It didn’t take University of Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema long in the offseason to decide he wanted to hire Dave Huxtable as his new linebackers coach.
The first thing Bielema did was have Chris Ash, the team’s recently promoted defensive coordinator, and co-coordinator Charlie Partridge sit down with Huxtable.
“They came back to me (and said), ‘Coach, he’s the home run; he’s the guy we’ve got to get if we can do it,’ ” Bielema said.
But how was Bielema going to pull it off? Huxtable spent the past seven years coaching at Central Florida, including the last three as defensive coordinator. Bielema couldn’t offer him a better title, or more money.
“Obviously, he left money on the table and a title, so I had to do everything I could recruiting-wise,” Bielema said.
Bielema checked with UW athletic director Barry Alvarez to see if they could pay for an extra plane ticket so Huxtable’s wife, Vicki, could accompany him on the visit to Madison. Alvarez turned him down.
So Bielema decided to pay for the extra ticket himself.
“I’ve been in this business for 30-some years and that was the first time a head coach, in an interview situation, has offered to fly my wife with me,” Huxtable said. “That just spoke volumes to me about the man coach Bielema is and it reflects on the program he runs.”
It’s a given in the world of coaching: The more success a head coach has, the more trouble holding on to assistants.
Coming off his first appearance in the Rose Bowl, Bielema said every assistant on his staff was offered a chance to go elsewhere. Three departed: Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren became the coach at Northern Illinois, while John Settle (running backs) and Greg Jackson (nickel backs) left for the NFL.
As a result, Bielema has three new faces on this staff, Huxtable, running backs coach Thomas Hammock and special teams coordinator/safeties coach DeMontie Cross.
It’s the largest turnover on Bielema’s staff in six years, to go along with breaking in new defensive coordinators.
New not always bad
While stability in a coaching staff is coveted by head coaches, change is not always bad. Alvarez recalled how hard he used to fight to keep assistants and now wonders if more turnover might have kept things fresh and brought in valuable new ideas.
“We were maybe too set in our ways,” Alvarez said. “In retrospect, sometimes I should have let them take those jobs. It might have been better for them; it certainly wouldn’t have hurt them. It could have been better for us.”
The key is finding capable replacements. One of the most important things a head coach can do is surround himself with a good staff.
The longer Bielema has been on the job, the more confident he feels doing that. The only assistants left from his original nine-man staff in 2006 are offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad, who started out as tight ends coach. Bielema has had to replace nine assistants since then.
“As a head coach, I have really enjoyed the recruiting and development of my staff, because we’ve had turnover and transition,” he said. “I think I’ve gotten better at it. Naturally, you thought you were really good at the beginning.”
Bielema had known Hammock and Cross for several years, but he didn’t know Huxtable.
One thing Bielema learned from former Iowa coach Hayden Fry was the importance of hiring good teachers. Bielema played under Fry, who encouraged him to go into coaching and gave him his first coaching job.
“Coach Fry said one of the things he was most concerned about (was that) I never had to teach a class,” Bielema said. “One of the first things I’ll do (in an interview) is sit a coach down and have him teach me something.”
Huxtable had countless people ask him what he was thinking, giving up a coordinator job to go back to coaching linebackers. UCF had one of the nation’s top defenses the past two years.
“What sold it was coming up here and meeting not just coach Bielema, but the other people on the staff,” Huxtable said. “All the people I met, just the pride and the passion for Badger football, just the great tradition here, I felt like I wanted to be a part of it.”
Not only does Huxtable bring coordinator experience, he is colorful and passionate. He helps get the players through the doldrums of preseason camp with his booming voice.
“You can hear him from a mile away and the kids respond to him and recognize what he brings to the table,” Partridge said.
All about the people
The more success Bielema has, the more coaches he will lose. He is already actively preparing Ash and Partridge to become head coaches.
“To me, they are head coaching material,” Bielema said. “I want to help my guys, like Dave. He got to interview all those (defensive back) coaches when Kerry Cooks left (in 2010). I want those guys to learn how to interview people, because nobody ever let me do that.”
If Bielema continues to hire the right people, he will survive losing good coaches.
Huxtable said UW is known as a great place to work in the coaching fraternity, especially with the reputations of the university and the city. As Bielema continues to develop coaches, his reputation will grow, too.
“I think he’s a great leader to our staff and the young men on the football team,” Huxtable said. “I think he’s a guy that really cares about people. I think it shows in the way they’ve been able to recruit here. He is a family guy and it’s not just the surface, it’s heartfelt.”