Bielema knows a good thing when he sees it

By: Wally Hall
Published: Friday, December 7, 2012
Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema follows his wife, Jen, into the Raymond Miller Room on Wednesday at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema follows his wife, Jen, into the Raymond Miller Room on Wednesday at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

— It was not something he was accustomed to doing.

According to his friends, and these accounts are several in number by other writers, girls were not high on Bret Bielema’s list of priorities when he was a college student at Iowa.

He liked them, but he loved football. So he worked long hours every day to go from a 190-pound walk-on defensive end to a 285-pound starting nose guard on full scholarship.

He tried Arena Football for a couple of years after college and then went back to Iowa as a graduate assistant. He had an idea of what he would like to find in a wife, but he simply didn’t have time as a graduate assistant for much more than work, eat and sleep.

It was more of the same when he became a full-time assistant, and his job as the head coach at Wisconsin was even more time intensive.

So there he was in the summer of 2008, kicked back at the Wynn Hotel Encore Resort in Las Vegas, where he was attending a Wisconsin Badgers fundraiser and golf tournament. He was playing a few hands of blackjack when he looked up and saw a smiling blonde alongside a couple, who were her friends.

Without thinking, and out of character, he got up — he was so distracted that he left his money unprotected on the table — and approached the blonde. He introduced himself to her, said he was from Wisconsin and asked if she would join him for a few hands of blackjack.

Jen Hielsberg, a South Florida graduate from Tampa, Fla., whose parents were from Wisconsin, was a few months removed from a breakup, and she didn’t know how to play blackjack.

No problem, he’d teach her. The couple she was with were apprehensive but Jen, who spent many summers in Wisconsin, liked where he lived, and she knew there were cameras everywhere in the casino. They talked for five hours by their accounts, both won a little money, and exchanged phone numbers. When Bielema, who had been in several past relationships, returned to Madison, it was obvious to his friends he was smitten.

Bielema went from a guy who didn’t like to talk on the phone unless it was family or a recruit to spending long hours talking to Jen, who was living in Chicago to pursue modeling.

The calls were usually late at night, sometimes a short one during lunch. Bielema’s work ethic was not going to change even though his heart and mind were about to.

It was four months before she learned he was the head coach at Wisconsin. Jen told a reporter that she thought: “Oh, OK, that’s cool. It didn’t mean anything to me.”

They dated two years before they realized she had attended the 2007 Capital One Bowl during Bielema’s first season as the head coach of the Badgers; in a touch of irony, Wisconsin beat Arkansas 17-14.

It didn’t take long for them to be text serious, something else Bielema had mostly reserved for recruits while it was still legal.

Then she surprised him by showing up at Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 16, 2010, when Wisconsin beat No. 1 Ohio State. She had told no one she was going to the game because she didn’t want to be a distraction.

That’s when he knew she was the one. She understood the drive and passion he had for his job, to do everything he could to prepare his team on the field.

By then they were crazy about each other, but Bielema, several years older, had never considered buying anyone a diamond. Jen, though, had won over all his friends and family, and in February 2011, while he was attending a function in Naples, Fla., Bielema got some time alone with her dad and asked for her hand in marriage.

A month later, he proposed.

A year later, March 12 of this year, they were married.

Sometimes what happens in Vegas just can’t stay in Vegas.

Thursday they became a couple of hog-calling honeymooners, and every camera within 100 miles captured the happiness on their faces.

Sports, Pages 19 on 12/07/2012