For the first time in a long time folks are muttering about the status of a University of Wisconsin football coach.
Despite a winning season, some members of Badgerland expected more from Bret Bielema. They are suggesting that he should consider a job move.
They are wrong. For several reasons.
Badger fans have become spoiled. We think our Fierce Striped Mammals will win a Rose Bowl every three or four years for eternity. And our collective, orchestrated theme park Jump Around Chicken Dance Days will go on forever.
Programs rise and fall. Barry's reign was the exception, not the rule. Bielema's seven, and possibly eight wins, is nothing to sneeze at, even with a schedule loaded with geographically anonymous teams that my Dad refers to in the aggregate as "The Little Sisters of the Poor."
Dopey pre-season polls aside, the Badgers were a middling team this year. Not good enough to beat the big boys, not bad enough to lose to weaker litter members. And surely not bad enough for Badger fans to flee en masse.
Besides, the real issue isn't Bret Bielema.
The Big Thing lies in the decision making of the large Spanish shadow hovering over him. The Ghost of Barry.
I am a Barry Alvarez fan. I respect earned swagger. Not to mention that he is the most overachieving state employee in Wisconsin history.
Is he flawless? No.
Did he do something remarkable? Yes.
Be honest. Did you ever think the Badgers of John Coatta, Don Morton and, yes, even Dave McClain would win three Rose Bowls in a decade? And in so doing transform a college athletic program and a great university's coffers?
No you didn't. And neither did I.
But the dogs bark and the caravan moves on. And now there is more work to do.
This new era is every bit the challenge for Barry as was the slow, small roster he inherited from Don Morton so many years ago.
Fact is, Barry's hot-wired coaching choice has exhausted the equity from his mentor's regime. After two solid years that benefitted more from momentum than brilliance, the training wheels are off.
The good news? Barry Alvarez has Machiavellian blood coursing through his veins, evidenced for over a decade in how he handled players and staff. He asked for performance and if it wasn't there, there were consequences.
So now comes Barry's latest, and perhaps final, test in the Motion W Nation he created.
He's probably pondering if his hand-picked successor can read and recruit talented players and staff. He's likely assessing whether Coach B2 is improving in his job. And he will evaluate the M word, as aptly dropped by Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates.
That M word being Maturity.
Does Bret have The Big M on and off the field? Has he grasped the fact that he is no longer a football player but a football coach? That his sideline decisions and behavior represent not just himself but his team's fortunes?
Does he understand that he gets paid a million bucks to exceed expectations, not just kinda meet them?
And most importantly, that the games young Bret Bielema commands are not just sporting contests but a celebration of community? And whether he likes it or not, on Saturday afternoons in the fall, he leads that community, which gathers around to support him by the tens of thousands each game?
Which is of course why we pay a thirty-eight-year old former heavy-footed Iowa lineman a million smackers a year.
Is the job easy? No.
Did Barry think Bret could do it? Yes.
Was that good enough for most of us? Sure.
Has he done a pretty good job so far? Yeah.
But don't kid yourself. Barry was chewing on Bret's performance during the Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa and the U Cal San Whatever Bispo games.
Most bet that Barry will keep Bret around. He is a young man in a young man's game.
And he has the potential and work ethic to get better. To grow. To mature.
And with Bo Ryan heading the other big Badger income sport, he has an active role model showing him just how to be a big-time coach.
Hopefully, after three seasons, Bret is realizing that his job is not to emulate the previous program, but to make his own mark.
If he does that, he will truly honor Barry's trust and legacy.
And if he doesn't?
He'll have to talk to Barry about that.
Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write firstname.lastname@example.org.