CHICAGO — Bret Bielema’s intensity — and a desire to succeed — has elevated the Wisconsin football program to sizzling heights in his five-plus seasons.
In 2006, the 41-year-old Bielema took over Wisconsin as one of the nation’s youngest coaches at age 36. He maintained the program’s excellence under Hall of Famer Barry Alvarez and lifted it to elite levels.
Consider that Bielema sports a 53-16 record and has the fourth-best winning percentage among active Division I football coaches. Bielema ranks third in all-time victories at Wisconsin and led the Badgers to five straight bowl games, the Big Ten’s second-longest streak. Only once have the Badgers won fewer than nine games under Bielema.
Yet, for all of his success, the genius label evades Bielema. He’s not mentioned among the Big Ten’s great coaches. His peers are impressed by his statistics, but rarely pass along the compliments.
“I have a saying that perception is more important than fact,” said BTN analyst Glen Mason, a former head coach at Kansas and Minnesota. “It shouldn’t be. But most people deal in perception than facts. The perception isn’t that he’s in that elite group, but when you look at the facts, it’s pretty impressive.”
Bielema’s players, however, don’t care about his perception. It’s about his relationship with them, and they defend him.
“I don’t think he gets the respect he deserves,” Wisconsin senior safety Aaron Henry said. “But I don’t think he really cares about that. If he continues to win, people are going to take notice. That’s a great thing about Coach B. He doesn’t care what other people think, he doesn’t care about other people’s agenda. What his sole focus is, I kid you not, is Wisconsin football.”
To understand Bielema, you have to look at his roots. His first encounter with Hayden Fry provides an open window into the Bielema’s soul.
In 1988, Bielema left his family farm near Prophetstown, Ill., with hopes of walking on to the Iowa football team. He introduced himself to Fry, and instantly made an impression with the legendary Iowa coach.
“I looked at him and said, ‘What position do you play?’ And he said, ‘Defensive line,’” Fry recalled. “I said, ‘How much do you weigh?’ I think he said 186, something like that. I said, ‘Son, you’re too small to play Big Ten football.’ He said and gritted his teeth, ‘Just give me a chance.’ When he said that, that inspired me.”
Bielema, 41, persevered, gained weight and earned a scholarship in his second year. By the time he graduated in 1992, he became a 265-pound nose guard and the players’ choice as the defensive captain. He finished his Iowa career with 83 tackles, including 12 for loss.
He also had to endure through personal tragedy. His sister, Betsy, fell off a horse and hit her head on a rock and died on Oct. 20, 1990 — the same day Bielema and the Hawkeyes upset Michigan 24-23 on their Rose Bowl season. In 1992 he had his knee surgery and 13 days later — with blood spewing from his left knee — he played against Illinois.
“He’s tough. He’s a hard worker. He had all the intangibles, and he was a really good football player,” said Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini, an Iowa graduate assistant in 1992. “He was an important cog on the football team and program at that time.”
But Bielema was also known for rubbing people the wrong way. As a senior, Bielema met former Iowa State Coach Jim Walden after an Iowa win and called Walden a “prick” and said, “I’ve enjoyed kicking your ass the past five years.” Two days later Bielema was forced to apologize and was reprimanded by Iowa’s Board of Control.
Last year against Minnesota, Wisconsin scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to lead 41-16. Bielema chose to attempt a 2-point conversion because “that’s what the card says.” Former Minnesota Coach Tim Brewster took exception to the move and spouted off against Bielema in a postgame handshake.
“I thought it was a very poor decision by a head football coach, and he’ll have to live with that,” Brewster said afterward. “It was wrong. Everybody in here knows it, and everybody in college football knows it.”
But there’s no denying Bielema’s success as a coach or recruiter. After a short stint in professional football, Bielema became a graduate assistant for two years under Fry and moved into a full-time role in 1996. Bielema brought waves of talent to Iowa City and was praised by all for his ability to build relationships and grind through the recruiting details. He did it at Iowa until leaving in 2002. He did it at Kansas State for two years, and he’s doing it at Wisconsin today.
Henry was an interesting pickup for Bielema in early 2007. Henry hails from Immokalee, Fla., and both Iowa and Wisconsin approached him in high school. Henry first visited Wisconsin, then went to Iowa City. Bielema admits to texting Henry — when the NCAA allowed it — on his trip to Iowa City, typing, ‘Hey, you don’t look too good down there in that black and gold.’ Henry texted Bielema back, writing that he was wearing a red shirt underneath the Hawkeye gear.
Henry came from a religious background and his family kicked out Bielema and former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doreen one night on a visit, only to welcome them back when Henry committed to Wisconsin.
Bielema then helped Henry play in a prominent high school all-star game, which caused the coach more recruiting grief. Among the people to watch Henry was then-Florida Coach Urban Meyer, who had led the Gators to the 2006 national title. Weeks before national signing day, Meyer visited Henry at his high school, which worried Bielema.
As Henry relayed the details, Bielema started talking.
“I was like, ‘Whoa,’” Bielema said. “My heart was racing, I’m like here, ‘I’m the guy who got him in this game …’
“Right now I’m grabbing straws. ‘He should have been in there two months ago. He should have offered you when we did. You’re going to help us win championships.’ I’m going a mile a minute. He’s like, ‘Coach, you know what I told him? I told him I already saw the stadium I want to play in. I want to be a Badger.’”
Henry has had differences with Bielema. Henry argued with Bielema about the extent of a 2008 knee injury, which nearly led him to transfer. Henry vehemently fought against moving from cornerback to safety, but stuck with Wisconsin because of his relationship with Bielema.
“He’s good at relating to a lot of the players,” Henry said. “A lot of these guys sell you on things they’ve never been through themselves. I think Coach B is good at keeping it real and … he just does what he does. There’s no flash to what he does, no gimmicks to what he does, just genuine, true and sincere about it. I think when guys truly understand him, they get a sense of that and that’s why he brings in the top guys.”
Bielema’s coaching pedigree is top-notch. He played or coached under two Hall of Famers in Fry and Alvarez, and coached under two other likely Hall of Famers in Bill Snyder and Kirk Ferentz. Bielema left an impression with each one, and they did with him.
While Fry was a master psychologist, Bielema said, Ferentz helped rein him in at Iowa. Bielema spent five years under Fry and three with Ferentz.
“I don’t know to this day if I ever talked X’s and O’s with Coach Fry,” Bielema said. “He didn’t like the defensive side of it — just get it done. Kirk is probably, the No. 1 thing I’ve ever learned from him is he’s a great, great listener. He really taught me how to slow down and listen to people.
“When I was a young coach, especially working for Hayden, you were kind of allowed to do your own thing. Kirk sent to me a guy by the name of Dan Radakovich, Bad Rad, the first linebacker coach with Penn State and then with the Steelers for a long time. I spent three days with him and I didn’t know why going in, and then I figured it out that he wanted me to learn how to listen.”
Bielema then joined Snyder at Kansas State for two years as a co-defensive coordinator. Snyder’s legendary work ethic and attention to detail impressed Bielema, as did Snyder’s offensive game planning. They also had it out about 10:30 p.m. every Wednesday night over Bielema’s punt-return plans.
“Whatever I had, he’d disagree with 100 percent,” Bielema said. “We’d argue about it for about a half-hour and eventually he’d come back and we’d go halfway in between. I just love him because that’s one of the most enjoyable times, because it was just he and I one-on-one. To this day, of all the head coaches I’ve worked for — Coach Alvarez obviously is different — (Snyder) and talked as much as anybody.”
Bielema’s success impresses Fry, Snyder and Ferentz.
“He’s got a good command of the game, he’s a good individual with players,” Snyder said. “They have a great deal of respect for him, they respond to him extremely well. He’s got a good knowledge of the game. Having played the game was, I think, significant. He’s been every bit as successful as we could anticipate and certainly felt that he would be.”
Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker described Bielema as “very energetic, very smart.”
“To be a head coach you’ve got to be good,” Parker said. “You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time, have the right people backing you at the right time. Those things have worked out for Bret.”
After the Wildcats won the 2003 Big 12 title, Bielema left Kansas State to become Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator. Before Bielema’s second year, Alvarez told him he was stepping down and asked Bielema to replace him. It was a move that raised eyebrows because of Bielema’s youth.
“You have to give Barry a lot of credit because it was a surprise when he hired Bret to be the coordinator when he did, and then I think a lot of people were very, very surprised when he named Bret (as head coach),” Ferentz said. “Clearly he knew what he was doing.”
Bielema said he doesn’t seek interviews but repeatedly finds his way on to television shows. He spent three hours on the NFL Network’s set during the 2011 NFL draft in April and took a ribbing from TV host Paul Burmeister, a former Iowa teammate, who showed off a few unflattering college pictures.
Bielema, a life-long bachelor, is also settling down in his personal life. He announced his engagment in April, but few details afterward.
“Bret is very engaging, a lot of fun to be around,” Mason said. “During a game on the sideline he’s very stoic, you hardly ever see him smile because he’s at work. But if you’ve ever been around him, as long as I’ve known him, I think my time with Bret Bielema it’s laughing and joking around and having a good time.”
Bielema still boasts a two-inch Tiger-Hawk tattoo with the words “Achieve, Believe” atop on ‘I’ on his calf. Bielema doesn’t shy from talking about it with his recruits, which earns their respect.
“It was something that he did and it was something that he’ll be forever a part of,” Henry said. “You really can’t knock him for being that you’re at the University of Wisconsin, he’s the head coach there. In those days, times were a little different. He graduated from the university, it’s his alma mater so you’ve got to respect it. But soon enough I expect to see a Wisconsin motion ‘W’ somewhere around there.”
PAST, FUTURE SUCCESS
Wisconsin has won 11 or more games just twice in its history, and Bielema has coached both squads. The Badgers finished 12-1 in his rookie campaign and captured the Capital One Bowl. Last year, the Badgers steamrolled the Big Ten in shocking fashion. Wisconsin averaged 45.2 points in its eight Big Ten games — second-best in conference history — and were 4 yards from having three running backs gain 1,000 in a season. Wisconsin tied for the Big Ten title and played in its first Rose Bowl since 2000.
The Badgers also led the nation in fewest turnovers (nine) and penalties per game (3.15). The last two seasons Wisconsin has had 22 Academic All-Big Ten performers.
Bielema also is known for aggressive play-calling, and none was bigger than last year against Iowa. Facing fourth-and-4 from Wisconsin’s 26-yard line and trailing by six points, Bielema allowed a fake punt midway through the fourth quarter. The gamble worked, and the Badgers scored a touchdown late to win 31-30.
“It was gutsy, it was a great call,” former Wisconsin safety Jay Valai said after the game. “That’s why they pay him the big bucks.”
To find an edge and keep his team motivated, Bielema read Jim Collins’ business bible “Good to Great.” It helped provide him a blueprint for the upcoming season.
“There are a lot of good organizations, a lot of good businesses, that settle for being good,” Bielema said. “They could be great if they went just a little bit further. That’s been a message to my team that we can be satisfied with where we’re at and where we’ve been but how do you get to that level? Ohio State has won six Big Ten championships; it shows you can do it. That’s the natural enemy that a lot of people get satisfied with.”
Now at 4-0 and ranked No. 7 nationally, Wisconsin has a chance for excellence. Bielema has a chance to boost his coaching profile among the game’s elite. He bought into Snyder’s advice that he coach his way and avoid comparisons with his coaching mentors.
Bielema aggressively sought Russell Wilson to replace Scott Tolzien at quarterback. Wilson, who graduated this spring from North Carolina State, had one year of eligibility remaining and could transfer to a school with a graduate program not offered by N.C. State and play right away. Wilson earned the starting nod and many consider him a Heisman Trophy contender.
“It’s been a learning process for Bret,” Mason said. “It wasn’t too long ago that the people in Madison weren’t sure had they had the right guy for that job, and now I think he’s won everybody over.”