wisconsin football

Ann Arbor News, Sept. 23, 2005 

Promising successor
Bielema 'honored' to coach Wisconsin once Alvarez retires
By ROB HOFFMAN
News Sports Reporter


Family Fun Day is usually pretty quiet if you are an assistant coach with the University of Wisconsin football team.

While players and longtime coach Barry Alvarez stand on the field of Camp Randall Stadium signing autographs during a preseason event that typically draws crowds of 6,000, the more anonymous assistants can count on a few silently productive hours in their offices, where they can
watch game film or otherwise prepare for the first game.

Or so Bret Bielema thought.

Midway through this year's event on Aug. 28, the Badgers' defensive coordinator got a call from a friend who wondered where he was. So Bielema, thinking nothing of the friend's request to come down to the field, walked out into the hubbub, found his friend and signed an autograph.

Suddenly, there were 100 people standing in a line in front of him.

"I had to get out of there to go attend a meeting," Bielema said. "I didn't think that was going to happen."

Breeding excellence
Life certainly has changed for the 35-year-old former defensive lineman.

A year ago, he was a new arrival in Madison as the recently hired Badgers defensive coordinator. Today, he is the future of Wisconsin football, thanks to Alvarez's surprise announcement in late July that his 16th season as Badgers head coach would be his last - and that, as Wisconsin's athletic director, he was hiring Bielema to replace him in January, 2006.

"Although we've spent just one season together, I couldn't be more convinced that Bret Bielema is the right man to replace me," Alvarez said at his July 28 news conference. "He's a tireless worker, and I feel as though he's a rising star in our profession."

Whether that's the case or not should become clear in the next few years for a man who helped the Badgers place in the top 10 nationally in four defensive categories during his first year in Madison.

But there's no question that the former Illinois farm boy has come a long way in a hurry.

Perhaps it all started as a teenager in Prophetstown, a rural town two hours from Chicago with about 2,500 hogs and 1,800 people. Bielema was a big, athletic kid - good enough at football to attract the interest of severalDivision II and Division III schools.

But he turned down all of those offers, preferring to take his chances as a walk-on at the University of Iowa, which he had fallen in love with after attending wrestling camp there for several summers.

"My father had a great quote: 'It's better to play in excellence than to excel in mediocrity,' " Bielema said. "It really stuck with me."

Very quickly, Bielema got a chance to be excellent amid excellence. The 190-pound Bielema blossomed into a 265-pound defensive brute, starting on the 1991 Hawkeyes team that wound up No. 5 in the nation and ascending to a team captain spot in 1992. He was a terror on the field, but had his introspective moments away from the gridiron.

Before his sophomore season, he was called into defensive line coach Ted Gill's office and told he was being offered a scholarship. His first reaction? He cried.

Bielema also developed skills that would later help him as a coach. He still remembers the day during his junior year when he was watching Indiana game films with his teammates. He noticed right away that a Hoosiers defensive lineman put his right hand down just before the team would run right. And vice versa with the left hand. Bielema told his impressed coaches, who instantly incorporated the quirk into the Hawkeyes' game plan.

"He got injured in the third quarter," Bielema recalled of the Indiana player. "So you can't go off everything you learn."

Labor of love
After his college career ended, Bielema signed as an undrafted free agent with Seattle Seahawks. But a torn anterior cruciate ligament caused him to return to Iowa coach Hayden Fry's office in the fall of 1993 to ask what
he should do next with his life. Why don't you become an undergraduate student assistant for me, Fry asked him.

That day, while weighing Fry's offer against a career in business, the 23-year-old Bielema opened a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant.

"Choose a job you love," the fortune said. "And you will never work a day in your life."

Taking those words to heart, just as he did with his father's advice, Bielema has never looked back.

He spent seven seasons under Fry at Iowa, then two more under successor Kirk Ferentz. Bielema's efforts drew the attention of former Fry assistant Bill Snyder, who offered him the job of co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State.

He wasn't sure he wanted to leave Iowa, but several phone calls from former Fry assistants Bob Stoops at the University of Oklahoma and Alvarez himself convinced Bielema otherwise. Once you leave Kansas State, they told him, you'll be a better coach.

Indeed, with the help of Bielema, the Wildcats topped the nation in scoring defense in 2002 and finished in the top 10 in three defensive categories in 2003.

Then Alvarez called him again after the 2003 season ended. This time, the longtime Wisconsin coach wanted Bielema for himself. And so Bielema headed back to the Big Ten - this time as a Badger.

Almost overnight, the team that gave up 34 touchdowns the previous season transformed itself into a disciplined unit that was fifth in the nation in pass efficiency defense (100.1 points), sixth in scoring defense (15.4 points per game), seventh in passing yards defense (167.2 yards) and ninth in total defense (291.2 ypg).

During the course of his first season at Wisconsin, Bielema developed a reputation as both a workaholic and a fiery leader. The unmarried Bielema, who admits jokingly that football has cost him more girlfriends than it has gained him, spent long hours in his office, going over his schemes for that week. And, according to Badger lore, before last October's Wisconsin-Northwestern game, Bielema started beating up a trash can because he wanted to fire up his team.

But Bielema plays down his excitability, saying he only turns the volume up when it's appropriate.

"Praise loudly and criticize softly," he said. "That's what I try to do."

No easy answers, yet
Since being named coach-in-waiting, others have been turning the volume up on Bielema. He gets stopped at the store whenever he heads to town to pick up a Sunday newspaper. The day of the press conference where he was announced coach, he heard from Fry, his first-grade
teacher and his first youth football coach, among others.

There are lots of demands on his time these days. Besides his old job of defensive coordinator, Alvarez picked Bielema to head all recruiting efforts this year in order to smooth the transition. And he still has to answer a steady stream of questions from reporters and fans about
what will happen after he takes over next year.

"I've got no easy answers," he said. "I'm not worried about it until that day comes. There's no other way to go about it."

But yes, he'll admit, he's still in awe of what is about to happen with his life - how the former Illinois farm kid will soon becomes the youngest coach in the Big Ten.

"People put Wisconsin football on such a pedestal," he said. "It's going to be an honor to spearhead it in the right direction."

Rob Hoffman can be reached at rhoffman@annarbornews.com or
(734) 994-6814.