Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, while at Wisconsin, had Seahawks' Wilson and Broncos' Ball
ENGLEWOOD, COLO. — When the Super Bowl kicks off next Sunday evening, University of Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema will sit down on his couch and make the easiest recruiting phone calls of his life.
What better pitch is there to a high school senior than being able to say, "See that quarterback starting in the Super Bowl? See that running back lined up with Peyton Manning? I coached them."
Bielema and the University of Arkansas are proudly boasting about Bielema's history with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball, two of the four playing in Sunday's Super Bowl coached by Bielema at the University of Wisconsin. The other former Badgers are Seattle defensive reserves O'Brien Schofield and Chris Maragos.
"We tweeted that out from Arkansas Razorbacks, and half of Wisconsin was outraged," Bielema said, laughing, during a phone interview with USA TODAY Sports. "But they're our former players, and I'm proud of it."
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Bielema's departure from the University of Wisconsin last year was quite messy, but it didn't affect his relationship with his former players there, especially Wilson and Ball. Bielema says he is in touch with Wilson almost daily, and the Seahawks quarterback picked up Bielema and his wife and took them on an all-day tour of Seattle last year when the Bielemas had a 12-hour layover in the Pacific Northwest.
"My wife, he's her favorite player. He just makes you feel so special," Bielema said of Wilson.
Bielema said he began recruiting Wilson to Wisconsin after the quarterback was granted his release from North Carolina State by early May 2011. By that July, Wilson was on campus in Madison working out with his teammates. He was named a captain by the start of the regular season and led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl.
"We really got into a recruiting battle with us and Auburn, and I think Auburn was telling him it was all on him," Bielema said. "Quarterback run game, pass game, all that. We didn't ask him to come in and be the whole show, we just asked him to come in and command it."
After Bielema wraps up those recruiting calls, in advance of National Signing Day on Feb. 5, he won't be rooting for the Seahawks or the Broncos – but rather for big days from two players who were among the most beloved at Wisconsin.
Ball spent four seasons with the Badgers, and in 2012 set the NCAA record for career touchdowns, with 83. It wasn't always easy for Ball there, especially after losing the starting job as a sophomore. His breakout season came as a junior in 2011, and it wasn't by accident.
"He trimmed down a bunch of excess weight, redefined his body going into his third year, and that was the year that he broke out and turned into something pretty special," Bielema said. "We were gone as coaches in January and February, so it was a few weeks before we saw him, and everybody was like, 'Whoa, who is this guy?!' It was every drill, every start, every finish. He just took everything as a personal challenge and turned it into one of the greatest careers in college football."
Ball, drafted by the Broncos in the second round last April, is Denver's No. 2 tailback behind starter Knowshon Moreno, but he has played extensively during the Broncos' postseason run. That Ball has been the player Denver's coaches and Manning trust in crucial situations has been gratifying for Bielema to watch, especially given Ball's early fumbling issues. Ball lost a pair of fumbles in Denver's first three games, and a third in November. Ball fumbled only twice in more than 920 carries at Wisconsin.
"I remember I reached out to him and said, 'High and tight,'" Bielema said. "The part that was fun for me was that he had gone through a little bit of adversity early in his career, just like he did at Wisconsin, where he had to respond in a positive way.
"As a head coach in college, you don't get to watch much pro football, but I got to catch the tail end of the game last weekend, and he was in there in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line. Getting that first down was a triumphant moment for him for sure; you could see the excitement. I recognized that bounce right away when he got up. That was a pretty special moment."
It was special for Ball, too, as he picked up the final first down in the Broncos' AFC Championship game win last week against the New England Patriots.
"When I'm having the problems, I wouldn't have been in there," Ball said. "I lost confidence in myself. But the staff, they never lost confidence in me. They would just tell me that I've got to be more aware of it, and take it more serious, and I did. It just came back with trusting myself, and it being that important to me."