To know Bret Bielema, one also needs to know Prophetstown, the west central Illinois farming hamlet the University of Wisconsin football coach once called home and still regularly visits.
Like other small cities, Prophetstown is slowly ebbing away, squeezed by the strip mall commerce of nearby bigger cities like Sterling and Rock Falls. There, big-box stores and supermarket chains drain precious dollars from miles around.
The population of Prophetstown is currently listed at 1,899. That's down 3% from the 2000 census and likely to drop again with the results of this year's census. Five storefronts lie dormant on Washington Street, the three-block downtown area.
One of two hair salons is closed all week except for Saturday. The hardware store and drugstore are across the street from each other, and there's plenty of on-street parking available for customers who, on this steamy Tuesday morning in August, are nowhere to be seen.
At the antique store on the southeast end of the main drag, a poster in the window announces new hours, limited to Thursday through Sunday. That's when folks come to visit nearby Prophetstown State Park. The rest of the message is dire. The shop owner, noting that 72% of her sales come from the Internet, warns passersby: "If you don't shop downtown, someday there might not be a downtown."
Across the street is the Prophet Family Restaurant. At 10 a.m., the breakfast crowd has dwindled to a few. The police chief is at the window booth, talking between sips of coffee with another resident. The four-seat counter is wide open.
"If I were a visitor and had to plan a day here," the waitress tells a visitor, "I'd go crazy. There's nothing to do in this town."
Still, Bret Bielema keeps coming back. Recently he made the 120-mile trek from Madison to celebrate his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. He comes back to visit his brother Bart - who stands 6'5" and weighs close to 400 pounds - and golf on the course where he first played the game. It was on this golf course in the summer of 2005 that he broke the news to Bart that he would be Barry Alvarez's successor as the UW's head football coach.
"He gave me a huge hug on the tee," Bielema recalls, laughing at the likely reaction of other locals. "The Bielema brothers are hugging, what the hell is going on?"
The townsfolk are duly impressed with the success of their native son. Hartig's Drug Store once had a front window display of UW football paraphernalia, all of which sold out. The Conoco Gas Station and convenience store proudly flies a tattered Wisconsin banner from its roof. Residents say that whenever Prophetstown holds a fundraiser, Bielema is sure to contribute.
"When he comes here, he's just Bret," says Michael Fish, the chief of police, a 24-year veteran of the city's three-man force. "He doesn't have an entourage. People aren't rushing him for autographs. He's still the same guy he was when he was growing up."
Recently, 13 women from Prophetstown attended the UW's Football 101 festivities in Madison. One the attendees, city secretary Bec Williams, came away impressed not only with the Badgers players but the respect they expressed for their coach.
She thinks Bielema likes to return to Prophetstown "just to get away from all the stuff" that comes with being a college football coach. "He just wants to relax."
Bielema doesn't disagree: "I have a very good group of friends and a very good family who regularly remind me where I've come from in a short amount of time."
Bielema, with a hearty laugh that matches his large frame (he was a defensive lineman at Iowa between 1989 and 1992), describes his first executive decision as Badgers head coach. It came shortly after Barry Alvarez named Bielema as his successor in July 2005.
At the time, Bielema had one year left as the team's defensive coordinator, and thus was still charged with one of the coaching staff's more menial tasks: dorm duty during football camp. In this case, the camp was for grade-schoolers, a two-day outing that required the youngsters to stay in a dorm overnight.
"I think his name was Petey," Bielema recalls. "He was probably about 10, and he was not a happy camper. Soon as it was time to turn out the lights, he started crying. I couldn't get him to stop. Finally, I called his mom to come and get him.
"But mom was shacked up with her boyfriend in Wisconsin Dells and said she wasn't coming. So I called his dad in Milwaukee. He was all pissed off at mom for being in the Dells with her boyfriend, and he said he wouldn't come. It was at that point that I decided that when I became head coach, the kids' camp would be just one day."
Bielema, at age 40 one of the youngest coaches in college football, has made a lot of decisions since, most more important than deciding what to do about Petey and his peers.
Who should the Badgers recruit? Which teams should they schedule for the nonconference season? How do you establish discipline? Who should play?
Now, as the Badgers head into the 2010 season, Bielema's fifth as head coach, his imprint is all over the program. And while Alvarez's record as UW football coach and his current role as athletic director still cast a large shadow, Bielema has done well, compiling a 38-14 record, 20-12 in the Big Ten.
The upcoming season, which starts with a nonconference game on Sept. 4 in Las Vegas against UNLV, will be the first season Bielema can call the Badgers completely his own. He has recruited all its players, from incoming freshmen to fifth-year seniors.
UW heads into this season with high expectations. Ranked 12th in the coaches' preseason poll, the Badgers return all the pieces of one of college football's most potent offenses. Running back John Clay is a Heisman Trophy candidate. Quarterback Scott Tolzien is the first returning starter that Bielema has had in this critical position. The receiving corps ranks with the best in the nation.
While the defense and special teams have some questions, many people think this could be Bielema's first Big Ten Conference champion and BCS bowl team. The season's key match-ups will likely be the Oct. 16 game at Camp Randall Stadium against Ohio State and the one on Oct. 23 against Iowa. Both rivals are ranked ahead of the Badgers in preseason polls.
"There are a lot of high expectations, and people are saying a lot of nice things about us," Bielema recently told the media at the Big Ten football media days in Chicago. "But the thing we really tried to instill since January to where we are today is that the only way you can guarantee tomorrow's success is to put your work in today. I think our guys have really bought into that."
That is every coach's hope. It was Bielema's hope in 2008, as well, but that went by the wayside thanks to two losses: at Michigan, when the Badgers lost a 19-point lead, and at Michigan State, when they self-destructed in the fourth quarter. (Bielema was at the forefront of that loss, tagged for a 15-yard penalty for arguing with an official, a critical call that kept Michigan State's drive alive.) The Badgers finished 7-6 that year, after going 12-1 and 9-4 in Bielema's first two seasons.
"I think that was a maturing year," reflects Alvarez. "One thing he learned was you have to continually keep the hammer down, keep your expectations and hold your players accountable."
Alvarez first noticed Bielema from afar, when Alvarez was coaching the Badgers and Bielema was a walk-on player for then-coach Hayden Fry at Iowa. As the years went on, Bielema advanced to captain of the Hawkeyes team. "That doesn't happen very often," Alvarez says.
When his college career came to an end, Bielema hooked on as a graduate assistant for the Hawkeyes. After two years, Fry offered Bielema a position as linebackers coach. "That never happens," says Alvarez, "especially with Hayden."
After six years as an assistant at Iowa, Bielema moved to Kansas State, where he joined former Iowa assistant Bill Snyder as the Wildcats' co-defensive coordinator. He spent two years there before coming to the Badgers, as the team's defensive coordinator, in 2004.
Alvarez, who was assuming the athletic director duties from the retiring Pat Richter, contemplated retiring from his football duties. For a year and a half, he kept tabs on Bielema before deciding to name him the new coach.
"He'd put notes in my box with different ideas," Alvarez recalls. "He took care of his business, but he was always aware of the big picture." He showed sensitivity to other coaches and was well liked by players.
But the appointment caused a stir because Alvarez didn't go through the required job-posting process. He says that Chancellor John Wiley gave him the green light to appoint his successor, and that he was surprised when faculty rose up in disagreement.
"I wasn't beating my chest saying we're doing it my way," Alvarez notes. "I had permission from the man who oversees the university. When I had his blessing, I felt very confident that this was fine."
The real repercussions of Alvarez's decision weren't felt until the Badgers' disappointing 2008 season. In the midst of the Badgers' slump, what longtime Penn State coach Joe Paterno calls the "Internet mafia" took up the fight.
They argued that Bielema didn't deserve the position, not only because of his lack of coaching ability but because of some personal dealings off the field. But then, in 2009, the Badgers went 10-3 and pulled off an upset of Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
Apparently, winning soothes even the hardest feelings.
"The real measure of a program is consistency," says Bielema. "I can't handle guys who are on and off, on and off. In four years, only Ohio State has more wins than us, three more wins. When you talk to a young man about coming here, he's not looking for a roller-coaster. I like the way we responded last year to 2008. The phrase 'Don't flinch' has a lot of merit."
Alvarez agrees the Badgers enter this season with a stronger foundation. He says that, in retrospect, the 2008 team "wasn't prepared" and lacked discipline. "I think they thought it was just going to happen."
Things are different now. "With this group, there's a foundation for discipline. They're saying the right things as far as staying focused. I don't see any off-field issues. I see them focusing on football. That gives them a chance."
The smart college football player doesn't get caught up in matters he can't control. He shouldn't worry about the system that is run, the plays that are called, how practices are arranged, what players are being recruited.
But the smart player is right to get caught up in one thing: how the head coach treats him and his teammates.
Jay Valai, the Badgers' fifth-year senior safety, learned all he needed to know about his coach that crazy October afternoon in East Lansing two years ago.
Yes, the Badgers lost a game they should have won. Yes, Valai was called for obstructing an official, a penalty that led to the critical call against Bielema. Yes, Bielema arguably made a tactical error with two timeouts in the closing seconds that allowed Michigan State to ease into a game-winning field goal formation.
Still, Valai came away with new respect for Bielema: "A lot of people talk about that game as being such a terrible thing, but one thing I learned is that Coach B. has your back. He stood up for me."
Coaches often say "we" when their teams win and "they" when they lose. It's not necessarily a conscious decision to choose those words, but it does stand out when outside observers read or hear the words. But Bielema relies on "we." "They" rarely is part of the conversation.
Bielema says being a head coach is different from being a position coach because he feels responsible for the welfare of his entire team. At practice, he watches every play and is worried whenever a player goes down.
"It changes your thinking," he says. "I never expected that overwhelming feeling. You're responsible for every player and coach out there. All those guys."
He sees it as part of a larger lesson. "I learned one thing, and I stress it to my coaches, regardless of whether we win or lose: We're all in this together. When things are bad, I want the focus on me."
Scott Tolzien, a fifth-year senior described by Valai as a "technician" at quarterback, was not highly recruited out of high school in Palatine, Ill. He sat back and learned for three years before winning the job last year. But he's performed so well as a starter that even Bielema kicks himself for not seeing his potential earlier on.
Tolzien spends the majority of his time with offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. But he sees in Bielema an example of what he may become in the future - someone who goes about his job and rises up the ranks to become a key cog in the program.
"Win or lose, he's pretty much the same guy," says Tolzien, who would like to become a coach after his playing days are over. "That's what you want in a coach. I enjoy that about him. You don't want a coach who's hitting the panic button after we lose or a coach who's celebrating like we won a national championship after a win. You want a guy who is even-keeled."
Valai, a member of Bielema's first recruiting class, thinks Bielema is growing into the job: "Just like a player, year by year, he's getting better."
Alvarez agrees. "One thing he told me last year was that he felt very comfortable on the sidelines, very comfortable anticipating the next decision. That's very telling. You have to start thinking that way instead of reacting. Everybody else around him picks up on that confidence."
On a July afternoon at the Breese Terrace practice field, Bielema is Peter Pan in coach's garb. He runs from one group to the other at the Badgers kids' camp, playing quarterback, throwing as many interceptions as completions as a swarm of youngsters run in every different direction.
When he's not on the field, he's on the sidelines mingling with parents who want autographs and photos with the Badger head coach. All the while, he's observing these 9- to 13-year-olds, wondering if that kid with the good hands or the one with the big feet may grow up to be a Badger.
"One thing I do pride myself on is that I love to observe," says Bielema. "I really do enjoy watching people, positive or negative things. I always tell my players: Everyone wants to be heard, but very few people know how to listen."
This is still the same Bret Bielema who once called Iowa State coach Jim Walden a "big prick" at midfield while thanking him for letting Iowa beat Iowa State four straight years. The Bielema who blew up at officials at Michigan State.
But the Bielema who enters the 2010 season is more seasoned and confident.
"It sounds like a country song, but it's always better to have high expectations than low expectations," says Bielema. And, this year, "what is huge is...the kids' expectations. That's when you find out where this thing can go."
Bielema and the press
After more than 30 years in the sportswriting business, including eight covering the UW football team, I believe the toughest beat is college football.
A good sports reporter almost inevitably ends up as a Daniel Ellsberg in the eyes of a coach. It's the reporter's job to find information the coach doesn't want out.
Last spring, for instance, Florida coach Urban Meyer threatened a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel with restricted access for, of all things, accurately quoting one of his players. More recently, Meyer closed his practices because of "Internet people and scumbags" working in the media.
A few years back, three of Barry Alvarez's players were in trouble with the law for a Halloween beating. I combed through police reports and interviewed witnesses for a long story that ran in the Sunday paper. Alvarez later confronted me about the story, sarcastically reminding me that I was "just a sportswriter." I politely corrected him, saying, "I'm a reporter who covers sports."
Most reporters don't want to pick a fight with a football coach. They know it just makes their job harder. All a good reporter wants is access and truthful answers.
Bret Bielema holds weekly Monday press conferences and Thursday post-practice sessions. Offensive players and assistant coaches are available Tuesday, their defensive counterparts on Wednesday.
In 2006, Bielema played coy with the press in suggesting that quarterback John Stocco, who injured a shoulder against Penn State, might be ready to play the next game, against Iowa. But there was no way this was going to happen.
"If you knew me, it's me just having fun with them," Bielema says of the episode today. "That was me being nave my first year."
Reporters say Bielema has become much more open. He still is a difficult quote because his mind races during press conferences, and he sometimes fails to complete a thought he has introduced. You'll notice in stories quoting him how often reporters use parentheses to better define a comment and ellipses to eliminate some of the extraneous words.
Bielema gets the importance of good press relations, and wisely has some players go through media training sessions. Prior to the Big Ten media meetings in Chicago, broadcaster Matt Lepay did mock interviews with John Clay; two other players, Scott Tolzien and Jay Valai, were prepped on what to expect.
Yet it's sometimes still difficult to tell when Bielema is "having fun with" reporters or being honest.
In his opening statement before the joint gathering of reporters in Chicago, he talked about how he was trying to improve press relations and had even played a round of golf with a reporter the previous day, something "I never thought I'd do...."