MORRISON, Ill. — Bret Bielema made himself at home, walking from one side of the stage to the other at Morrison High School.
The football coach who has led Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl the past two seasons was definitely in a comfort zone Wednesday night, sharing the stories of his life.
There were memories of baling hay on the family farm in Whiteside County and tales of walking on as a 187-pound linebacker at Iowa and leaving as a 282-pound defensive end who co-captained the Hawkeyes.
He shared his experiences as an assistant coach and as the head coach of a Badgers team which last season won the first Big Ten championship game.
Surrounded by family and friends, including parents Arnie and Marilyn and his wife of nine weeks, Jen, Bielema was on stage for more than an hour at a fundraising event hosted by the Morrison Chamber of Commerce.
From start to finish, the man who was introduced as a National Honor Society member and a football and track standout who was also a two-time MVP in wrestling at nearby Prophetstown High School was seemingly at ease.
“This is home,” Bielema said. “My mom ran a daycare center here for 25 years, my grandparents lived on East Wall Street here. There are a lot of memories here in Morrison.”
Bielema shared many of them with an audience that included one of his former elementary school teachers, several of his former high school coaches and plenty of relatives.
He talked about doing chores on the farm and the 12 o’clock curfew that was part of his life growing up.
“It was here that I learned how to work hard and gained an understanding of how that hard work can lead to good things,” Bielema said. “I’m a product of my upbringing.”
The appearance came as Bielema and his bride enjoyed some family time away from the grind of college football.
He took his parents out for brunch on Mother’s Day, visited an elementary school in Clinton on Monday and found time to knock a few golf balls around with his father at the local golf course, Prophet Hills.
“I don’t get many chances to do things like this. The schedule gets pretty crazy at times, but I welcome these opportunities,” Bielema said. “I’ve seen a lot of friends, talked to a lot of folks and reconnected with a lot of people. It’s been good.”
Dressed in khakis and a loose-fitting shirt, Bielema spoke for 35 minutes and then fielded questions for 40 more, answering everything that came his way.
He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Badgers’ 2011 quarterback, Seattle’s third-round draft pick Russell Wilson, has more NFL success than any quarterback in this year’s class.
He talked about the thrill of singing during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field, and the firestorm of complaints he received from Wisconsin-based Brewers fans for doing it.
“I think I nailed the song,” he said, acknowledging a former music teacher in the crowd.
Bielema talked about the myriad of situations he has faced as a player, coach and recruiter.
He vividly described the day former Augustana College coach Bob Reade came to Prophetstown to recruit him.
“That was a big deal. He had a championship program that everybody respected the heck out of, but in the end, I decided to walk-on at Iowa because I wanted the challenge,” Bielema said.
He still welcomes those challenges and said many remain.
“People ask why I don’t wear my Rose Bowl rings, and I don’t because of the memories they bring back,” Bielema said. “I’ve gotten to the big game, but I haven’t won it yet.”
He has built a 60-19 record in six seasons as Wisconsin’s head coach, leading teams that have finished in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll five times.
A wide smile filled his face and Bielema laughed when longtime Prophetstown track coach Irv Sanderson suggested he might have hit the stopwatch a little quick when timing Bielema in the 40-yard dash in high school, telling the crowd of around 200, “I didn’t want to let you know that you weren’t as fast as you thought you were.”
It was the type of back and forth that could only come in comfortable surroundings, something Bielema said he will always appreciate.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride. I’ve been the right guy in the right place at the right time quite a bit in my life, including when coach (Hayden) Fry called me into his office after my six-day NFL career — the best six days of my life — and presented me with the opportunity to be a graduate assistant at Iowa,” Bielema said.
“That set the tone. In my first staff meeting as a (graduate assistant), sitting against the wall, I knew one day I wanted to be the guy sitting at the head of the table. To get there by working hard and doing things the right way proves that good things happen when you do that.”