Shunned Badgers are focused

  • Article by: JEFF POTRYKUS , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • Updated: December 24, 2012 - 4:44 AM

Despite the departure of their coach mere days after earning a spot in the Rose Bowl, team members aren't looking for excuses.

MADISON, WIS.

In the midst of a raucous victory celebration on the night of Dec. 1, Bret Bielema stood in the Wisconsin locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium and began rowing an imaginary boat.

The move wasn't impromptu. It was a reminder to the players they were in this journey together.

Everyone in the locker room had an oar in the water.

"It was 'Row Badgers Row,' " redshirt junior offensive lineman Ryan Groy said.

Three days later, Bielema entered a meeting room on the Wisconsin campus to tell the players what they had heard throughout the day:

He was leaving Wisconsin to take over the Arkansas program.

"It was strange," redshirt junior defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said.

Placed strategically at the front of the room was a single oar. No one grabbed the oar to row that night.

Instead, the oar was a reminder of the motto and a not-so-subtle message that someone had decided to remove their oar from the water.

"Someone may have put an oar in the room," Groy acknowledged with a smile. "It was emotional. Some people were upset with him because he had said he was staying. But that's how it goes."

Bielema offered the players the opportunity to come up and talk to him afterward -- either wish him well or tell him to take a hike -- or head out the back of the room without saying a word.

"I'm pretty sure everyone went out the front," Groy said. "We respected why he left. "It wasn't worth disrespecting him by going out the back."

Looking toward Stanford

Two weeks later, the players are busy preparing to face No. 8 Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez will lead the Badgers against the Cardinal before Gary Andersen takes over as Wisconsin's new head coach.

The hiring of Andersen, who built Utah State into a top 20 program in four seasons at the school, should inject stability into a situation that has been laden with uncertainty.

Defensive coordinator Chris Ash (Arkansas), defensive line coach Charlie Partridge (Arkansas), offensive coordinator Matt Canada (North Carolina State), linebackers coach Andy Buh (California), wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni (Tennessee) and tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner (North Carolina State) have agreed to take other jobs.

The loss of Bielema, Wisconsin's head coach for seven seasons, and the impending departure of more than half the coaching staff can't be minimized.

Although all the assistants are staying at Wisconsin through the Rose Bowl, the coaches who have accepted jobs know they will be uprooting their families. The assistants who have yet to accept other offers -- former Gopher assistant Thomas Hammock, Bart Miller and Ben Strickland -- won't be able to relax until they learn whether they will be retained by Andersen.

Hammock and Strickland are expected to stay on; Miller also could be retained.

"I think everybody deserved a little more time to celebrate the championship," Canada said recently. "Bret did what he had to do and that's his business. But we had an awful special night Saturday night, had to come back on Sunday and things got rolling Tuesday."

Despite the departure of Bielema and the subsequent staff transition, the players appear to be focused on their final game of the 2012 season.

Practices have been crisp and intense. Any resentment the players might have harbored has either dissipated or been compartmentalized.

"The character of the kids that we have brought in here continues to shine," said Partridge, who acknowledged telling his linemen he was leaving was an onerous task. "That was an example of a group of young men that understands.

"They come out here and they work every day as if nothing was happening. They have every excuse in the world right now to be distracted. But they continue to work."

Good record

The one-game return to the sideline by Alvarez, 3-0 in the Rose Bowl and 8-3 in bowl games in 16 seasons as coach at Wisconsin, has softened the blow.

Alvarez hasn't masked his frustration with the departure of Bielema and the loss of several assistants. Yet the return to coaching for the first time since the 2006 Capital One Bowl has energized him.

He knows the strengths and weaknesses of the team, trusts Ash and Canada to devise an effective game plan, and still hasn't lost his touch as a motivator and leader.

"The level of respect we have for Coach Alvarez," defensive end Brendan Kelly said, "he didn't get in his position by mistake. Just the way he walks around, the way he talks, the way he acts ... you just want to play for a guy like that."

Kelly acknowledged this December is different than a year ago, when the players prepared for the Rose Bowl knowing they were losing several assistants but keeping their head coach.

"But at the same time," he said, "one of the best things about our team is that we're not here for the coaches.

"We are here for the program and what that 'W' stands for. We came here for the school."

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