Wisconsin's Bielema out of the shadows

December, 27, 2010
12/27/10
9:00
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LOS ANGELES -- When Barry Alvarez became Wisconsin's coach in 1990, he quickly grew tired of hearing about the school's 1962 Rose Bowl team.

So he decided to do something about it.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
David Purdy/Getty ImagesCoach Bret Bielema's Wisconsin Badgers lead the nation in fewest penalties at 2.9 per game and are tied for the national lead in fewest turnovers with nine.
Alvarez guided the Badgers to three Rose Bowl appearances between 1993-99. Suddenly, no one talked about the '62 squad any more.

The cycle continued for Alvarez's hand-picked successor, Bret Bielema.

"I'm sure he got tired of hearing about my three Rose Bowls," Alvarez said. "I'm glad he’s going to the Rose Bowl so he won't have to keep hearing about them."

Bielema has guided Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, where it will face TCU on Jan. 1. The Badgers ended an 11-year drought between Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl appearances, and while Bielema is in just his fifth year as coach, Pasadena marks a major milestone for the 40-year-old.

Despite four winning seasons, four bowl appearances and a 38-14 record entering this fall, Bielema faced legitimate questions about whether he could take the program to the next level. He went 3-7 against Top 25 teams from 2007-09 and lacked a signature road win. Many hitched Bielema's success to the foundation Alvarez had created and wondered whether the protégé would ever build his own legacy.

It didn't help that the master can be seen everywhere in Madison.

A statue of Alvarez greets visitors at the south end of Camp Randall Stadium. The real thing casts a large shadow from the athletic director's box high above the playing field.

Alvarez does his best to stay out of the way, but it isn't easy.

"If I have to do something during a game, whether it’s a ball presentation or something like that, I normally tape it a half an hour before so they can run it on the scoreboard," Alvarez said. "I don't want to be down on the sidelines. I don't want to steal any of their thunder.

"I want the people to focus on Bret and this staff and this team."

Ultimately, Bielema had to earn the attention and the respect of Wisconsin fans on his own merits. He won them over this season with a team that reflected the program's core values but also had his fingerprints all over it.

Wisconsin won games in the Wisconsin way.

The Badgers steamrolled teams with their power run game, boasting three 800-yard backs and a cohesive offensive line led by All-Americans Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt. Wisconsin’s high point totals garnered national attention and criticism, but no team in America played with greater discipline. Wisconsin leads the nation in fewest penalties (2.9 per game) and is tied for the national lead in fewest turnovers (9).

And much like Alvarez’s teams, Wisconsin turned to players overlooked in the recruiting process -- like quarterback Scott Tolzien and defensive end J.J. Watt -- to lead the way.

Although the Badgers closely resembled other great Wisconsin squads, the 2010 version undoubtedly belonged to Bielema.

"That’s something else you won’t have to hear, 'Well, he did it with Barry's kids,'" Alvarez said. "These are all his guys. He recruited every guy on this team. This is his group. He’s put his stamp on it and I'm really happy for that."

Bielema's ownership of the squad was obvious after signature performances like an Oct. 16 victory against Ohio State, Wisconsin's first win against a No. 1-ranked team since 1981.

"It's justification for me that we are doing the right thing,” Bielema said after the Ohio State triumph. "As we build our program with recruiting and the constant belief about what we're all about, it solidifies it that much more."

Bielema’s faith in the plan strengthened after reaching his low point as a head coach in 2008. Wisconsin tumbled from the top 10 to barely making a bowl game. The team suffered from a lack of leadership, and the blame started at the top.

Alvarez noticed a shift in Bielema after the 2008 debacle. He became more comfortable in his role, and he spent more time looking ahead rather than reacting.

"I use the term, ‘Think like a shortstop,'" Alvarez said. "You’re not thinking about making a call after the play. You’re anticipating. I can remember him calling me after being on the job for a while saying, 'Hey, you never prepared me for all this stuff.'

"But after a while, nothing surprises you."

Bielema learned to focus on the right things rather than everything. He became better at delegating responsibility to his assistants.

"When you get that first job, you tend to micromanage everything," running backs coach John Settle said. "You want to know what everybody’s doing every second of the day. He probably wore himself out trying to be everywhere at once.

"The last couple years, he’s mellowed in his thinking, matured in his thinking."

[+] EnlargeBarry Alvarez
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWisconsin AD Barry Alvarez led the Badgers to three Rose Bowls as the team's head coach.
Bielema couldn’t have asked for a better situation when he took over for Alvarez in 2006. He guided a talent-stocked team to a 12-1 mark and a Capital One Bowl championship.

He made it look easy. A little too easy.

"You don’t stay at 12-1," Alvarez said. "Sometimes you can be misled by that. Anybody can coach when things are going smoothly. It’s how you react to adversity, it’s how you react when things have gone tough or you have to make tough decisions."

Adversity arrived this season in the form of injuries.

Wisconsin lost star linebacker Chris Borland to shoulder problems before Big Ten play began. The Badgers played for stretches without their No. 1 running back (John Clay), No. 1 receiver (Nick Toon) and No. 1 tight end (Lance Kendricks).

They rallied to beat Iowa on the road Oct. 23 without the services of several key contributors, including Clay and running back James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

“My Rose Bowl teams, we never had the injury problems [Bielema] had this year,” Alvarez said. “We’ve had a ton of injuries on this team and have been able to overcome it. No one panics, and that all starts with the head coach managing it and keeping a positive attitude and sending a message across that, 'We’re here to win. You have to step up and perform.'"

Bielema stepped up this season, and, in the process, moved out of Alvarez’s shadow.

"He still has weekly talks with Coach Alvarez, that’s very important to him," Settle said. "But he's definitely beginning to separate himself and carve his own niche in the coaching profession."

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