September 27, 2011

Q-and-A: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema

Bret Bielema knows the delicious possibilities that await this season, and the "real" games begin with a visit from Nebraska this Saturday. But Bielema never gets ahead of himself.

That's not how he was raised in Prophetstown, Ill., a town of about 2,000 in the northwest corner of the state. Bielema is pure working class. A former Iowa defensive lineman, Bielema has emerged as one of the nation's top coaches at age 41.

Barry Alvarez surprised many when he tabbed Bielema, then the Badgers' defensive coordinator, as his hand-picked successor after the 2004 season. After serving as the coach-in-waiting in 2005, Bielema took over in '06 and led Wisconsin to a 12-1 record. He won 17 of his first 18 games, the second-best start to a coaching career in Big Ten history.

He began his career as an assistant at Iowa (1996-2001) and Kansas State (2002-03) before moving on to Wisconsin. Bielema entered 2011 with a 49-16 mark, including a 27-13 mark in the Big Ten. Last season was his best, as he led Wisconsin to its first Rose Bowl since the 1999 season. The campaign included a victory over No. 1 Ohio State, the Badgers' first triumph over a top-ranked squad since 1981.

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This season could be even better. The mid-summer transfer of quarterback Russell Wilson from N.C. State to Wisconsin caused many to pick the Badgers as the Big Ten favorite, but questions loomed about chemistry and Wilson's ability to pick up the offense. Through four games, Wilson has answered all the questions and has the Badgers (4-0) ranked seventh.

With No. 8 Nebraska (4-0) traveling to Wisconsin on Saturday for its first Big Ten game, Bielema spoke to Rivals.com about a variety of topics.

Are you surprised Russell Wilson has adapted this quickly?

"Before I met him and before I was around him on a daily basis, I would have been very surprised. But after being around him, you realize just what an exceptional player he is. He has an unbelievable knowledge and presence for the game."

How is Wilson different from some of your other quarterbacks?

"Two things. First, he has been a professional athlete [minor league baseball player]. He has been in an environment where you are trying to survive. I think that has made him an appreciative guy and that every performance matters, and you can see him carry that to the practice field.

"Two, he just has an unbelievable presence and awareness of how people act. In the huddle, it helps him. In the locker room, it helps him. In the classroom, it helps him. It says something that his teammates named him a captain after being here only four weeks."

Your offense has been among the best in the nation, ranking first in the Big Ten and No. 8 nationally (532.3 ypg). Is there anything it needs to work on?

"As Big Ten play starts and you get into stiffer competition, you still want to do the things you can do efficiently. At times, we have had some self-inflicted wounds, which we have to get cleaned up."

Could this offense be even better than last season's? (Last season, Wisconsin averaged 445.2 yards and led the Big Ten by averaging 41.5 points.)

"Potentially. We have a strong offensive line; we have a number of key guys in the passing game. I think both backs [Montee Ball and James White] are better than they were a year ago. Although we don't have [tight end] Lance Kendricks, we have a dual threat with Jacob Pedersen and Jake Byrne."

What does the defense need to improve on?

"I really like the progress they have made in recent weeks with their preparation. One thing we talk about at Wisconsin is respecting the game. That means Saturdays just don't come; you earn them based on what you do Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. And our guys have really practiced a lot better defensively. And that has made us play better on Saturdays."

Does the Rose Bowl loss to TCU last season still sting?

"Without a doubt. No disrespect to TCU, but we thought it was a game, if we play better and execute better, we probably would have won. To be that close and not be able to finish the victory was very disappointing. Someone asked [wide receiver] Nick Toon in Chicago [at Big Ten media days] when he got over it. And he said he hadn't. I think that kind of represents the way our kids are playing."

[BadgerBlitz.com: Toon raising game to another level]

Do you feel like you have moved out of Barry Alvarez's shadow?

"I don't know if I want to. I am real proud of the heritage we have had here. The relationship I have with Coach Alvarez [now Wisconsin's AD] is as close as it gets. I never really saw myself as being in his shadow. So for me to move out of it, I don't see that view."

Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

"Here at Wisconsin, without a doubt it's Coach Alvarez because I was able to learn under him for a year without knowing I was going to be the head coach. And then for us to be together a year knowing I was going to be the head coach has been biggest piece of the puzzle here at Wisconsin.

"My time with Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz [at Iowa], Coach [Bill] Snyder [at [Kansas State] -- those experiences were invaluable as far as learning a different way of looking at things. Coach Snyder gave me great advice the day I took over, saying, 'You got the job because you were Bret Bielema influenced by Kirk Ferentz, Hayden Fry, Bill Snyder and Barry Alvarez. But you don't have to emulate them. Don't try be someone you aren't.' That really is something that has stuck with me all this time."

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What's the toughest position to recruit?

"For me, it's always been quarterback. Guys I like, the quarterback coach didn't necessarily like and vice versa. Overall, coaches probably feel like it's defensive linemen. I think corners are hard to evaluate; some of the best I ever have been around have been former quarterbacks, wide receivers or running backs. You just don't see enough corners on film. I would say d-line and corners are the most difficult."

Time and again, people say the Big Ten lacks speed. Do you believe that's true?

"I do believe maybe 10, 15 years ago that was true. In today's world, especially with us, we probably in my time have seen as much speed in our league as I ever have seen. At quarterback, [Michigan's] Denard Robinson and our guy. I would put Nick Toon up there as one of the best receivers in the country. And my two running backs are as good as we ever have had here."

Do you think Big Ten coaches care if the league expands?

"I know it has been a hot topic and I have been amazed at the play it has gotten. I know the Big Ten coaches trust in [league commissioner] Jim Delany. Six years ago when we first started talking expansion, he said the only way we will expand is if we bring value to the league. He obviously hit a home run with Nebraska. The markets we currently have with four teams that are probably the most storied and winningest in college football in Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. I think us and Iowa are closely in there as five and six. It's fun to be part of this league and the challenges it brings."

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Do you think 16-team "super conferences" would be good for the sport?

"I haven't put enough thought into it. I just know I want to be part of something that's special. What we have, academic respect and football respect. I understand the SEC run on national titles. I really do like what we stand for in the Big Ten. I understand Ohio State and Michigan have had a hiccup here, but my guess is they'll be back to glory days sooner rather than later."

Who is the best player you have played against or coached?

"Antwaan Randle El of Indiana [1998-2001]. Just a dominating player. In my days of playing and coaching, I've never seen a player be able to take over a game and make something out of nothing the way he did."

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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