Columnist's note: Last year at this time, this space was used to highlight Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema's responsibility for his team's troubling season. In light of his performance this year, it is only fair that the following is written.
It's interesting what one night can do to perceptions.
The evening before the Champs Sports Bowl, Bret Bielema was the head coach of a program that just barely pulled up from a downward trend and struggled to beat good opponents. After the game he held the reins of a 10-win squad most have pegged for the top 10 next year.
This season wasn't supposed to be special. The Badgers were young and coming off two years in which they fell badly below expectations. Instead they ran roughshod for 55 minutes against No. 15 Miami, before letting it get close at the end.
What stood out this year, besides the way lesser known players stepped up on both sides of the ball, was a change in the way Bielema did business. He carried himself in a more cordial way and was more at ease in dealing with the media both during the week and after games.
The air of standoffishness, which has been ever-present during most of his press conferences, was lifted this year. Last season, a number of post-loss pressers opened with the phrase ""the team most responsible for Wisconsin losing was Wisconsin"" (a sentiment that denies credit to an opponent). This year Bielema made sure to give credit to every adversary his team faced and praised the Camp Randall fans even on days when the student section did not fill until late in the first quarter.
Are these changes the result of last season's trying campaign? Perhaps, but whatever changes he made, they worked. Bielema deserves recognition for the way his team turned around its fortunes and for closing out the season on such a high note.
Wisconsin came into the season replacing more than half its offensive line, seven defensive starters and one of the top rushers in school history, along with breaking in a new starter at quarterback for the third straight year. Early on the team knocked off two ""rising"" opponents in Minnesota and Michigan State, and later bounced back from a two-game losing streak to finish the regular season on a 4-1 run, including revenge against the Michigan squad that ignited a dismal four-game slide last year.
Entering bowl season, critics chirped that Bielema could not win the big game. The Badgers were 9-3 but had not defeated a conference foe with a winning record.
Beating the Hurricanes was the crown jewel of the season, showing that a group recruited and coached by Bielema could indeed compete with and vanquish strong, talented opponents.
In the world of coaching, however, every conquered challenge brings new ambitions, and Bielema must face down yet another sore spot in his resume—meeting those pesky expectations.
Twice Bielema's teams entered a season ranked in the top 12, and twice they finished the season far lower than projected. After the bowls, both ESPN and Sports Illustrated tabbed Wisconsin as the No. 10 team in their first preseason rankings.
With the Badger faithful expecting 2010 to be special, the coach will again have his work cut out for him. For now, however, he can take pride in knowing 2009 was a job well done.
Think next year's hype will be too great and the Badgers will yet again fail to live up to it? Enlighten Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.