Bret Bielema has a problem, but I'm not sure the University of Wisconsin football coach knows it or cares if he does.
In this potentially majestic season, one that may ultimately fortify his worthiness for the job he was given five years ago, he's gained a reputation for being petty and shallow.
Not so much around here it seems, but definitely across the Big Ten Conference and parts of the nation. It may not be a fair portrayal, or even an accurate one, but the criticism is real if you listened to ESPN radio shows and read well-known writers from coast to coast.
There is the belief Bielema threw a tactical sucker punch at then-Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, calling for a two-point conversion with a 25-point lead and less than 7 minutes left in a 41-23 victory Oct. 9.
There is the belief Bielema ran up the score Saturday in an astonishing 83-20 win over Indiana, a game in which his starting quarterback was throwing to front-line receivers with a 39-point lead late in the third quarter.
Taken separately, the incidents can be explained and better understood.
Bielema insists he deferred to his standard-issue coaches strategy card - the one that said he should go for two leading 41-16 - and followed it to the letter even though it raised an eyebrow with his boss and created a stir among his peers.
The record-setting victory over Indiana could be seen as a perfect storm of tactics and psychology. The Badgers played flawlessly on offense, scoring on all 12 possessions. The Hoosiers, fresh off a gut-wrenching, last-second loss to Iowa, clearly put down their emotional swords after quarterback Ben Chappell suffered a hip injury in the second quarter and didn't return.
But two similar episodes in the same season — questionable ethics against downtrodden teams with embattled coaches — are hard for some to fathom.
Bielema and Brewster feuded behind the scenes, so Bielema must have been kicking a man when he was down. That idea was reinforced a week later when Brewster was fired.
As for the 63-point win, Bielema must have become obsessed with earning style points for the BCS rankings, so he had his backup quarterback throw deep on third-and-6 and the Badgers nursing a 69-13 lead. So what if the flogging costs Indiana coach Bill Lynch his job?
Before he became UW athletic director, Barry Alvarez presided over his share of blowouts during his 16 seasons as the school's coach. Those games didn't get out of hand, he said, because as the fourth quarter unfolded, he quietly implored game officials to hold off starting the play clock as long as they could in order to speed the game.
"They could burn a minute off that clock and no one even knew it," he said. "You can't do that anymore."
Alvarez said he didn't like to see that big number on the Camp Randall Stadium scoreboard and neither did his protégé, but if you're looking for contrition from the UW camp, forget it.
"I'm not for apologizing," said Alvarez, whose first UW edition totaled 79 points in eight Big Ten games in 1990. "I thought (Bielema) tried to manage it the best he could."
That's open to interpretation, of course.
What's not is Bielema has an image problem when it comes to sportsmanship and he's the only one who can fix it.Contact Andy Baggot at email@example.com or 608-252-6175.