Remember the guy that led Wisconsin to an 11-win season in his first year as head coach? That same man coached the Badgers to back-to-back Big Ten Championships, consecutive Rose Bowls, and has cemented Wisconsin as a top-notch program in the world of college football.
On his record as head coach, these accomplishments will never change, but as he might be starting to discover, the public perception of Wisconsin’s head honcho is undoubtedly starting to sway away from approval.
Bret Bielema has been a college football coach almost since the day he finished his playing career. His experience extends more than 15 years, and with the precious approval of Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, he is now, and has been, the head coach and face of Wisconsin football. Only Bielema is no longer a coach – he is merely a manager of the UW program, and the evidence is mounting that Wisconsin can do better.
Bielema has been a success-garnering machine since he claimed the reigns from Alvarez, and the first paragraph offers only partial justice to his tenure in Madison. The coach has piled up an impressive career record of 64-19 or a winning percentage of .752. But he didn’t do it all by himself, and that’s why this season, Bielema’s missing capabilities as a coach have jumped to the forefront.
It has finally become clear in 2012 that Bielema always needed plenty of coaching help around him – too much, actually.
After six assistant coaches exited for greener pastures in the offseason, it was pretty much last call, and Bielema was one of the only men at the bar. It was a common belief that Paul Chryst, offensive line coach Bob Bostad and the parade of departing coaches were rather integral to the successes seen at Wisconsin in the past few seasons. They fit together almost perfectly and the Badgers’ record – aside from a pair of backbreaking passes against Ohio State and Michigan State – was near-perfect.
The importance of the assistant coaches was many times acknowledged but never considered immense. That was until Bielema was placed in charge of filling the gaps they left. In the firing of Mike Markuson and early season struggles, we found out that not only did UW’s head coach fail to sustain the program through coaching changes (a very typical transition in collegiate football), but also to take lead of a position himself.
Earlier in his UW head coaching career, Bielema was in complete control of the special teams. He relinquished those duties to a triumvirate of assistants in 2010, and has since handed the reigns over to Charlie Partridge, co-defensive coordinator. If Bielema can’t handle the duties of coaching, the oft-last in line for special teams, what does that say about his ability as a coach?
Bielema’s defensive background is remarkable, yet he fails to visibly do much with the Wisconsin defense. A true defensive mastermind would do exactly what Will Muschamp has done as head coach of the Florida Gators – take full control and manage a defensive stalwart. Muschamp is in just his second season as the Gators’ guru, but he has already established a top 10 defense.
Now Muschamp coaches in the recruiting hotbed of Florida, but Bielema has had three times as many years to construct a defense or at least a mindset that could rival teams from the SEC, and he has yet again failed to do so.
If he isn’t controlling the offense, defense or special teams, it seems there is little left for Bielema in the calling of a coach. Calling timeouts comes to mind, but this definitely isn’t one of Bielema’s selling points.
An extremely aggressive timeout call led to Kirk Cousins’ Hail Mary attempt last season in East Lansing. That is about as descriptive as I would like to get of that fateful play. It’s been more than a year, but what ensued still makes many Badger fans cringe when the replays are shown.
And then, at the Rose Bowl, an early second half timeout against Oregon had commentator Brent Musburger echoing what nearly everyone was thinking, “That may come back to haunt them.” It turned into great prophesy from the 73-year-old broadcaster as Russell Wilson’s brief career at UW ended at the 26-yard line without a timeout to spare.
His mistakes in key games, both in prominence and location, have me believing he may not be the best man to wear the headset on the sideline or handle the enormous shoes a head coach steps into.
The constant spinning wheel of assistant coaches that is college football makes situations like the one experienced in Madison this year nearly inevitable, but that is OK. It is exactly how Alvarez became head coach in the first place and how Wisconsin eventually landed itself in consecutive Rose Bowls.
Alvarez tabbed Bielema as his successor, and to this point, that hiring may have seemed like the right one mainly because of the multiple other hires in proximity. Bielema has made the most of his stay at Wisconsin, but his actions and status under the tag of “head coach” have remained less than impressive.
And year by year, as the coaching carousel stops spinning and the likes of Matt Canada, Markuson or any other new face enters Camp Randall, there needs to be a “real” head coach waiting for them. Right now, it doesn’t seem to be that way.
Sean is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. Do you agree that Wisconsin could do better at head coach or is Bielema still their best bet? Let him know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sean_zak.