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Uncovering Bret Bielema's not-so-hidden Hawkeye past

Jim Weber
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Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, a site devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other bits of nostalgia. This week he answers the all-important question about Wisconsin's upcoming trip to Iowa: Why does the Badgers' coach have another team's logo tattooed on his leg?

The modern phenomenon of tattoo regret has been lampooned by everyone from T-Mobile commercials to "Saturday Night Live." But there's nothing funny to Wisconsin fans about coach Bret Bielema's homage to his college days.

Especially not the week of the Badgers' annual rivalry showdown with Bielema's alma mater, Iowa.

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Sure, the "Tiger Hawk" tattoo seemed like a great idea at the time. That was 1990, when Bielema, then a walk-on defensive lineman for the Hawkeyes under legendary coach Hayden Fry, sprang for the ink after receiving a scholarship as a sophomore. To celebrate, he got the iconic Iowa logo tattooed on his left calf with the words "Believe" and "Achieve" on opposite ends of a giant "I."

Bielema soon had the pedigree of a Hawkeye for life. He became a senior captain in 1992, returned to Iowa City shortly afterward to become a graduate assistant, and served as a linebacker coach under Fry and his successor, Kirk Ferentz, for six seasons.

He finally left the nest in 2002, crossing conferences to join Bill Snyder's staff at Kansas State, where no one cared about a young assistant's out-of-sight paean to a school the Wildcats never played. But when Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez hired Bielema away from KSU in 2004, it didn't take long for word to leak out in Madison about the new defensive coordinator's dirty little secret.

It started out as an anecdote, or trivia question. That changed in 2005, after Bielema was named Alvarez's hand-picked successor. It was one thing that the new head coach had played for a hated neighbor. That was nothing new; then-Minnesota coach Glen Mason graduated from Ohio State, as did former Michigan coach Gary Moeller. A year after Bielema's promotion, Minnesota hired a former Illinois tight end, Tim Brewster. Alvarez himself lined up for Nebraska. But none of them had their allegiances to Dear Old U permanently emblazoned on their body. Soon, a message board rumor also began to spread that Bielema's contract had an escape clause to leave for his alma mater if the opportunity arose.

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Bielema would hear none of it, or of suggestions that he have the tattoo removed. "It's permanent, it's a part of me. That tattoo is party of my history – it's staying," he said before his first season as Wisconsin head coach in 2006. Although, he added, "I do wear high socks now."

But it's true what they say: It never goes away. Reporters keep asking about it. Recruits keep asking about it. This week, Bielema said Iowa coaches even use it against him in recruiting. Here he is defending the tattoo for the umpteenth time in August:

And of course, it comes up every year ahead of the Iowa game, especially when the matchup carries the ramifications of this weekend's collision of top-15 teams looking to keep Big Ten and BCS ambitions alive.

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You couldn't blame Bielema for feeling like the whole world is against him. Many Iowa fans now consider him a traitor, and he's still having to prove his loyalty to Wisconsin in his fifth year on the job. But at least he knows two people have his back.

"The one thing people forget when they talk about the Tiger Hawk is what's written on it, 'Believe' [and] 'Achieve,' and that applies to anything and that’s his whole philosophy with his kids," says Bielema’s dad, Arnie, from his home in Prophetstown, Ill. "And his mother has a very good comment about that. She says it's a birth mark because he got it at Iowa and that's where everything started."

Actually, that might not be any better in the minds of Badger fans. Considering the wringer they've put Bielema through for the tattoo, a Tiger Hawk birthmark probably would have been cause for an exorcism.

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Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, an historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sports' past to the present.

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