MADISON, Wis. — The Arkansas football fan base revved like a high-powered car engine last week, so Bret Bielema was going to satiate its desires by stuffing the program full of compliments at his introductory news conference. Surely, no one would argue he needed to provide the Razorbacks with fresh ammunition following a miserable 4-8 season in which the team underperformed.
But what Bielema didn’t consider while making his comments was the team he left behind at Wisconsin. By propping up Arkansas as a program where he could afford top assistant coaches and win a championship, the coach essentially said Wisconsin wasn’t good enough — supplying the remaining Badgers players with plenty of ammo for themselves.
Wisconsin is a program, after all, that has done pretty well for itself, winning three straight Big Ten championships and becoming the first conference team to play in three consecutive Rose Bowls in 34 years.
Just as Bielema had the right to leave, Wisconsin’s players have every right to feel disrespected by his actions.
“I think it’s definitely a little bit of motivation,” Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips said. “Obviously, we’ve won three championships here in the past three years. I don’t put much merit into anything as far as that goes. I understand he has to play to their fans schematically. I understand it. At the same time, I thought last year we were a couple plays away from possibly being able to play in a national championship. I don’t think the talent level or anything like that is any different at all.”
Wisconsin (8-5) will play Stanford (11-2) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 under interim coach Barry Alvarez, the school’s athletic director who built the football program into what it is today. In 16 seasons as Wisconsin’s coach, Alvarez went 3-0 in Rose Bowls. Bielema finished his Wisconsin career 0-2.
Even the most guarded of players would have to admit there’d be no better poetic justice than to win the one game that eluded Bielema for seven years at Wisconsin one month after he left for another school.
“It would show something to him but show something that coach Alvarez brought us along,” Badgers left guard Ryan Groy said. “I’ve never been a part of a bowl prep where everybody’s been so fired up and been so anxious to get out there and play.”
Just two practices since taking over, Alvarez has provided a fresh perspective and earned instant credibility with the players because of his history of success. The Badgers say they don’t want to be the first group to lose a Rose Bowl with him in charge and have already taken notice of his presence.
“No offense to coach Bielema, but you might care about impressing Barry Alvarez a lot more than you care about impressing Bret Bielema,” Badgers defensive end David Gilbert said. “Someone that you see every day. Someone that recruited you. He’s seen you since you were a freshman. You don’t get excited when you see him anymore.
“But when you see coach Alvarez, you realize this is a great person you’re being coached by. Anything he has to say to you sticks.”
Players agree the circumstances surrounding the Badgers have given them an even better chance to win the Rose Bowl than they would have had under Bielema because they’ve been forced to come together in a way they didn’t see coming.
None of that has to do with any significant schematic changes under Alvarez, who said he would leave the game planning to his assistant coaches and manage the Rose Bowl. It has to do with motivation, with playing for a legend so revered that there is a statue of him outside the football stadium.
“I think with this team, there’s definitely a sense of we’ve got a coach now that we really want to play for,” Badgers defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said.
Added center Travis Frederick: “He knows how to win, and he’s going to help us to do that. It definitely gives us something to rally around.”
Sticking it to Bielema certainly represents an added bonus.