Bret Bielema says it always bugged him as a young assistant when head coaches would wait until the end of the season to make necessary staff changes. He told himself he wouldn't do that when he sat in the big chair.
So the Wisconsin coach didn't hesitate to replace offensive line coach Mike Markuson after just two games, even though it may have seemed like a rash or panic move to the outside world. He thought a change was needed, and he believed he had a guy waiting in the wings who could do better.
Bielema said he pondered the decision on the long flight home from the Badgers' 10-7 loss at Oregon State in which their offensive line got almost no push. By Sunday morning, his mind was made up. He said there were some "personal matters" that went into the letting go of Markuson, who spent the past 14 years in the SEC and still has family back in Mississippi. But he said there was no personality conflict involved, as he called Markuson "engaging and really easy to get along with."
The bottom line, though, was that Wisconsin's proud offensive line tradition had gone into the tank in this early season. After two weeks, the Badgers rank 103rd nationally in rushing offense, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry despite the presence of star tailback Montee Ball. Bielema said the offensive linemen struggled with the change to some new techniques, so he's going with the old system that will be taught by a young coach.
Bielema promoted graduate assistant Bart Miller, who has spent the past three seasons in the program working mostly with the offensive line, to replace Markuson. Miller learned the Badgers' offensive line techniques when he played for former assistant coach Bob Bostad at New Mexico. Bostad left with Paul Chryst for Pitt this offseason.
"This decision was made possible because of a guy like Bart," Bielema said.
Bielema called Miller the "perfect bridge for where we're at." Miller nearly got the job when Bostad left, but Bielema said he was worried about promoting two graduate assistants in the same offseason after also moving Ben Strickland up to coach the secondary. Bielema said Strickland has been great in every area thus far and he now wishes he had gone ahead and pulled the trigger on Miller too.
Now Miller is in control, and he's under the gun to get this offense going in a hurry.
"For us to have success, we're going to have [to go through] a little transition," Bielema said. "We're not going to turn into what we've been able to accomplish in the past overnight. We've got to take some baby steps."
Bielema said he believes Wisconsin still has the talent on the line to live up to its tradition.
"But where these guys end up will be a lot about how they respond to the situation," he said.
It's an unusual situation, to say the least. But Bielema would rather mix things up now than wait until the season is over or, perhaps, lost.