CHAMPAGNE, Ill. — Bret Bielema circled the second floor of Papa Del’s on Wednesday night with his daughters in his arms or hand-in-hand with one or both as he prepared to make his Bret Bielema radio show debut. Those moments, in the world of college coaching, are hard to come by.
Bielema was at Papa Del’s, a Champaign-Urbana culinary staple, on business. It was the first week of his weekly radio show on the Fighting Illini Radio Network and was the first time the trainer’s show had returned in person since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it was also an opportunity for Bielema to find half an hour with the family. He said he hadn’t seen his children since Sunday. Although he never explicitly said his schedule, he mentioned several times that he was going to the football center before or around 5 a.m. and on Monday he made reference to the music he heard from the defensive meeting hall around midnight. Chances with his family like this are somewhat hard to come by during the season, so Bielema held them close until the very last second before having to join radio host Brian Barnhart at a table at 19 hours at the front of the second- floor bedroom.
“I will try to shake as many hands as possible; obviously during COVID we are being a bit cautious,” Bielema told Illini Inquirer. “For me especially, I haven’t seen my daughters since Sunday. For three days not to be able to see them, to see them tonight. I will have a chance, even if it was short-lived, 30 minutes, to see them is a special part for me.
Since being hired in December, Bielema has shown both a willingness and a desire to be a public figurehead for the program. He made various media stops this week — including radio hits on St. Louis’ ESPN 101 and Chicago’s 670 The Score — ahead of Saturday’s season opener at home against Nebraska. The weekly radio show is an event that Bielema embraces and would like to continue to grow with in-person participation at Papa Del’s. He leaned into those opportunities while he was the head coach of Wisconsin and Arkansas.
Although Bielema can talk to fans at his bi-weekly press conferences before a match and at his post-match press conference – as well as on Twitter, where he is active – the weekly radio show looks like a frame. respondent. It’s literally at the fingertips of fans, who can submit questions to Barnhart to ask Bielema during the show. Interaction with the community is important as he tries to lay the foundation for the program with lasting success.
“A chance to mark your message but also to be in the community,” Bielema said. “To be successful here in Illinois, to be in the Champaign-Urbana community, to be here at Papa Del’s, you engage fans where they are. It’s one thing to be in the stadium we are in, but if we can come and join them, I think that’s a very, very positive thing.
“There’s so much to do in the community because you’re at the level of our fans. There are so many times we ask them to come and engage with us, but engaging with them again is a big, big deal.
Bielema spent the first half hour of the show — split into roughly three segments — talking with Barnhart about training camp and Saturday’s season opener against Nebraska. As the season progresses, Bielema sees Wednesday’s show as an opportunity to look ahead to the week ahead, but is aware that some lingering questions will remain about the previous game. The show’s second half hour, however, is a bit different this season. Bielema wanted to make his players an important part of the show and Wednesday brought close results Luke Ford — wearing his traditional cowboy hat — and Daniel Barker to join Barnhart for the second half hour of the show.
“When Bret told me, he felt, and I agree, that it was a good experience for them to learn, to interact, to communicate, to be asked questions and to discuss. ‘just learning how to do this will help them in so many areas,’” Barnhart told Illini Inquirer.
Said Bielema: “For me, in particular, I wanted to include the players just because it allows them to continue to grow as people. One of the things we talk about all the time with our players is obviously that we want them to become good players, but the more visibility we can have – for Luke Ford and DJ Barker to have the opportunity is just invaluable in what he can do with them.
Several members of his support and recruiting staff as well as staff from the athletic department and athletic director Josh Whitman were present on Wednesday along with Bielema’s two daughters and his wife, Jen. After his 30-minute segment, Bielema’s family left and the head coach walked from table to table talking to some people present.
As live recruiting resumes, Bielema said he and his staff will return to the facility and work on recruiting calls after his show.
“When you’re done with Wednesday’s practice, you kind of go into plan maintenance, but it’s also a night for me that once the live recruiting starts, it’s really one of the best nights to call the kids Wednesday and Thursday nights after 9 p.m. central time,” Bielema said. “It will be a great way for me to get back into the office, we’ll shut down everything else and focus strictly on recruiting for a few hours.”
There was a sense of normalcy again on Wednesday. Papa Del’s became the show’s host in 2019 and was packed before the bowling game that season. Most weeks it will be on the first floor of the two-story building, but it has been moved upstairs for the first week given the uncertainty over the size of the crowd – it was not a crowded event .
“It’s so exciting and he knows the game so well,” said Daren Prather, a Muhammad resident who attended for the first time after being invited by his neighbor. “I think players are bought into their system. I just saw a new fire.
Barnhart will host weekly and has spoken with Bielema on several occasions since the coach was hired in December and the two have a strong radio relationship. Additionally, Bielema has engaged in his media appearances, apparently understanding how important it is to be a figurehead on the program.
“I think we’re going to have a great time with the fans,” Barnhart said. “It was our first return. We did a lot of our shows last year on the phone. We did all of our interviews with Coach (Brad) Underwood, the pre-game shows were all on the phone. It’s just great to see fans there, to react with people and vice versa. It will be on a grander scale in the stands, of course, but doing an event like this reminds you how great it is to have fans.