Part two of our Rose Bowl question and answer focuses on Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. You can view my answers about Chip Kelly over at B5Q, or click through here.
Bret Bielema was hired in 2006, and immediately had the winningest season in Wisconsin history. He has built on that success, and turned Wisconsin into a borderline elite program. This was already a strong program under Barry Alvarez, but is there anything specific Bielema has done to take it to the next level?
I think the biggest reason why Bielema has been able to take the program to a higher level is because he kept the ideals of the Alvarez program and then added to it. That’s a result of Alvarez being able to pick his successor (he doubled as athletic director and football coach in 2004 and 2005) and groom "his guy" during the 2005 season. The Badgers have maintained their identity as a run-first team with big offensive linemen mostly home grown in Wisconsin, but Bielema has added more stability and accountability both on and off the football field. He’s stubborn in that he’ll only recruit guys with high character who "fit the program" and he doesn’t give guys who screw up off the field much of a leash. Bielema went through his own growing pains in 2007 and 2008, but ultimately he learned from those mistakes and it led to the stability and accountability I mentioned before. I think overall this has resulted in less inexplicable losses. The Badgers take care of business against the teams they should beat, especially at home where they’ve developed a habit of completely blowing out every team that visits Madison.
Bielema came in as a defensive guy, being the defensive coordinator before he was head coach and being a nose guard during his playing days at Iowa. Can you reconcile this with the fact that Wisconsin seems to mostly be known for its offense, or is that just a misconception by the uninformed?
Well there’s no question the offense has been the strength for the Badgers in the Bielema era, but I think that’s a result of offensive coordinator Paul Chryst who, starting in 2005, took the Badger offense to a new level. Defensively, the Badgers have never been bad since Bielema took over as head coach, but when Wisconsin does lose, it’s usually because of a few defensive breakdowns. He certainly doesn’t favor the offense by any means, but I do think he loves scoring and big plays. I’d say he gives both sides equal attention, especially in recruiting. It’s also worth mentioning that I’m not exactly sure how good of a defensive coordinator he was before he took over. He had two really good defensive seasons as co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State, but his 2004 defense at Wisconsin bombed out after a few injuries on the defensive line and his 2005 defense was pretty awful. I think he was meant to be a head coach and not a defensive coordinator.
Despite the success, Wisconsin hasn't been a recruiting powerhouse, and the roster is made up of two and three star guys. Is this a case of superior talent evaluation, great developmental coaching, or both?
There’s no question Wisconsin isn’t bringing in the top recruits, but the ones they do bring in work for a couple of reasons. One, as I mentioned before, Bielema only brings in guys he knows will buy into the system. There are very few bad guys on the team and the few bad apples that have come through the program have been kicked out pretty quick upon arrival. This means almost every player is fully committed to getting better each and every day. That leads to the development of players, which I think is one of Bielema’s greatest strengths. He’s hired some really good assistants throughout the years and they seem to get the most from almost every player. I’m not sure they’re better at scouting talent than most because, while they send a number of guys to the NFL each year, I’m not sure any of Bielema’s recruits have turned into NFL All-Pros. J.J. Watt will likely be one, but Bielema actually failed to offer him a scholarship. He transferred to Wisconsin after a year at Central Michigan.
Bielema has a reputation of perhaps running up the score (Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern), and making controversial statements regarding fellow coaches and programs (Iowa State and Penn State). No one can doubt Bielema's accomplishments, but is there anything to these criticisms?
These criticisms are completely overblown in my opinion. Unless I’ve missed something, Tim Brewster is the only coach who he has specifically criticized by name and that was after Brewster decided he had a problem with Bielema because he went for two with a big lead. That decision is really the only one I have ever questioned in terms of running up the score. All three times the Badgers scored 70 or more points last season, it was the second or even third stringers scoring late. At some point, the other team has to come up with a stop. Bielema is a an honest guy though, and he has taken subtle jabs at some sketchy recruiting by other schools in the past, but he has never named anyone specifically (although it was pretty obvious he wasn’t too happy with Charlie Weis last year when he joined Florida’s staff and signed Jacoby Brissett out of nowhere).
What is Bielema's biggest strength as Wisconsin's head coach? What is his biggest weakness?
I sort of gave it away earlier, but I think his biggest strength is his ability to relate with college kids and get them to buy into the program. He gets the most from his kids and you can see them getting better from game-to-game. As far as his weaknesses, I still think he could get better with in-game decisions in close games (like calling timeouts on Michigan State’s Hail Mary drive this year) but those will improve with experience. His biggest weakness is obvious though: special teams. When he took over as head coach, he decided to be the special teams coordinator and for the most part, it was a disaster. Last year, he finally conceded and split up the duties amongst his coaching staff. It didn’t help. And then this year he finally gave the duties to one coach, DeMontie Cross, and it has been even worse. I don’t know what the problem is, but I’d say improving the special teams should be priority No. 1 this offseason