MADISON, Wis. - Bart Miller is a man stuck in the middle, caught between what he is and what he was supposed to be.
At 27, Wisconsin's interim offensive line coach is barely older than most of his players, and even looks like a college student when compared to his colleagues. Streaks of grey are absent from his close-cropped brown hair, and there are no signs of a receding hairline. If it weren't for the shining silver whistle draped around his neck, you could be forgiven for thinking he was just another offensive lineman, albeit a thinner and potentially more agile one. Miller is a soft speaker, and he's perfectly aware of the unique situation he's in.
If Wisconsin's season had gone as planned, Miller wouldn't normally be taking questions from reporters after practice. A former graduate assistant, Miller was supposed to trek up into the dark Camp Randall football offices after practices to cut up film and spend long hours helping the assistant coaches. Such is the life of a graduate assistant- put in your time, get your foot in the door, and opportunities will spring up down the road. If Wisconsin's season had gone as planned, Miller would still be waiting his turn, and veteran offensive line coach Mike Markuson would have finished out the season as Wisconsin's offensive line coach.
But seasons almost never go the way teams expect. And after the Badgers suffered a shocking 10-7 loss to Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore., on Sept. 8, it was clear something wasn't working in Madison.
Deep inside Camp Randall Stadium, former head coach Bret Bielema settled into his usual spot at the media room's podium the following Monday. The room was unusually tense, because the reporters and athletic department staff already knew what Bielema was going to say. Word trickled out the night before as the Badgers were licking their wounds following their loss to the Beavers- Bielema had fired Markuson after just eight months on the job.
It was clear after two games the offensive linemen hadn't clicked with Markuson after the team lost offensive line savant Bob Bostad to the NFL during the offseason, and it was time to stop the bleeding. Bielema cited personal issues for Markuson's departure and lamented that he wished things would have worked out, but his message was clear: the offensive line wasn't performing like the well-oiled machine he wanted, and it was Miller's job to repair it.
A Bostad protege, Miller seemed like the perfect candidate to bring the Badgers back to the dominating line play they were known for.
"I don't know if I would have made the move if I didn't feel so good about (Markuson's) replacement," Bielema said in his announcement. "I think (Miller) is the perfect bridge for where we're at."
A former offensive lineman at New Mexico, Miller played for Bostad during his college career and spent last year as Wisconsin's offensive quality control assistant, another way for young coaches to cut their teeth in the profession. During that time he worked primarily with Bostad, whose soft-spoken interview style clashed with his in-practice verbal tirades.
But Miller never expected he would be given a chance to run his own position group so soon into his coaching career, or that he'd be entrusted with fixing the source of the Badgers' offensive woes.
"Obviously I was very excited," Miller said, which might be an understatement, since Bielema hinted his new coach used a choice four-letter word when he first got the news. "It was something that I'd dreamt about for a long time, being in this position, being in this program, and leading these young men.
"I couldn't wait to get to work. Obviously he placed a lot of faith in me, and it's something that I don't take for granted."
Miller snapped into action after meeting with Bielema, which didn't surprise the head coach since he nearly hired Miller over Markuson during the offseason.
But Miller's lack of experience gave Bielema pause, and he had already planned on elevating one graduate assistant, former Badger captain Ben Strickland, into a full-time roll. At the time, Bielema said, promoting two graduate assistants seemed like a stretch. As it turns out, he had to do it anyway.
Miller assembled his position group soon after his promotion and explained how he would be coaching them. The players knew they weren't performing well, and it was time to return to what made their unit so successful over the last few seasons.
"The first thing I wanted to do is lay out my expectations and demands of the unit, and things I think we should be concentrating on," Miller said. "Obviously the techniques were a big part of the things we wanted to do, and really I just wanted to run the practice the way I saw fit."
The players were still in a state of shock, but it didn't take long for them to collect themselves and move on.
"It was nice to get back to something I really believed in," left guard Ryan Groy said. "It wasn't like I really disagreed with coach Markuson, it was just something to get used to. Bart kind of just explained 'It's time to get back to where we've been. Time to get back to the old stuff, and time to do what we believe in.'"
Within hours, Miller started to teach his new players an offensive line scheme of his own design, mostly rooted in his experiences as a player and assistant with Bostad. Miller's extra work was supposed to pay off down the road, but it definitely left an impression on his players, and helped make up for lost time.
"He had a lot of his system prepared before, just knowing that someday he would get a chance- whether it was here or somewhere else," center Travis Frederick said. "He had a lot of what he wanted to do built up before hand, and he did a really good job of putting it in pretty quickly.
"You could tell that he was absolutely ready and was planning on making the next step at some point."
Check back on Thursday for the second half of the story.
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