The Wisconsin football team conducted practice without Bret Bielema at the helm of the program for the first time in seven years Saturday afternoon. With Barry Alvarez adding interim head coaching duties to his standing duties as the school’s director of athletics, the energy level appeared to be high throughout.
Alvarez moved around and watched different position groups through the individual period of practice, and seemed actively engaged during the team segments. At the end, he addressed the team as well as a good number of recruits and parents en masse.
After practice, reporters got the chance to catch up with assistant coaches for the first time since Bielema announced his departure Tuesday and took the head coaching job at the University of Arkansas.
“This business is full of highs and lows,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “(Seven) days ago we were winning a Big Ten Championship and (seven) days later we’re practicing with a Hall of Fame football coach on the field.”
At a press conference Thursday, Alvarez said he would likely start interviewing head coaching candidates next week and that his focus this weekend would be on the recruits coming in and on getting up to speed with the current coaching staff. Much has already been made about the prospect of Bielema bringing UW assistants with him to Fayetteville, Ark., and, in addition, whoever is hired in Madison will have staffing decisions to make. Still, assistants said Saturday they felt the current coaching group is united at least through the Rose Bowl.
“We have a great group of leaders, a great group of guys, guys that have fought through a lot in the last 12 months, and I think a group that has every intention of honoring Wisconsin,” Partridge said. “It’s about Wisconsin and it’s about these players and I don’t think anybody feels any different.”
He said that Alvarez stepping into the interim role helped solidify the staff and make the transition period smoother.
“The thing that will help carry us to that next step is Barry Alvarez taking over,” he said. “What that does is defuses an interim coach stepping in, and then you have another guy who wishes he was the interim coach and all the feelings that those things can create.” We have a very clear leader who’s done it, and has won three Rose Bowls. We have an opportunity as coaches, if we take advantage of this, for three weeks, to work for a legend, a legend in our business.”
Still, many of the coaches acknowledged the difficulties that come being without a head coach for next year.
“We’re going to the Rose Bowl, this is a dream for a lot of us and nothing’s going to distract us from that when we’re here working or Wisconsin,” said Azzanni, who joined the UW staff in January. “Do you have to think about your family and get your feelers out? Sure you do, because there’s no knowns here. I don’t know where I’m going to be next year. Hopefully I’ll be here, but that’s a long shot."
Partridge has been with the program five years, longer than most assistants on the staff, and said it was probably harder on coaches who have been with the program a shorter amount of time. He also said he thought there was more movement among coaches than he could remember since getting started as a coach in 1995.
“Finding a coach that’s in a place for ten years or more is hard to find anymore,” he said. “Obviously, all of us would love to have that opportunity. I have a six-year-old and a three-year-old, and I’d love to be in a place where I knew they had a good shot of graduating high school in that place. It’s hard to see that that happens very much anymore in college football.”
Other notes from practice
Here are a few other observations from the portion of practice I saw (from 11:30 a.m. to the time it ended, around 12:30 p.m.). Keep in mind that, with the Rose Bowl over three weeks away, the team isn’t likely to push anybody and it is a good chance for starters and veterans to get past some of the wear and tear of the first 13 games this year.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave threw the ball around. He didn’t have shoulder pads on, but the green jersey and helmet are a big change from the sweats we’ve seen him in after practice the last several weeks. He’s working back from a broken collarbone suffered Oct. 27.
Many of the starters worked through the entire practice, including the team portion. I didn’t see LBs Mike Taylor or Ethan Armstrong, so redshirt junior Chris Borland saw reps with sophomore Derek Landisch and redshirt junior Conor O’Neil. Redshirt senior Devin Smith, who took a nasty hit from Nebraska sophomore wide receiver Kenny Bell last Saturday in the title game, was on an exercise bike but did not have pads on. Redshirt sophomore Peniel Jean saw some time at corner with the starting secondary across from redshirt senior Marcus Cromartie.
Again, I wouldn’t read too much into who was limited or held out. It will be very interesting, though, to see how fast Stave improves between now and Christmas Day, when the Badgers travel to California.