ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Change starts at the top.
But change isn’t easy.
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema knows firsthand how difficult it can be. He’s felt the kind of pressure to change the direction of his program that few people can relate to.
And while beating ranked teams and winning conference championships is hard for coaches, changing their approach can be even harder.
But after the Badgers took down Michigan in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1994, it’s clear Bielema has done just that — he’s changed. He’s coming into his own as head coach and his team is following suit.
Bielema has experienced one hell of a ride as UW head coach. After taking over for Barry Alvarez in 2006, Bielema rolled off a 12-1 record. He set the bar high and he made it look easy.
Then, after a solid 9-4 season in 2007, things got tough. Really tough. The Badgers went 7-6 in 2008. They needed overtime to beat FCS Cal Poly and then were crushed by Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
A website was created to get Bielema fired. The pressure mounted and the UW fan base began to doubt Bielema’s ability to come through in big games.
After a strong start to his career, it was the first time Bielema faced some real adversity. He was cocky, he was stubborn at times and his team looked more like a group of individuals.
But last season Wisconsin football went through a revival. The Badgers won 10 games and came into this season looking to reach higher.
Now they are a week away from at least a share of the Big Ten title.
In order to get this team this far a lot of factors have come into play. But this special season starts at the top with Bielema. It starts with the complete adoption of his “1-0” mentality, with his image of “Wisconsin football,” with his maturation.
People often forget Bielema is a vastly inexperienced head coach. This is his first head-coaching job. He needed some time to learn, time to figure out what works for his program and what doesn’t. He needed to go through the ups and more importantly the downs to figure out who he is and what he believes in.
That 7-6 year was just as valuable to the 12-1 season for that reason. For a young coach, or anyone for that matter, growth takes success and failures.
Now we’ve seen that growth pay dividends right in front of us.
This year Bielema finally divvied up the special teams responsibilities with his assistant coaches and acknowledged he needed to improve his relations with the media.
He’s made an unrelenting commitment to developing a certain style of play here at Wisconsin.
When Bielema mentions “Wisconsin Football,” he’s referring to physical football (just one pass in the second half against Michigan says it all). That’s what this program now prides itself on more than ever.
“We recruit to that type of mentality and carry it forward,” Bielema said of fielding a physical football team. “As a head coach, I’ve probably emphasized [physicality] more in the last two years than I ever have, and that was part of my growing process.”
But the most impressive part of this process is that his players believe in him. They’ve wholeheartedly bought into his system.
“It’s a big thing when you come in in January and you see that everyone buys in. It becomes contagious,” senior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “If you’re not doing the right things here then you’re in the minority. It’s something that makes this Wisconsin program stand out.”
UW is the least-penalized team in the nation thanks to installed punishments for those mistakes in practice. The Badgers are arguably the best rushing team in the nation. Every opponent UW plays knows they will be physically worn down after four quarters. There have been no off-field issues, no disciplinary concerns to speak of. And most of all, unlike some of Bielema’s teams in the past, his players are working as a cohesive unit.
As a head coach, that’s about as good as it gets.
“They’re a special group. They compete. They believe in something bigger than just themselves,” a visibly emotional Bielema said, fighting off tears at the postgame press conference. “At lots of places there is a certain emphasis on being pretty, being individualized. Our guys are all about the team.”
We didn’t hear those sentiments in 2007. We certainly didn’t hear them in 2008.
We didn’t see UW take part in a conference title race during those seasons either.
Is Bielema perfect? Of course not.
He’ll never please everyone. He’ll always have his critics. We just saw the national media question Bielema’s motives after UW put up 83 points on Indiana, something he’s handled extremely well.
But Bielema is done trying to please everyone. He’s not the same coach from a few years ago who struggled to take criticism and deal with the high expectations.
He’s focused on his team and the next opponent on the schedule just like his 1-0 mantra suggests. He’s sold his players and coaches on his vision and in the end, that’s all that matters.
“We’re not the spreads, we’re not sexy and not on the front of everybody’s wish-lists,” Bielema said. “But I tell you 48 points is fun.”
It sure is.
Max is a senior majoring in journalism. Think Bielema has turned the corner as UW’s head coach? E-mail him at [email protected] or tweet @maxhenson