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Coach Fry with his quarterbacks in the autumn of his careerCoach Fry with his quarterbacks in the autumn of his careerTodd Rosenberg/Getty Images

“I had great coaches. I never hired an assistant coach in my life unless I was completely convinced he was motivated to become a head coach. That I knew he’d study the game, be ethical, see that his players graduated; do the things a head coach should do; and through the years I had 26 become head coaches in college and pro ball.”—Hayden Fry in 2009.

Hayden Fry, the marine corps captain who learned football teams were built piece by piece like soldiers temper-trained before a unit was forged, never saw a battle during the Korean War because the football-loving chain of command ordered repeatedly the young officer to quarterback and coach enlistment football teams for the greater glory of corps and country. 

American service football at that time was a market-grade product played almost anonymously by former college All-Americans and professional athletes serving their military enlistments. For Fry, the Texas high school state champion quarterback, there were the capturing of six-man company crowns and the winning of 11-man base titles. Then there was the all-service playoff championship in Japan trophied by his Marine Corps squad in front of 80,000 souls at Meji Stadium in Tokyo, just months before his discharge.  

In one of his apprentice years as a civilian in major college football, Fry coached the offensive backfield on a Frank Broyles team whose staff and roster were spangled with future head coaches and innovative football minds in embryo. That 1961 Arkansas team made a formidable group, and Fry, the consummate psychologist, learned a lesson about assistant coaches well. Of the full-time assistants that season, three became head coaches. One signed on at Florida, then Tennessee; the others went on to Oklahoma and Vanderbilt. 

There was a graduate assistant on that Arkansas team named Barry Switzer, and on the roster were two hard-nosed players named Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones. In the mid-1970s and '80s, Switzer and Johnson coached between them four teams to national championships at Oklahoma and Miami, respectively.

Service Football todayService Football todayHunter Martin/Getty Images

Jones—the owner, president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys these last 22 years—has to this point built three teams good enough to carry the day on Super Bowl Sunday. Two of those teams were coached by Johnson, and the third by Switzer. 

The young Bret Bielema—some may say he’s young still at 41—had no plans to become a head football coach.  When in 1989 he’d walked on to the program at Iowa City, Coach Fry, not knowing his name, addressed at practice the obscure defensive lineman by his jersey number.

But good coaches quickly recognize a football player—no matter how undistinguished his beginnings— and by fall practice Bielema was picked out to remain late and work hand to hand against the Hawkeyes' leading offensive linemen, learning in personal combat how to beat Big Ten bulwarks off the line and build himself into a mobile agent of defensive chaos. 

By 1992, his senior season, Bielema was a four-year letter winner and team captain. In his Hawkeyes’ football website entry, Bielema’s described as a player who epitomized the type of physically tough, hard working athlete Iowa prided itself on developing. After being cut in the summer of 1993 from the roster of the Seattle Seahawks, and leaving the Arena Football League a short time later, the moment had come for Bielema to find an industry outside of professional football to make a living.     

Bret Bielema with the BadgersBret Bielema with the BadgersJoe Robbins/Getty Images

In a 2010 article at Madison.com, Bielema told writer Tom Mulhern that shortly after leaving the Arena League, Coach Fry confessed he couldn’t picture Bielema donning the suit and tie to run the office treadmill daily for his bread.

"I had never grown up thinking I was going to coach," Bielema told Mulhern. "I got cut by the Seahawks. Coach Fry asked me to come into his office. I didn't know what he was going to do. He said, 'I'd like to see you start coaching.' I'm like, 'Coach, I've got a marketing degree, probably going to go into finance, it was a big thing at that time.'”

But when the shadows of fall stretched across the campus in 1994, Bielema found that being recruited to coach by the man he’d played for without so much as being asked was difficult to resist, and he’d agreed to become a graduate assistant with the Hawkeyes. Bielema served a second campaign as a grad-assistant in ’95, and signed on as the full-time linebackers coach in ’96. 

Bielema held that post until 2001, coaching the final three seasons under Fry’s hand-groomed successor, Kirk Ferentz, who’d coached the same offensive linemen Bielema crafted his pass rush against back when he was an unknown freshman. Under Ferentz, 11 of those "Big Uglies," as Bielema prefers they’re called, played in the National Football League; three of them were drafted in the first round. 

Barry AlvarezBarry AlvarezMatthew Stockman/Getty Images

It was in 1990 that Fry’s now-rooted coaching tree began pushing out its heavy, oaken limbs.

“Two coaches who had been with me 11 years, Dan McCarney and Bernie Wyatt, left to join another former assistant, Barry Alvarez, the new head coach at Wisconsin,” wrote Fry in his autobiography. “Kirk Ferentz, who had been on my staff for nine seasons, went to Maine as the head coach.”

The working connection between Ferentz and Alvarez—the garlanded redeemer of Wisconsin football—was pointed out in a 2010 article by Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.

“When Ferentz joined Fry's staff as an assistant in 1981,” wrote Rittenberg, “Barry Alvarez served as the team's linebackers coach [the same post Bielema would later hold]. Ferentz and Alvarez worked together for six years before Alvarez left for a position at Notre Dame.”

Two years earlier, in 1988, Bill Snyder, Fry’s offensive coordinator since they were at North Texas State University in 1976, bid farewell to the Hawkeyes to accept the head coaching job at Kansas State University in Manhattan. When Bielema left Iowa City in 2002, he simply shifted to the Manhattan quarter of the constellation, and continued training under a tempered master in Snyder. Bielema served two years as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach on back-to-back 11-win teams, before the Madison Chief journeyed south at Snyder’s retirement to claim his successor. 

TCU dashes Wisconsin's Rose Bowl ambitionsTCU dashes Wisconsin's Rose Bowl ambitionsStephen Dunn/Getty Images

By 2004, Alvarez had coached three Badger teams to Rose Bowl wins, and his program was established as a durable brand. Though Fry too had led three teams to Pasadena, it was in gloomy defeat each in turn had walked off that pristinely kept, Bermuda-green field as the twilight mists from the San Gabriel mountains settled over the revelries of others.

Though Fry’s teams were 5-2 against the Badgers under Alvarez, it is on the bright battle plain in Pasadena that legends of the game are etched. It is an enduring testament to Fry’s place in the history of the sport that he is the only coach preserved in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame not to win the New Year's Day game. Alvarez himself presented Fry to the Hall on December 30, 2010.   

In the same Mulhern-penned, Madison.com article mentioned before, Bielema confessed that only one thing about the Badgers’ first trip to Pasadena under his command was a cause for regret (mind it was a game his team lost to Texas Christian University by the margin of a failed two-point conversion) and that was the fact he was unable to attend Fry’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

"He's probably one of the most influential men in my life," Bielema said. "He was the first man that believed in me."

The teacher at the second stop on the course to coaching enlightenmentThe teacher at the second stop on the course to coaching enlightenmentDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

As Bielema was lifted quickly up the coaching ranks, primarily for reasons of his pedigree and obvious talent for the work, he told Mulhern he’d never had to apply for a coaching position. Instead, coaches from prestigious programs looking to hire sought him out to enlist his services. 

“[Coach Fry] always said that meant a lot to him,” Bielema told Mulhern.  

Fry and Alvarez each groomed trusted successors to their living monuments. Fry had been both athletic director and football coach at SMU and North Texas State before taking the job at Iowa, and he hand-selected Ferentz to return from the Atlantic Northeast to protect the mantle and grow the franchise further, if he could. 

Alvarez, who’d himself transitioned to Wisconsin’s athletic director in 2005, did not wish to watch what he’d toiled to raise diminished by an outside candidate who didn’t understand or appreciate the work. So he recruited Bielema, a coach whose training and credentials he understood intimately, to the business of protecting the nationally competitive football program he’d built himself from essentially nothing.  

A distinct achievement shared by Fry, Snyder and Alvarez is the almost mythical resurrection of football programs at rural universities in the Midwest and desert prairie that were deader than the cliched phoenix buried in the ashes upon their arrival.

The original Return to Glory under AlvarezThe original Return to Glory under AlvarezDoug Benc/Getty Images

“When Bill Snyder took over a moribund Kansas State program in 1989, he found a place where few people even cared enough to be apathetic,” reads the Wildcat entry in ESPN’s College Football Encyclopedia. “The Wildcats had been trying for their 300th all-time win—fewest among major college programs at the time—for 27 consecutive games. Sports Illustrated called them the ‘Tamecats’ and anointed Manhattan, Kansas, ‘home of the worst major college football program’” in America.

Similarly at Madison, prior to the coming of Alvarez in 1990, the football program was a dairy farm gone to seed. Under two different coaches in the preceding four seasons, Wisconsin went 9-36. The Badgers had dropped 10 consecutive games, and 18 in a row to Iowa.  

As assistants under Fry in the early Iowa City years, both men learned from personal involvement what was required to raise from the dead a football program at a major public university. ESPN’s Encyclopedia again provides a fine summary of the events’ outcomes:

“In 1981, Fry’s third season, Iowa ended a streak of 19 non-winning seasons, won its first Big Ten title in 21 years and went to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1959.”

For comparison, Alvarez in his third season led Wisconsin to their first Rose Bowl  appearance since 1962. In the same year, 1993, Snyder’s fifth at Kansas State, the Wildcats went 9-2-1, and beat Wyoming in the Copper Bowl, 52-17. It was the first bowl win in school history and only the second the Wildcats had ever played in. In the five years preceding Snyder’s arrival, Kansas State went 6-47-2, including 0-10-1 and 0-11 in the two seasons immediately prior.

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  A view of the yardage marker during the 97th Rose Bowl game between the Wisconsin Badgers and the TCU Horned Frogs on January 1, 2011 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The countrified home recruiting bases in states with poor population demographics for major college sports were similar too, and the blueprint for building a competitive roster was illustrated at Iowa. Huge in-state linemen, of which there seem to be plenty in the Midwest, were herded like mighty buffalo. The best in-state skill players were recruited until they signed or submitted to the program from a forced familiarity or simple fatigue, and the coaches tracked faint scents like bloodhounds or cultivated walk-ons to assemble the remaining pieces.

Alvarez, a Pennsylvanian, recruited the east and particularly New Jersey for Fry. He took those connections with him to Wisconsin. All three teams did their best to poach skill players from the surrounding states, and recruited Texas for talent that passed unnoticed by the bigger, closer schools. The rosters today on each team continue to reflect this approach, though overlooked recruits from Florida are now in play, and Snyder has always had great success with junior college players. 

Though Fry was the most innovative and original offensive mind of the group, with teams in his best seasons operating a wide open passing game, his offensive pillars were a huge front line coupled with an aggressive running game. Alvarez, a linebacker and graduate assistant under Bob Devaney at Nebraska in the 1960s, also learned plenty about power running and applied it at Wisconsin’s program, where the style and attitude were a natural fit. 

STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 23:  Iowa Hawkeyes offensive linemen Lee Gray #70, Mike Jones #76, Mike Elgin #54, Brian Ferentz #61, and Peter McMahon #69 wait for play to resume against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium on October 23, 2004 in SDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

“As a player and assistant coach, Alvarez learned from three members of the College Football Hall of Fame,” Ray Fittipaldo of >The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said in his May 2010 piece . “Alvarez played for Bob Devaney at Nebraska, served as an assistant coach under Hayden Fry at Iowa, and under Lou Holtz at Notre Dame.

"‘Those are the three guys who I idolized as a coach,’ Alvarez said.”

There have been articles recently in both Sports Illustrated and at ESPN.com emphasizing Nebraska’s influence on Alvarez as a power football coach. Without doubt, that is a fair connection to emphasize. Nebraska’s power option, which it used with great success from the 1950s into the early part of the 21st century, was the most thunderingly physical downhill attack college football has ever seen. 

The Cornhuskers’ 1995 national championship team, for example, averaged 556 yards of total offense over 12 games—400 of them on the ground. There isn’t a college team in America that wouldn’t be ecstatic to pass for that many yards on a Saturday-to-Saturday basis, and their wildest fantasies wouldn’t let them take it over-land, as it were.

But the emphasis on the Nebraska effect necessarily de-emphasizes what Alvarez was immersed in at Iowa. Just as Devaney and Tom Osborne recruited to fill the smash-mouth positions behemoth country kids from Nebraska and the surrounding states, Fry used the same approach at Iowa.

Old Big 8 rivals, Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne of Oklahoma and NebraskaOld Big 8 rivals, Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne of Oklahoma and NebraskaBrian Bahr/Getty Images

Before he arrived, in fact, the Hawkeyes had never produced a 1,000-yard rusher. By the time he left, there were eight, with Sedrick Shaw carrying it off in three consecutive seasons. In 1997, Tavian Banks broke the 1,000-yard mark in his first 125 carries, the fastest to reach that total in 105 years of NCAA football.

"We run similar schemes," Bielema told Rittenberg for an article last year. "We had a couple in during the course of the week last week, GMs of NFL teams, and they basically say, 'It's so relieving to watch, come in and watch film and watch you run the football like they want to run it at the next level.'" 

Both programs coach pro-style offenses which emphasize equally both run and pass blocking. Both have an affinity for big, bad-tempered linemen who pride themselves on physical domination in the alpha-primate sense of the concept.

Wisconsin’s behemoth tackle, Gabe Carimi, won the Outland Trophy last season as the nation’s outstanding lineman. Joe Thomas won it for the Badgers in 2006. In 2003, Robert Gallery took the award for the Hawkeyes. Iowa leads the overall Outland series at three winners to Wisconsin's two. Nebraska leads all schools with nine. 

While Wisconsin had all three of their senior offensive linemen taken in the 2011 NFL draft, Steven Sipple, a sports writer for Husker Extra, wrote recently on the pedigree of Iowa’s lineman program under Ferentz both in the 1980s and after his return as head coach in 1999:    

No wonder Iowa often has had excellent offensive lines since Ferentz has been in the fold. The Hawkeyes produced the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year in 1985, Mike Haight, and 1986, Dave Croston. With Ferentz running the program, Iowa has seen linemen claim the honor in 2002, Eric Steinbach, 2003, Robert Gallery, and 2009, Bryan Bulaga.

Entering 2011, Iowa's offensive line is arguably the strongest in the Big Ten, with starting experience at all five positions. Left tackle Riley Reiff is projected as an NFL first-round draft pick. James Ferentz, the coach's son, is one of the league's top centers.”

"A lot of people know we're pretty good at football,” Bielema told Madison.com after last year’s professional draft. “But I wanted them to hear about those guys (off the field), what they do in our program and what they stand for. I doubt there's any other team in the country that had two guys go in the first round that were civil engineering (Carimi) and kinesiology (Watt) majors."

And in this way, too, the new coach sounds like his old coach.

“It has unfortunately become commonplace for a college athlete to turn professional before completing his eligibility and earning a diploma,” Fry wrote in 1999. “I say unfortunately, because in many cases, it would be wise for the athlete to stay in school, enjoy his college days and get a degree to serve him well the rest of his life. But the lure of money is so great that some athletes jump to the pros after only a year or two of college, often with disastrous results.” 

The final angle, though perhaps the connections would have shown better if it was established as the only angle, is the by-now cliched observation that the Badgers head coach has a Tiger Hawk tattooed on his calf. Knowing that, the final word goes to the coach's father, who spoke to Jim Weber at Dr. Saturday's blog sometime last year:

"The one thing people forget when they talk about the Tiger Hawk is what's written on it, 'Believe' and 'Achieve,' and that applies to anything, and that’s his whole philosophy with his kids," says Bielema’s dad, Arnie, from his home in Prophetstown, Illinois. "And his mother has a very good comment about that. She says it's a birth mark, because he got it at Iowa and that's where everything started."

Source : https://bleacherreport.com/articles/904291-brett-bielema-and-wisconsin-football-a-link-to-iowa-and-kansas-state

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