The day after Wisconsin lost at Oregon State in Week 2, Bart Miller was summoned to coach Bret Bielema's office.
Miller's first thought was that he might be in trouble with the boss. He'd noticed an odd vibe around the football complex that day, as assistant coaches' doors that normally stayed open were now closed.
Bielema stunned Miller with his most unconventional coaching decision of the year -- yes, even more surprising than Bielema's eventual departure for Arkansas. He'd fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after just two games and handed that job to a previously little-known, 27-year-old graduate assistant.
Miller barely had time to process the shocking battlefield promotion, since he had to try and rework the program's signature position group in less than a week before the Utah State game.
"There wasn't a lot of time to think about it," he said. "We had to get ready to go."
Pressure? You bet. The Badgers were coming off one of their worst performances in years at Oregon State, rushing for just 35 yards on 23 carries and scoring only seven points in the loss. Bielema basically admitted that hiring Markuson -- a respected coach who brought in different techniques and training drills than the Wisconsin offensive linemen were used to doing -- was a mistake. It was on Miller to get the Badgers back to their old habits.
In Miller's first meeting with the linemen as their new leader, he told them, "We're all in this together. If I fail, then you guys fail. And vice versa."
Luckily for them, neither happened. While the return of the Thick Red Line was a gradual process with some starts and stops, the Badgers looked more like their old selves as the year went on. They crushed Purdue for 467 rushing yards, which was impressive until they ran for a school-record 564 yards and seven touchdowns at Indiana a few weeks later. And then, of course, there was the Big Ten title game, when Wisconsin gashed Nebraska for 539 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the 70-31 blowout that got the team to the Rose Bowl.
"He got us all back on one page, got us all together as a unit instead of five individuals, which we lost there for a little bit," tackle Rob Havenstein said. "We started getting back to trying to be the best in the country."
It helped that the players immediately embraced the elevation of Miller. They'd resisted some of the changes Markuson had made and were glad to see a return to the old style that former assistant Bob Bostad had taught them. Miller also served as a graduate assistant in 2011 under Bostad and played for him at New Mexico. Though he added some of his own touches, Miller got the linemen back to using double-teams on blocks and attacking downhill. And as a young guy who'd just wrapped up his own career as a right guard in 2007, Miller had no trouble relating to the players.
"He comes off like he’s one of us," guard Ryan Groy said. "He treats us like we’re friends, treats us like what it is. It’s nice having somebody his age."
"I was very happy to hear that he got the position, because I respect the hell out of the man," Havenstein added. "Everyone in our room does. He coaches football the right way."
Miller isn't afraid to challenge his guys with statistical goals. Leading up to the Purdue game, Miller said, the line had some sloppy practices and still was looking for its breakout game. At halftime of that game, Wisconsin had already rushed for 190 yards but lost star left tackle Ricky Wagner to a leg injury. Miller came in at halftime and told the players they needed to finish with 450 rushing yards.
"We had just lost Rick, and I didn't want there to be any letdown there," Miller said. "I wanted to inspire them to play the way they were certainly capable of playing all along."
Before the Big Ten championship game, Miller said he told the linemen, "If we play the way we're capable of, it will get out of hand." That proved prophetic, as the Badgers raced out to a 42-10 halftime lead. Miller is hopeful that the confidence gained from that performance will carry over into Tuesday's Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio matchup against Stanford, which owns the nation's No. 3 rushing defense.
Miller doesn't know where he will coach after New Year's Day. Incoming Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen is bringing his offensive line coach over from Utah State and has talked to Miller about staying on as the tight ends coach. Miller said he would like to stay with the Badgers if possible.
"It's hard not knowing what the future holds," Miller said. "But at the same time, I feel like we did all we could do up front to establish ourselves and show the conference and the country what Wisconsin's offensive line is all about."