The most turbulent week in a turbulent season for the Giants got knocked around some more on Saturday when Bret Bielema, their outside linebacker coach, returned to his college roots and was hired as the head coach at Illinois.
Bielema, 50, is not staying with the Giants through the end of the season, or even through the end of the week. As he immediately starts his job at Illinois, he leaves the Giants before completing one season with the team. His responsibilities will be filled by insider linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer and defensive assistant Jody Wright.
Bielema received a four-year contract at Illinois with a starting annual salary of $4.2 million. His salary with the Giants was $400,000.
“We always want to be supportive of our coaches and players in terms of advancing their careers,” first-year head coach Joe Judge said. “We appreciate everything Bret did for this organization and our coaching staff. He did a great job with our outside linebackers and made a significant impact on our overall defensive effort. Bret is a great teacher, and he brings great perspective on how he sees the game. We wish him all the best at the University of Illinois. The Illini program is in great hands.”
What a week is has been for the Giants. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett tested positive for COVID-19 and is in quarantine, leaving tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens to call the plays on offense Sunday against the Browns, Kitchen’s former team (he was their head coach in 2019). James Bradberry, the Giants’ top cornerback and perhaps their most indispensable player, is out for the game, identified as a high-rick close contact of someone (his chiropractor), who tested positive for the coronavirus.
On Saturday, it was revealed offensive assistant Stephen Brown tested positive for COVID-19. Brown immediately self-isolated and the Giants were working with the NFL’s chief medical officer regarding close contacts. The team’s practice and training facility remained open, as the Giants were scheduled for a morning walk-through practice.
Adding to the disruption of the week, there is uncertainty at quarterback, as backup Colt McCoy is likely to again replace hobbled Jones as the Giants (5-8) try to stay in the NFC East title chase, one-game behind first-place Washington (6-7).
Earlier this season, the Giants’ coaching staff underwent upheaval when Judge fired offensive line coach Marc Colombo, replacing him with Dave DeGuglielmo, who was set to join the staff as a consultant.
This latest change did not blind-side Judge, as Bielema’s desire to once again be a college head coach was well-known. Bielema won three consecutive Big Ten titles at Wisconsin during his time there from 2006-12. He spent five years at Arkansas before he was fired after the 2017 season.
Bielema at Illinois replaces Lovie Smith, who was fired after going 17-39 in five seasons.
“This is about a chance to take Illinois to a level,’’ Bielema said Saturday on ESPN’s College GameDay. “During my lifetime I’ve seen them have success, and obviously had some times where they’ve not had much success.
In a statement released by the school, Bielema said “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. We want to build a program that makes Illini Nation proud and regain the passion that I’ve seen when Illinois wins.”
Bielema, who was rumored for jobs at Colorado, Michigan State and Southern Mississippi, is a native of Illinois and this past Tuesday on a Giants Zoom call was asked about his interest in the Illinois job.
“I appreciate the question,’’ Bielema said. “It’s always a blessing to hear your name mentioned for different opportunities but I really do just concentrate on my task at hand, here in the office grinding out for Sunday’s game. I worry about the job I have and hopefully people take notice of the job I do. Whenever those opportunities you address them as they are but right now I’m worried about nothing but the Sunday game against Cleveland.’’
Bielema will not be with the Giants on Sunday. His position group was hit hard by injury, with Lorenzo Carter, Kyler Fackrell and Oshane Ximines landing on injured reserve and Markus Golden traded to the Cardinals. The work with the young replacements, Carter Coughlin, Cam Brown, Niko Lalos and veteran Jabaal Sheard, will go on without Bielema.