Ask any successful football coach what propels them to the top, and they‘ll no doubt credit their spouse. For University of Illinois head coach Bret Bielema, his wife Jen Hielsberg undoubtedly fits that bill. Though she shies from the spotlight, Jen‘s rock-steady support has uplifted Bret throughout his entire coaching journey. There‘s no question – she is the unseen force empowering him to achieve greatness.
Who is Jen Hielsberg?
To understand Jen‘s staunch support, it‘s helpful to know her backstory. Born in Minnesota, Jen learned the values of hard work and community from her parents – her father owned a small realty company and her mother taught elementary school. In high school, Jen played volleyball and served on the homecoming court.
Academics were always a priority for Jen. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a marketing degree. On campus, she joined Sigma Kappa sorority and chaired fundraising events. After college, Jen worked in pharmaceutical sales and later became an interior designer.
Beyond her career, Jen‘s passions include travel, spin class, reading, and hosting friends. She has an outgoing, magnetic personality that draws people in. Jen also boasts fierce loyalty to those she loves – a quality that strengthens her marriage.
The Road to Romance
Jen met Bret in 2004 when he was defensive coordinator for the Wisconsin Badgers. Their first encounter occurred at a golf fundraiser; Jen impressed Bret by skillfully navigating the course in designer wedges. Soon after, they connected again when Jen volunteered to help build sets for the team‘s annual "rookie night" skit tradition.
Sparks flew as Jen and Bret worked side-by-side creating sets. They soon started dating and discovered how perfectly their personalities aligned. While Jen brought outgoing charisma, Bret grounded her with his discipline and focus. And Jen‘s warmth softened Bret‘s hard-driving coaching style.
After two years of dating, Bret proposed in 2006. While their life together would be unpredictable, their love provided a constant foundation.
The Big Day
On March 10, 2012, Jen and Bret sealed their love with a fairy tale wedding attended by over 200 guests. Jen was resplendent in a strapless lace Vera Wang gown and cathedral veil. Bret looked sharp in a black tuxedo with an orange vest and tie paying homage to his Wisconsin Badgers.
The ceremony and reception took place at stately Madison Club adorned with a rustic-chic motif. Twinkling lights, vibrant purple and orange florals, branches, and candles created a romantic ambiance. Guests including coaching colleagues, friends, and family members watched as the couple exchanged heartfelt vows.
The reception featured gourmet appetizers like crab cakes and filet mignon entrées. Attendees danced joyfully, many donning sparkling orange sunglasses in the spirit of celebration. As Jen and Bret swayed their first dance to "Bless the Broken Road" by Rascal Flatts, their happiness glowed. The lavish $250,000 affair was a stirring launch of their new life together.
Settling Into Married Life
Shortly after the wedding, Bret accepted the head coaching position at University of Arkansas. The move signaled the start of an exciting new chapter for the couple. While Bret tackled building the program, compassionate Jen wanted connecting with Arkansas fans herself.
Jen became involved with local non-profits and spent time getting to know Arkansas supporters personally. She had an open-door policy, welcoming players‘ families with genuine warmth. One player‘s mom said:
"Jen remembered every detail about my family and always asked how my other kids were doing too. Her care and concern meant so much."
Jen also spent considerable time at practices, games and events as Bret rebuilt the team. Her outgoing nature allowed her to befriend players easily. Defensive lineman Zachary Johnson remarked:
"Coach Bielema is an intense guy on the field, but Jen brings laughter and lightness wherever she goes. She‘s like a cool aunt to all of us."
Clearly, Jen‘s uplifting spirit was already working its magic.
Expanding Their Family
In 2014, Jen and Bret welcomed a baby girl named Briella into their family. Two years later, another daughter – Brexli – would arrive. Becoming parents only strengthened their bond as they navigated this new realm together.
Though Bret‘s work kept him busy, he prioritized being present for important milestones like the girls‘ first steps, words, and birthdays. Jen‘s social media offers charming glimpses into family life – daddy-daughter dances, baking cookies with mom, and trips to petting zoos. These two little ones lit up their world even more.
Weathering the Storm
While Arkansas brought many triumphs, Bret‘s tenure also had painful moments. In 2017, after five seasons, Bret was released from the university. This shocking news left Jen heartbroken for her husband. According to friends, Jen stayed strong, reassuring Bret with complete faith that he would coach again.
"When Bret lost his job, Jen was his rock. She knew how talented he was and reminded him that better opportunities would come."
Jen also comforted Bret through the devastating loss of their dog in 2021. Her empathy and strength encouraged him during this deep grief. Through every career setback and personal sorrow, Jen was Bret‘s confidante and guiding light.
Onward to Illinois
In 2021, the winding road brought Bret and Jen to Champaign as he became the University of Illinois head coach. Jen tackled this transition with grace, welcoming new players and supporters with customary warmth. She‘s embraced Illini traditions, regularly bringing the team home-baked cookies to show her care.
At games, Jen engages with fans, takes photos with families, andthanks students who stand in the cold to support the team. These personal touches typify her nurturing nature. As linebacker Bryce Barnes shared:
"Jen makes you feel like part of their family. She‘s the team mom looking out for all of us."
Clearly, the Illini are now experiencing Jen‘s magic too.
The Heart Behind the Success
While most know her as "Bret‘s wife," Jen is so much more – she‘s the silent strength empowering his greatness. Her outgoing nature, intuitiveness with people, tireless care for others, and fierce loyalty complement Bret perfectly. She provides unwavering support in victory, and more importantly, during life‘s hardest moments.
Together over 15 years, the Bielemas exemplify a marriage anchored in trust, laughter and sacrifice. Bret envisions the strategy, but Jen sees the hearts. With her insight and care, she inspires the team‘s emotional spirit. While Bret leads from the field, Jen‘s love leads their family. This powerhouse partnership makes each of them better.
So while you won‘t see Jen on the sidelines, make no mistake – she‘s there, fueling this team‘s drive in unseen ways. With Jen as his number one cheerleader, Bret Bielema‘s success shines even brighter.