Badgers' Bielema Moved Up Ranks Fast

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema grew up on a hog farm in Prophetstown, Ill. with 2,000 people and 2,500 hogs around.

He learned the discipline of hard work every day on that farm and put it to good use in his first job as a stockboy in a grocery store.

Bret and his brother Bart were named after brothers from the popular 1950s television show "Maverick."

Not really a maverick, Bret played tuba in the Prophetstown High band and then walked on to Hayden Fry's Iowa football team.

"I moved from tight end to linebacker, got a scholarship the first year, started for two years and was a captain my senior year," Bielema recalled proudly.

Bielema began coaching at age 24 as a graduate assistant under Fry at Iowa and stayed there through the start of the Kirk Ferentz era before moving to Kansas State as co-defensive coordinator in 2002 under Bill Snyder, another Fry disciple.

Yet another Fry guy, Barry Alvarez, brought Bielema to Wisconsin as defensive coordinator in 2004, then announced a year later that Bielema would succeed him as head coach in 2006 at age 36.

"My friend Lou Holtz said to me, "Are you crazy?'" Alvarez related on Friday. "'Nobody has ever done that before.' But it was a very easy transition for the players. We didn't lose any recruits. I'm proud of how Bret has brought this team along."

Bielema, the second youngest Division I coach in the country, has a chance to become the second rookie coach to direct 12 wins. Larry Coker went 12-0 for Miami in 2001.

"I haven't told Bret he can't go 11-1 every year," Alvarez joked.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring knew about Bielema.

"He came down to talk to our coaches when I was with the Houston Texans," Herring recalled. "He's a good guy."

Bielema brightened at the memory.

"Bill Elliott set that up," said Bielema, who coached linebackers for six of his eight seasons at Iowa.

Bielema is quick to give credit to his mentors in the coaching profession.

"Coach Fry taught me to listen to everyone, because anyone can have a good idea," Bielema said. "He had great vision and he also knew how to manage people successfully.

"Coach Ferentz could see the big picture better than most people. He could take you on a path you didn't even know you were going."

But Bielema always knew he wanted to be a head coach, and Alvarez noticed.

"I knew his background, knew he overachieved as a player," Alvarez said. "He moved up the ranks quick, had great awareness and was an excellent recruiter. I recruited against him. I knew he would be the right fit for Wisconsin."

Alvarez, who just turned 60 in late December, felt he had achieved all he could as Wisconsin's longtime coach. He became athletic director last year and was allowed by the Wisconsin chancellor to choose his successor.

At Bielema's introductory press conference, he talked about bringing championships to Wisconsin.

"Some players took that to mean Big 10 championships and some took it to mean national championships," Bielema said. "Either one would be great."

While considered a players' coach, Bielema does not shy away from being tough.

"We gave six players an 11 p.m. curfew down here for being late to meetings or meals," Bielema said. "Since then, no one has been late. We also theatened a curfew when our offensive scout team played poorly on Thursday. The next day, they did a lot better."

Bielema brought in seven new assistants this season, weeding out some older guys from the Alvarez era and a couple with whom he did not see eye to eye.

"There's no swearing on this staff," said a Wisconsin media member.

Alvarez says Bielema is comfortable with bouncing ideas off him almost daily.

"This team had some question marks," Alvarez reminded. "No receivers with any catches coming in, question marks in the offensive line and at tight end. To see a young head coach mold these guys is very impressive."

Badgers first-year secondary coach Kerry Cooks, a Green Bay Packer not that long ago, commended Bielema for helping bring the young players along, as did linebackers coach Dave Doeren.

"Joe Stellmacher, our strong safety, is like a coach on the field," Cooks said. "His dad is a high school coach."

Doeren noted, "Coach Bielema has vision and patience. He doesn't seem like a first-year guy. He's organized and stern, but fair. The players see eye to eye with him, and he has a good feel for the pulse of the team. He knows when to lighten the mood with a funny motivational video, but then he can tighten the ship."

When rain dampened the Badgers' mood for the first practice in Orlando, Bielema took it as a positive.

"It rained on us in a couple of early-season games, rained against Illinois," Bielema said. "If it rains Monday, we'll be ready."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories