Some considered it an impossible task: Succeeding the great Barry Alvarez at the University of Wisconsin.
Alvarez over the course of his remarkable Wisconsin career utterly transformed the Badger program, guiding it out of decades of mediocrity and turning it into nothing short of a Big Ten powerhouse. Alvarez went 118-73-4 during his 16 years in Madison. He won three Big Ten titles, three Rose Bowl championships and coached Ron Dayne to the 1999 Heisman Trophy. Then he retired after the 2005 season, leaving Wisconsin fans to wonder if anyone could possibly replicate the success of the greatest coach their school had ever seen.
Into this difficult situation walked Bret Bielema, a man who never held a head coaching job in his entire life and had worked for only two years under Alvarez, serving as defensive coordinator. He seemed an unlikely choice for a program that, under Alvarez’s guidance, had grown to the point that it would have demanded a more “high profile” hire. But Bielema was Alvarez’s hand-picked successor, and before long, the rest of the country would discover what Alvarez already knew: Bielema was one talented coach.
Those talents were developed under the tutelage of not only Alvarez, but also Iowa legend Hayden Fry and Kansas State legend Bill Snyder. Bielema served as graduate assistant and linebackers coach under Fry, and as co-defensive coordinator under Snyder. By the time he arrived in Wisconsin, in other words, he had learned from some of the best. Working for Alvarez only refined him further.
Then, in his first season as the Badgers’ head coach, Bielema put all of the lessons he had learned to work, guiding his team to a 12-1 record, second-place finish in the Big Ten and a 17-14 win over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl. In 2007, Bielema delivered another solid season, leading the Badgers to a 9-4 mark and an appearance in the Outback Bowl, where they eventually lost 21-17 to Tennessee.
The 2008 season brought Bielema’s first taste of adversity, as the Badgers struggled through an often difficult 7-6 season. Wisconsin finished sixth in the Big Ten that year and were blown out 42-13 by an average Florida State team in the Champs Sports Bowl. For the first time, Wisconsin fans and college football watchers began to wonder if Bielema had simply been living off the hard work of his predecessor, Alvarez, and if he had what it took to survive for the long haul in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.
Suffice to say, Bielema has answered those questions.
In 2009, Bielema delivered the first of three straight seasons with at least ten wins, leading the Badgers to a 10-3 record and a redemptive 20-14 win over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. It was not a great season, but it was a good one, and it hinted at the even better things to come.
The 2010 season saw Bielema re-establish Wisconsin as a true Big Ten power. The Badgers finished 11-2 that season, including a 7-1 mark in the Big Ten. As Big Ten co-champs, the Badgers earned a trip to Pasadena to take on TCU in the Rose Bowl. The game would prove to be one of the most entertaining bowls of the season, but in the end, it was the Horned Frogs who came out on top, knocking off the Badgers, 21-19. It was a crushing defeat, but the Badgers’ mere appearance in the game—their first apperance since 2000—signaled a new day for the program, and in 2011, the Badgers delivered on that promise.
Behind the leadership of transfer quarterback Russell Wilson, the Badgers stormed their way to an 11-2 mark and a thrilling win over Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. The win earned the Badgers yet another trip to the Rose Bowl and proved that Bielema was, indeed, a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten—and a worthy successor to the great Alvarez, as well.