MADISON – Examine the Big Ten’s top-ranked team alongside the conference’s newest member, and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema doesn’t deny the two are strikingly similar.
Both Bielema’s Badgers and Bo Pelini’s Nebraska Cornhuskers are hard-working, blue-collar programs with deep Midwest roots. Each school has a history of success – Nebraska with five national championships and Wisconsin with three Rose Bowl victories in the past 20 years – and an athletic department led by a Hall of Fame former coach who lifted his football program to greater heights.
“I'm sure if you talk to any coach in Nebraska, just like you would here in Wisconsin, to have an AD that was a former coach is worth its weight in gold,” Bielema said of Nebraska’s Tom Osborne and Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez. “And then just the program's philosophies, I think, are a lot alike.”
The philosophies are indeed alike, which is one reason Nebraska is such a great fit in the Big Ten and why Saturday’s matchup between the No. 7 Badgers and No. 8 Cornhuskers on Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium is so highly anticipated. But even more alike than the program and the athletic directors are the head coaches -- both cut from the same cloth and both putting their own stamp on national programs.
Pelini, 43, grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and hung out with what Bielema calls the “Youngstown Mafia” -- which included Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Arizona coach Mike Stoops. He later cut his teeth as a standout safety at Ohio State.
Bielema, 41, grew up in Prophetstown, Ill., worked on a pig farm and never strayed far from his home. The two coaches’ paths didn’t cross until both got an opportunity to succeed under Hayden Fry at Iowa.
Pelini served as a graduate assistant in 1991, arriving one year after Iowa won the Big Ten and played in the Rose Bowl. Bielema was a walk-on turned starting defensive lineman as a junior on that 10-1-1 1991 team.
“I’ve known him a lot over the years,” Pelini said this week. “He was a defensive lineman and was very physical, the same way he coaches. He played with great intensity. He’s a good football coach, and I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a good person and runs a heck of a program because of his approach and type of person he is.”
Pelini left Iowa after one season, and Bielema stuck around for nine years as a graduate assistant and linebackers coach. Bielema and Pelini are two of 10 former Fry assistants who have taken over Division I football programs -- a list that includes Alvarez, Kansas State coach and Bielema mentor Bill Snyder, both Stoops brothers and current Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
“He was the psychologist,” Bielema said of Fry, who retired in 1998. “He was a big mental guy. I don't know to this day if I've ever talked X's and O's with Coach Fry. He didn't like the defensive side of it. He just wanted it done.”
Bielema and Pelini have taken similar approaches in terms of emphasizing discipline and toughness over style and strategy. Pelini worked nine years as an assistant in the NFL, including the 2000-02 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, before making stops as a defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU, where he won a BCS National Championship. Nebraska hired Pelini on Dec. 2, 2007, and he immediately instilled a disciplined approach on and off the field while also embracing the school’s traditions -- all things that he learned at Iowa.
Bielema left Iowa in 2002 to become the co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Kansas State, a spot he stayed in for two years before Alvarez hired him at Wisconsin for the same two positions. After two years with the Badgers, Alvarez stepped down, promoted Bielema to head coach and watched as Bielema followed the same blueprint.
It’s no surprise that both schools consistently rank in the top 10 in defense and have won a lot of games in the past three years (Nebraska 29, Wisconsin 28).
“We’ve been around each other for a long time,” Pelini said of Bielema, also referring to their days on the road recruiting in the Big 12. “We have a good relationship … I took a little bit different path than he did with nine years in the NFL, and he went the college route the whole way. He’d agree that we were both around the right people and learned the right way of doing things.”
Both schools are rich in tradition, but it’s no question that each coach has built up his program. Pelini led Nebraska to a 10-4 record last season, giving the Huskers consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 2000 and 2001. Bielema is 53-16 (.768) in five-plus seasons, fourth-best among active college coaches in that time span.
When their teams meet Saturday, it will be the first time in a long while each is in the top 10 and facing another top 10 team. The last such matchup for Nebraska was against Miami in the Rose Bowl after the 2001 season; for Wisconsin, it was in 2004 against Purdue. It’s a game deserving of nationwide attention and one that is prefaced by a mutual admiration for the path each coach took to get there.
“We probably both have come a long way since when we knew each other (at Iowa),” Bielema said. “The thing I've admired is he took over a program, and he put his stamp on it right away. I think that the things that he believes in, you see it really come across in the film. They're very player-oriented. I think they let the players that play well do what they do best.
“I think he has probably evolved as a head coach much the same way I have."
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!
For more Badger sports news, notes and discussion, especially on game day, follow Badger Nation on Twitter @TheBadgerNation
For more on Wisconsin, go to FoxSportsWisconsin.com