First-year Illinois head coach Bret Bielema knows as well as anyone what it takes to win championships in the Big Ten.
After winning three straight conference titles and Rose Bowl appearances at Wisconsin from 2010-12, Bielema left for Arkansas and the SEC where he tried to remake their roster, but ultimately fell short after going 29-34 in five seasons.
While his time trying to remake the Razorbacks roster didn't work out the way he envisioned, it did provide him some lessons for his next head coaching opportunity, which turned out to be with the Illini after some time in the NFL with the Patriots and Giants.
Over halfway through year one, sitting at 2-5 with games against top 15 teams in Penn State and Iowa still left on the docket, Bielema got brutally honest about the Illini roster with the media yesterday.
"As a head coach, you're only as good as your roster. I kind of learned that my first time at the Kentucky Derby. Nobody is betting on the jockeys, and everyone is betting on the horses."
"To win the Derby, you've got to have the right horse, and our players are going to be a reflection of what our program stands for."
Bielema goes on to share that he invited every player on the Illinois roster back last year, because of COVID, but moving forward as the roster continues to transition, he knows that he has some tough decisions ahead in order to get the roster where he feels it needs to be in order to win championships.d
A former lineman himself, Bielema has always built his most successful teams around the offensive and defensive lines.
That's why the roster he inherited at Illinois is such a concern for him, and he didn't hide how he felt about how the previous staff under Lovie Smith recruited and developed the roster.
"In particular, the offensive line, I don't believe we have a player in the two-deep that they have recruited here over the last three years that is really, significantly, doing anything for us in the playing department. That's a major concern."
"The top two quarterbacks who have both played at this point are both transfers, right? So there hasn't been any development at that position that is significantly playing right now."
"Defensively, we knew there was going to be an evolution, just because of the style of defense that we play. We definitely have to get a lot more bigger bodies up front to get what we want to get done to play in this league at a consistent level."
Whether those words motivate and serve as a chip on the shoulder of his players, or they do something else entirely is yet to be seen.
The Illini head to Happy Valley to take on #7 Penn State this weekend.
Hear more from Bielema in the clip.