Coach Bret Bielema addressed his University of Wisconsin football team one last time on Tuesday in a brief meeting that players described as emotional.
Only a few hours after the players learned Bielema was leaving to become the head coach at Arkansas, they gathered at the football offices at Camp Randall Stadium at 6 p.m. About 13 minutes later, offensive coordinator Matt Canada was the first one to leave.
“Of course, we’re all shocked,” senior running back Montee Ball said prior to riding off in a car. “... But we’re most definitely going to stay focused and wish 'Coach B' the best.”
Three players stopped and talked to the media and none blamed Bielema for leaving.
Junior center Travis Frederick, a co-captain along with Ball, was asked if he understood why Bielema was leaving after seven years as the team’s head coach. Bielema also spent two years prior to that as UW’s defensive coordinator.
“Absolutely,” Frederick said. “I think everybody faces choices in life and you need to do what’s best for you in those choices. I think he’s done tremendous things for the program. I think he’s left us in a good spot.”
None of the players went into much detail when asked about the reasons Bielema gave for leaving.
“He wants to go win a championship,” Ball said, apparently referring to a national championship.
Arkansas is in the Southeastern Conference, which has produced the past six national champions.
“Personal reasons,” redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave said. “That’s basically up to him. It’s his call. I don’t blame him at all.”
Added Frederick: “He just expressed that it was the best opportunity for him.”
One of the things Bielema addressed in the meeting was the upcoming Rose Bowl game against Stanford on Jan. 1.
“Stay focused, go out there with the same plan and win,” Ball said of Bielema’s message about that game.
Bielema will not coach in the game, although the players said they did not know who would replace him.
“We’re still going to play in it,” said Stave, who is currently sidelined while recovering from a broken collarbone. “Just continue to prepare like we always would and hopefully go out and give ourselves a good chance to win.”
Bielema, who was in Fayetteville, Ark., earlier in the day to accept the job, flew back so he could speak to his players directly.
“Yeah, it was emotional,” said Stave, the team’s starting quarterback until getting injured. “It’s something that’s new for me; I haven’t really experienced this. Something we’re going to work through, I guess.”
Ball said he would do everything he could to keep the team focused for the Rose Bowl.
“We’ve still got a game to win,” he said. “As a leader, I’m going to make sure we all stay focused and go out to Pasadena and win.”
Much of the immediate focus on a successor to Bielema centered around former UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who is completing his first season as the head coach at Pittsburgh.
Chryst was Stave’s quarterbacks coach during his redshirt year in 2011. Stave declined to comment when asked if he would like to see Chryst return.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Stave said.
Frederick put his faith in UW athletic director Barry Alvarez, who hand-picked Bielema as his successor.
“I have no idea what coach Alvarez is going to do,” Frederick said. “I think he has done tremendous in the past in picking who he’s going to have around and I think he’s going to continue to do that.”
Former UW defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said he doesn’t think Bielema always received the credit he deserves from Badgers fans.
“I think in the past, he’s kind of gotten a bad rap and people have kind of unnecessarily brought the hammer down on him,” Butrym said. “I think he’s a great coach. I think he’s a great guy.
“You see the reaction from a lot of players (on Twitter). A lot of guys are disappointed, but also really happy for him, for this opportunity. It’s an SEC job; I don’t know if it’s a better job.”
As successful as Bielema has been, he has his detractors among Badgers fans. He is viewed by some people as being brash, or even cocky. He was criticized at times last season for running up the score on opponents.
Bielema has also had public spats with rival coaches, notably former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster and current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
Butrym said part of the problem is Bielema followed a legend in Alvarez. Also, the goodwill generated by Big Ten titles the previous two years was lessened somewhat by close losses in both Rose Bowls, to TCU and Oregon, Butrym said.
“I think it’s unfair to compare him to Barry Alvarez,” said Butrym, a senior on last year’s team. “I think people can be so impatient. He’s done an unbelievable job, carried on the tradition.
“Everyone bashes him for losing two Rose Bowls, but I don’t think people appreciate how hard it is to get to two Rose Bowls.”
Former UW safety Aaron Henry, who was also a senior last year, said any possible damage done to the program by Bielema’s departure could be lessened considerably if the school is successful in bringing back Chryst.
“That would definitely make up for it,” Henry said. “Past and present players love coach Chryst. Great, great, great dude.”