Bret Bielema just launched a high-stakes experiment. When Wisconsin’s head coach decided to replace offensive line coach Mark Markuson after a rocky start, he showed unbridled confidence not only in himself, but also in new coach Bart Miller.
A program swept by change over the last nine months, Bielema’s decision to replace Markuson — one of six assistants in their first year at Wisconsin — just added another hurdle for his team to jump as the Badgers attempt to bounce back from a befuddling loss to Oregon State. It could be a stroke of genius or a colossal failure, but this much is sure — the head coach is stepping onto a razor-thin, previously-untouched ledge.
The man known for his conservative play-calling, the one who never seems to pull any surprise punches, just made one of the biggest moves of his (relatively) young coaching career. The head coach, who loves describing his team’s style as “not sexy,” tossed away his placid style with a bold move.
One of the most interesting takeaways from Bielema’s press conference Monday was, as an assistant, he never understood why head coaches saved coaching changes for the end of the season. The reason is because most of them don’t want to create a sense of instability in a locker room full of college-age students juggling an already-taxing schedule in the middle of the season. And that makes Bielema’s move all the more audacious.
The man replacing Markuson, who is a 25-year coaching veteran of the college ranks who most recently coached the offensive lines at Ole Miss and Arkansas, is not exactly the safe choice. Despite the high praise Wisconsin’s head coach lauded Bart Miller with, the biggest position he’s ever held at the collegiate level is graduate assistant.
Bielema hit the panic button Sunday, and when he did, it sent an important signal throughout the program: Mediocre play is no longer accepted. Wisconsin’s much-discussed rise to becoming a national football power has taken annual expectations for this team to a new level, and it’s not clear the head coach recognizes that.
When the lock-and-reload offensive line came to a grinding halt this year, Pasadena suddenly seemed like a runaway dream. Seasons like the 2008-09 campaign, in which the Badgers climbed inside the top 10, but finished 7-6, are no longer OK. Rebuilding years have faded away, a problem of the past. But note Bielema never fired any assistants in the middle of the year during that season, which included a run of four-straight Big Ten losses.
Yet after back-to-back Rose Bowls that finally allowed Bielema to escape the towering shadow of Wisconsin football legend Barry Alvarez, he appears to have a newfound sense of confidence. In his seventh year, he is no longer the Big Ten’s youngster looking for a defining career achievement, Alvarez peering over his shoulder and observing his every move with a keen eye.
But plenty of questions still surround Bielema’s decision to throw the inexperienced Miller into the front seat of a train running way off course.
With less than a week to prepare for the Badgers’ next game against Utah State, he’s in charge of rallying together the most disappointing aspect of this team through the first two games. The carousel of All-Americans who define the history of offensive lines at Wisconsin looked below average in the too-close-for-comfort win against Northern Iowa. Against Oregon State, Montee Ball saw such little daylight that fans were left feeling sympathetic rather than disappointed in the 2011 Heisman finalist.
This is Miller’s second year working with Wisconsin’s mammoth offensive line, but with the slightest of notice, he is now tasked with revamping a unit not resembling anything close to a group of Big Ten run-blockers in Corvallis. Monday, Bielema said Miller is “mature beyond his years,” but such traits can’t make up for a lack of experience.
If the UW offensive linemen come out in similar form under the lights at Camp Randall this weekend, what will Miller’s message be in the sideline huddle mid-game? What past coaching experiences will he reflect on in that moment?
I admire Bielema’s sense of urgency after watching his offensive line crumble like cellophane around quarterback Danny O’Brien in only his second game taking snaps from center Travis Frederick. He saw a pressing issue and is trying to solve it with a change of equal magnitude. It’s just difficult to believe the issues along the line will suddenly disappear when Miller takes the reigns for the first time this Saturday.
The only testimony of Miller available comes from Bielema, who clearly believes he is the young, talented Bob Bostad protégé ready for the job. And he may be the long-term answer to filling the spot as offensive line coach on a team that lives and dies by the run — making it an especially important job. But he’s starting his career with a Badgers squad with Big Ten title aspirations that just dropped a very winnable game on the road.
And the family issues Wisconsin’s head coach indicated played a role in Markuson’s departure look slightly overplayed after the recently-departed coach offered his own perspective on Sirius XM College Sports Nation. As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus, Markuson made it clear he was surprised when Bielema fired him Sunday.
“I really thought we were making good progress,” Markuson said on the show. “In light of what has transpired, I still believe what I was teaching is the right thing to do.”
Even in spring practice, offensive linemen did not hide the fact their new position coach had a much different style and new techniques. But it’s clear no one in this program — players and coaching staff included — saw this coming.
Make no mistake, this is Bielema’s decision and his decision only. It will likely be a defining achievement — for better or for worse — of the head coach’s legacy. And Badger fans will soon find out if it was Markuson rather than player personnel that had this offensive line searching for its identity.
Ian is a senior majoring in journalism. Do you think firing Markuson was the right move after the disaster in Corvallis? Let him know at [email protected] or on Twitter @imccue.