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How Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema became best friends again

PHOENIX -- On a warm night each May, the Squaw Peak Lawn at the swanky Arizona Biltmore fills with a who's who in college football.

Last week's Fiesta Bowl Summit dinner drew coaches, athletic directors, commissioners, television executives and bowl representatives. At one table, Rich Rodriguez and Mark Dantonio, once Big Ten rivals in Michigan, shared a laugh. At another, Ohio State's Urban Meyer held court with Rutgers' Chris Ash and some of his other coaching disciples.

As the dinner ended and the participants sought sleep or the hospitality suites, Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema left the lawn together, alongside Alvarez's wife, Cindy.

Before Dec. 4, 2012, Alvarez and Bielema were inseparable at these events, and pretty much anywhere else. They had their walks, dinners, trips and talks, mostly not about football. They had a business relationship -- athletic director and coach at Wisconsin -- but there was nothing formal or forced about it.

Then, Bielema left for Arkansas, days after coaching Wisconsin to its third consecutive Big Ten championship. Alvarez, like most, didn't see it coming. He was stung. The two stopped speaking.

It took time and encouragement, mainly from their wives and mutual friends, but Alvarez and Bielema have reconciled. A friendship that both men treasure is in its second act.

"Sometimes you just bury the hatchet and appreciate guys for who they are and remember the great times we had together, and move forward," Alvarez told ESPN.com last week. "Life's too short."

Added Bielema: "It's like we've never missed a beat."

Bielema counts four major coaching influences in his life. Hayden Fry coached him at Iowa, built his football philosophy and gave him a start in the profession. Kirk Ferentz retained Bielema as linebackers coach after succeeding Fry at Iowa. Bill Snyder, the former Iowa assistant under Fry, gave Bielema his first coordinator job at Kansas State.

Then, there's Alvarez. He worked on Fry's Iowa staff with Snyder and Ferentz. After reviving Wisconsin's program, Alvarez hired Bielema as defensive coordinator and later appointed him as his successor.

"I've got a little bit of Hayden Fry, a little bit of Kirk Ferentz, a little bit of Bill Snyder and a whole lot of Coach Alvarez," Bielema said. "He was kind of the jumbo package, all in one."

In June 2005, Alvarez announced Bielema as his coach-in-waiting. Alvarez spent the rest of the year preparing Bielema as much as possible. Every Friday during the season, they took a walk and Alvarez explained all of his decisions from the week, from practice adjustments to handling the staff.

The following season, Bielema, just 36, went 12-1 in his debut. The job titles had changed, but he continued to learn at Alvarez's side. Bielema estimates only 2 percent of their conversations were about X's and O's. They talked about recruiting, structuring practice, and building relationships with media members, faculty and university administrators.

"He lived about three or four blocks from me," Alvarez said. "I used to give him a call or he would just pull up in the driveway. If it was the summer, we'd jump in the swimming pool. We would sit there and talk, or down in Naples [Florida] during the winter. We'd go to dinner. We did a lot together."

They vacationed with each other. Bielema became close to the entire Alvarez family. Sometimes, each would round up three or four friends and then take off for golf weekends.

Despite a 23-year age gap, the Alvarez-Bielema bond wasn't like father and son.

"I always considered Bret a young Barry Alvarez in almost every respect," said Ted Kellner, one of Alvarez's closest friends who also became friends with Bielema. "Good coach, hard worker, but they know how to have fun, too. They're extroverts. They love people. They love to do things with their friends.

"They're two peas in a pod, but they're 23 years apart."

There was the time Bielema and Alvarez dined with a bowl representative, who had met with about 30 schools around the country. The representative told them it was the first dinner that both the athletic director and football coach had attended.

Alvarez and Bielema laughed and high-fived.

"We literally always approached things like a double deal," Bielema said. "He and I, socially, are so similar. He was my AD, he was my boss, but he was one of the best friends in my life."

Before Bielema met his wife, Jen, he ate dinner with Alvarez multiple times a week. One time, they ate with Cindy at a country club close to their homes. Surveying the menu, the coaches identified a surf-and-turf combo. One of them proposed splitting it. Done deal.

A moment passed. Cindy Alvarez turned to her husband.

"I'm married to you," she told Barry. "Maybe you'd want to do that with me instead?"

"We all started laughing," Bielema recalled, "because instantly, we went from me and him having dinner together, and didn't really think about Cin being there. I'll always remember that moment."

Moments like those made the one on Dec. 4, 2012, even more difficult. Bielema and Alvarez sat in a tiny room at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel, where the annual National Football Foundation Hall of Fame dinner was being held.

Sitting "about 2 feet apart," an emotional Bielema informed Alvarez that he had accepted the Arkansas job. The two men embraced and said goodbye, but Bielema knew there would be aftershocks.

"You're surprised, you're ambushed, you weren't anticipating it," Alvarez said. "We just had won the Big Ten championship, you know? We're going to the Rose Bowl. And then, boom, you get hit between the eyes."

Bielema anticipated the news not sitting well with Alvarez. He expected some distance. He didn't think they wouldn't speak for years. Both men made public comments, specifically about assistant coach pay at Wisconsin, that didn't ease the tension.

"Sometimes you just bury the hatchet and appreciate guys for who they are and remember the great times we had together, and move forward. Life's too short."

Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez

At first, there was no contact. Cindy and Jen stayed in touch and met for dinner when Jen returned to Madison and Chicago. They encouraged their husbands to reconnect -- "It goes to show who has the smarter instincts," Bielema said. Alvarez and Bielema heard about each other through friends.

"Those two guys are strong-willed," Kellner said. "Pushing them would make them dig their heels in more. I always felt they would come back together."

After Bielema won his first SEC game in 2014, a note arrived. It was from Alvarez. They started to exchange texts. But they didn't see each other. Before the 2015 season, Bielema told The Sporting News, "There are so many things I miss about him and what we had."

That December, they finally reunited at the Hall of Fame dinner in New York, inside the same hotel where, three years earlier, Bielema had told Alvarez he was leaving. They didn't rehash the split. Nothing needed to be said.

They tried to look forward.

"It had to be the right time," Bielema said. "We both had to find peace in our own way."

The calls started again. Before spring practice at Arkansas this year, Bielema phoned to pick Alvarez's brain about how much field time to give his top players.

"He's a huge mentor," Bielema said. "I'm more like him than any other coach I've been around."

Perhaps for that reason, Bielema knew that the silence between them wouldn't last. Those who know them best also expected the tension to thaw.

"Nobody's happier to see them back together than our friends," Kellner said.

When Alvarez and Bielema used to attend the Fiesta Bowl event together, they always skipped one night of events to grab dinner on their own. The night after the big dinner on the lawn, they left the Biltmore, along with Cindy, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, and Pat Gallagher, a mutual friend from Pittsburgh, and ate at T. Cook's at the Royal Palms resort.

"A lot of stories," Alvarez said, "a lot of laughter."

Alvarez, who turned 70 in December, has spent his life in college athletics. He knows everyone. Has done just about everything. He built friendships with several of his younger assistants, but none quite like Bielema.

It makes this reunion even better.

"You only have so many true friends, guys that you can rely on, guys that have your back and guys that you know," Alvarez said. "You have people that are acquaintances, but people you can really trust, there aren't many of those. When you lose one, that's difficult.

"So to have him back and the friendship we have makes me feel very good."