Now that the Russell Wilson tidal wave has washed over us here in Badgerland, it's time to take a close look at how far the Bret Bielema era has really come.
Madison isn't used to the terms "national championship," "Heisman Trophy," "Big Ten favorite" and "athletically gifted quarterback" being thrown around the dairy farms.
Sure, Russell Wilson may be the missing piece, but it took more than an Asheville Tourist turned Madison resident to get us to this point. Wilson may be the man to take the Badgers from the farmland to the promised land, but his transfer to Wisconsin is not the most important off-the-field decision to occur in the Bielemic Era.
To be clear, we're not highlighting the flops or poor decisions that have gone on under Bielema's windbreaker—there have been many "break wind" embarrassing moments too.
These are the ten best off-the-field decisions executed by Wisconsin's Bret Bielema, entering his sixth season as head coach, to get us to this point.
The decision to pursue and then land Russell Wilson looks brilliant in June, but it's what happens in the fall that really counts.
Wilson, on paper, gives the Badgers a potent passer with above-average accuracy and smarts to go with his solid decision making and excellent speed and agility. The Badger running game was scary enough heading into 2011.
Now, with an all-conference quarterback at the helm, defenses will need to account for Wilson as a dual-threat passer and runner.
It's too early to declare this the best maneuver yet by Bielema, but if the Badgers are in the Big Easy in January of 2012 you can bet getting Russell Wilson to transfer to Madison will be a big reason why.
Beckum, now with the New York Giants, was a major recruit for former head coach Barry Alvarez.
The problem was where to play him.
In 2006 when Bielema took over as head coach the decision was made to move Beckum from defensive end to tight end and the Badgers benefitted greatly.
He didn't start the great lineage of UW tight ends, but Beckum was the one who gave it cache. Today, the Badgers recruit the tight end position just about as well as anyone in the country. It is has become a feature of their offense and they send their tight ends to the pros.
Currently there are six Badgers who have played tight end for the UW plying their trade (err, waiting for the lockout to end to ply their trade) in the National Football League.
The best of the bunch was Beckum. Moving the stellar athlete to offense sparked a trend that continues to this very day.
Prior to the 2009 season the Badgers were expecting to get quality play and leadership from returning starters and seniors Aubrey Pleasant and Shane Carter.
The previous season the Badgers stumbled to Bielema's worst season as a Head Coach (7-6). There was plenty to blame to go around, but much of it laid at the feet of the defense that gave up 38 points to Iowa, 48 points to Penn State, 25 to Michigan State (all losses) and 35 to Cal Poly in a game the Badgers could have lost.
We'll never know exactly what Pleasant and Carter did to get themselves kicked off the team, but whatever the reason for decision, it looks brilliant in hindsight.
The Badgers turned a corner in 2009 and improved to 10-3. Their defense ranked fifth in America against the run (first in the Big Ten) and 17th overall. The tandem of sophomore Jay Valai and senior Chris Maragos proved leagues more competent than their senior counterparts.
The Badgers 2009 defense is one of the best in school history. Bielema's decision to remove Pleasant and Carter in favor of novices Valai and Maragos effectively removed his name from the proverbial "hot seat."
He committed to Iowa. Than he thought better of it.
John Clay's decision to stay home was massive for Bret Bielema. Barry Alvarez claimed the only way for UW to remain successful on the football field was to build a 'wall' around the state and keep top high school talent from leaving.
Sure, the Badgers would have succeeded without the former Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, but Clay proved first that Bielema was a competent recruiter and second that he could keep Wisconsin-bred players home.
There's no telling what may have happened should Clay had decided to play against the Badgers rather than for them. Would other in-state talents follow suit? Would Montee Ball and James White, who surely saw the big man rumbling through defenses with jaws agape, even entertain heading north to Madison? Would the delicatessens and eateries Clay frequented still be in business?
It's not too much of a stretch to say that John Clay was Bret Bielema's most important recruit to date.
The "Rat Pack" ruled Vegas. The "Brat Pack" sought to take over Hollywood.
The "Bret Pack" is now fully entrenched in Madison.
Offensive Line coach Bob Bostad, co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Chris Ash, tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Joe Rudolph and defensive line and co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge make up Wisconsin's newest and coolest ensemble since the cast of "Happy Days."
It took Bielema several years to get his crew in place, but now the Bret Pack is one of the most stable coaching staffs in America.
Bostad was wooed by Texas only to prefer to remain in Madison. Ash is a rising superstar who in just one year on campus was promoted to defensive coordinator. Rudolph is Bielema's ace recruiter and TE developer. Partridge's responsibilities not only lie with the d-line and coordinating with Coach Ash, he is also the associate head coach, works with the kickers and recruits Florida for Bielema.
They are all under 50 and are, without a doubt, Bielema's best recruiters on staff.
Assembling the Bret Pack has been a huge coup for Bielema.
Okay, maybe he should have recruited him in the first place, but Bielema's decision to accept the transfer Watt, and turn him into an offense-wrecking machine at defensive end makes my list at No. 5. Watt is, undeniably, one of the greatest Badgers of all time.
He was the team's co-MVP in 2010 and a second-team All-American by the AP. He led a defense in sacks, tackles-for-loss, quarterback hurries, blocked kicks and forced fumbles. He was second on the team in total tackles.
Above all else, Watt served as the de facto face of the program. A Wisconsin-bred hard-working, over-achieving, relentless yet intelligent player. He was a fixture in the community and at children's hospitals as much as he was in opposing backfields.
In sum, this under-utilized Central Michigan tight end turned profilic Wisconsin defensive end was the best player on the team's run to Pasadena.
Bret Bielema's decision to admit his mistake and accept Watt as a transfer student AND change (and keep) him to defensive end is one of the great decisions in Badger history.
Chris Borland brings down MIchigan State's Kirk Cousins
Perhaps it's the system, or perhaps it's the player, but for whatever the reason, the Badgers have had incredible recent success with freshmen athletes.
In 2006, Bret Bielema's first in charge, PJ Hill rushed for an amazing 1596 yards on 311 carries (5.0 ypc) and 15 touchdowns. He was named a freshman All America and the Big Ten's Offensive Freshman of the Year. Hill was a 2-star rated athlete coming out of Brooklyn's Poly Prep Academy.
In 2009, Bielema had no choice but to play true freshman Chris Borland.
The question was where!
The rambunctious Borland lined up at linebacker, defensive end, kick returner and place kicker and enjoyed one of the finest and most colorful seasons in Badger history. Borland was lightly recruited out of Kettering, Ohio, and ended being a 3-star athlete according to Rivals.com. Borland won the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year and was named to several Freshman All America teams.
In 2010 Bielema was at it again. Gaining a commitment from the "lesser" of two prolific running backs from St. Thomas Aquinas (FL) High School, James White gave UW its third Big Ten Freshman of the Year in Bielema's five seasons.
White was heavily recruited but ultimately chose UW for its family atmosphere and vaunted running game.
Bret Bielema's decision to recruit underrated prospects and play freshmen have paid massive dividends for the UW program both on the field and off.
Ben Herbert (center) with Coach Bielema
There's no underscoring the contributions of Ben Herbert and his staff.
When Bielema promoted the strength and conditioning coach in 2009 he knew the former Badger defensive end was ready.
Herbert is often cited as being the reason several high school prospects ultimately choose the University of Wisconsin. He's also credited by his boss as the reason his players prosper the way they do. And in a developmental program like Wisconsin, that's huge.
You add these things up and it's easy to see why retaining Ben Herbert has been vital to the success of Bret Bielema and his program.
During these (long) summer months, the coaching staff cannot interact with their players. So, at this very juncture, guess whose hands the entire UW roster is in? Yep.
Here's what I wrote in August of 2009:
Here’s what we know about Scott Tolzien- the mystery man who defied the odds and won the UW quarterback competition. He was a late signee out of high school where he received offers from Kentucky, Toledo, and Northern Illinois. He is said to have the best knowledge of the offense and where to go with the football. He’s accurate, and tough. Sounds like every QB UW has trotted out in its history, right? Tolzien will receive the first snap of the season. I have my doubts.
Tolzien's first pass was a bomb to Isaac Anderson for a touchdown. He never really surrendered the position after that.
Tolzien won the Unitas Award as a senior in 2010 and led the team to the Rose Bowl. His lifetime record of 21-5 as a starter speaks for itself. He's the school's record holder in efficiency and completion percentage (a ridiculous 68.1 percent).
More than anything, Tolzien's steady play quickly allowed Badger fans forget about the abysmal 7-6 team from 2008 (and its shoddy Quarterback play from Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer).
The decision to go with the "mystery man" looks brilliant in hindsight. It is the second best decision in Bret Bielema's tenure.
Why has UW had such success under Bret Bielema? It starts with offense.
Paul Chryst joined the Badgers in 2002 as a tight ends coach, only to leave a year later. He returned in 2005 as a co-offensive coordinator and has been out-maneuvering opponents for UW ever since.
In the past five seasons the Badgers have averaged 31.9 points and 408.6 yards per game.
Chryst is 49-16 when calling the plays for Bret Bielema.
2010 was his best season yet. The Badgers were the second highest scoring team in Big Ten play in league history (45.2 ppg). The Badgers scored 70 only once until 2010 when they achieved that feat an astonishing three times. They were nearly the first team in FBS history to have three 1,000 yard rushers.
Of course, Paul Chryst has had his fair share of suitors. The Dallas Cowboys and Texas Longhorns have each made overtures in recent seasons. Still, the UW alum prefers to stay in Madison and work under the guise of Bielema.
Keeping Paul Chryst and his talents in Wisconsin has been the best off-the-field decision Bret Bielema has made in his time at the helm in Madison.
Badgers who played for Paul Chryst:
Travis Beckum, Brian Calhoun, Gabe Carimi, Owen Daniels, Lance Kendricks, Garrett Graham, Scott Tolzien, Lee Evans, Jon Stocco, John Moffitt, Joe Thomas, Chris Pressley, Kraig Urbik, PJ Hill, John Clay.