The Badgers had just beaten Arizona State, and Bielema answered questions about his team’s character and mental toughness after beating the Sun Devils by a single point.
But Bielema said something unrelated to the action on the field that day that stood out.
He spoke about a recent visit he made to ESPN.com and how every headline on the right side of the college football webpage involved a negative story. Disciplinary issues, recruiting violations and improper benefits – the stuff college football fans hear about daily.
He was proud to say his players had no such negativity surrounding them. No off-field problems, no academic concerns. It meant something to him and it still does. It’s part of his team’s identity.
It’s also a part of his recruiting philosophy.
Now as we all know, after that victory, the Badgers went on to have the special season we recently watched come to an end. The 2010 Co-Big Ten champions affirmed the “Wisconsin Football” identity, an identity Bielema has worked hard to craft in his time at the helm.
That identity has a lot of layers. It stands for a strong running game. It stands for monstrous offensive linemen and a hard-hitting defense. He hopes it continues to stand for winning.
But it goes beyond all that. Bielema’s image of Wisconsin football starts with each individual player on his roster. From the captains to the scout team, every person in that locker room needs to fit a certain description and hold themselves to a certain standard. They must be tough as nails, they must crave physicality, they have to love coming to practice. No egos. No one man bigger than the team.
They must grasp the fact that they represent their University off the field and that disciplinary or academic issues will not be tolerated.
It’s easy to sit back and assume head coaches everywhere preach these values, but few actually enact them. Few actually seek those traits out in high school seniors.
To win, these standards are often compromised. Plenty of four and five star players don’t possess all those characteristics. UW hasn’t been perfect under Bielema’s leadership but the program’s identity has been further cemented with each passing year. In the past, Bielema has had to dismiss several players from his program for off-field issues. Others have left on their own, realizing this program just isn’t for them.
But coaches have to stay committed to their approach, and Bielema has done that – even when the penalties are harsh.
“In the class that just left us we had 12 that had success and 12 that didn’t,” Bielema said. “We are really trying to eliminate those kind of guys.”
If you don’t fit Bielema’s mold at UW you won’t last in his program.
Better yet, you won’t even be recruited.
“I’ve had coaches in very prominent schools that have outstanding talents that are being recruited by literally every other school in the country and they say ‘Coach, he could play for you talent-wise but he’s not a fit for you’,” assistant coach Charlie Partridge said. “They know what we are looking for.”
Tight ends coach Joe Rudolph echoed those sentiments and offered a similar story from a different end of the spectrum.
“I’ve gone into schools where the coach will go ‘Hey I’ve got a Wisconsin guy for ya’,” Rudolph said. “Its funny that you hear that description but it’s good.”
Talent alone is not what the UW staff wants, but each year the recruiting classes seem to get better. More players with more offers from top-tier schools around the country are selecting UW.
Why? Because the staff has a narrow focus. There are other schools who are interested in the types of kids Wisconsin has been targeting but the Badgers make it a point to go after a select group that fits best. The past couple of classes have shown that strategy is working.
“Coach has really embraced what Wisconsin is all about and so have we as assistants,” Partridge said. “We target our kind of kids earlier and that is leading to better classes. We are not bouncing back and forth; we don’t have a lot of de-commitments. We don’t have to go to plan C. We are more targeted and more on-point for what we want.”
One of those negative stories currently circulating around the Internet involves over-signing, where coaches take more commitments than they have scholarships for. It’s a common practice that often times leaves kids in the dust when the numbers eventually don’t end up working out.
But you won’t see an article pop up regarding Bielema’s decision to over-sign anytime soon.
“The topic of over-signing is a big deal and in my first couple years we always used to over-sign by three but now we are not over-signed at all for a reason,” Bielema said. “We just don’t lose as many kids as we used to. We are more spot-on with what we are looking for. It’s a credit to our staff that we always say we are looking for a Wisconsin-type kid no matter where we are.”
Recruiting is an in-exact science. It’s done differently at every school, approached from a unique perspective by every assistant coach.
At UW, Bielema has developed a vision that works and everyone in his program has bought in. The fence around the state of the Wisconsin is firm, and the coaches are finding out-of-state talent who share those beloved in-state characteristics.
When any of the UW assistants walk through the halls of a high school, that “motion W” logo on their shirt means something and the football world knows it.
“People have a good picture of what Wisconsin stands for. We want to express the values that make up our program,” Rudolph said. “Coaches and prospects are excited that that vision can still bring a lot of success.
“You want to be in a place that stands for those values and you also want to win.”
With the way the Wisconsin football identity has taken shape that shouldn’t be a problem.
Max is a senior majoring in journalism. Are you pleased with the Badgers’ recruiting strategy? Still want more 5-stars? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.