By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Some of you probably would disagree that Bret Bielema is a Hawkeye for life.
You know the old saying, “once a Hawkeye, always a Hawkeye.”
Well, that should also include Bielema even though he is currently the head football at Illinois and the former head football coach at Wisconsin.
It certainly creates some awkwardness whenever a former Hawkeye coaches for another Big Ten school, especially someone as charismatic and outspoken as Bielema, who played as a defensive lineman under Hayden Fry from 1989-92, and in a sport as high profile as football.
It would’ve been uncomfortable, and maybe even upsetting for some Iowa fans, to watch Bielema coach against his alma mater on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium
But now sadly, that won’t happen since the 51-year old Bielema announced Tuesday morning that he has tested positive for the coronavirus and will not travel with his team to Iowa City.
The good news is that Bielema has been fully vaccinated and received his booster shot last week.
Vaccines don’t stop a person from being infected, or from infecting others, but it greatly reduces the chance of being seriously ill.
So, hopefully Bielema will make a quick recovery and get back to what he loves to do, which is coach football and lead young men.
His absence on Saturday erases one of the top storylines surrounding the game.
It’s always a pretty big deal when Bielema coaches against Iowa because the circumstances are so unusual.
Bielema might have the most famous tiger hawk tattoo in the world. It’s on his calf and it’s there for life unless he chooses to have it removed some day.
But why would he do that?
Because for starters, having a tattoo removed is supposedly very painful.
And it wouldn’t change anything, or erase history.
It wouldn’t change the fact that Bielema’s decision to join the Iowa football team as a walk-on would go on to change the course of his life. It helped to make him the person he is today.
Bielema was asked about his tattoo at Big Ten Media Day in July and his answer made a lot of sense.
“I got a tiger hawk tattoo when I was 19. It was a great idea then, not so much now,” Bielema said. “But I think it’s important to realize that is a big part of where I am today. I always tell our players we all come from different parts of the country and we all come from different folk homes, different backgrounds, different religions, different communities.
“The first is to know that you’re here because of that. That made you who you are today.”
This belief that Bielema lost the privilege of being a Hawkeye for life because he has coached for two of Iowa’s Big Ten rivals is just petty, silly, vindictive and misguided.
Several Iowa fans have expressed that belief to me over the years, and I just roll my eyes because it’s ridiculous.
They’re basically saying that Bielema lost the title of Hawkeye for life when he agreed to coach for another Big Ten school, as if it were an act of betrayal rather than a guy trying to better himself in his chosen profession.
Maybe it’s because two of Bielema’s head coaching jobs have been at Big Ten schools that some Hawkeye fans seem more resentful.
Because I’ve never heard anyone say that Bob Stoops should lose his title as a Hawkeye for life after having spent 18 seasons as the head coach for Oklahoma.
Stoops even interviewed for the Iowa job following Hayden Fry’s retirement in 1998. But Stoops reportedly didn’t want to wait for Iowa to interview Kirk Ferentz, so he accepted Oklahoma’s offer.
The fact that Oklahoma is in a different conference than Iowa probably caused some Iowa fans to be less resentful of Stoops. But he still coached the Sooners to a 31-14 victory over Iowa in the 2011 Insight Bowl.
Stoops wanted to defeat his beloved alma mater a decade ago just as much as Bielema wants to on Saturday.
But that shouldn’t disqualify either from being a Hawkeye for life.
One of the coolest things about Hayden Fry’s vast coaching tree is all the different schools that have benefited from it, even the Big Ten schools.
Chuck Long is arguably the greatest quarterback in Hawkeye history and he also coached for his alma mater under both Fry and Kirk Ferentz.
But Long left Iowa after the 1999 season to be the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator under Stoops at Oklahoma. Long then was promoted to co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma where he coached until 2005 before becoming the head coach at San Diego State.
So by leaving Iowa, does that now disqualify Long from being a Hawkeye for life?
Of course, it doesn’t.
Long was just trying to better himself as a coach and he apparently felt that leaving Iowa for Oklahoma was in his best interest.
But that shouldn’t take anything away from his Hawkeye heritage, just like it shouldn’t with Bielema.
In many ways, Bielema epitomizes the true essence of an Iowa football player in how he grew up in the Midwest, was under-recruited and willing to pay his own way to school just for a chance to be an Iowa football player.
Hayden Fry gave Bielema an opportunity and Bielema has made the most of that opportunity, both as a player and as a coach.
No matter where his career takes him, Bret Bielema will always be an Iowa Hawkeye.
Bielema will be the enemy on Saturday, even without being at Kinnick Stadium, and his team stands in the way of Iowa achieving its goals for this season.
But to say that he is no longer a Hawkeye just because of where he coaches is unfair and short-sighted.