October 12, 2010

Q-and-A: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema knows his Badgers have no margin for error. An Oct. 2 loss at Michigan State made sure of that.

No, if the Badgers still hope to win their first Big Ten title since 1999, Bielema must notch the biggest win of his career on Saturday, when Ohio State visits. It will be the first time the Badgers have played host to a top-ranked team since 1997.

Bielema, a defensive tackle at Iowa from 1989-92, thrives on the pressure. That's why he wanted this job and became Barry Alvarez's handpicked successor before the 2006 season despite being on the staff for only two seasons.

Bielema, who was defensive coordinator at Kansas State from 2002-03 before joining Wisconsin in the same capacity in 2004, hasn't disappointed. He debuted by winning 17 of his first 18 games, the second-best start for a Big Ten coach (Michigan's Fielding Yost went 55-0-1 from 1901-05). And Bielema became the third first-year coach in NCAA history to win 12 games in his debut, posting a 12-1 mark in 2006.

Bielema, 40, entered 2010 with a 38-14 record in four seasons in Madison, compiling two double-digit win seasons and four bowl games. But Bielema still is looking for that elusive Big Ten crown.

Bielema's tenure hasn't been without some rough spots. A 7-6 record in 2008 that was capped by a lopsided loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl caused some to wonder if Bielema could sustain success. But he responded with a 10-3 record in 2009, capped by a big victory over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl.

Rivals.com caught up with Bielema before he prepared for Saturday's showdown. He didn't want to discuss the brouhaha that erupted after he went for two points in the fourth quarter of Saturday's rout of rival Minnesota, but he did talk about a variety of other subjects.

Is this your best team yet?

"I think elements of it are, but more of the season will tell us that. From when we came back in January to where we are today, I have more seniors than ever who have been starters at anytime in my career, 13 guys. The leadership they have provided just by how they do things -- they aren't necessarily all rah-rah guys, but they understand that for us to have success at Wisconsin, you have to take every day at its true value. Nothing is more important than today. If we ever start thinking that tomorrow is more important than today, we will never get to where we want to be at the end, and I think they really buy into that."

Do you think Wisconsin ever will have as much talent as Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, teams of that nature?

"I don't go into a case-by-case scenario because of what we are here at Wisconsin. We need to recruit to what we know. We have to bring them in and develop them. We are a workman's program. We don't lose a lot of kids because we really, truly understand that we are going to have the best players two, three, four years down the road that we possibly can have because of the way we develop kids."

Is Scott Tolzien a typical Wisconsin quarterback?

"He is a kid who came in and for three years [and] never really saw the playing field. He understood his day would come. And when his opportunity came, he jumped at it full go.

"I think we have two categories [of players] -- the Scotty Tolziens, who come in and put in two, three, four years and have great junior and senior seasons. And you have a guy who is under the radar like [sophomore linebacker] Chris Borland, who only had one Division I scholarship. He happened to come to our camp and I loved what I saw, so we offered him. No one else did. He went out and was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. So I think we kind of have those two extremes that exist for us. That is how we have been able to build it."

Did you think that you were ready for this job when you got it?

"I did. But a lot of times when you're young, you are very confident. But I know the one part that truly gave me an advantage was to be here for two years and see the daily workings of what this place has, like the details of media, the details of the alumni, the details of working within an environment that the state capitol is tied into the university and a lot of the government dynamics. And just also to understand how Wisconsin works. I believe if I was a new coach coming in, I would have had the desire or first instinct to try to change all of these things that had been so successful here. What we did was we kind of modified them over a four- or five-year window."

Were there any hard feelings among some of Barry Alvarez's longtime assistants when he picked you to follow him?

"On Coach Alvarez's last staff, I would definitely say it was an uncomfortable working environment, especially as the end got closer because I had basically made my opening comment the day when the announcement was made that I wasn't going to make any decisions until after our regular season was done, and that was the Hawaii game. In that bowl-game preparation, I basically let guys know if [I] intended to retain them or move them on. And it created some pretty tense situations. It was a true testament to Coach Alvarez the way those guys rallied and won that bowl game because it truly was about the love of the program and university and left all of the politics out of it."

What has been your high point?

"Every one of those wins, doesn't matter if it was Austin Peay, big wins over Michigan, rivalry games against Iowa or Minnesota -- the wins. ... If you are in this profession, that's what it's truly about. That's what jumps out at you. But some of the most rewarding things are when I watch our kids grow more than just on the football field. It is neat to see something that has nothing to do with the football side of it. It has to be about being human and giving something back. Those are the things that really mean a lot to me. Like the thing Isaac Anderson did on the Big Ten Network about [fighting] childhood obesity."

What has been your low point?

"I never, ever had any thought in my mind that I couldn't do this. There have been low points. One of the hardest aspects of my job is when I have to make the decision to remove someone from this program. You recruit them here and you want them all to have success. If that situation ever comes up, and it's going to in the world of college football, either by their choice or ours, that's the hardest part I ever have to deal with, when you realize you can change the path of someone's life because they no longer can be a part of what you're trying to build here."

What has been your toughest loss?

"I think a couple years back, the game at Michigan [27-25 loss]. When we were up by 18 points, the missed opportunities we had in the first half and to come back and bite you in the second half. That was a pretty hard one to deal with."

Do you still talk to former bosses Bill Snyder and Hayden Fry?

"Coach Snyder and I make a point to get together every year at an outing in Phoenix, and we probably talk a couple dozen times during the course of the year. If I have a problem or situation, I call him. I dropped him a note after [Kansas State] beat UCLA. That stuff still goes on.

"Coach Fry and I are extremely close. He always says he's happy for me because I am the one coach who never has called him and asked him for a job or had help to get a job. I never have used him as a reference. I've just used him as a mentor. And he always makes a reference to that."

Did you like how the Big Ten split teams into divisions?

"I don't think it could have worked out any better for us for two reasons. First off, we were guaranteed to play Ohio State and Penn State every year. For us, a lot of our recruiting has been east and not west.

"It's a big benefit to get to play Ohio State and Penn State, and now we can tell kids we recruit on the East Coast from New Jersey down to Miami; that is a huge recruiting tool for us. And to be able to keep the rivalry game with Minnesota alive, it is a win-win for Wisconsin."

Wisconsin and Iowa aren't in the same division, nor are they permanent cross-division opponents. Does that upset you?

"That's one of the negative parts. Any time you have league change, there will be parts that are really good and parts that you wish you could retain. But the bottom line is you can't make everyone happy in all phases. I think every school had to sacrifice something to get the bigger picture to be the best it can be."

Did you want a season-ending game with Nebraska?

"I wanted a season-ending game with somebody. Right now, the way it lays out, we have a pretty significant game at the end [Northwestern]. If there is any way we can keep that moving forward, I think it would be kind of neat."

How do you feel about the addition of Nebraska?

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for that program. I learned a lot about it growing up but more specifically when I was in the Big 12 to compete against them. To get to know Coach [Tom] Osborne, and I know Bo Pelini personally, so it's kind of a neat thing to bring him into the league because he shares a lot of the same values that I think a lot of coaches in this league have built their programs around."

Would you like to see the Big Ten grow to 16 teams?

"I do know this: I have been impressed with commissioner Jim Delany and his vision. If they think the league is going to gain more value by adding teams, I can't beg to differ with any of that. But the part that I really have learned during this whole thing -- and I mean this whole-heartedly -- there is nothing that Jim or the league does that doesn't bring value to our league. I don't think they will add teams to just add teams. In the bigger picture, whoever they add will bring value to our league, whether it's academics, athletics or ultimately the dollars that we get more of. That's just being smart. I wouldn't mind 16 teams if those next four teams bring value to all of us."

Would you like to see the Big Ten spread league games out to where there was at least one each week of the season?

"That's a neat perspective and I haven't thought that much of it. The more the fans are interested, the better it is for our sport overall. With our league being as big as it is, and especially if they go to a nine-game league schedule down the road, it would promote the value of our conference, which is what we all want."

Many people contend schools such as Wisconsin lack speed compared to those in the southeast. You played Florida State and Miami in your past two bowls. Do you think that's true?

"In that particular case, Miami's roster probably was faster than ours top to bottom. But it is about the 11 guys on the field and how they can execute. We have speed. Four starters on our defense are from south Florida. [True freshman running back James White is, too.]"

What do you think is the toughest Big Ten venue?

"I really do believe Penn State is a very tough environment. We haven't had success at Penn State, so that's one of my top priorities. There are a lot of great venues in the Big Ten. But the ones that pop out to you right away are Penn State, Iowa and probably Ohio State and Michigan.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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