By Johnathan Hettinger

At least once a week when I take my shirt off, I think of Bret Bielema. 

The infamous photo of him shirtless, in particular. He looks so happy and so relaxed. I would like to be him.

I don’t quite know how to explain what I think about when I am looking in the mirror and thinking of a shirtless Bret Bielema, and maybe that’s because the thoughts aren’t really in words. They’re in feelings. My chest fills up. My belly protrudes, solid and not too jiggly. I am powerful, confident, jolly, secure, unyielding and earnest. I am who I am.

When I think about what Illinois football could be this year, I think about the burden of expectations. We went 8-4 last year. Almost a dream season in my book. In previous years, this would have been considered a pipe dream. Now, many fans seem to have this type of season as an expectation. 

I’m optimistic and skeptical. Was this a mirage? Are we gonna be able to follow it up with another winning season? Just how good can we be? 

I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’m afraid of getting hurt. I was a freshman in college in 2011. We started out 6-0, and were beating Indiana at half time. During the second half of the game at Indiana, me and my friends went out to the South Quad to play touch football, instead of watching the second half at Murphy’s. We were on top of the world, knowing we’d have a lot more wins to look forward to. 

As everyone knows, we finished 0-6. 

Don’t take anything for granted.

I’ve always been an excitable fan. We open the 2017 season by barely beating Ball State and Western Kentucky? I’m going into week 3 thinking that we’re never losing again, and I really mean that shit. I believe it in my soul.

When that part of my brain looks at the Illinois football schedule, I see 10-2.

I see one definite loss: at Iowa, and I figure we lose another game (at Kansas? At Purdue? Penn State?). 

I can very easily get caught up in this mindset. Why would we lose to Purdue? Penn State couldn’t beat us in nine overtimes in 2021. Why would we let those scrubs hang around this time? 

I remember thromping Wisconsin at Camp Randall last year, and my dreams start to spin out of control. Why not 12-0? 

The schedule is favorable this year. No Michigan. No Ohio State. Things could break so that we have the best defensive line in the country, and the best quarterback since Juice. 

Sitting here, the daydream goes wild. I can see Bret Bielema ripping his Gatorade-stained shirt off after beating a winless, Pat Fitzgerald-less Northwestern to finish a perfect regular season. In a moment that can only be described as divine intervention, a kingfisher flies into Memorial Stadium and lands on his shoulder. 

No one can deny its power, and the Bird becomes the official mascot, endorsed by Chancellor Jones on the spot.

Life is good. 

My dreams mostly end there. I’d be fine to lose to the winner of Ohio State and Michigan in Indy. Who wouldn’t? 

Bret wins. Every year, we’ve exceeded expectations. Why can’t these dreams become real?

That’s the part of Illinois football that makes a big belly feel unstoppable in the mirror.

History has taught me not to necessarily trust that part of my brain, however. In 2017, we went 2-10 after starting with a win. We’ve all seen this movie many times before. In fact, we have won our first game every year since 2010 (COVID season withstanding). As I understand it, we have not, uh, gone undefeated in a season.

Illinois football is nothing if not inconsistent. Illinois has only had consecutive winning seasons once in my 30 years on this earth. The consecutive above-500 seasons they did put together, 2010 and 2011, both finished 7-6, so that’s not exactly awe-inspiring. 

When I look at the Illinois football schedule with that part of the brain, the part that’s been here before, I see us starting 0-3. Toledo is picked to win their conference. A recently-resurgent Kansas on the road is hard. Penn State is, in fact, the No. 7 team in the country. We’ll beat Florida Atlantic, but then lose to Purdue.

In that scenario, I dread October 1. It’s not difficult to predict a bunch of Chief Illiniwek profile pics on Twitter calling for Bielema to be fired. The post-Purdue radio show will be full of people who say Bielema can’t coach and Walters was the reason for his success the last few years. Fake insiders will make up silly rumors. Lame-ass bloggers will return to their above-the-fray haughtiness.

That’s the part of Illinois football fandom that makes me not want to look in the mirror.

Maybe the stupidest iteration of how much I love Bret Bielema is my close following of the Big Game Boomer Twitter Account. Every few months, they release a ranking of the college football coaches with the most swagger, and Bret is consistently on the list. A few weeks ago, he was no. 18. 

It’s a respectable number, but also somehow offensive. He’s five spots below PJ Fleck, who is so corny that I could hardly stand to Google shirtless photos of him. Bret’s 13 spots behind Lane Kiffin, whose face is almost a physical embodiment of relentless arrogance.

I can’t imagine caring about Big Game Boomer if Tim Beckman was our coach. Or Bill Cubit. Or Ron Zook. Or Ron Turner. I would imagine I might care a little bit with Lovie because of how cool his beard looked, but even so I wouldn’t particularly care because Lovie never seemed to particularly care about Illinois football. 

Maybe that’s why I care about Bret. 

Bret does care about Illinois football, in a way that we really haven’t seen in my lifetime. He is bringing in Illinois kids and legitimate excitement. I believe that he thinks good football can happen here, and I’m not sure if any of the aforementioned coaches really did.

Last season, fans and media members made a lot of comments about Illinois football attendance. We were having the best season in 15 years, and people wouldn’t fill the stadium. 

“What’s wrong with these ungrateful fans?” was a frequent refrain.

A lot of attendance experts filled up my social mediums. There was much ado about how we need to have more season ticket holders, because it’s really hard to convince 50,000 people to make new weekend plans to come to Memorial Stadium. There were talks about making tickets cheaper, or even just giving them away, to fill up the stadium. 

All of these strategies didn’t address the main culprit, which is incredibly obvious, but no one seems to talk about: People are used to Illinois football breaking their hearts.

And honestly, I think this is the season that changes that. 

I don’t see a scenario where we are worse than 6-6; I think that’s the floor. I think 7-5 is the most likely outcome, but you could talk me into any winning record. I don’t see a single game where we won’t be competitive, and what a welcome change that is. 

We’re going to win as many games as we lose, at the very least. 

I’d love to go to a warm city bowl game, but I’d be satisfied to end the season with a win at the Quick Lane Bowl. 

My daydreams go wild about that too. I imagine walking out of Ford Field, with quarters jingling in my pocket, and running into Bret. We make eye contact and nod. We head to the nearest Detroit People Mover station, take the glorious $.75 ride around the city, discussing whether Johnny Newton will go No. 1 overall or just top 5, how much better the offense will be in 2024 with Luke Altmeyer getting a season under his belt and dream of central Illinois-native Kaden Feagin’s future Heisman campaign. We’re so lost in dreams of the future that we almost forget to get off at the Riverfront Station.

We walk down to the Detroit River and take our shirts off. As a light snow begins to fall, we breathe in the December chill. Then plunge into the Detroit River. Pure Michigan.

Life is good. 

Even better if we’re in Southern California or Florida.

You can follow Johnathan on Twitter at here

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