INDIANAPOLIS — Bret Bielema appears to be a different man. No, really, stop laughing. I’m not the only one who noticed it Thursday.
“I think Bret has matured,” former University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said.
When Bielema walked into Lucas Oil Stadium for his appearance at Big Ten Media Days, it was the first time he’d stepped foot in the building since Dec. 1, 2012. He led the Badgers to a 70-31 victory over Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game that night, securing a program-record third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.
He shocked everyone — especially Alvarez — by bolting UW for Arkansas three days later.
When Bielema met the media Thursday as the coach of Illinois, it was a full-circle moment for a guy who was born and raised in Illinois and is now at his third Big Ten stop counting his time as a player and assistant coach at Iowa.
The conference has changed since Bielema left UW. It’s gone from 12 to 14 teams, adding Maryland and Rutgers. The only two coaches remaining from Bielema’s final season with the Badgers are Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, who happened to be the only two of his Big Ten counterparts that Bielema called on the day he made his decision to go to the SEC.
Bielema has changed as well, in more ways than one.
“Unfortunately,” he quipped, “I’ve put on a couple more pounds. That’s not good.”
What is good — and the main difference from the UW version of Bielema — is he’s 51 and now has a family. He and wife, Jen, have two daughters, 4 and 2, and they’ve changed Bielema’s outlook on life.
“I don’t care if you’re a banker or a coach, fatherhood changes you and the perspective you have,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of success, but I’ve also had failure, and think as a man you learn through your moments of adversity than you do through your moments of success.”
Bielema didn’t have a ton of adversity at UW, going 68-24 in seven seasons. The low point was a 7-6 campaign in 2008, but that was more of a wake-up call than anything, and the Badgers bounced back with a double-digit win season followed by the three Big Ten titles in a row.
There were plenty of hardships at Arkansas, where Bielema went 29-34 overall and 11-29 in SEC play over five seasons before being fired. He spent the past three seasons as an NFL assistant, winning a Super Bowl ring while spending time on Bill Belichick’s staff in New England.
The failure at Arkansas had to be humbling for Bielema — how could it not be? — and also should have provided plenty of valuable lessons on how to build a program. That’s something he didn’t have to do at UW, where Alvarez already had built a solid foundation.
He’ll find it easier to win in the Big Ten West than the SEC West, even if he’s inheriting a program that has gone 13 consecutive seasons without posting a winning record in conference play. Illinois’ Big Ten mark since it went to the Rose Bowl in 2007 is 27-81, a .250 winning percentage.
“I think he’ll be able to rebuild,” Fitzgerald said. “You’ll have to be patient, these things don’t happen overnight. If he sticks to what he believes in, which I know he will, I think he’ll get the Illini back to where their fans want them to be.”
One thing Bielema said he took from his UW experience was how to deal better with the media. Not only did he remember the names of reporters who covered him in Madison and spend some time chit-chatting with them between interviews, Bielema later offered an apology of sorts to one of them for the way he acted at times while he was coaching the Badgers.
“I was a young, cocky little head coach who would get a little feisty at times,” Bielema told the reporters gathered around his podium. “I didn’t realize at the time he was trying to do his job.”
Just to be clear, Bielema still is cocky. It’s just hard to be too brash this early in what figures to be a long way back to relevance for Illinois.
“Oh yeah, I’m not afraid to say some things,” he said. “But we also haven’t won a game yet, so I have learned a little bit.”
Some UW fans — maybe most — probably haven’t forgiven Bielema for leaving the program high and dry nearly nine years ago. It’s time to get over it.
Even Alvarez, the man who had the biggest right to be upset when his hand-picked successor left town, has let bygones be bygones. Bielema and his former boss reconnected years ago after an icy period and Alvarez now says that reunion was long overdue.
“That was crazy for us not to be talking,” Alvarez said. “He was like a son to me. We just move forward.”
I’m glad Bielema is back in the Big Ten because he’s interesting and good for the conference. Just because he’s changed doesn’t mean he’ll be boring. Bielema vs. P.J. Fleck is a Big Ten West feud bound to start at some point. Just give it some time.
Bielema’s softer side was on display Thursday when he spoke about how excited he is to be building a home in Champaign, where his daughters can grow up. He dreams of rebuilding a program, sustaining success and staying in place for 15 years until retirement.
Bielema could have had a long tenure like that at UW, but he decided he wanted to start over somewhere else. He doesn’t regret that move and, in fact, told Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman during the interview process that the Fighting Illini are getting the greatest version of Bielema that anybody’s ever seen.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today, in the position I am, if I hadn’t done it,” he said.