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Thursday, December 4, 2008
Bielema takes lessons from rocky season


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Bret Bielema won 17 of his first 18 teams as a head coach, took his first two teams at Wisconsin to January bowl games and entered the fall with a squad poised for a BCS run.

Charmed certainly would be a term to describe Bielema's salad days in Madison. But in the back of his mind, he knew things wouldn't always go well for him.

 
 David Stluka/Getty Images
 Bret Bielema and the Badgers won their final three games of the regular season.

"If you don't, you've just got your head in the sand," Bielema said Wednesday while on a recruiting trip. "You realize that tough days are just beyond tomorrow."

The tough days arrived for Wisconsin after a 3-0 start and an ascent to the top 10 in the national polls. After building a 19-0 halftime lead, the Badgers fell victim to the biggest comeback in Michigan Stadium history and fell, 27-25, on Sept. 27.

They lost their dominance at Camp Randall Stadium with consecutive losses to Ohio State and Penn State, dropped four games in a row and five out of six to sit at 4-5 in early November. Injuries to key players such as All-American tight end Travis Beckum, backup tight end Garrett Graham and left tackle Gabe Carimi stung, as did poor quarterback play and fundamental lapses on both sides of the ball.

Criticism swelled for Bielema, who earned the ever-popular fire-me Web site and questions about his decisions. Throughout the dark period, the 38-year-old tried to embrace his core beliefs more than ever.

"If I had the entire season to do over again, I would definitely make changes to what we did," Bielema said, "not only during games, but also in preparation as well as postgame, being able to critique and move forward. Obviously, when we don't have success, it brings up a lot of critiques and a lot of analysis from the outside world. But on the same account, you really have to understand the reason you've had success over your career is because you understand what football's about, what schemes are about, what execution is about.

"It still gets down to basic principles of if you do things right and play hard and execute without mental errors, you're going to win football games."

Bielema still recites a famous quote -- "Adversity introduces a man to himself" -- as he reflects on a season that began with great promise, quickly spun out of control but finished with three consecutive wins and a postseason berth, most likely to the Champs Sports or Insight bowl.

Wisconsin was one of only three Big Ten teams -- Ohio State and Iowa were the others -- to win its final three games.

"Everybody can do well when things are going right," he said. "Anybody can coach, anybody can have success. But when adversity strikes, when you hit a bump in a road, you have to right the ship. That's probably the best thing I took from the season.

"It gave an indication of the resolve this team has to get themselves in a position where they are right now. For us as coaches, it was huge to face adversity and respond positively."