Adjusting Expectations

by Richard Branch

In a month and a half I’m going to be 36 years old.  Given what we write about here, I’m guessing that sounds pretty elderly to most of our readers.  The “old R.A.” in your dorm with that naked-angel-dude-with-no-penis-that-just-looks-SOOOO-cool-in-this-blacklight-just-come-check-it-out Led Zeppelin poster in his room?  I’m older. The inappropriately old guy sitting by himself at Wando’s (is that place even around anymore? Again, I’m aged) who stares creepily at the girls drinking fish bowls during free bacon Tuesdays?  Older.  The “cool professor” who wants you to call them by their first name and bro hugs you after every class?  You guessed it: Probably older still.

Despite my advanced years, there is an advantage to being in one’s prostate-enlarging years.  I have perspective.  I’ve learned life lessons.  Through gritty experiences in my youth you say?  Of course not!  80’s movies were my 3rd parent and have informed my worldview ever since. 

While movies like Weird Science taught me essentials like how to build a girl using just a Barbie doll and my Memotech computer, I prefer the more practical lessons of other classics.  Most applicable to Wisconsin fans is a little tidbit from Say Anything.  In the clip below our protagonist Lloyd is at a house party acting as “keymaster”: holding everyone’s keys so they don’t drive home drunk.  Lloyd deftly manages a delicate situation with one reveler who clearly can’t drive himself home.  This partygoer’s hysteria nicely encapsulates the reactions of Badger fans to this past week’s events very well:

We learn a couple of lessons here:

  1. Jeremy Piven (yup, that’s him) was a screaming douchebag way before Entourage.
  2. Sometimes we need someone to grab us by the collar and shake some sense into us when our mind is a little cloudy.

There is a time and place for discussions of Jermey Piven’s history of douchebaggery.  For now we need to focus on taking a deep breath as Badger fans, and rather than suggesting the need to fire every coach on the staff as has bandied about this week, and adjust our expectations.  For the sake of argument call it intoxicated by the bitterness of disappointment.  We need proper perspective on what this team is and what it isn’t.  In other words:

 I have hidden your keys.  You MUST chill!

This past Saturday (week 2) was eye opening for the Badgers.  The offense was completely ineffective against an at best mid-level Pac12 squad.  The offensive line, long the identity of Wisconsin football, continued it’s poor play for a 2nd week.  The team was held to a paltry 35 yards on the ground.

Fans and pundits alike grossly underestimated the coaching transitions on the offensive side of the ball.  This fan certainly did.  As has been well documented, Paul Chryst departed for the head coaching job at Pittsburgh.  He took most of the offensive staff with him.

Paul Chryst left for the head coaching job at Pitt.  He took four Badger assistants with him

Paul Chryst left for the head coaching job at Pitt.  He took four Badger assistants with him

Despite Bret Bielema’s oft-repeated claim of embracing transition within his coaching ranks, the level of turnover was such that not expecting some upheaval was naïve.  Chryst had been offensive coordinator prior to Bielema’s elevation to head coach and the offensive coaches he took with him had been with the program for years.  It was a monumental brain drain.  The program lost most of the people who forged the offensive identity of the past half dozen or so seasons. 

Once it was clear he would have to replace coaches, Bielema focused on keeping disruptions to a minimum.  Starting off internally, Thomas Hammock - one of the few holdovers on the offensive staff - was promoted to recruiting coordinator to bolster the stability of the multi-year process that is college football recruiting. 

New coaches were brought into the program with backgrounds and talents that slotted into the roles vacated by departed staffers.  Paul Chryst had been offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.  Matt Canada was tapped as his successor in part because he performed the same duties for the past four years at Indiana and Northern Illinois.  Joe Rudolph coached tight ends and was recruiting coordinator.  Eddie Faulkner was brought in to coach the position but also brought a recruiting edge as a Badger alum.  In both cases coaches were chosen to keep the organization and structure of the program as close to what it had been in previous seasons to limit disruptions to coaches and players alike.

Last and in light of recent events most notable was the hiring of Mike Markuson to fill the shoes of Bob Bostad, the Badgers highly regarded offensive line coach.  On paper this looked like the best hire of the bunch.  Markuson has decades of experience as an offensive line coach in the SEC with numerous All-Americans and post season award winners to his name.  His resume includes long stays at Ole Miss and Arkansas; his track record was not one of jumping from school to school every year looking for the next job.  He would bring stability and a history of success to the marquee position at Wisconsin.

Markuson’s abrupt dismissal lays bare for all the fact that the coaching transition, despite coach Bielema’s best efforts, has not been seamless.  In hindsight there have been issues brewing for quite some time with the offensive line.  While alluded to in many places, it was starkly highlighted by the comments of Travis Frederick in The Camp.  One would expect the journalistic objectivity of Pravda in something produced by the athletic department but he mentions “miscommunication issues” and a “rocky start” to Markuson’s relationship with the offensive line.  That those comments made their way into a promotional video speaks to the chasm between the Markuson and his players.

I bet right about now he's happy he didn't sell his house back in Mississippi.

I bet right about now he's happy he didn't sell his house back in Mississippi.

The underwhelming performance of the offensive line in the first two games of the season is not what earned Markuson a pink slip but it is what forced coach Bielema’s hand.  The realization that his offensive line coach was not the right fit for his program had to come before the start of the season, maybe even before the start of fall camp.  The weak line play against a 1-AA program and a mid to lower-level FBS program made soldiering on through the season an impossible proposition for a team with the high expectations the Badgers had.

While much debated, the dismissal of Mike Markuson two games into the season is anything but a panic move.  This was a studied decision by the head coach balancing short and long term goals.  The talent is in place for another outstanding offensive line.  Both Ricky Wagner and Frederick are potential first round draft picks and outside of right guard there are able, experienced players in place on the rest of the line.    This unit has not somehow magically become inept over an offseason. 

The promotion of Bart Miller from graduate assistant to offensive line coach was a measured gamble to try and recapture some “Bostad magic” and refocus a rudderless position group.  Miller has both played and coached under Bob Bostad and he will no doubt refocus the group on the training and techniques that brought great success under his mentor.  Bielema is banking on old routines and familiar techniques to stabilize and energize a grossly underperforming group.  Between current talents and old habits Bielema hopes the group can regain some semblance of last year’s dominating performance.

Despite what is undoubtedly the most bold and decisive coaching decision of Bret Bielema’s career it’s unreasonable to expect overnight improvement. Reeling off 40+ points a game after a few days of practice is nonsensical and naïve.  Measured progress over the next few weeks is what we can reasonably hope for and expect. 

The key for Badger fans to accept now is that the 2012 campaign will in all likelihood not end in Pasadena.  There is simply too much to unlearn from the Markuson era and relearn between the present and the start of the conference schedule – opening in Lincoln – as time is working against the Badgers.  This season will be what it is: hopefully a record around 8-4 or so and a late December bowl invitation.  Not a Rose Bowl by any means but given what this team faced coming into the season that was probably unreasonable to expect.

Bob Bostad was credited as the architect of the recent success the Badgers had at offensive line.  Bart Miller has been asked to fill his shoes.

Bob Bostad was credited as the architect of the recent success the Badgers had at offensive line.  Bart Miller has been asked to fill his shoes.

Bret Bielema’s management of this coaching transition – not just Bostad to Markuson to Miller but the offensive staff as a whole – is the biggest challenge he has faced since becoming head coach in 2006.  If the decision to fire Markuson proves correct and if the rest of the staff gel into a cohesive unit (two big “ifs” no doubt) then the Badgers should be able to reestablish their offensive identity, the “Wisconsin Brand”, and things should get back to some semblance of normal in a short period of time. 

The team you see at the end of the season will probably be a better one than you see now.  The key question is how quickly can they do it.  Fast enough to meet pre-season expectations?  Again, probably not. 

This season was a gift to the Badgers in a lot of ways.  With sanctions making the Leaders division a four team race and the surprising return of Montee Ball for his senior season, the Badgers had an unexpected shot at winning the conference for a third straight year.  Unfortunately the team lost a chance to capitalize on the situation due to internal restructuring.  Instead, the team will circle the wagons and retune for the future. 

Coach Bielema often talks his 2013 class as the strongest class he’s had thus far at Wisconsin.  A quick look at the roster highlights a lot of talented juniors at key positions.    With the rapid resurgence of Ohio State and Michigan on the immediate horizon, the Badgers appear to be one of the few teams with a hope of preventing the B1G from becoming a “2 + everyone” league as it’s been in the past. Taking advantage of his strong ’13 class is critical to maintaining his momentum. 

Making the coaching change he did gives the head coach a lot of flexibility.  On the one hand, it gives Bart Miller an opportunity to rise to the occasion as a young coach eager to make his mark.  Alternatively, if the line and Miller falter it gives the head coach an early indication that he needs to look for a new offensive line coach for 2013 and he can put out feelers immediately.  Either way, the Badgers are positioned to give them the best chance at success for 2013.

Bret Bielema has done enough in his six-plus seasons as Badger head coach to earn the privilege to right the ship without having to contend with a panicked stampede to the lifeboats by his passengers.  This is not the Titanic.  There is a lot of strength in this program at the macro level to indicate things are pretty healthy.  It’s clear the current group of players has not given up or become discouraged in any way.  If anything statements during this week’s practice indicate a doubling down of effort and preparation.  They have not given up on their season or their belief in the Badger team identity.

Wisconsin has capitalized on the success of the past two seasons on the recruiting front as well.  Although small, the 2013 class is solid and could still finish with 1-2 more splash recruits.  2014 is the real indicator of things going forward.  The Badgers four commitments to date are all highly regarded players at their positions.  Most notable, Michigan quarterback Chance Stewart is considered one if not the top quarterback in the Midwest for ‘14.  He was wooed and committed to the Badgers in the post-Chryst era, citing the chemistry he had with offensive coordinator Matt Canada and his primary recruiter, coach Faulkner.

The ship is not sinking.  By all indications the Badgers are not about to head off a precipice to mediocrity.  The team is in the midst of massive change and transition requiring patience from players, coaches, and fans alike.  Bart Miller needs time to resurrect a proud group of offensive linemen.  Matt Canada needs an opportunity to put his offense in place without worrying about how to work around a line that cannot create holes or protect the quarterback.  Reserve judgment until the season has played out.  Time will tell us more than any prediction by fans or media pundits.  There is time to get back on track, both short and long term. 

Here are your keys Ari Gold; the party’s over and Eric Stoltz is standing behind you in a chicken costume.  I think it’s time we all sleep this one off.