CHICAGO — When Bret Bielema plays blackjack in Las Vegas, he’s the type of player who get a pair of face cards off the deal. Whether he splits them or keeps the 20, he seems to come up roses.
Bielema, a former Iowa team captain now entering his seventh year at Wisconsin, met his new wife, Jen, at the Wynn Casino blackjack table a few years ago. It was a good night. He won, as did Jen.
“I’ve been winning ever since,” said the 42-year-old Bielema, who was married in March.
The same holds true on the football field. In 2006, Bielema became one of the NCAA’s youngest head coaches at age 36. In his six years Wisconsin has won 60 games, two Big Ten titles and two Rose Bowl appearances. He’s transformed Wisconsin from an annual competitor to an elite program.
Camp Randall Stadium, once considered an antiquated relic, is the Big Ten’s destination party pad. With 80,000 fans hopping to “Jump Around” between the third and fourth quarters, Camp Randall Stadium has a reputation beyond the playing field. National television trips over itself to broadcast primetime games with 15 airing over the last five years and two more slated this fall.
“I think we have gotten national exposure that just in recruiting, it’s very obvious dealing with recruits and just media requests,” Bielema said. “We’ve gotten a lot more awareness across the country, but I also think we … Wisconsin’s just a little bit different than other places.”
Yet with the second-most wins among Big Ten programs since Bielema’s arrival, Wisconsin has yet to break through — in perception — as a Big Ten powerhouse. When the league split into divisions shortly before the 2010 season, Wisconsin was considered second-tier with Iowa just below Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska based on competitive data over a 17-year period.
Before realignment, Wisconsin posted 15 winning seasons over the previous 17 years but hadn’t appeared in a BCS bowl since 2000. Two years later, Wisconsin has won back-to-back league titles. But the Badgers are battling history. The program posted losing seasons in 24 of the previous 29 years before 1993, and those five winning campaigns each had seven victories.
“It’s hard to change like 50 years of history but the last … 20 years, Wisconsin has been pretty prominent,” Bielema said. “It’s just been a long time to change that perception. We’ve never won a national title. There’s four teams in our league that have. Until you get at that level, it’s hard to change it. I know we’ve been a tier-1 ever since Coach (Barry Alvarez) and my tenure there.
“When they slot the Big Ten, everybody looked on the west side you’ve got Michigan and Nebraska, two teams that have won national championships. On the east you’ve got Ohio State and Penn State that have won national championships. Then you’ve got Wisconsin and then you’ve kind of got Iowa and they split us. Whether it’s right, wrong or indifferent, that’s the mode that they were under. I can’t change everything Ohio State has done. I can’t change everything that … all I can worry about it is Wisconsin.”
But Wisconsin’s not there quite yet. While Ohio State earned a title in 2002, Michigan punched through with a national title share in 1997 and Nebraska earned three in the mid-1990s, Wisconsin couldn’t break through. In 2010, the Badgers stumbled against Michigan State, then lost to TCU in the Rose Bowl. Last year Wisconsin imported a rare talent at quarterback in Russell Wilson but stumbled in a pair of late-game ‘Hail Mary’ losses in back-to-back weeks at Michigan State and Ohio State. Those defeats prevented the Badgers from pushing a Big Ten championship season into a magical year.
Bielema tries to avoid looking at the plays — like Michigan State’s touchdown pass on the game’s final down — that cost him a national title shot. He instead focuses on the plays that vaulted his program among the league elite, like a gutsy fake punt call in the fourth quarter at Iowa in 2010.
“There’s definitely some times when things didn’t happen our way, but at the same time I think you create those situations,” Bielema said. “Everybody wants to talk about the Iowa fake punt. You know what? You don’t call those plays if you expect them to fail. So everybody’s like, ‘Wow, what a break you have there.’ You call them because you expect them to have success. The Michigan State play, to go to the booth and get a review that’s ruled against you, you’re kind of like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ One of those deals.”
The luck, skill and victories might break Wisconsin’s way once again this season. Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the Big Ten title, leaving just four teams eligible for the Leaders Division title this year. Wisconsin, the overwhelming favorite, beat the other three teams by a combined score of 149-41.
Bielema could replace Wilson with another quarterback transfer in Danny O’Brien. Bielema still has running back Montee Ball, who tied a national record with 39 touchdowns last year. Tackle Ricky Wagner might be the nation’s best. Wisconsin also has perhaps the league’s top linebacker duo in Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, the league’s leading returning receiver in Jared Abbrederis and another top tight end in Jacob Pedersen.
There’s the potential for a third straight Big Ten championship season, of which Wisconsin’s players are aware.
“Winning it the last couple of years has been a real honor; obviously we want to get back there again,” Wagner said. “I think we’ve got to just finish out those bowl games. A couple of details here and there, and that’s what we’ve been focusing on, those small details.”
Then there’s always three straight Rose Bowl appearances, something only Michigan accomplished after the 1976-78 seasons.
“I said how many guys in this room were here to witness 1978 when the last team to do a three‑peat was here and of course nobody raised their hand,” Bielema said. “I was 8 years old. So I don’t even really remember it.
“And the thing that I said immediately after that is if anybody wants to jump to that date, you’re more than welcome to think about it but we’ll never get there. It’s taking it one day at a time.”
Staying on 20 and the dealer pulls a face card on 15. It could be that kind of season in Wisconsin.
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