A couple years ago, an item in this space razzed Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema not just for his boring public persona, but for sounding like "a big jock raking through a limited vocabulary and coming up with clumps of clichés."
Whether it's from surviving the pressure of dealing with the media attention that comes with playing in back-to-back Rose Bowls, or from simply learning to trust that the beat reporters covering his team aren't motivated by making him look stupid, Bielema is much more at ease with the media these days. He can even get a roomful of grumpy sportswriters laughing.
At his annual media day press conference Sunday, Bielema finished his opening remarks by calling for "some easy questions" with a knowing grin. The gathered reporters didn't oblige, choosing to dig right into the police investigation surrounding an attack on tailback Montee Ball in downtown Madison last month. It was a sticky situation that Bielema navigated comfortably, saying all the right things. He revealed that Ball had addressed the team earlier in the week, without prompting from the coaches, a nugget that many reporters pursued in interviews with individual players later in the afternoon and in their stories Monday morning.
At one point, when talking about the walk-on experience, Bielema recalled his own days as a walk-on at Iowa. "Scholarship players went one direction… and I had to go a different area and eat with the regular students," he said. "You people."
Handled differently, a remark like that from another coach, someone who views reporters as adversaries, would be met with rolling eyes. Instead, the Camp Randall media room erupted in laughter.
Either we're watching a young coach mature into a big, high-pressure job, or the person in charge of media training in the athletic department deserves a raise.