Illinois coach Bret Bielema tests positive for COVID-19, will miss Saturday’s game at Iowa

Illinois coach Bret Bielema has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the Illini’s matchup against No. 20 Iowa on Saturday, the program announced Tuesday. 

“After developing mild symptoms yesterday, I was tested and unfortunately late Monday night tested positive for a breakthrough case of COVID-19,” Bielema said. “I’m disappointed that I will not be with our team this week when we travel to Iowa, but I’m grateful that I’m vaccinated and received the booster shot last week.” 

Bielema said that Illinois put together a protocol at the outset of the pandemic in case any coaches were unavailable, including Bielema himself. In his absence, assistant head coach George McDonald will take the lead on head coaching responsibilities during game preparation and on the field against the Hawkeyes. McDonald is Illinois’ wide receivers coach. 

After an inconsistent year filled with cancellations and missed games, the 2021 season has largely been insulated from the worst parts of the pandemic. However, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, UConn interim coach Lou Spanos and Western Michigan coach Tim Lester rank among coaches who had to miss games after testing positive. Last week, Cal’s matchup against USC became the first postponed matchup of the 2021 FBS season. 

“Unfortunately, we are being reminded every day that the pandemic is not over – a point brought home by this most recent news regarding Coach Bielema,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in a statement. “As with every other part of the program, Coach and the football staff have a plan for this contingency, and they began executing on that plan overnight. Coach will remain as involved as possible throughout the week, and we are confident in Coach McDonald’s ability to serve in his place where needed, including during the game at Iowa on Saturday.”

After a slow 1-4 start to Bielema’s coaching tenure, Illinois has found some consistency. The Illini are 3-2 over the past five games with wins over Penn State and Minnesota, both of which were ranked at the time. Illinois must beat Iowa and Northwestern in the final two weeks to earn a trip to the postseason for just the second time since 2014. 

The diagnosis prevents what would have been a homecoming for Bielema, a former Iowa football player. Bielema has not coached in Iowa City, Iowa, since October 2010, when he was the coach at Wisconsin and will have to wait another two years before Illinois returns to Iowa.

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