nation proud and regain the passion that I've seen when Illinois wins."
"Bret Bielema is a proven winner," Illinois AD Josh Whitman said in a statement. "With three Big Ten championships to his credit, few coaches can match his familiarity with, and success within, the Big Ten Conference. In our conversations, it became clear to me that he is a life-long learner who is continually looking to grow and improve."
Fitzgerald Has Suitors
Pat Fitzgerald led Northwestern to the Big Ten Championship Game this season, ultimately falling to Ohio State on Saturday in Indianapolis, 22-10. The Wildcats are expected to earn a top bowl bid on Sunday, but Fitzgerald is also expected to be coveted by several NFL teams.
The 45-year-old, who has coached in Evanston for 15 years and called the gig his dream job, has already been contacted by two NFL teams in regards to their head coaching vacancies, and that number will increase following their bowl game, if not sooner.
Nine different NFL teams have contacted Fitzgerald over the past five years, most notably the Carolina Panthers, who considered him before hiring Matt Rhule, and the Packers, who Fitzgerald turned down before Green Bay hired Matt LaFleur.