Barry Alvarez, Bret Bielema file photo 12/28/11

Badgers football coach Bret Bielema and athletic director Barry Alvarez have a chat on the sideline during a team practice in this 2011 file photo.

M.P. KING - State Journal archives

When University of Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema dialed up his boss at home early last Sunday morning, Barry Alvarez had a pretty good sense of what was coming.

The heads-up came from his wife, Cindy, who outlined the purpose of Bielema's call before she handed her husband the telephone.

"She told me why he was calling," Alvarez said, "and he didn't tell her."

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In wake of a shocking 10-7 non-conference loss at Oregon State, Bielema wanted to take the highly unusual step of firing first-year offensive line coach Mike Markuson two games into the season.

The two-time defending Big Ten Conference Badgers had been inexplicably manhandled at the line of scrimmage en route to their first non-league loss since Bielema became coach in 2006. It wasn't just they managed only 35 yards rushing. It was the manner in which the offensive line — long regaled for its mammoth size, rare athleticism and assertiveness — routinely failed to get any push.

Markusan was hired during the offseason to replace Bob Bostad, who initially left for a job at Pittsburgh before winding up in the NFL with Tampa Bay. Alvarez was enthused about landing Markuson, who had crafted a strong reputation in the Southeastern Conference at Arkansas and Mississippi.

But something wasn't right and Alvarez, who coached the Badgers from 1990 to 2005, could feel it during a 26-21 win over Northern Iowa and the subsequent loss to Oregon State that was hard for Alvarez to watch.

"I was doing the same thing that every other Badger fan in the nation that was watching was doing," Alvarez said of the debacle that short-circuited the Heisman Trophy campaign of senior tailback Montee Ball, who gained 61 yards on 15 carries and was held without a touchdown for the first time in 22 games.

"It's very frustrating. We've got the best running back in America and we can't make a yard in two tries among other things."

Alvarez listened to Bielema outline his thoughts on the matter and gave his OK to making a change. Bielema announced the move Monday, elevating Bostad protégé Bart Miller from the role of graduate assistant.

"I thought it was the right to do after I heard all of what he had to say," Alvarez said of Bielema. "I stand by him. I think it gives us a better chance to be successful."

Alvarez acknowledged that such a coaching change "isn't commonplace" and that a hiring mistake was made. He said the coaching profession is defined by tough decisions and Bielema made one in this case.

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"He's the one, when it's all said and done and this season goes in the record books, it's all going to come back to him," Alvarez said.

"Issues pop up and you know if they're not corrected everybody left on your schedule studies film and they're going to see it, see it and see it until you correct it.

"When you have massive breakdowns, you have to correct them. There are different ways to do it."

Alvarez said he would have made such a move during his Hall of Fame tenure at UW, but "I was never in a position where I had to mid-stream."

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During his chat with Bielema, Alvarez recalled his first year as an assistant at Notre Dame when Lou Holtz made an in-season change on his coaching staff in 1987. Alvarez also noted that he'd alerted responsibilities for his assistants during the season "several times."

Asked why Markuson wasn't a good fit for the Badgers, Alvarez offered a hypothetical example that implied it was a matter of technique.

"If you run a spread offense, your main concern if you're the line coach is counting the (defensive) front," Alvarez explained. "If you have more than five guys in the box you're going to throw the ball, so it's pass protection set-up. If there are five or less in the box, you're going to run it and all you have to do is cover one guy up.

"That's not moving people. That's not blocking a play regardless of how many people are in the box.

"If you can't make an adjustment from that offense to our offense, you've got a problem."

The coming weeks will tell us if Bielema made another mistake or if he righted the ship.

"If you've got an issue you've got to correct it, and if you've got adversity you've got to deal with it," Alvarez said. "That's what he did."

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