CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Bret Bielema strolled into his weekly news conference on Aug. 28, 2006 — five days before making his official debut as the coach of the University of Wisconsin football program — wearing an orange tie.
I remember thinking at the time it was a strange color choice by Bielema because the Badgers’ opponent that week, Bowling Green, wore orange. I mentioned it to Bielema before the news conference got underway, he chuckled, nothing came out of it and actual football questions started coming his way.
Bielema showed up the following Monday to preview a game against Western Illinois wearing a purple tie with gold stripes, the Leathernecks’ school colors. His tie the next week was mostly red with some black mixed in, which would be normal attire for a UW coach but also meant he would have blended in nicely at San Diego State, the Badgers’ Week 3 opponent.
I finally decided to throw a flag on this fashion faux pas — forget Xs and Os, this was important stuff — and pulled him aside after the news conference. He danced around the subject for a bit before all-but-admitting this was part of some master plan.
“My mind’s always working,” he said. Later, he added, “There’s a purpose to everything I do.”
What was that purpose? I never found out and, quite frankly, I don’t even remember if the tie tradition continued the following week when UW began Big Ten play against Michigan.
Fifteen years later, Bielema is in his first season at Illinois and will cross paths with his old program Saturday when the Fighting Illini (2-4, 1-2) host the Badgers (1-3, 0-2) at Memorial Stadium.
When tuning in to watch Bielema’s news conference on Monday, I was disappointed on two fronts: He arrived wearing a navy blue pullover with a Nike swoosh and a block I on it — no purpose to that attire — and proceeded to suck any life out of the Bielema vs. the Badgers storyline before anyone even had a chance to ask him about it.
“This game is about the University of Illinois football vs. the University of Wisconsin football,” Bielema said in his opening statement. “My preparation for any game is the exact same.”
Bielema wasn’t the only one downplaying what at one point seemed like it’d be a red-letter day on the schedule.
There hasn’t been much buzz in general about this game. It’d probably be different if Bielema was coming back to Camp Randall Stadium and certainly would be a more talked-about matchup if the Badgers were 4-0 instead of 1-3, with Bielema’s team a potential spoiler in a dream season.
Instead, with UW matching its worst start to a season in 30-plus years, Bielema is well down the list of talking points.
Plus, there’s this: Maybe Badger Nation no longer considers him a villain.
I reached out to some friends/UW fans to see if they had any ill will toward Bielema and was surprised to hear the answer was no.
Time can heal a lot of hard feelings and it’s been nearly nine years since he shocked then-UW athletic director Barry Alvarez — and everybody else around these parts — by taking the job at Arkansas. If any grudges still exist, they’re probably directed more at Bielema’s wife Jen for her #karma tweet following UW’s controversial loss at Arizona State in September 2013.
One buddy put it best: Bielema could be a jerk — he used a more colorful word — but at least he was our jerk while he was at UW. At 51, with a wife and two young daughters, Bielema seems to have grown up and matured.
That friend, gulp, even wished Bielema moderate success at Illinois.
Speaking of success, Bielema had plenty of it with the Badgers and his messy exit shouldn’t ruin his legacy. He was 68-24 with three Big Ten titles in seven seasons. Yes, Bielema was handed the keys to a well-oiled machine. But ask UW men’s basketball coach Greg Gard about how challenging it is to follow a legend and then consider that the one Bielema replaced was his boss, still the face of the program and the shadow hanging over the place.
Now, the boy who grew up in Big Ten country — Bielema was born in Illinois and played at Iowa — is back in the conference. It’s early, but Badgers coach Paul Chryst said he already can see some of the trademarks of the good Bielema-coached teams at UW at Illinois. So can defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who was a senior in 2004 when Alvarez brought in Bielema to run the defense.
UW has a motto for the type of players it wants in the program: smart, tough, dependable.
Bielema used the same three words, albeit in different order, at his opening news conference at Illinois: tough, smart, dependable.
His first coaching staff with the Illini includes two former UW players (Aaron Henry and Terrance Jamison), two former UW assistants (Bart Miller and Andy Buh) and a former UW grad assistant (Kevin Kane).
“I think in knowing him and what he values in his team, you’re seeing that on film,” said Chryst, who served as Bielema’s offensive coordinator at UW from 2006-12. “Obviously, a lot of respect for him and I think he’s put together a really good staff.”
Those aren’t exactly fighting words, not that I expected any from Chryst this week. And Bielema? Well, his devious mind doesn’t seem to be working the same way it was 15 years ago.
I mean, c’mon Bret, would it have been too much to ask for you to show up to a news conference wearing a cardinal-colored tie with some speckles of white in it just for old time’s sake?
Contact Jim Polzin at email@example.com.