CARTHAGE, Ill. — Growing up on his father Arnold Bielema’s farrow-to-finish pig farm in Whiteside County, Bret Bielema learned early to admire and respect the farm’s veterinarian, Dr. Sampson. That was among the many lessons Bielema learned during his years on the family farm near Prophetstown.
Bielema, who played at nose guard for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes under Coach Hayden Fry, has been head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he led the Badgers to a 68-24 overall record and took the team to three consecutive Rose Bowl games. He was the head coach at the University of Arkansas, where he finished with a 29-34 record for the Razorbacks.
Bielema worked as an assistant coach in the NFL, for the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. On Dec. 19, 2020, the University of Illinois announced Bielema’s hiring to replace Coach Lovie Smith. Bielema and his wife, Jen, have two daughters.
He shared some lessons learned about life, death, adversity and what it takes to build strong teams, with Dr. Clayton Johnson of Carthage Veterinary Service during the Carthage Spring Symposium.
“I grew up on a pig farm in Prophetstown, Illinois. I’ve always said the part I knew early on in life is that hard work pays off. My dad also ran a grain elevator during the course of the week. That’s when he had the labor of me, my brother and my other brother, very cheap labor, very, very efficient labor for him. I never really knew anything but work.”
“Our doc was a guy by the name of Doc Sampson. Our vet was the coolest, absolutely the most awesome dude, a great sense of humor. Every once in a while we had to call the vet. Doc Sampson would come in his truck and he would always save the day. He was one of those guys who always made everything better. I grew up in an environment where there were different things that could really wipe out your farm in a single moment. When I left for college, I really thought I was going to come back as a veterinarian. In my lifetime, that had been a guy who had heavily influenced me and had been a guy who I kind of wanted to be like.”
“I also realized that there’s a whole world out there that I didn’t know. As I was exposed to more at the University of Iowa, that’s when I began to grow and I began to see people who were different from me, people who didn’t know my life, people who didn’t have my experience and that’s when you truly begin to grow.”
“When you’re at college, it’s the first time no one knows it’s your birthday. It’s the first time no one knows that your grandmother passed. It’s the first time when nobody knows when your mom is diagnosed with cancer. It’s the first time no one knows that you are going through something. It affects your life. It was tough because I was away and I was very close to my grandma and no one knew about it, but I had to overcome that by myself. I just had to work my way through it, so I did, but it was a really, really hard moment because it was the first time you realize you’re all on your own.”
Cinnamon Rolls And Slurpees
In October 1990, Bielema was a sophomore at the University of Iowa. Fresh from the Hawkeyes’ victory over Michigan, Bielema was counting the games the Hawkeyes would need to win to get to the Rose Bowl — and a chance for his older sister, Betsy, 27, who lived in Seattle, to come down and see him play in the Rose Bowl.
Hours after the victory over Michigan, Bielema was informed that Betsy had been killed in a horseback riding accident. Four of his friends on the team drove him home.
“I took my sister to her grave as a pallbearer. I was in a corner all by myself and I couldn’t catch my breath. The pastor came and put his arm around me. He thanked me and said, ‘There’s going to come a time in your life when you are going to realize what this moment means. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but at some point, you’ll know it.’ He said, ‘What did your sister do that made everybody happy? I heard she was a caring girl.’
“I said, ‘She used to make these cinnamon rolls that were as live as live gets. She would do it, surprise us, the whole place would smell like cinnamon rolls. She’d deliver them to Grandma and Grandpa, aunts and uncles. She could really make a mean cinnamon roll.’
“The pastor said, ‘For the rest of your life, anytime you see a cinnamon roll, smell a cinnamon roll, or bite a cinnamon roll, whoever you are with, tell them about your sister. It will always keep her alive in your memory.’
“So, my first year as head coach at the University of Wisconsin, we’re like 9-1, 8-1. We’re good. We’re really, really good. I get a call on a Sunday morning that three of my players who were all from the same high school, a friend of theirs, the night before, he fell in a lake and didn’t come out, they didn’t know if he was alive or dead and they were looking for him.
“We were right in the middle of football season. It’s a Sunday. We’ve got a big work day ahead of us. It was a big game that week. I said go, be with their families, and by the end of the day, it got back to me that they had found his body.
“Monday afternoon, I get to my office and here’s a group of young men who have no guidance. They are great kids, they had never been through anything like this and they were emotional. I said, ‘Let me ask you something. You’ve got a lot of great memories about your friend. What was something he did that was a little bit funny, a little bit goofy,’ and they all started laughing.
“I guess this kid was a Slurpee junkie. He would always get a Slurpee at the gas and sips. It made them all start laughing. I said, ‘Whenever you want to think of him or you see a Slurpee machine or an Icee machine, tell whoever you are with about your friend.’ That’s when I knew that pastor had told me something, 15 years before that. I know it was bigger than that.”
“My girls are everything to me. One of the reasons I want to have such great success, I want to bring Illinois something they’ve never had before. But I also want to live in this town for a long time and let my girls live in this town because it’s such a great environment for them to live in. I’ve always kind of wanted to be in a small college town environment to raise my girls, so this is the most precious moment I could have.
“As soon as they’re old enough, they are going to going to a farm for a week and find out what it’s like to be raised on a farm. I don’t think there’s anything that can give you a better perspective of what’s expected in life than a farm.”
“I’ve been around a lot of really smart people who have no awareness. I think about a lot of times, the positions I’ve been in, even when I was an assistant coach or a younger coach and I had awareness that we were in trouble, but the guys that I was working with or had to report to, sometimes they didn’t know it until it was too late.
“I think awareness of adversity is huge, and to see it coming. I refer to it like a driver, to see it coming around the corner before it’s in front of you. The more you can be proactive to adversity rather than reactive is a huge advantage. If you can understand it’s coming and have an idea of how you want to attack it, the first thing you have to do is be aware that it’s coming.”
“There are two words that I go back to all the time and I think are really hard to find in human society today and they are communication and consistency. Communication is a two-way street. You have to be able to speak, but more importantly, you have to be able to hear it.
“Consistency in your approach — the one thing I always tell coaches when I hire them, I want to have a consistent person. I want to have the same person every day.
“If you are consistent, then I can figure out what your strengths are and your weaknesses are. If you are consistent, I know what I need to help you with and what I can let you do by yourself. That is a very important thing.”
“As I got in this profession and I went out to recruiting meals, this one buddy of mine would always order a pork chop, and he was like, ‘These are so good,’ and I would have this big steak in front of me. I was in pork denial because I’d eaten so much pork in my life. I didn’t want to have it. But now, in the last 10 years or so, I find myself ordering more pork, a really good pork chop or a pork loin.”
“My hometown is so small I couldn’t get reception on my phone. The only place we could get reception was at Casey’s. My wife — at the time she was my girlfriend — the first couple times I took her home, I would be like, ‘Hey, do you want to go to Casey’s?’ And she would say, ‘Yes.’ It was good to get the pizza, but it was also the only place where our phones would work.”