Bret Bielema walked into Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday for the first time since the night of Dec. 1, 2012. That was the night that Bielema, then the head coach at Wisconsin, led the Badgers to their third straight Big Ten title with a dominating 70-31 victory over Nebraska. Three days later Bielema shocked the college football world when he left Wisconsin to become the coach at Arkansas. After five seasons and just 11 SEC wins, Bielema was out in Fayetteville. He spent three seasons in the NFL as an assistant before being named the new head coach at Illinois earlier this year.
That journey, going from leading Wisconsin to consistent high-level success to taking over an Illinois program that has won more than four conference games just once in the last 20 years, led one reporter to ask whether Bielema regretted leaving Madison eight years ago.
“I know I wouldn’t be where I am today, in the position I’m in, if I hadn’t done it,” Bielema said on Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days. “I would say the number one thing is I had great relationships with people, and you knew you were going to change those instantly (by leaving).”
One of Bielema’s best relationships at the time was with then-athletic director Barry Alvarez. The latter had chosen the former as his successor prior to the 2005 season and it was essentially a father-son relationship. So when Bielema blindsided Alvarez with the news he was leaving while the duo was at a hotel in New York there was a falling out. It took some time but the two mended fences in recent years, and Alvarez advocated for Bielema to get the Illinois job.
On Thursday, Bielema also repeated some of his reasons for leaving Wisconsin, most notably taking issue with the amount of money made available to keep and attract assistant coaches, along with wanting to tackle a different challenge as a newly married man.
“We had a great, great time in our time at Arkansas. Obviously, it didn’t end the way I wanted, but I also would not be the man I am today if that had not happened. I’m fortunate that I went through and it happened,” said Bielema, who noted he didn’t deal with much adversity while with the Badgers. “I think, without a doubt in my mind, the adversity that I faced over the last five (years at Arkansas), and then three in the NFL, those eight years have definitely put me in a position to win today.”
When Bielema took over for Alvarez in 2006, he was 36 years old and the second-youngest head coach in college football. A lot has changed for him in the last 15 years and he thinks he’s a better coach for it.
“I’ve had a lot of success, but I’ve also had failure. And I think as a man, you learn more through your moments of adversity than you do to your moments of success,” Bielema said.
“(I was) 12-1 my first year (at Wisconsin). I thought I was like Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Bill Belicheck all in one. I thought I knew it all, and when things were pointed out to me that I didn’t agree with, rather than understand the situation, I tried to fight the situation. So that part I’ve definitely grown.
“The great thing is I told (athletic director) Josh (Whitman), when he hired me, ‘The great thing is you’re getting the greatest version of myself that anybody’s ever had.’ And I think we’ve been good in the past, but it’s not as close to what we’re gonna be.”
Scott Frost raising eyebrows
Since the Big Ten was split into the East and West divisions in 2014, Nebraska has finished second twice, fourth once and fifth four times. In that same time period, Wisconsin has gone to four Big Ten title games, Northwestern to two and Iowa to one. The Badgers haven’t lost to Nebraska since 2012, the Hawkeyes haven’t fallen to the Huskers since 2014 and the Wildcats have won four of the last six matchups. Yet, when asked where his team was in comparison to the three most accomplished teams in the division, Nebraska coach Scott Frost made it seem like there was little separating them.
“I think it’s a tight gap,” Frost said, according to HawkCentral.com’s Chad Leistikow. “I have a ton of respect for those teams, the job that Pat (Fitzgerald) did (at division-winning Northwestern) last year; the consistency of the Iowa program; the years that Wisconsin has had. Those coaches have been there a long time. Got their cultures established, been able to recruit the players to their culture, to their system. Started training them from the time they were freshmen. They’re established. That being said, we’ve played some really close games with those guys.”
That might be true with Northwestern and Iowa, but in Wisconsin’s current seven-game winning streak it has won by an average of 19.4 points per game, including by at least 16 points in each of the last three matchups.
The Badgers will host Nebraska on Nov. 20 this season.
Schools to decide COVID-19 policies
The Big Ten is putting the onus on individual schools to come up with COVID-19 policies as the fall sports season approaches.
Commissioner Kevin Warren said Thursday that chancellors and presidents from the 14 schools met in early June and voted to create a decentralized process to devise the policies. Once that is completed in early August, the conference members will come together to determine how those policies will impact competition.
“One of the things I did learn last year is to make sure that we are methodical and thoughtful, that we bring
people together,” Warren said. “And so we’re right where we wanted to be, in that it will be a decentralized decision-making process.”
Warren took a lot of heat in his first year on the job, taking the brunt of the blame for the Big Ten initially postponing its season only to reverse course a month later and play an abbreviated schedule.
Championship game outside of Indianapolis?
The Big Ten title game has been played since 2011 and each game has been held in Indianapolis. That is likely to change after this December’s game.
“We’re going to sit down and figure out the best way to rotate it, probably take out a [request for proposal] for basketball and football,” Warren told the outlet. “I’m open to any location our fans will travel to and enjoy in our footprint, anywhere from Nebraska to New Jersey.”
The basketball tournament, normally played in Chicago or Indianapolis, has already moved around since Maryland and Rutgers entered the conference in 2014. The 2017 tournament was played in Washington D.C., while the 2018 event was at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Indianapolis has been a favored host for football because of its central location and the indoor environment at Lucas Oil Stadium. The only other stadiums with roofs in the footprint are U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and Ford Field in Detroit. But there are plenty of other outdoor options, including Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Packers president Mark Murphy said last July that they would apply to host the game between 2023 and 2030.