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Bret Bielema's strong start
Badger head coach is redefining (modest) expecatations
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Bielema needs to motivate his players to get even better.
Bielema needs to motivate his players to get even better.

E-mails? Sure, I get e-mails. Some aren't very nice, particularly those from bitter Milwaukee Brewers fans who want to rub my face in the Minnesota Twins' three-game humiliation in the playoffs. And while I try not to be petty in response, it's worth noting that Olivia Newton-John and Survivor owned the Billboard charts the last time the Brewers were relevant beyond September.

Many of the e-mails I get are of the whad'ya-make-of variety, as in 'Whad'ya make of Bielema so far?' That question is a lot more complicated than it appears.

Badger football head coach Bret Bielema is nine games into his career and has only lost once, in a competitive game to Michigan, ranked second in the nation.

Entering the season, the book on Bielema was that he was a solid pick to replace Barry Alvarez. He was tested as an assistant at Iowa and Kansas State and impressed many in his two years as defensive coordinator under Alvarez. But he was seen as not all that dynamic or interesting.

That perception may be changing. Consider Bielema's remarks in a radio interview after last Saturday's game, in which the Badgers came back from an 18-point deficit to beat Illinois, 30-24. The coach was asked about tailback P.J. Hill, who left the field with injuries three times. He replied that Hill needed to find some 'toughen-up pills.'

Talk about tough love. Hill, a bruising back, has tallied 1,222 yards this season ' second best in the country ' and scored 13 touchdowns. In an offense without a big-play threat, Hill is the star. But evidently, that doesn't spare him from public challenges by his coach.

And it probably was not a throw-away comment, coming from a coach as calculating as Bielema.

Earlier this season, observers noticed that the new coach was wearing ties in the school colors of that week's opponent to his Monday press conference. When called on it by The Capital Times' Jim Polzin, Bielema didn't admit to anything but said, 'There's a purpose to everything I do.'

If Bielema is going to move the Badgers from perennial Big Ten power to national title contender, he needs to motivate his best players to get even better. This week, Bielema showed he's willing to make those demands publicly, something Alvarez avoided.

That's not the only difference between Bielema and his predecessor. Whereas Alvarez often tried to run out the clock at the end of the first half, Bielema makes full use of timeouts to give his team a chance for a scoring drive.

Bielema is signaling that the Badgers are going to be aggressive in all circumstances. That might draw criticism from those who note the success of Alvarez's conservative approach. But it should also earn the admiration of recruits who prefer to play for a coach who takes risks.

To date, Bielema's approach appears to be working. But with Penn State and Iowa left on the Big Ten schedule (the Badgers finish against 1-7 Buffalo on Nov. 18), there will be less room for error. Indeed, these two games may do more than anything to put Bielema's first year into perspective.

The other pressing question on the minds of e-mailers these days is whether Brett Favre might delay his retirement yet another year and return to Green Bay next season. The popular sentiment is that the Packers, currently the youngest team in the NFL with 16 rookies on the roster, are improving each week, and it would be a shame to lose Favre just when things are looking up.

Some observers see Favre's youthful enthusiasm ' a Lambeau Leap and locker room shenanigans involving an air horn last week ' as reason for optimism. But the converse could also be true: Favre might be milking as much fun out of this season as he can, knowing it will be his last.

A lot of players feel pretty good about the Packers season after back-to-back wins against the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals, two of the league's worst teams, with a combined 2-13 record. Let's wait and see how vivacious Favre is after the Packers play the Bears on New Year's Eve in Chicago.

V-ball update

After getting swept on the road at second-ranked Penn State on Oct. 7, the Badger volleyball team returned the favor at the UW Field House Saturday, taking three straight games from the Nittany Lions. Head coach Pete Waite called it 'one of the biggest wins in program history.'

Tenth-ranked Wisconsin's next big test comes Nov. 15 when it hosts 12th-ranked Minnesota at the Field House.

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