When Ron Wolf was general manager of the Green Bay Packers, he often said the only thing worse than making a mistake was continuing to live with that mistake.
Bret Bielema apparently operates under the same philosophy.
On Sunday, the University of Wisconsin football coach made the highly unusual move of firing his offensive line coach two games into the season. The move was so uncommon that the story made the rounds on national talk radio shows Monday even though it involved an obscure assistant coach.
That coach, Mike Markuson, was Bielema's hand-picked successor to highly regarded line coach Bob Bostad. At the time of the hire, Bielema played up Markuson's experience, which included 14 years as a well-respected line coach in the SEC. But after watching UW's signature power running game go nowhere because the line got little or no push in the first two games, Bielema had seen enough.
"I know everybody's got their own foregone conclusions of what transpired," he said Monday. "It was really something that wasn't a knee-jerk thing by me."
Maybe so, but it sure looked like a knee-jerk thing to everybody else. Indeed, not even Wolf would have pulled the plug on a coach after two games.
According to Bielema's timeline, he thought about making a switch while flying home from UW's 10-7 loss to Oregon State Saturday, made the decision later that night, slept on it, discussed it with his inner circle Sunday morning, then made it official, replacing Markuson with quality control assistant Bart Miller, a Bostad protege who has never held a full-time coaching position. The obvious intent of this battlefield promotion is to return to the philosophies and techniques taught by Bostad.
"I'm never going to delay a decision that I think will help us win football games," Bielema said. "I've seen a lot of coaches make those decisions at the end of the year, and they probably knew it sooner than I did. They just don't want to cause a wave. And I'm not scared of high waves."
That's good, because the waves from this move were tsunami-like outside the program, and, one surmises, inside the program as well. Bielema said Markuson's family situation played into the move and claimed he almost hired Miller over Markuson in February anyway.
Bielema can spin the story any way he wants and it still won't look pretty. From the outside, it looks like an overreaction, like an attempt to find a scapegoat, like a panic attack in a program that should be above such things.
"Panic is for the outside world," Bielema said. "Reality is where I live."
OK then, the reality of this situation is clear. Of the six assistant coaching hires Bielema made during what he called a "chaotic and hectic" offseason, offensive line coach was one of the two most important (along with offensive coordinator). And by firing the battle-tested line coach he hired and replacing him with a coaching novice two games into the season, Bielema is admitting he made a colossal mistake in the first place.
That's not to say Markuson is a bad coach, because he's not. He just wasn't a good fit for the UW program.
Markuson's philosophies and methods are totally different than Bostad's, a situation that caused confusion among the players. The hard part is figuring out why Bielema hired a coach who taught techniques and used an approach that were such radical departures from the style of play that made UW famous.
When he hired his offensive coordinator, Bielema put significant parameters on the job, saying the new guy would have to maintain the same basic approach that has carried UW's offense for two decades. Only he knows why he didn't follow the same approach when hiring a line coach.
"I felt very strong about his resume and what he brought to the table," Bielema said. "I did due diligence bringing him in. But it was at a point on Sunday that (a change had to be made)."
In one sense, Markuson is a scapegoat for some shaky recruiting in the offensive line. As the All-Americans left for the NFL the last few years, the caliber of the replacements at several positions hasn't kept pace.
Still, it's hard to fathom how UW's line play could drop so far, so fast. On the other hand, if it can fall that fast, it can probably rise just as fast.
If that happens, the kudos will go to Bielema. If it doesn't, so will the blame.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.