Through the first nine games of his head coaching career, Bret Bielema has had little trouble with the Xs and Os part of his new job at the University of Wisconsin.
As for the off-field stuff, well, that’s a different story.
Bielema, who’s replaced retired Badger legend Barry Alvarez this season, created a firestorm of sorts earlier this week with his comments regarding running back P.J. Hill. A redshirt freshman from East Elmhurst, N.Y., and the Big Ten’s leading rusher, Hill was forced to leave last week’s game against Illinois after taking multiple hits to his neck.
After Wisconsin rallied for a 30-24 win, Bielema, on his post-game radio show said that his injured young player needed to take some “toughen-up pills.” The comment was seen as insensitive by critics of the brash, 36-year-old former defensive coordinator.
On Monday, Bielema said his words were misconstrued. He explained the phrase as something he uses in every-day language.
“I had an uncle that used to say that in reference when I was little, and it always kind of stuck in my mind.” Bielema told reporters. “If you listened to the comment or if you heard it, it was just something that I threw out there. P.J.’s an extremely tough individual. I know that he’s going to be able to battle himself back. However long that takes, no one’s going to go at it with a better attitude than P.J.”
Hill, whose 135.8 yards per game ranks him sixth in the NCAA, has totaled 1,222 yards on the ground this season. That’s good for second nationally. The 5-foot-11, 242-pound dynamo is expected to play in tomorrow’s game against Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium. He was unavailable for comment this week.
Bielema didn’t offer an apology for his remarks, and blamed the media for making it a story.
“I haven’t said anything yet to this point that I would take back. Part of getting to know who I am and what I’m all about is a learning process. You guys (reporters) don’t spend much time with me, not that I want to, but I’ve enjoyed developing a relationship with the media, and they have a better understanding of what I’m all about.”
Although he hadn’t spoken to Hill about the matter as of Monday, the coach was certain his star runner wouldn’t be offended.
“P.J. knows me on a day-to-day basis,” Bielema said. “… I know what I want to say. I know how I want to get it across, especially to my team. Interpretation should be left up to that. I just like saying things the way that I feel.”
It’s not the first time Bielema has caused an uproar with his mouth. As D-coordinator for the Badgers, his insensitive comments about Lions’ quarterback Michael Robinson, who was knocked out of the 2004 game with a concussion, upset Penn State fans and enraged Robinson’s mother.
A close friend of Alvarez, Joe Paterno admitted he doesn’t know Bielema well. But Penn State’s veteran coach said Wisconsin’s program hasn’t suffered under the new regime.
“You don’t see much difference in the football team. I wouldn’t know whether Barry was on the sideline or Bret was on the sideline,” Paterno said. “They play the same kind of intense, aggressive, precise and poised football game.
“I have only been around (Bielema) at the Big Ten meetings, but he has a lot of poise and has some self-assuredness and his team is playing that way. I am sure Barry knew what he was doing when he said he wanted him to succeed him.”
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