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From Coach to Dad: Bret Bielema’s Perspective on Balancing Football and Fatherhood

In this episode of “Dads with Daughters,” host Christopher Lewis welcomes special guest Bret Bielema, the head football coach for the University of Illinois and a father of two daughters. The podcast focuses on helping dads be active and engaged participants in their daughters’ lives, raising them to be strong, independent women.

Bret Bielema shares a heartwarming story about discovering he was going to be a father of a daughter. His wife surprised him with the news during a football season, using balloons and reveal cupcakes to announce the gender. The excitement of becoming a father overshadowed any fears or concerns.

The conversation delves into the challenges of being a public figure while also safeguarding his daughters’ privacy. Coach Bielema discusses how he strives to balance his demanding coaching career with being a present father, even if it means only seeing his daughters once a week during the season.

As a football coach who mentors and molds young athletes, Bielema reflects on the parallels between his coaching role and his parenting role. He mentions the commonalities of dealing with loss and guiding young individuals through life’s challenges, both on the field and at home.

The episode explores the unique relationships that develop between a father and each of his daughters, emphasizing that every child is different and requires individualized attention and understanding. Coach Bielema shares a touching anecdote about his daughter’s perception of his work schedule, highlighting the need for more quality time together.

The conversation wraps up by discussing the significance of the “Girl Dad” hashtag, which represents the pride and joy fathers feel in raising strong, independent daughters. Coach Bielema expresses his deep appreciation for his daughters and how they have transformed his life, bringing unique perspectives and joy to his journey as a father.

Overall, this episode of “Dads with Daughters” provides insights into the challenges and rewards of being a dedicated father, particularly in the context of a high-demand career like college football coaching. It emphasizes the importance of balancing work and family life while cherishing the unique bond between fathers and their daughters.

TRANSCRIPT

Christopher Lewis [00:00:06]:

Welcome to dads with daughters. In this show we spotlight dads resources and more to help you be the best dad you can be. Hey everyone, this is Chris and welcome to Dads with Daughters where we bring you guests to help you be active participants in your daughter’s lives, raising them to be strong, independent women. Really excited to have you back again this week. As always, every week I love being able to walk with you and talk with you about the things that you and I both can do. To be able to be the best dads that we can be. To be able to be present and active in our daughters lives, helping them, as I said, to be those strong, independent women that we want them to be in life. To get there.

Christopher Lewis [00:00:50]:

To do that, we have to have support, we have to be able to learn from other dads. And every week I love being able to bring you different dads that are doing fatherhood in a little bit different way. And every week we get to learn something new, we get to go on this journey together. And today we got another great guest with us. Bret Bielema is with us, you might know that name. Bret is the head football coach for the University of Illinois, and he’s been at a number of different places, been around for just a little bit of time in the football scene. And I was really excited to be able to reach out and to get him to be willing to come on and talk about his own journey in being a father of two girls. Bret, thanks so much for being here today.

Bret Bielema [00:01:36]:

Hey, Chris, great to be on. I’m excited to be here.

Christopher Lewis [00:01:38]:

Well, I’m really excited to have you on as well. I think first and foremost, one of the things that I love to do, I want to turn the clock back in time. I want to go back to that first moment, that first moment when you found out that you were going to be a dad to a daughter. What was going through your head?

Bret Bielema [00:01:51]:

My wife had surprised me, even just the announcement I found out during the season and I came home one night and she was acting a little silly and then she had a bunch of balloons out, but they were multicolored. Right. I didn’t even know it’s my first time going through this. I thought you knew right away. Right. She’s like, no, we’re having a baby, we don’t know what it’s going to be. So we went through that whole process and then my wife has a little bit of a sweet tooth, so we had reveal cupcakes. It was just going to be her and I just with the way my schedule was in season, I didn’t know exactly what I could do or how we’re going to do it.

Bret Bielema [00:02:21]:

So we had a cupcake reveal where she bit into a cupcake and we found out the inside was pink. And I really hadn’t, in my mind formulated any opinion. I just was so excited to be a dad. And then, funny story, the second one after Briella was born and Brexley was on her way, of course we didn’t know and we hired a photographer and Briella revealed Brexley. She came in, she was either going to be dressed in the pink or a blue outfit and she came strutting in in the pink. And I’ll never forget grabing her and reacts to my wife. So it’s been pretty two awesome memories.

Christopher Lewis [00:02:53]:

When I talk to dads, I talked to a lot of different dads over the years about fatherhood and about raising daughters. And sometimes there’s some fear that goes along with that, some fear that goes into not only being a father, but being a father to a daughter. What’s been your biggest fear in raising daughters?

Bret Bielema [00:03:09]:

I think a little bit just because of the nature of my beast of a business I’m in. You have a lot of people that obviously love and respect and what you do, but because of that, you bring along some things that aren’t great, right? And people love to hate. So my wife and I make a pretty diligent effort to kind of guard them from those moments, especially as they get a little bit older and they’re not on social media yet. But I’ve been very apprehensive about what’s coming. I’ve always taken a lot of mental notes. I started my fatherhood journey a little bit later in life. I didn’t have my oldest Riella until I was 47 years old, so I got to watch a lot of experiences from my former coaches, friends, buddies. I naturally have gravitated more to buddies now that have had daughters only, right? So get some advice, but really just the unknown and then protecting them from really themselves, right? Like my oldest, she’s always just a little bit more advanced.

Bret Bielema [00:03:57]:

And so my little one, when my oldest didn’t have to wear floaties in the pool anymore, she couldn’t comprehend why she couldn’t go without floaties as well. And I’m like, well, you’ll be sitting on the bottom of the pool here in a minute if I don’t hold on to you. Right? So there’s the battle of just help and protect from each other. That’s kind of one that’s a lot of fun to navigate as well.

Christopher Lewis [00:04:13]:

Now you live a very public life and especially in the role that you’re in and the type of things that you do in your coaching. Like you said, there are people that love, there are people that hate. And as you said, you and your wife are doing what you can to guard your daughters from that. Talk to me about that balance of the public life, the private life, and being able to find that balance for yourself as a father. How do you do that and be able to not only safeguard your daughters, but also allow for them to go on this journey with you in the sport that you love and that you are a part of.

Bret Bielema [00:04:54]:

I would say Chris first. It’s a daily learning lesson. By no means have I got it figured out. I give an incredible amount of credit to my wife. Jen is absolutely, if there’s a phrase, girl mom, she’s incredible at it. Like, she just constantly takes care of nurtures, builds, develops, molds, takes care of everything from A to Z. There’s times where I literally see my girls maybe once a week during the in season. I usually get home on Thursday night.

Bret Bielema [00:05:18]:

I try to pick them up from school on Thursdays, and then I don’t usually see them until Sunday morning, and I’m usually out the door before 09:00 A.m., and I don’t see them again till Thursday. So it’s a pretty long stretch. But I would tell you that one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed, especially as now they’re getting a little bit older, is they didn’t know why or what or who I was. Right? Once in a while, I would see that dad’s on TV. And then a big moment for me was two springs ago, I would pick my daughter up from school, and we’re walking out, and just on that short walk from her classroom to the car, I probably had 1520 people say, hey, Coach, how are you doing, Coach? Nice to see you, Coach. Great job, Coach. And I got in the car, and my daughter said, why does everybody call you Coach? And I said, well, that’s what Daddy does, right? When I go to work, you know where I go, what I do? And she goes, yeah, but that’s what they call you at work. Why do they call you that in my school? I said, well, that’s kind of what I’ve known to them.

Bret Bielema [00:06:09]:

The same people that see me at work, see me in your school, and the things that they do. And she’s always kind of trying to process it. I was on media day here just a couple of months ago, and I said hi to Briella when I was on live TV, and she got a special kick out of that. So there’s a lot of know, we safeguard the negatives, but it’s definitely a work in progress.

Christopher Lewis [00:06:27]:

So, as you just said, you are a have you’ve had all of these players that you have molded. You have mentored, you have worked with throughout their lives, and that takes a specific skill set. And in many ways, you are mentoring and you’re guiding, and you’re molding, and you’re helping your daughters, and that takes a specific skill set. Talk to me about the intersection and the interplay between what you do on a daily basis as a coach in your work and what you’re doing at home with your daughters.

Bret Bielema [00:07:00]:

For right now, there’s such a discrepancy in ages that your sets of problems are completely different, but they’re also very common, right? Last year, unfortunately, during the season, I lost my mother. For us to go through that as a family, unfortunately, soon thereafter, my wife lost her father, who was one of my best friends. So there was a lot of loss. Right. And to help young kids deal with that and understand it still to this day, almost eight, nine months later is hard for them. But on the same reflection, there’s several times over the last 15 years as a head coach, 30 years in this profession where I’ve had to deal with loss in the young men’s lives that I work with, there’s some commonalities there that are easy to bridge the gap, but there’s also some differences. I would tell you what’s been kind of awesome for me is the way that my players have reacted and interacted with my kids, right? Like, early on in my career, my coaches didn’t even I was a single coach, wasn’t even married. And when I got married, I took that first step, and then when I had my first child, right.

Bret Bielema [00:07:55]:

To see the evolution of how that’s changed my thinking and my outlook on life, but to see our players interact with my girls, they were out of practice the other day. They were yelling my name up from the balcony, and the kids were like, Coach, you better get up there. Right. It’s just fun to see the interaction in the cross section again. I give my wife a lot of credit. She kind of gives me a little bit of a heads up on what’s coming at us and what can happen. But I try to live as vicariously I can through the moments I get. And then sometimes the moments I get are only through phone or FaceTime or videos.

Bret Bielema [00:08:26]:

But they’re worth everything for me that.

Christopher Lewis [00:08:28]:

In that long fall that you have sometimes going into the spring as well, and into January and February. As you said, you may not see your kids only once a week, except for on video or through other means. With two daughters at two different ages, talk to me about how you develop those special relationships, those unique relationships with each of them, with the different needs that they have.

Bret Bielema [00:08:56]:

You know, Chris, it’s a great one, and I’m definitely I got to figure it out, and I’m getting better every day. My wife, again, does a really good job of kind of helping me work through these moments when they can. But a case in point came for us. As coaches, we often don’t get to do the things that everybody else gets to do, but when we get a certain amount of time, I know my calendar when I’m going to be available and be a little bit more present physically in front of them. So June is a really busy month for us, so we’re getting ready to have a window. The last week of June 1, two to three weeks of July, where I was going to be around literally every day. I was going to try to be involved in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, for about a three week window. And I’ve told this story a couple times.

Bret Bielema [00:09:35]:

My youngest daughter, Brexley, she was upset I was getting ready to leave on the last weekend before it kind of really became a serious vacation time. And I said, hey, next week Daddy’s going to be around. I’ll be with you in the morning, I’ll be able to take you to school, I’ll be able to swim with you in the afternoon when you get home, I’ll be able to swim with you at night. I’ll put you to bed every night. And she looked at me, and she, well, are you going to live here? And I looked at her, and I’m like, Brex, I always live here. I leave before you get up. I get home and you’re sleeping. I see you on the video, I give you a kiss on your forehead while you’re sleeping.

Bret Bielema [00:10:08]:

And she goes, well, you don’t live here. I said, yeah, I do live here. Where do you think I live? And she said, you live at work. And it just literally took my heart out of my chest right that moment. That’s how she sees me, right? And we’ve done a lot to combat that and say and be present as much as I can, but literally, over the last several months, if I could steal even a 45 minutes window to go pick them up from school like every other dad gets to do, to grab them, to hug them, to bring them home is pretty awesome. It’s kind of funny. The teachers, they know when I come in, it’s not that often, right? And a lot of times I’ll get a little emotional because I haven’t seen them, and I think they know how special those moments can be, and that’s probably what I look for more than anything.

Christopher Lewis [00:10:56]:

I can definitely see that, and especially in a role like you’re in, where you’re having to put 110% into the players and into the sport itself, and having your mind at that work. Twenty four, seven. To be able to be successful is hard when you’re trying to then have to split that or split be able to show your kids and help your kids understand what that means and why that means that you have to be away. And there’s other dads that are like that, too, but I can definitely see that and commend you for recognizing it and being able to do what you can to work on it, because it’s.

Bret Bielema [00:11:38]:

Not an easy know, I think the part that’s been awesome for me now, too, is they love coming to work. If Jen can bring me a coffee and they get to sit in my meeting room or my office for a half hour and draw markers on my board or whatever it is. Daddy, can I go to work? Can I go to work with you? And then they love being around my players. And then for me especially, I’ve got a lot of younger coaches on my staff with young kids. And we had a scrimmage two Saturdays ago that they had Mario Brothers showing in the stadium up on the big screen, and we got a little room set aside, and all of my coaches were able to bring their young children, and it was a madhouse for about two and a half hours. I don’t think they watched too much of the movie. But to see the interaction of our kids that have a lot of the same things, right. Just like my coaches and I live through it, their kids and their families live through it as well.

Bret Bielema [00:12:26]:

So we do have some commonalities there that make it a little bit easier to do.

Christopher Lewis [00:12:29]:

Now, you and I got connected through your wife. Thank you to your wife for connecting us. And it really was because I saw something that you had put out there, and you used the hashtag girl dad. The hashtag’s been out there for a little bit of time. It originally goes back to some of the things with Kobe Bryant and his daughter, and it’s still out there, and people are claiming it and being proud of it for you. What does being a girl dad mean?

Bret Bielema [00:12:57]:

It’s more than I could probably put into words or sentences. Ironically, I grew up a football coach, really never played basketball as a wrestler, but I had the great pleasure when I was with the New England Patriots. Bill Belchick flew in Kobe for a day to meet with our team, and I really didn’t know him, but I was involved in what his schedule was and where he was while he was doing it. And I heard him talk to our team, and ironically, one of our players asked him about taking a helicopter to work. Right. And he made reference to, as crazy as this sounds, that the reason he takes a helicopter to work is to be a normal dad, because what he does every day is he would drive his kids to school, drop his kids off, and then drive to the helicopter. That helicopter enabled him to fly in a shorter amount of time to practice and fly back. And then he could, like every other dad, pick up his kids and drive them home from school.

Bret Bielema [00:13:46]:

And to know how that story ended right. And to know the process of why he had a helicopter was to become a normal dad just blows my mind. And it always kind of has a full circle when I see that hashtag girl dad. And then for me, I’m around young men all the time. I got 120 guys on our roster. I hire a staff that’s probably 85, 95% men, and so I think the Lord has blessed me with two beautiful young women in addition to my wife. I go home every night to three women that have really, truly changed my life, that nobody else could have ever done. Like no one else could do that but them.

Bret Bielema [00:14:20]:

So it’s pretty awesome in that regards. And it’s funny how it just kind of keeps popping up. My chief of staff, who’s been with me forever as a head coach, he’s been with me all 15 years. Head coach, he’s a dad, two girls. We had our defensive coordinator, Aaron Henry, who just got married about a year and a half ago, literally just gave birth to two twin girls. He didn’t give birth, his wife did to two twin girls. And Aaron played for me. I met him when he’s 16 years old.

Bret Bielema [00:14:42]:

He’s 32 years old now. I’ve been with him for 16 years, and to see him now become the parent of two baby twin girls is pretty awesome. So it just continues to grow and affect all of us in ways that have been really special. One of my best friends from the state of Michigan, who I’ve known for probably the last 1520 years, he’s the dad of three girls. And I was always around them when I was a younger coach, and I was always amazed at him and his wife, Julie and Stefan Schwarzmiller, they’ve built three beautiful girls who are all independently different. And I saw how each one was dramatically different, but yet the same in their love and appreciation for their just. It’s fun to go through life and see these things through the perspective of a girl dad that no others can do.

Christopher Lewis [00:15:23]:

It is interesting to look at your daughters and see the distinct differences. I have two daughters myself. I know that each of them is completely different than the other. And the more dads that I talk to, I find that that’s definitely the case in many cases, that the more kids you have, the more different they’re going to be, and you can definitely not treat them the same. You have to know the differences. You have to treat them uniquely. And there are definitely values and other things that you can instill, but their personalities and the things that they need to be successful and to be able to thrive are going to be different from each other.

Bret Bielema [00:16:05]:

It’s really been a game changer for me. My oldest, briella is six. She thinks she’s 26, but she’s really just six. And she’s one that literally every time I’ve ever been around her. One of the great things I was able to be around this summer, we had her 6th birthday party and there was a little Mermaid theme that went on. And I’m, at a birthday party with a bunch of the moms, came and stayed. So I’m literally with twelve six year olds, about half the mother stayed and my wife and I was the only guy there, and there was mermaids everywhere. A lot of pink and a lot of frosting.

Bret Bielema [00:16:35]:

And I just really enjoyed watching my daughter interaction with her friends that I don’t get to see very often. Right. And then my youngest daughter, Brexley was there, and she’s two years younger, but she joined right into that crowd. Right. So I know because she’s around her sister, she was probably a little bit more mature than most four year olds and how they handle it, but on the same account, Rexley, my oldest, Brielle, had a birthday party Saturday night. So I got home and I was able to take her in the pool, just me and her. She’s four and her and I got to spend about two and a half, 3 hours just her and I together. And that made my entire month.

Bret Bielema [00:17:09]:

Right. Like, just to spend that moment. But her thinking is she’s a very independent soul. What she wants, she wants now. And she doesn’t like the word no in any capacity, whether it’s a hot dog or a treat or a snack or she wants to go to bed. If she’s told that she doesn’t get to do something, she does not like that phrase. So everybody has got their own reactions, but it’s been fun to watch the both of them grow.

Christopher Lewis [00:17:29]:

We always finish our interviews with what I like to call our Fatherhood Five, where I ask you five questions that delve a little bit deeper into you as a dad. Are you ready?

Bret Bielema [00:17:36]:

Absolutely.

Christopher Lewis [00:17:37]:

In one word, what is fatherhood love? When’s the time that you finally felt that you succeeded at being a father to a daughter?

Bret Bielema [00:17:45]:

TBD.

Christopher Lewis [00:17:46]:

If I was to talk to your girls, how would they describe you as a dad?

Bret Bielema [00:17:50]:

My youngest would say that I tickle her way too much, although she giggles the whole time. And my oldest, I think she likes the whole football thing. So she likes the whole coach role. Right. Both different answers, but both unique with him.

Christopher Lewis [00:18:03]:

And let’s fast forward maybe 510 years. What do you want them to say then?

Bret Bielema [00:18:07]:

One of the things I did early on kind of just came about it, by happenstance, is I got a journal from my wife. Because when Bella was born, she was born on July 8, which is right before we start fall camp, I gave my wife a journal to kind of record a daily thought that could be relayed to me when I’m not around. Right. And I remember I came back after about a week and there had been one journal entry. Right. And I came back two weeks later and there weren’t any more entries. So I grabbed that journal and I literally documented a daily thought every day for five years of my oldest daughter. And then I started with my second daughter and to go back and look at some of those journal entries, and I want to give that to them when they turn 16, and I want to show them the things that I saw, because there was a part of my life when I was with the Patriots.

Bret Bielema [00:18:53]:

I was away from them for months at the time. I wasn’t around my daughter. But she’s on your mind every moment of every day. Right. And I want to be able to show them that in their thoughts. So I want them ten to 15 years from now to know that even though their dad wasn’t with them every day, I was with them every moment. And those are things that you can’t put a price tag on, you can’t explain until you’re in the moment, and I’m looking forward to those moments.

Christopher Lewis [00:19:14]:

What inspires you to be a better dad?

Bret Bielema [00:19:17]:

Just the love that I have for them. Right. I haven’t got it figured out by any means. I think all fathers are all parents always get better with time. I know I’m a better coach now, 15 years as a head coach than I was in year one because of mistakes. Right. I just want them to grow every day. I want to get better with them.

Bret Bielema [00:19:37]:

I really enjoy learning with them how to be a father, but there’s one thing that guides me every day, is just a love for their life, right? Like, just a love for their daily, to hear their giggle, to hear their laugh, to hear their tears, to hear their joys, to hear their sorrows. There’s just things every day that motivate you, inspire. Like, I just want to have them be the best version of themselves they could ever be. I want to give them everything, and that’s not I get paid a good amount of money, right? We get to do some fun things. But what you give your child has nothing to do with the value of money. It has to do with the value of your soul. And I always tell parents when we’re recruiting their kids, I’m going to be the best I am as a head coach. When your son needs me the most, it’s not necessarily going to be a play or a call or a touchdown or a tackle.

Bret Bielema [00:20:24]:

It’s going to be when they need me at their most because they’ve had a loss. I’ve had parents call me to tell their young sons that they’ve lost a parent or a grandparent, and I got to be the bearer of bad news. But I tell them in the recruiting, I’ll be at my best when it’s at its worst. And for me, as a parent, I hope to define that. Right. I will be at my best when it’s at its worst for my daughters, and that’s probably what guides me more every day.

Christopher Lewis [00:20:48]:

You’ve given a lot of piece of advice today, things that are guiding you in the journey that you’re on as we finish up today. What’s one piece of advice that you’d like to give to every dad, without a doubt.

Bret Bielema [00:20:59]:

Enjoy every minute. I think especially the perspective this year. I had my mom on this earth for 53 years. She unfortunately was taken from us literally in the middle of the night. Kind of an unexpected turn of events. She’d been a 25 plus year cancer survivor, breast cancer. We probably had had her longer than I’d even thought at some point. But even to have her for 53 years, I never get a chance to let them see her again, right? And they don’t get those moments and nobody determines those times.

Bret Bielema [00:21:25]:

Only the big man upstairs does it. So I just think to cherish and admire and appreciate every moment you get is the only way to live it. And life’s too short to carry anything else but love, man. There’s no amount of pain or grudge or anger that should carry in your heart like let it be pure love. And hopefully only good things can happen from there.

Christopher Lewis [00:21:43]:

Well, Coach, I just want to say thank you for being here today, for sharing your own journey and the highs, the lows and everything in between. And I wish you all the best in the upcoming season. And thank you for everything that you’re doing to not only help your own daughters, but helping all of the guys that are on your team to mentor, to coach, to help them in the journeys that they’re on. Because you not only are a father biologically, but you end up being a father to many others as well. So I wish you all the best and thank you for your time today.

Bret Bielema [00:22:16]:

I appreciate it very much. Thank you for the time.

Christopher Lewis [00:22:18]:

If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode of the Dads with Daughters podcast, we invite you to check out The Fatherhood Insider. The Fatherhood Insider is the essential resource for any dad that wants to be the best dad that he can be. We know that no child comes with an instruction manual and most dads are figuring it out as they go along. And The Fatherhood Insider is full of resources and information that will up your game on fatherhood. Through our extensive course, library, interactive forum, step by step, roadmaps and more, you will engage and learn with experts, but more importantly, dads like you. So check it out@fatheringtogether.org. If you are a father of a daughter and have not yet joined the Dads with Daughters Facebook community, there’s a link in the notes. Today Dads with Daughters is a program of fathering together.

Christopher Lewis [00:23:07]:

We look forward to having you back for another great guest next week. All geared to helping you raise strong, empowered daughters and be the best dad that you can be. We’re all in the same boat and it’s full of tiny screaming passengers. We spend the time we give, the lessons, we make, the meals we buy them present and bring your A game because those kids are growing fast. The time goes by just. Like a dynamite glass calling astronauts and firemen, carpenters and muscle men, get out and be the one to now be the best dad you can be. Be the best than you can be.

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Christopher Lewis


Christopher is the co-founder of Fathering Together and the Chief Information Officer. He is the father of 2 daughters that are now in their tweens and teens. He started Dad of Divas, a blog to share his own personal experiences in being a father in 2007 and in 2018 started the Dads With Daughters Facebook Group to allow dads to connect, learn and grow together. He works in Digital Media on a daily basis, but also has over 20 years of experience in higher education administration.

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