Absence of Bielema Mellows Rivalry

By Kyle Rowland on September 26, 2013 at 9:15 am

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Wisconsin’s appearance on the Ohio State football schedule drew little to no reaction. It may as well have read Purdue or Indiana. The Badgers were an automatic win complete with a Buckeye Blitzkrieg. Margins of victory were as much as eight touchdowns. In fact, Ohio State topped the Badgers in 21 straight meetings, from 1960-1980.

Then the fall of 1981 came. Wisconsin head coach Dave McClain was in the midst of turning the program around after years of underwhelming play. The Badgers defeated top-ranked Michigan in the season opener and followed it up four weeks later by beating the Buckeyes.

Over the next 20 years, Wisconsin would beat Ohio State 11 times, more than they had accumulated in the series’ history, which dated back to 1913. McClain and Barry Alvarez helped stoke the Badgers’ relevance not only in the Midwest, but around the country. Bret Bielema built on that, winning three consecutive Big Ten titles and poking Brutus in the eye whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Suddenly, the Wisconsin game became second only to Michigan on the list of favorites for Buckeye fans. Just look at the ticket price Saturday night: $110. 

Before leaving in the night for Arkansas, Bielema’s team beat No. 1 Ohio State in 2010. It would be his only victory in six games against the Buckeyes, but Bielema had countless run-ins with the team he loved to hate.

He called out Terrelle Pryor during the 2011 offseason after Pryor fled for the NFL. In the aftermath of the Badgers’ win the previous season, Pryor said Ohio State would win nine out of 10 times. 

“The only bad thing about Terrelle leaving is we really wanted to play that game against him,” Bielema said. “Unfortunately, we won’t."

After Meyer was hired, Bielema said, “We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC, in any way, shape or form.” It was a veiled shot at the Buckeyes’ new head coach and his aggressive – and perfectly legal – recruiting tactics that resulted in Kyle Dodson picking Ohio State over Wisconsin.

It resulted in a war of words, ultimately ending when commissioner Jim Delany played father and the two brothers – Meyer and Bielema – agreed to a truce. But that would end once Bielema made his way south.

When offensive line recruit Jermaine Eluemunor picked Arkansas over the Buckeyes, what did Bielema do? Why, went to Twitter, of course.

Bielema tweeted, “It’s a Sunday night and excited about the week ahead. Was good week of recruiting especially against “THE” University’s of the world. #WPS”

When then-Ohio State president Gordon Gee spouted off about Bielema, proclaiming Alvarez believed his former head coach was a thug, it sparked another series of exchanges between the schools’ fanbases. And it gave Bielema an avenue to get involved.

Instead of just accepting a private apology from Gee, Bielema again went to Twitter and posted Gee’s message in its entirety. Even before Bielema left for Arkansas, his act had grown tired with many Badger supporters. That’s why Alvarez admitted in August that Bielema wasn’t widely missed in Madison.

“I’m not saying this negatively because Bret did a good job for us,” Alvarez said, “but I haven’t had one person say, ‘Well, it’s too bad Bret left’ or ‘We were sorry to see Bret leave.’”

Ohio State’s coaches and players share that sentiment. Several Buckeyes were asked about Bielema’s absence from this year’s game. Did they miss him? Meyer drew a wide grin before saying, “I’m good with Gary.” Wide receivers coach Zach Smith gave a drawn out, “Ohhh, Lord,” and closed with, “You always miss great coaches.” It was the definition of a tongue-in-cheek statement.

However, the sternest response came from a player. One Bielema recruited, no less. Evan Spencer’s face flashed no emotion when he said the extent of his feelings toward Bielema was his recruitment.

“I think he poked a lot of people,” the wide receiver added.

Bielema’s wife, Jen, joined the party, tweeting, “#karma,” after Wisconsin’s controversial loss at Arizona State this season. One week later, Arkansas blew a 17-point second-half lead and lost at Rutgers. Jen Vrabel, the wife of Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel, couldn’t resist. She mimicked Jen Bielema with a karma tweet of her own that read, “Congrats to future Big Ten rival Rutgers. Big win today over SEC opponent. #Karma.”

But standing on the east sideline Saturday night won’t be a villain. It will actually be one of Meyer’s closest friends. When Alvarez was searching for his next head coach last December, he dialed a 614 area code. Meyer answered.

“I talked to Urban. He’s had some very good assistants,” Alvarez said. “Urban told me that Gary is in the top five of all of them. He’s the real deal. I said, ‘Would he fit here? Would he fit in the Big Ten?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’”

Andersen’s arrival and the conference’s divisional realignment will take some of the luster off the budding rivalry. After this season, the teams will not face each other every season (unless they advance to the Big Ten Championship Game).

The animosity between the fans could die down, and the coaching staffs clearly don’t share the same aversion that used to be present. It’s difficult to detest the opposing coach when you’re head coach is buying his lunch, as Meyer claims to do whenever he and Andersen break bread together.

“I always buy. I think he’s down seven at least,” said Meyer, an assertion that Andersen scoffs at.

The decade-old friendship’s roots sprouted in Utah. Andersen was born and raised in the state and eventually matriculate to the University of Utah, where he played for the Utes. He would ultimately land a job coaching the defensive line at Utah under his mentor, Ron McBride. But when McBride was fired and Meyer was brought aboard, Andersen didn’t even give Meyer the opportunity retain him – he left abruptly to be the head coach at FCS Southern Utah.

Andersen lasted all of one season after a 4-7 record. The former defensive line coach inquired about getting his old job back when it re-opened at Utah. What transpired was a meeting between two strangers who would become fast friends.

“I walked out of there knowing I wanted to work for him,” Andersen said.

Said Meyer: “He blew me away. He’s one of the top two or three hires I’ve ever made.”

The Utes finsihed 12-0 in their lone season together, and Meyer was off to Florida soon after. Andersen was elevated to defensive coordinator, a position he held when Utah capped off another undefeated season with a beat down of Alabama. That earned him the job at Utah State. Andersen’s career was set in motion from one meeting with Meyer.

They have much in common, including their age – 49. Both are family men committed to their children and each has coached through health concerns. Meyer’s hospitalization following the 2009 SEC Championship Game is well-documented. But an episode not many are aware of occurred in 2010, when Andersen, following a loss, worked non-stop and ended up in the hospital after a fall while he was disoriented.

Andersen called talks with Meyer “very influential.” Over the next two seasons, Utah State would win 18 games, including 11 in 2012, a year that propelled him to his current job at Wisconsin.

“Coach [Meyer] has been really good to me,” Andersen said.

On Saturday night, they’ll meet at the 50-yard line and exchange pleasantries. They’ll probably ask about the other’s family, a Christmas card exchange so to speak in the Horseshoe. The hostility between Ohio State and Wisconsin gone.

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