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Gamble pays off for Badgers coach

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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MADISON, Wis.

Bret Bielema was playing blackjack at the Wynn Las Vegas three years ago in the early evening when he spotted a smiling blonde, brown-eyed woman wearing a teal tank top, blue jeans and black flip-flops.

He was so intrigued he got up from the table without his chips to walk over and introduce himself. He was in town for an annual University of Wisconsin athletics fundraising event but didn’t tell the woman, Jen, he was the Badgers' football coach.

He simply told her and the couple she was with that he was from Wisconsin and asked her to join him at the blackjack table. She was visiting Las Vegas for the first time and hadn’t played the game before, but Bielema promised to teach her.

Over the next five hours, they talked and played. When Jen walked away from the table, she had won $600 and, most important, had exchanged telephone numbers with Bielema.

Although the two didn’t see each other again for another five months, it was a life-changing moment for college football’s most eligible bachelor.

Because, after years of relationships that didn’t hold up under the grind and constant pressure of coaching, Bielema had finally met his future wife, Jen, whose last name he requested be withheld from this story.

“I got the best recruit ever,” says Bielema, 41. “It was my best sales job ever to get her. I’m glad I waited.”

When Bielema’s seventh-ranked Wisconsin team (4-0) hosts No. 8 Nebraska (4-0) on Saturday night in the Cornhuskers’ first conference game as a member of the Big Ten, Jen will be in attendance, wearing the platinum ring with a large diamond and two pear-shaped diamonds that he gave her in March when he proposed during a cruise. The couple are getting married in March, and Bielema is eager to end his bachelorhood.

“I’m excited,” Bielema says. “It’s given me balance.”

Long before Bielema met Jen, he had been told to not let the opposite sex distract him. When he left his family’s hog farm in Prophetstown, Ill. — he used to rise early there to do his daily chores — to walk on in football at the University of Iowa in 1989, he got sage advice from his father, Arnie.

“When a guy goes to play college football and stay academically eligible, there’s no room for serious female relationships,” the elder Bielema recalls telling his son.

“But I didn’t mean the rest of his life. I just meant while he was in college.”

Bielema arrived at Iowa as an intense, scrappy, 190-pound defensive end. By the time he left in 1992, he had earned a scholarship and blossomed into a 285-pound starter at nose guard who was chosen a co-captain.

While at Iowa, Bielema didn’t have a serious girlfriend, recalls Jim Hartlieb, who has known Bielema since they arrived at Iowa as freshmen.

“I wouldn’t say he was looking the other way, but he didn’t live for girls in college, that’s for sure,” Hartlieb says.

While in college, Bielema envisioned meeting a woman he would someday marry and have children with.

But two years after graduating, Bielema was still single when he started his coaching career as a defensive graduate assistant at Iowa. He became a full-time assistant for the Hawkeyes in 1996.

“I was engrossed in trying to become a better coach,” Bielema says. “That didn’t afford me a lot of extra time. You’re pretty much wrapped up in what you’re doing 24-7. I kind of always put my profession first.”

Being single made changing jobs easy for Bielema. When he left Iowa to become Kansas State’s co-defensive coordinator in 2002 and was hired two seasons later as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, his lone concern was how the moves would affect him.

“It didn’t involve anybody else’s lives, especially like uprooting kids or anything along those lines,” Bielema says. “I think I was able to move through my profession maybe at a quicker rate than others just because I didn’t have those outside factors.”

Since becoming Wisconsin’s head coach after the 2005 season, Bielema has cooked on Thursday nights during the season for his friends, Jim Hartlieb and Stefan Swartzmiller — and, now, Jen. Before Jen entered his life, Hartlieb recalls Bielema telling him how much he appreciated having company on those nights they ate together.

Because while Bielema’s coaching staff went home to their wives and children on Thursdays for “Family Night,” no one was waiting for him. Just as it was after games, when Bielema used to go home and do laundry while he watched “SportsCenter,” sometimes with a priest.

One benefit of not having a wife and children was that Bielema was able to outwork his competition in recruiting. On Christmas Eve in 2006, he recalls, he spent most of the night texting (a practice that was allowed at the time) with then-offensive line recruit and now Wisconsin starting right tackle Josh Oglesby.

“I remember thinking, ‘This probably isn’t the most normal activity for someone at that time,’ ” says Bielema, who has a 53-16 record in six seasons at Wisconsin. “You’re supposed to be around family and friends.”

When Bielema first arrived at Kansas State and Wisconsin, people were always eager to set him up on blind dates once they learned he was single, but he always politely declined.

“I learned early on to not put that area in someone else’s hands,” Bielema says. “You have to be pretty hands-on what kind of evaluations or decisions you make there.”

Over the years, Bielema did date, and he says he had two relationships that lasted several years apiece.

“I just never got serious enough to put a ring on the finger,” he says. “I would get real, real close, and then something would change.”

Inevitably, Bielema’s relationships ended because of his strenuous schedule and job changes.

“Nothing ever seemed to take me away from what I was focused on career wise,” he says. “That always a roadblock. Most people weren’t understanding of someone’s schedule that is so weird and unique.”

Bielema says he wasn’t bothered by questions about why he was still single but his mother, Marilyn, tired of them.

Arnie Bielema says his wife, to whom he has been married for 51 years, used to joke that if one of their son’s relationships ever lasted through a football season it might be serious.

“Coaching is a very selfish profession when it comes to the other half and family because of how much time it takes,” says the elder Bielema, 73. “It’s football first, at least through the season, for sure. It takes a special gal to understand that.”

To complicate matters, Bielema has had his share of odd experiences with overzealous female fans over the years. Hartlieb says a woman once sought out Bielema at a home game and did it again a week later when he stepped out of an elevator in East Lansing, Mich., for his team’s game against Michigan State.

“I’ve had different situations where people like stalk or get a little crazy,” Bielema says.

Despite it all, Bielema in recent years talked more frequently about getting married and having kids someday, Hartlieb recalls.

“You could tell he was getting a little anxious,” Hartlieb says. “He was getting older and the clock’s ticking.”

Some of Bielema’s anxiety stemmed from the difficulty of meeting women because of his hectic schedule, Hartlieb says. And, though Madison is a lively college city of about 233,000, it also lacks an abundance of single women who aren’t Wisconsin students.

“It’s not like he’s a regular single guy who’s got all this free time to be looking for a wife,” Hartlieb says.

Hartlieb recalls Bielema always asking the same question about marriage: How do you know when she’s the right one?

“When it is the right one, you’ll just know,” Hartlieb always replied.

Because Bielema is constantly analyzing as a coach and seeking definitive answers, Hartlieb’s response frustrated him. He wasn’t used to depending on feel.

“That’s not an answer,” Hartlieb recalls Bielema telling him. “I want an answer.”

When Bielema first met Jen in Las Vegas in late April 2008, her friend she was with was apprehensive about leaving the two in the casino. But Jen, a Tampa, Fla., native and University of South Florida graduate, felt comfortable with Bielema because he was from Wisconsin.

That was because her parents are both originally from Oshkosh, Wis., where she spent her childhood summers.

“Listen, I’ll be fine,” Jen told her friend. “There are cameras everywhere.”

When Bielema and Jen went their separate ways that night, they promised to stay in touch. Bielema had a golf outing with boosters the next day, and he didn’t see Jen again the rest of the trip.

That was fine with her, though. She had just gone through a bad breakup a few months earlier and wasn’t interested in dating at the time.

But she had already made an impression on Bielema in the brief time they had spent together.

“There was something to her,” Bielema says. “I liked her.”

When Bielema returned from his trip to Las Vegas, he told Hartlieb about Jen. Hartlieb rolled his eyes as Bielema detailed how they had met in a casino.

“She was just so easy to be with,” Hartlieb recalls Bielema telling him.

As Bielema talked about Jen, Hartlieb noticed a different tone in Bielema’s voice. Hartlieb recalls wondering why Bielema was being so forthcoming about a woman he had just met and thinking there must be more to it.

“He just didn’t bring up stuff like that,” Hartlieb says.

Bielema also didn’t like to have lengthy personal telephone conversations, but he was soon talking with Jen daily.

Sometimes it was late at night. Other times it was briefly during lunch.

“I was actually enjoying it,” Bielema says.

When Hartlieb learned of those conversations, he was encouraged.

“OK, this is good,” Hartlieb recalls thinking. “He’s investing in this. It’s the real deal.”

Jen didn’t find out for months after she had met Bielema that he was Wisconsin’s football coach. When they were talking about what they had done that day, he told her he was preparing for the Badgers’ upcoming football season.

“Oh, OK,” Jen recalls telling Bielema. “That’s cool.”

“It didn’t mean anything to me,” Jen says.

Bielema and Jen didn’t ended up seeing each other again until mid-September 2008 when he was in Chicago during his team’s off-week and they met for dinner. As Bielema was around Jen more, he realized he wanted to spend even more time with her.

Jen loves the snow, and soon after seeing each other in Chicago, Bielema sent her an arrangement of white Calla lilies and roses with a note attached: “Thinking about you on this snowy day.”

“Oh, my gosh, how sweet,” Jen recalls thinking.

Soon Bielema was sending flowers to Jen a couple of times a month along with notes and cards. She has saved every flower, note, card and text message he has sent her.

Each day, Bielema texts her, “Good morning.” Between staff meetings, he texts her messages like, “It’s crazy here, but you’re still on my mind.”

And leading up to when they will see each other again, they do a daily countdown of the number of days left.

“10 more days,” Jen would text. “9 more days,” Bielema would text a day later.

“We’re so silly,” Jen says.

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During one of Jen’s trips to visit Bielema last year, he was hosting a suite for a Wisconsin home basketball game on a Sunday afternoon. Before the couple went to the game, he told her some of the Badgers’ biggest athletic donors and former star offensive lineman Joe Thomas would be there and he would be spending most of his time talking with them.

As Bielema socialized during the game, every time he turned around he noticed Jen was talking with someone different. When Bielema left the suite that day, he got the same report from everyone who had met Jen.

“Your girlfriend is awesome,” Bielema recalls being told. “What a great girl.”

Any time Bielema took Jen with him to similar events, she drew rave reviews.

“I figured, 'Well, I better wise up and make it happen sooner than later,' ” he says.

It wasn’t until Bielema and Jen had been dating for two years that she realized she had attended his team’s Capital One Bowl victory in January 2006.

She and her boyfriend at the time had decided to attend the game in Orlando with a group of friends and had midfield seats halfway up the stands. At the time, she didn’t know she was watching her future husband on the sideline as Wisconsin beat Arkansas in Bielema’s first season as coach.

She doesn’t recall much about the game other than watching Bielema lift the bowl’s trophy after the game.

“It’s kind of ironic to be there and he was actually like 100 yards from me down on the field,” Jen says.

Eventually, Bielema mentioned to Hartlieb that he was thinking of proposing to Jen. But after Bielema brought it up a few times and didn’t take action, Hartlieb wondered if his friend was ever going to make the move.

Bielema’s mother wondered the same thing after her son failed to propose this past Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

Bielema says he knew Jen was the one when she surprised him last season by showing up after his team had upset then top-ranked Ohio State. He hadn’t asked her to come in for the game because he knew he would be busy the days preceding it.

After Bielema’s post-victory news conference, he walked out and saw Jen standing in the doorway.

“That’s when I knew it was really going to be special,” Bielema says. “It was really pretty cool.”

Last February, a month before Bielema proposed, he attended an event in Naples, Fla., where he managed to get some time alone with Jen’s father, Greg. Bielema asked permission to marry his daughter, which caught Jen’s father by surprise.

So much that Bielema worried that he would tell his daughter.

Bielema decided not to buy Jen’s ring in Wisconsin because he feared his intentions would become public. He ended up buying it from a Naples jeweler whom he had met through Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez.

The jeweler asked Bielema lots of questions and told him to get on the Internet to look at what he liked.

“I had no idea,” Bielema says.

Bielema finally settled on the platinum ring with a large round diamond and two pear-shaped diamonds. With the couple set to go on a seven-day cruise to St. Thomas, St. Martin and The Bahamas for spring break last March, Bielema decided to propose during the trip.

The night before they left for the cruise, Bielema called Hartlieb and told him of his intentions. Bielema also said that he finally understood what Hartlieb had been talking about for years.

“I just know,” Bielema told Hartlieb.

But what Bielema didn’t know then was that Jen was also pondering their future. Before the trip, she talked with Bielema’s secretary and mentioned she was likely going to have a discussion with him about it while on the cruise.

It was a conversation Jen didn’t want to have, but with another football season quickly approaching, it was a big commitment for her to continue to make weekly flights to see Bielema and attend Wisconsin’s games.

“I was so scared, because I didn’t know what he was going to say,” Jen says. “I thought I knew what he was going to say, but if it was going to be something I didn’t want to hear, that probably would have been the end of our relationship. There’s no sense in continuing a long-distance relationship if it’s just always going to be that.”

Before Bielema and Jen boarded the ship for their cruise, he carefully tucked away the ring in his bag. He became nervous, though, when he realized he had to go through security screening with it.

“I thought I was going to get busted right there because I was trying to get it through without her knowing,” Bielema says. “I could just see this security guy grabbing my bag and pulling stuff out.”

Bielema made it through security with his secret still intact, but his plan to propose on the first day of the cruise went awry. The area on the ship’s deck he had picked was too crowded.

That night, as Bielema and Jen dined in one of the ship’s restaurants, he dropped to one knee. His hand began to shake and his eyes started watering as he opened the box with the ring.

Jen began crying and Bielema told her how much she meant to him before he asked, “Will you marry me?”

She jumped up from her seat and gave him a big hug as she replied, “Yes,” with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Jen had become so emotional during Bielema’s proposal their waiter came to the table and asked if something was wrong.

“No,” Jen said as she cried. “I’m engaged.”

After dinner, the couple walked to an elevator to head to the ship’s ice bar to celebrate.

“You know what is neat is that we’ve got the next six days on this boat and no one knows anything about us or who we are,” Bielema told his fiancé. “We can kind of just enjoy some time alone together.”

Just then a woman also waiting for the elevator turned around and said to Bielema, “Are you who I think you are?”

“Who do you think I am?” Bielema replied.

“Are you Bielema, the head coach of Wisconsin?” she asked.

Bielema thought the woman was a Wisconsin fan and confirmed his identity.

“Uh,” the woman told Bielema. “I’m from Michigan and I can’t stand you.”

Bielema and Jen laughed, and the woman turned around and walked away.

“It was pretty funny,” Bielema says. “It was just perfect timing for the whole thing.”

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After Bielema’s proposal, he turned off his cell phone, a rarity, for the rest of the trip.

“He just wanted to be with her and focus on the moment, which is pretty cool,” Hartlieb says.

Bielema and Jen are an ideal match. He cooks, she cleans and he’s looking forward to someday not getting weird looks when he goes midnight grocery shopping.

The couple like what Bielema calls “good music” like reggae, which they listen to on Sirius Radio’s “The Joint” channel. They attended a Michael Buble concert in Milwaukee this summer and Bielema now recommends the Grammy Award-winning musician to others.

Jen recently bought new golf clubs to try to play more than she had been.

“We’ve got the same attitude,” Bielema says. “We like people and we’re very social.”

Even though Jen has become a Wisconsin fan, she still sometimes wears a South Florida sweatshirt, which Bielema chides her about, and always points out when the Bulls win. Two years ago, Bielema introduced her to South Florida coach Skip Holtz.

“She loves him,” Bielema says.

During Jen’s relationship with Bielema, she has continued to live in Tampa and work in real estate. She handles lease properties throughout Florida for a private company.

When she visits Bielema, who has recruited in South Florida for years, she is able to work remotely while planning a wedding and moving into a new house. She plans to continue working remotely for her company after the wedding in March and will transition into accounting and finance.

“It’s something I can still do and enjoy,” Jen says. “Hey, who doesn’t want to work from home? That’s the easiest. How can I turn that down?”

Because of how they met, Bielema and Jen usually don’t tell people it was in a casino. Instead, they simply say they met while on vacation.

“I won at the table that night,” Bielema says, “and I’ve been winning ever since.”

Tagged: Iowa, Wisconsin, South Florida, Florida, Kansas

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