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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
For better or for worse, Bret Bielema became a college football coach last season. He faced his first real bout with adversity and criticism, guided Wisconsin back to a bowl game and finished on a sour note against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
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|Things didn't go as planned for Bret Bielema and the Badgers in 2008.|
After a charmed 17-1 start at Wisconsin, Bielema has gone just 11-10 since and comes off a very disappointing campaign last fall. He has earned his own fire-me Web site, a rite of passage for coaches these days, and needs to show progress in Year 4. The 39-year-old made several key offseason changes in hopes of getting Wisconsin back on track.
I caught up with Bielema while the coach was driving back from a brief vacation in Wisconsin Dells. Here are his thoughts on 2008, his outlook for spring ball and the 2009 season.
Is this an exciting time for you, especially after the way things ended last fall?
Bret Bielema: It is. You keep saying to yourself all the time during the fall that you always have next week, you get another game to go out and prove, another opportunity. But when you end the bowl game in a way that doesn't sit well with you, as coaches you can't wait to get back out in spring ball. I really have enjoyed the players. I sat down with all of them, 98 guys went through my office. There have been some changes in the weight room and the strength and conditioning department, and those guys are all very eager to see the rewards.
Ever since I've been here, we've always had spring ball before and after spring break. But as I've witnessed as a coach, you get your biggest gains during the summer. So we tried to create two summers. When we got back from winter break, we gave our guys a seven-week window, just like we do during the summer. We started off with very little running. We emphasized more on strength and speed and size. And that period took us up all the way until last Friday.
And did you make those changes because the strength and speed last year wasn't up to your standards?
BB: More than anything, after the season we took a look at where we were. All the guys in my staff room have worked in all different parts of the country, and they all had a preconceived notion about Wisconsin before they came here and started working. I said, 'What is it? What made Wisconsin tick?' And they always said, 'Physical, tough, a mental toughness, do things right, do things harder than the other guy.' We just want to get back to those core basics of Wisconsin football.
Did you guys get away from some of those fundamental values last year, and can you pinpoint why?
BB: It wasn't so much getting away from the fundamentals. The things that were getting us, any time we had a penalty before the snap, offense or defense, it wouldn't put ourselves in a positive light. We've always prided ourselves at Wisconsin on doing things right consistently, and a lot of that gets down to self discipline and mental toughness. That's really what we tried to emphasize during these winter conditioning months.
From talking to the players, do they understand that the mental toughness has to be better, how important that is?
BB: Absolutely. We had a Badger council that we made up of two players [from each] position on the team. We instituted a pretty stringent class attendance policy. We had a couple guys ineligible for the bowl game, and a lot of it goes back to being able to get up and go to class and do the things you're supposed to do. We stepped up our policy and it's really helped us, and that discipline has carried over to other discipline.
We had 6 a.m. workouts on Saturday mornings. If one person was late at any point, it moved it up a half an hour. So there was one Saturday, I believe we went at 4:30 in the morning. After that point, we haven't had one guy miss. That really made a strong point to those guys that it all does carry over.
Are there tougher consequences for missing classes, bad grades, et cetera?
BB: I understand college students and sometimes, teachers actually will write it into their policy whether or not class is absolutely mandatory. Or you may be allowed to miss a certain number [of classes]. We put in a policy that after a certain number of misses, I would warn them and let them know where they were at. The next miss, they would have a 6 a.m. run and conditioning session. If they had another miss, they had two of those conditioning sessions in a row. And if they missed a third after that warning, your entire position group would come in and run while you watched, to kind of instill some peer pressure.
What was the biggest lesson for you as a still young head coach?
BB: Every team has its own chemistry. My first year's team had really strong senior leadership,  was kind of a mix of young and old and the next year there was a lot of upperclassmen, but from what I've learned and witnessed after the year and in talking to people, the voice in the locker room wasn't as clear as it had been in the past. We've got to develop leadership. We've got to recruit certain guys, but we've got to find the right fit for what Wisconsin is.
We can't try to fill the locker room with five-star guys as much as we're developing a program and we need to embody what that means, not just during the fall, but during the winter, during the spring, during the summer, and develop our guys to be players to go out and win games that others don't necessarily think they can.
So as a coach, is it being more aware of those things, the problem signs in the locker room?
BB: As a head coach, [you must] be aware and be able to react and do something about it. As a head coach, you want to have your coordinators and assistants go out and do their jobs. On the same account, if I saw something that needs to be addressed, I would address it with the respective coaches, but I didn't want to overstep their philosophies on the field. The thing I took out of last season as a head coach is if you see something wrong, you've got to correct it immediately and move on.
Hopefully some of those things we fought through last year are going to be huge lessons learned for the upcoming year.
I know you never anticipate a drop-off, but when you start the way you did as a coach, was there ever the thought of, 'Oh God, there will be a down period in my career?'
BB: It was difficult because when I look back, before I was at Wisconsin I was at Kansas State for two years, and both years we won 11 games. And then I come to Wisconsin and I believe we won nine and 10 games, and then my first year [as head coach] we won 12. It had been a long time since I hadn't won at least nine or 10 ballgames. Ever since I took over as a coordinator, I never had less than nine wins. You kind of get used to that feeling.
It makes you confirm that you know what you're doing. You've just got to make sure you're consistently doing it all the time to make sure it happens every year.
How do you plan to spend your time during the spring? More
with the defense? About the same on both sides?
BB: As a head coach, I really try to let my assistant coaches and coordinators go out and do what they do, but I will be more involved. Maybe coaching a certain aspect of a drill, stepping into drills and emphasizing the fundamentals: Pad level, eyes, feet, drive. And then the mental aspect of it is huge. And because I run special teams, we'll have more time dedicated to special teams that we did a year ago, just because that has to be an area that we win in every game. We can't be so-so on special teams. We have to be above and beyond.
From talking with Paul [Chryst] last week, he definitely wants the quarterback competition to be different this year, some more separation. How do you look at those four guys heading into the spring and what are your expectations there?
BB: As you become a more seasoned player in our program, you're expected to know certain things. Your window of error is smaller and smaller. On the same account, if you have young guys in the program like Curt Phillips and Jon Budmayr, they're going to get the benefit of the doubt. They're going to have an opportunity to go out and shine and do what they do. We want to come out of spring ball with the top two candidates going into fall camp, if not a truly defined starter by that point.
Coming out of spring ball, you'd like to have a good understanding of your offense, defense and special teams, who you're top players are and move forward from there. But we'll get through spring, see where we're at, and we always have summer and fall camp to establish where our guys are.
From a defensive standpoint, it seemed like you played well in stretches, whether it was the first half at Michigan or the first half in the bowl game. But there would usually be letdowns late in games. What's the key to finishing better on that side of the ball?
BB: We didn't do well at the end of the fourth quarter on a couple different occasions. And in particular, our red zone defense wasn't very good. We made a point to our guys that, 'Listen, when do red zone defenses occur? Well, they occur at the end of a drive. And at the end of the drive, how do you play when you're tired?' We made that a huge emphasis in our winter conditioning about finishing. When we get into spring ball, we'll have red zone defense set up at the end of practice, so we can put our guys in a tough situation when they're tired mentally and physically. You have to address the issues and bottom line, you have to correct them.
Does that go back to mental toughness as well, finishing drives on the defensive end?
BB: From an offensive point of view, you're in enemy territory, you need to score, you need to put it in. On the flip side, defensively, you're protecting your house. You're not going to let anybody in, and you've got to have guys rise up and have guys make certain plays. We looked at all the various reasons why certain plays happened. Some of them were technique oriented, some of them were call oriented, some of them were just an offense just being able to execute a certain play. We looked at that very, very hard and our defensive staff did a great job of studying it. We'll go into spring ball with a plan on how to correct it.
Do you lean more on your secondary this year because you have a lot of guys coming back? And what are your expectations for linebacker and defensive line after some losses there?
BB: Yeah, we lose three of our four [starting] D-linemen and two of the three linebackers. But because of the injuries those five or six players went through up front, we got a lot of valuable reps for some of those other guys. And then with the secondary, although they have a lot of experience, there hasn't been one group that's settled in to be the starters the whole way through. We've got new faces back, Aaron Henry's back, we'll get good guys that were playing a little bit a year ago more into the mix. So it's going to be an interesting time. The big thing that all the guys, no matter what phase we're talking about, they realize that it's 11 guys on the field working together. It's not the one individual trying to make a play. It's the 11 and their cohesiveness that will get us success.
At running back, I know fans are excited about John Clay and Zach Brown, but was P.J. Hill underappreciated in some ways? He was a pretty consistent producer for you.
BB: P.J. had some good numbers and he produced a lot of points and a lot of yardage. But it's kind of inherent of that position at Wisconsin. I go back to when P.J. first came on the season, we were losing Brian Calhoun, who was unbelievable, put up numbers and left early [for the NFL draft]. And then a young man by the name of P.J. Hill, who no one had ever heard of, came on and became [Big Ten] freshman of the year. It's kind of the same thing now. The only thing is they've seen John a little bit, and Zach. The name or the number is going to change, but the production at that position probably isn't.
Is the emphasis there still very much on the run game? You lose a couple of starting offensive linemen as well.
BB: We are what we are. We have to fit into the model of what we can win with here at Wisconsin. We're able to go out and recruit good running backs. For instance this year, we were able to go out and sign Montee Ball. Montee became the all-time leading rusher in the state of Missouri. We were competing with everybody in the Midwest, Big Ten, Big 12 for him, and the reason he chose Wisconsin is because of the type of offense he would be able to play in as a tailback in our program. He didn't want to share reps with quarterbacks and wide receivers getting rushes.
Most of the players in the program are guys you recruited. You mentioned the importance of better knowing what's going on and extinguishing fires when you need do. How much does it help that you recruited most of this team?
BB: It does, and hopefully it's going to help us. The fifth-year seniors are the only guys I didn't have a hand in on the recruiting front. So there's still a little bit of a concern because that's the voice of your class and they can always say I wasn't the guy they signed for and all this. But for the most part, they've all bought in. Those guys that are in that fourth-year class and below, they all had me sitting in their living room as their coach and talking to their parents. They knew they were going to come play at Wisconsin for me as a head coach, and that does have a certain effect.