Something happened Wednesday night at the Kohl Center that you never would have seen two years ago.
During a first half timeout, Bret Bielema was shown on the jumbotron. Almost instantaneously, the entire Kohl Center crowd burst into a loud cheer, with some of the students bowing down to Bielema as they do to their most beloved players.
Oh how far Bielema has come in two years.
Flash back to December 2008, when the Badgers were headed to the Champs Sports Bowl after barely squeaking by Cal Poly only because its kicker missed three extra points, including one in overtime that gave UW the win. It was only the Badgers' seventh win of the season and it would be their last as Florida State embarrassed Wisconsin 42-13 in Orlando.
Fans had already been calling for Bielema's job since UW blew at 19-0 lead to Michigan in September. That's when FireBretBielema.com first launched. Not surprisingly, the last post on that web site was in the offseason before the 2009 season when the Badgers rebounded with 10 wins.
FireBretBielema.com is now a defunct domain name and available for purchase. Any takers?
I didn't think so.
The criticism didn't just come from fans. Many of the UW beat writers and columnists doubted Bret Bielema and in fairness, many of them did so at the time of his hiring and even after he won 12 games in his first year as head coach. At least they were consistent.
Now, with the Rose Bose virtually clinched, pretty much everyone is changing their tune on Bielema. Thursday night, Madison.com's Andy Baggot wrote that he officially believes in Bielema.
I'm not here to single out Baggot or any other member of the media that covers the Badgers. Everyone who doubted Bielema had good reason to. The 2008 season was horrible. In a lot of ways, it was worse than the 7-5 record indicated. The way that team lost games and the number of times Bielema made coaching errors was inexcusable.
But it's times like those when everyone needs to take a step back and find some perspective. I am happy to say that I was one of the few who was able to do that. I was mostly alone on the Bret Bielema bandwagon going into the 2009 season and I'm happy to welcome everyone else to the party.
See, a lot of people forgot that Bielema was only in his third year as a head coach and he was still in his thirties as a human being. Coaching is not an easy business. It takes time to learn your craft. And as bad as 2008 looked, it wasn't time to give up on a guy who had legends like Hayden Fry and Barry Alvarez telling the world he would be a fantastic head coach.
I came back in 2009 and predicted a 9-3 record. The Badgers beat Hawaii in December and finished the regular season 9-3. Before the Purdue game in October I said it was a fork in the road for Bielema, who's team jumped out to a 5-0 start but had lost two straight games going into the bye week. The Badgers won 37-0. And before the Champs Sports Bowl against Miami, I predicted a Badger victory. The Badgers comfortably handled the Hurricanes 20-14 sending both programs in completely different directions.
Bielema is in line to become the next Wisconsin coaching legend. Randy Shannon is looking for a new job.
My optimism had nothing to do with anything I saw on the field in 2008 or what was expected to be seen on the field in 2009. It had to do with what I saw off the field. It was obvious the 2008 team was mentally unstable and not prepared. That was on Bielema and every doubter out there had a right to point the finger at him.
But it was obvious from day one after UW was humiliated by Florida State that things were going to change off the field. I was able to see that before 2009 kicked off. Thus, the 9-3 prediction.
Many of you know I had an opportunity to sit down with Bielema in his office last May and interview him for a story published in Badger Kickoff 2010. If you haven't had a chance to read the story, I encourage you to order a copy of the magazine online. You can still find it there and I promise you there are some great stories in there that put a lot of the success we have seen this year in perspective.
In that interview with Bielema, he opened up about how far his program had come since 2008. He admitted that there was a problem with the attitude that team took off the field. Things like class attendance were an issue. And it translated to a lack of success on the field.
I left that 30 minute interview sold that this was going to be a great team this year. This group of players was going to be able to handle expectations in a way the '08 group could not. Bielema wasn't just handing me coach-speak. He was opening up in a way I had never heard from him before.
The headline on my story in Badger Kickoff 2010 read: "In Good Hands: Learning from past mistakes, Bielema has UW pointed in the right direction".
And on the last page of that magazine was a short column I wrote with the headline: "Smelling the Roses". At the very bottom of the page was a prediction that read:
"11-1 (7-1/T 1st)".
It's too early to tell whether Bielema will be able to pick up his second 12-win season with a bowl win next month. We don't even know who Wisconsin will be playing. But one thing is for sure. Thousands and thousands of fans are set to invade Pasadena and even if Wisconsin loses the game, not one of them will be jumping off the Bielema bandwagon.