Wisconsin Head Coach Bret Bielema is a firm subscriber to that philosophy, and he's got the scars to prove it. Taking over Athletic Director Barry Alvarez' team in 2006, Bielema led a team full of Alvarez' recruits to a 12-1 record, a school record for wins.
But even as UW was winning, it was losing off the field. Back when the transfer of power was taking place, it was decided between Bielema and Alvarez to not making any coaching hires until after the end of the regular season in December 2005. In essence, Alvarez' assistants were recruiting players they would never coach. With nothing to sell, it was scramble mode once Bielema's staff was on board, and the results were evident.
Of the 23 players that signed letters of intent that February, only 12 were on the roster last season, a partial reason UW slumped to a 7-6 finish in 2008. Now as Bielema and his staff have gotten settled, the results and the players have gotten better because the framework of what UW needs has become clearer.
"It settled more into what we know needs to work at Wisconsin," Bielema said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days. "Mentality, who's going to be able to survive Wisconsin … Madison is not an easy place at times to be involved with. I really think the kids have done a good job figuring out who would fit in with him. Just be able to understand the daily balanced of Madison itself."
One thing that hasn't changed is the recruiting rankings. Bielema's 2006 class averaged 2.52 stars (out of five) and was ranked No. 37 nationally by Scout.com. The '08 class averaged 2.83 stars and ranked No. 26 (his best class). Last year class, while not as highly ranked, could have been Bielema's best, as Wisconsin targeted players that fit their immediate need at the defensive line and safety while addressing future needs at wide receiver and offensive line.
"The hard part is as commitments come through, who satisfies your short-term needs and who satisfies your long-term needs," Bielema said. "Sometimes those things don't all work together. I like getting kids that fit who we are and what we are."
One of those guys that fit who Wisconsin was is incoming offensive lineman Kyle Costigan. A two-way lineman for Muskego High School, Costigan was all set to hit the summer camp circuit until a sprained ankle sent him to the sidelines, forcing him to watch other talented Wisconsin high school athletes pick up scholarships instead of him.
The Badgers eventually offered a grayshirt, which would delay his enrollment by one year, but the coaching staff realized how valuable he was when he continued to add size and strength. When Bostad was successful in getting another scholarship, the Badgers made sure to give it to Costigan.
"I kept saying to my coaches, ‘Is somebody going to take him? Is somebody going to take him?' and nobody raised their hands," Bielema said. "I finally said this is what we are going to do and how we're going to do it … When we signed him, I think he was about 260 pounds. I remember seeing him at the spring game and ‘Holy cow.' I began watching his growth and we needed help at the defensive line. Defensive tackle needed a spark plug and I think he might be it."
In addition to Costigan and Minnetonka's Beau Allen expected to be contributors on the line, Bielema has earmarked a couple of other true freshman that can be used to help the Badgers depth and success.
"I really like Michael Trotter," Bielema said of the safety from Milwaukee Marquette. "Michael's got great personality, great leadership skills, he's conscientious and the more I am around it, you find someone on the back end that really has those intangibles of being perfect, it helps a lot.
"At linebacker position, (Wayne (Ohio) linebacker) Josh Harrison has a DeAndre Levy type personality to him where he just handles his business and goes forward from there. It will be interesting to see how he handles fall camp. (Walsh Jesuit (Ohio) linebacker) Cameron Ontko, I think, has a tremendous upside as far as ability and will be interesting to see what he does once camp hits."
While those guys fit the short-term needs, Bielema sees the work that Bostad put in to recruit two big offensive linemen to his program as setting the foundation for the future. Berlin's Dallas Lewallen (6-foot-6, 325 pounds) and Mount Airy (Md)'s Robby Havenstein (6-foot-8, 350 pounds) are two big bodies with huge upside, but won't see much playing time with seven returning starters in front of them.
"I don't know how much those guys can factor into what we're doing (but) it's going to fun to watch those guys grow this fall camp," Bielema said. "You take a guy like Jake Bscherer, who's no longer in our program, and Gabe Carimi. We were there the last day of fall camp: who should we play, who should we not play. We decided to play Jake and redshirt Gabe. Now look at the difference of those two worlds. It's pretty amazing."
While Wisconsin continues to hit Florida, Ohio and the East Coast and have seemingly abandoned Texas, the Badgers and Running Back Coach John Settle continue to work diligently in the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama. In this recruiting cycle, Settle has unofficially offer 15 prospects in those four states, getting plenty of nibbles but no bites yet.
"John is a good coach in our program and I wanted to give him an area he was comfortable with," Bielema said. "That's why he kind of expanded that and we do have a lot of alumni in that Atlanta area. We've been real close on a couple kids, but we need it to come through. Hopefully that's going to happen this year."
On the same note, Bielema was pleased with how new assistant coaches Chris Ash and Greg Jackson have started to find comfort in their new recruiting areas. Ash had recruited in Illinois before at Iowa State and Jackson had a playing career on the East Coast, allowing for the Badgers to not lose too much time in the recruiting game.
"The best recruiters I have are the guys that pay attention to detail," Bielema said. "Both of those guys fall in that category."
Sticking to What's Best
The Badgers can afford to expand and turn over rocks in new territories and let new assistants find their niche and build relationships because of the work Defensive Line Coach Charlie Partridge and Tight End Coach Joe Rudolph have accomplished recruiting Florida and Ohio, respectively.
Both in their third year on Bielema's staff and both have made an impact as recruiters. Partridge has grabbed kids with regularity from south Florida, including 2011 cornerback commits Makinton Dorleant and Terrance Floyd, and was a key ingredient in convincing Minnetonka defensive tackle Beau Allen to come to Wisconsin. Rudolph has grabbed eight players from Ohio in the last three years, including last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year Chris Borland. What's the secret in getting players away from Ohio State and Florida? Simple, according to Bielema.
"We take all the ones Ohio State doesn't (want)," Bielema joked. "Ohio State is so entrenched with its tradition and history that we don't really butt heads that often. Joe Rudolph has really done a nice job of identifying players that fit Wisconsin. Chris Borland was undersized, not quite tall enough and he was a guy that really believed what he had to do.
"When Chris makes a tackle, nobody asks him how tall he is. They just mark down ‘Chris Borland - Tackle.' They don't ask anything else."
In last year's class, Rudolph recruited linebackers Ontko and Borland's teammate Cody Byers to Wisconsin, two players that Bielema has been intrigued by through summer workouts.
"We're not sure if Cody is going to play or redshirt, but we are very excited by what he brings," Bielema said. "He's a very good athlete with untapped potential. The thing that all the Ohio kids have in my opinion is that they can run very well. I like to get them in the program and see where they end up."