University of Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema used to wear a ring in honor of the 12-1 season he enjoyed in his first year as a head coach in 2006.
The only problem was it didn't represent a championship. The Badgers finished in a tie for second in the Big Ten Conference that year and were kept out of the Bowl Championship Series due to a rule that allows no more than two teams from a conference.
No one has seen Bielema wear the ring the past two years, because he made a deal with his players.
"I told our guys two years ago in fall camp, ‘I'm never going to wear a ring again until it's one of our championship rings,' " Bielema said on Tuesday.
"(To) sit down today with the ring guy and have a chance to design (a Big Ten title ring) is kind of a neat thing."
But he also issued a challenge to his players in the locker room shortly after the 70-23 victory over Northwestern on Saturday.
"I did tell the guys in the locker room, we didn't need to wait 10 years to repeat this day again," Bielema said after the game. "I think we've got some good youth in the program and (I'm) excited about the future of Wisconsin football."
The Badgers have a core of 12 seniors who have started 297 games. Yet this does not look like a one-time deal for No. 4 UW (11-1).
Bielema met with the players on Monday and did what he has done in previous years, keeping around the players who will have more prominent roles next year, a total of eight from the
defense and seven from the offense.
"I said, ‘What do you guys all have in common?' " Bielema said. "There were guys who were second-string and in a position to become bigger players. That's the part as a head coach I've felt better about over the last couple seasons is just knowing where you needed to get work done to be where you need to be down the line."
Bielema mentioned a few of the names from similar talks the previous two years.
Two years ago, it was quarterback Scott Tolzien and tight end Lance Kendricks, who are now finalists for national awards. Also in the group was cornerback Niles Brinkley and linebackers Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen, all starters.
Last year's group included right tackle Ricky Wagner, running back Montee Ball, tight end Jake Byrne and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym, "guys who really came through this year," Bielema said.
When the Badgers return to practice this weekend, they will start preparation for their expected berth in the Rose Bowl. They will also continue to develop the players who will determine if they can maintain this level and not wait 11 years between titles, which is the gap since the last one.
Primary in the group that needs to come through next year is redshirt freshman quarterback Jon Budmayr. With sophomore Curt Phillips sidelined with a second ACL tear, Budmayr is the prohibitive favorite to succeed Tolzien at quarterback.
Both Budmayr and freshman Joe Brennan, who is being redshirted, will get extra work in early bowl practices. "Those two guys need a lot of work," Bielema said.
Budmayr's only playing time was at the end of blowout wins over Austin Peay, Indiana and Northwestern. He completed 8 of 10 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. Yet, Bielema saw progress in his second game, after Budmayr took a third-down sack in the red zone.
"I could notice a difference in the first time we put him in a game," Bielema said. "He took that sack, (and) the first thing he said to me — he was all rattled up — ‘I didn't want to do anything stupid in the red zone.'
"That's huge. He has been there, he has done that, he has experienced it. To get that experience for him was really good."
A key this season is the development of Wagner, who beat out Josh Oglesby as the starter in conference play. Wagner will likely slide over to replace senior Gabe Carimi at the critical left tackle spot next year.
"Ricky Wagner will be a three-year starter in this program and my guess is, in two years, he'll be up for all of the same type of recognition that Gabe is," Bielema said.
Travis Frederick, who is being redshirted and has three years of eligibility remaining, is primed to take over at left guard for senior John Moffitt. Bielema said Frederick "is playing as good a football as any of our interior linemen right now — and he's not even playing."
The defense loses only four starters — linebackers Sorensen and St. Jean, cornerback Brinkley and safety Jay Valai — depending on whether junior defensive end J.J. Watt decides to leave early for the NFL. The uncertain labor situation in the NFL next year could help influence Watt to return.
UW is a 10-point loss on the road at Michigan State away from being a prominent factor in the national title picture, with no sign the success can't be maintained.
Bielema urged his players to reflect this week on how they got to this point and how they can stay here.
"There's a quote I put up last spring, ‘To get something you've never had, you have to do something you've never done,' " he said. "I want kids to understand, this didn't just happen by chance."