Illinois is hiring former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to lead its football program, the school announced Saturday.

Bielema, 50, has spent the past three seasons as an NFL assistant, working this year for the New York Giants after two years with the New England Patriots. He had expressed interest in returning to the college level and was a candidate for openings last year at both Michigan State and Colorado, and earlier in this cycle at Southern Miss, according to sources.

Bielema will receive a six-year contract with Illinois with a starting salary of $4.2 million.

Illinois, which fired coach Lovie Smith last Sunday, also considered Buffalo coach Lance Leipold, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, among others, to replace Smith, who went 17-39 in five seasons at the school.