Thursday, October 28, 2010

Badgers coach Bret Bielema changing perceptions

October 28, 2010

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez slipped across a crowded interview room to embrace coach Bret Bielema not long after the Badgers toppled then-No. 1 Ohio State two weeks ago.

Bielema's face was flush with a combination of relief, excitement and energy after a resounding 31-18 victory over the Buckeyes on national television. Little did the pair realize that the bigger win was seven days away with a 31-30 win at Iowa, Bielema's alma mater.

In eight days, the fifth-year coach shed the perception that he couldn't win the biggest games. Now, Bielema's profile is rising and his ninth-ranked Badgers (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) are battle tested.

For all the success Wisconsin has had since Alvarez led a rebuilt program to consecutive Rose Bowl appearances in 1999 and 2000, the Badgers have never quite broken down the perception that they're big, slow and boring - at least on offense.

Bielema even jokes that his team would never be considered flashy or sexy. Of course, this is the same guy who used a fake punt and converted two fourth downs on the final drive against the Hawkeyes.

"To have such a high, play so well against the No. 1 team in the country, is one thing, but, to manage your team after being emotionally spent and playing in a physical game and being drained, turn it around, having them ready to play a very good Iowa team on the road, overcome all those injuries and find a way to win that game, that speaks to itself,'' Alvarez said. "That's very difficult to do."

So difficult, in fact, Alvarez, who also took the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in 1994, never knocked off a No. 1 team or beat a ranked Iowa team in Iowa City in his 16 seasons. Wisconsin last beat ranked teams in consecutive weeks in 1954.

"The thing that's probably jumped out the last two weeks is the exposure that we've gotten and the amount of people who want to jump in our boat,'' Bielema said.

And while Wisconsin is suddenly a hot name in recruiting, the coach gives the current credit to his players' preparation. He hasn't cited his catchphrase much this year: a "1-0 mentality,'' but the proof came against the Hawkeyes when his team rallied late with a 15-play, 80-yard game-winning drive.

Bielema's players say that toughness describes their coach's intensity.

"If he could go out there and play every snap, I'm sure he would,'' safety Aaron Henry said. "The monkey finally jumped off his back. I think for him, man-to-man, he's a very young coach, he has a tremendous future ahead of him. People are going to find something to say when you're not winning, I can remember in the bowl game people were saying we weren't going to beat Miami, but we pulled that off.

"With Coach B, when people say he can't do something, he tries to defy the odds. He's always trying to get after it."

Alvarez picked his successor after Bielema had spent just two years as defensive coordinator. Bielema is moving out from his boss's shadow.

Not that he doesn't rely on Alvarez, who had 118 career victories.

"Bret's not afraid,'' Alvarez said. "In that position, you have to have a sounding board. He hasn't been bashful. He's asked questions, he asks for opinions. Sometimes he uses them, sometimes he doesn't. But he has another view of how to do things.''

Wisconsin's power running foundation is straightforward, but the Badgers, who are off this week before playing at Purdue on Nov. 6, certainly are an entertaining crew.

There's the neat freak signal caller Scott Tolzien, a comedian on the offensive line in John Moffitt, the funky hair designs of running back John Clay and a former pizza delivery driver, J.J. Watt, who now chases down quarterbacks with frightening intensity.

Tolzien has been described as the perfect quarterback for the Badgers' system by teammates and opponents, even though he wasn't recruited by big schools until Wisconsin came in late. He spent his first three years watching, but he's gone 17-4 as a starter under Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst.

Bielema also acknowledges quickly when he's made a mistake.

J.J. Watt was a lightly recruited tight end and said Bielema told him point blank the 6-foot-6 Watt wasn't big enough to play the position for the Badgers. Watt later walked on, earned a scholarship as a defensive end and is now one of the biggest playmakers in the Big Ten.

"I can't be more thankful for Coach B for just trusting in me and believing in me that much,'' Watt said. "I've seen people criticize him in the media and people criticize him all over the place, but you can't argue with his results. It's unbelievable."

The 40-year-old Bielema, a walk-on himself at Iowa who later became a starter and captain, is 45-15 overall, and now 7-10 against Top 25 opponents. He grew up on a pig farm near Prophetstown, Ill., and has a Hawkeyes tattoo on his leg. It's the work ethic and honesty his players admire.

"He has that 'put-your-hand-in-the-ground-and-just-go-to-work' mentality. That definitely rubs off on our football team,'' Watt said. "He runs a tough football program, but we like it. We like working hard and it definitely helps us in the end.''

Bielema insists he's only focused on a week at a time and will reflect on the season when it's over. When he finally does, a different image of the up-and-coming coach may finally emerge.

"You have to win big games to get national respect,'' Alvarez said. "That's exactly what he did. People saw it first hand and have acknowledged, 'Hey, he's doing some things right up there.'"

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