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New coaches but same goal for Wisconsin

By Jeff Potrykus, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

MADISON, Wis. — On the night before Wisconsin opened preseason camp this month, one of the six new assistants on the UW staff walked confidently to the front of a packed meeting room and delivered a brief but blunt message to the team:

The six new coaches had finished their orientation period. They were going to demand just as much of the players as their predecessors had. The new staff was cohesive and it was time to focus on football.

The messenger was linebackers coach Andy Buh.

“We came into camp as a team,” said Buh, the defensive coordinator at Nevada last season before being hired to replace Dave Huxtable. “We don’t feel that there is any transition.

“That speech put an end to it, a stamp on it. That is what we’re trying to get across to the guys. There is no transition.

“Transition is going to happen every year. That’s part of the game. Call it what it is and let’s move forward.”

No one doubts UW’s program is moving forward under Bret Bielema, entering his seventh season as head coach.

Since the disappointing 2008 season, which included a 3-5 Big Ten mark and an ugly loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, UW has gone 18-6 in league play and 32-8 overall.

UW has won back-to-back league titles and has a legitimate chance to reach the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive season. No Big Ten team has accomplished that feat since Michigan in 1976, ‘77 and ‘78.

“I was 8 years old,” Bielema said, referring to the year the Wolverines won their third consecutive Big Ten title. “So I don’t even really remember it.”

Bielema, 60-19 overall at UW, has faced several challenges as a head coach.

In 2006, he had to follow Barry Alvarez, who resurrected a moribund program and won three Rose Bowls. Bielema and a reconstructed staff led UW to a 12-1 record and consensus top-10 ranking.

After the ugly 2008 season, Bielema had to get the program back on track. UW’s record over the last three seasons reveals the right moves were made.

Now he guides UW into the 2012 season having lost six assistants, including four from an offensive unit that was the catalyst behind the turnaround after 2008, as well as several standout players from last season.

“It has been seamless to be honest with you,” running backs coach Thomas Hammock, the only offensive holdover from last season, said of the transition. “And at this point there is no transition. That is the way we look at it.”

If Bielema is harboring any angst about having to replace the likes of offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, offensive line coach Bob Bostad and tight ends coach Joe Rudolph, he is keeping it under wraps.

“I think the good thing for me is that it wasn’t the first time I faced transition,” he explained. “It wasn’t the first coordinator I ever hired.”

Bielema retained only two members of Alvarez’s final staff when he took over the program in 2006 and then made at least one coaching change in four of the next five seasons. After the 2007 season, he fired defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and promoted Dave Doeren to sole coordinator.

“People always have anxiety whenever there is change,” Bielema said. “I embrace it. To me, transition is an opportunity to improve.

“I want to get better. And that is no disrespect to the coaches who came before them. I hope they have nothing but success in the career path they’ve chosen.

“But I want to be better than we were. That’s just how I operate.”

Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo coached college football for 28 years. During his run as an assistant at Colorado (1982-’1990), the Buffs endured 12 staff changes over a three-year span.

“You went to the first staff meeting after the summer and you weren’t sure who you were sitting next to,” he joked. “Will you (reporters) overplay it? Yes. Is it real? It is absolutely real.

“But I will say that Bret’s style allows you to overcome this a little faster than maybe someone who is micromanaging the offense.

“Bret, to my knowledge, he lets them coach. He lets the coordinators coordinate and he manages the program. So as long as he and offensive coordinator Matt Canada are OK . . . it will be OK.

“If you’re micromanaging either side of the ball, then the dynamic between you and the assistants and you and the coordinators changes.”

During the Big Ten preseason meetings in Chicago in July, Bielema’s message to reporters was twofold:

First, near the top of his to-do list for preseason camp was to put the staff in as many game-day situations as possible to get a feel for the communication and interaction among the assistants.

“That is the part I haven’t been able to see them work in,” he said.

Bielema reported Thursday that during a recent practice he had the coaches man their positions on the sidelines and in the booth to replicate their game-day responsibilities.

“I just want to make guys game ready and it really seemed to flow well from the booth to the sidelines to the sidelines to the field,” he said. “We haven’t had any issues with the (play) clocks.”

Second, Bielema said in Chicago that no matter what steps he took in camp to prepare the new staff for working together during the heat of a game, some lessons couldn’t be learned in practice or during a mock game.

“Anytime you’re dealing with game day you’re dealing with new situations,” Bielema acknowledged. “I want to see how they react when they get a new defensive front, a new coverage . . . something thrown at them they didn’t expect.

“Not just how they absorb it and react to it, but how they communicate it to the players is important.”

Many players, particularly on offense, acknowledged they endured a transition period in the spring.

The offensive linemen had to adjust to coach Mike Markuson, who isn’t as intense as former coach Bob Bostad and emphasizes different techniques.

Canada will maintain the foundation of the offense designed by Chryst but has added a few wrinkles that the players were not sure of initially.

“It took a little while for them to trust us and for us to trust them,” redshirt junior left guard Ryan Groy said.

Senior tailback Montee Ball understands if some observers are curious to see how UW, which averaged more than 40 points per game in each of the last two seasons, will fare with four new offensive assistants.

“I respect their curiosity,” he said. “It’s different to see a staff leave and the head coach stay. That is rare.

“But ‘Coach B’ did a great job of getting the coaches we had last year. That is why we have a lot of faith in him to do the same this year.

“The coaches that we have now we all really enjoy. They are all very intelligent, and we believe they are going to help us win.”

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