"People will ask, 'And what do you do?'" said Bielema, 34, "and I'll answer, 'I'm a history professor.' Sometimes, I'll go with an emphasis on European religions." The conversation doesn't go too far from there.
Had Bielema's life taken a different turn 11 years ago, he might have had no reason to keep a low profile. Upon graduation from Iowa, where he had gone from a walk-on to a starting nose guard after two seasons, Bielema had been signed by the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent. But when his pro career fizzled within the year -- "because of injuries, but also because I probably wasn't good enough," he says -- Bielema considered a number of career moves, from tackling the business world to taking over his family's farm in Prophetstown, Ill. None of those scenarios involved a whistle -- until he got to talking with his college coach, Hayden Fry. The coach wanted his high-energy former captain to return to Iowa City as a graduate assistant. Without "two nickels to rub together," Bielema accepted the job offer.
The rest is, well, history. In nine seasons at Iowa, during which time he worked under Fry and then Kirk Ferentz, Bielema ascended to full-time assistant and then linebackers coach. As he earned a reputation for transforming raw talents into defensive standouts, he caught the attention of Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who had previously served as Fry's offensive coordinator. When Snyder offered the co-defensive coordinator job, Bielema accepted, and proceeded to lead the Wildcats to the top of the NCAA scoring defense list (11.8 ppg) in 2002. One year after that, Alvarez, another Fry protege, extended the defensive coordinator position -- no co's attached -- and Bielema packed his bags and returned to Big Ten country.
And what misfortune that has brought upon Wisconsin's opponents. Entering this weekend's game at No. 5 Purdue, the 10th-ranked Badgers are 6-0, thanks largely to a defense that leads the nation in both yards (198.3 ypg) and points (6.5 ppg) allowed. Under Bielema's predecessor, Kevin Cosgrove, who left Wisconsin to direct the defense at Nebraska (which, it must be noted, surrendered 70 points to Texas Tech last week), the Badgers gave up an average of 355.38 yards and 23.5 points.
What is Bielema's secret? As Alvarez noted upon his hiring, the young coach has a knack not only for developing talent, but for displaying that talent in near-foolproof schemes which owe a debt to his defensive superiors back at Iowa.
"Depending on their personnel, they adapted," Alvarez said about Bielema's Kansas State teams."[Bret's] flexible enough to say, Whatever our strengths are, that's what we'll play to.'"
The first thing that Bielema did when he arrived in Madison is to watch tape of every one of Wisconsin's games -- from first game to last and then in reverse -- in order to assess what he had to work with. He identified old talents and fresh ones, most notably dominating defensive end Erasmus James, whose recovery from a 2003 hip injury has allowed Bielema to reserve his blitzes and better disguise his coverages.
His players say that it's Bielema's boyish enthusiasm that makes his subtle defensive tweaks so successful.
"During practice, you'll see him run across the field to congratulate a guy on a big play," safety Jim Leonhard said. "He has an intensity, and everyone just feeds off of it."
It was that passion that kept Bielema at Wisconsin's football complex past midnight on Monday, designing new and better pass coverages to counter Joe Tiller's complex spread offense, which the Badgers will need to stop in order to continue their surprise run at a Big Ten title. And despite the stress, and the hours, and the sometimes unwelcome attention when flying commercial, Bielema can't imagine a better gig than the one that seemed to fall from the sky just over a decade ago.
"I'll never forget opening up a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant on the very day that Fry offered me the job," Bielema said. "It said, 'Choose a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life.' It's turned out to be true."