Coach Bret Bielema’s Wisconsin Badgers suffered their first loss of the season on Saturday, a gut-wrenching 37-31 defeat at Michigan State on a last-second Hail Mary that needed an officials’ review before it was deemed a score.
While it was a tough loss for Bielema – who, like most coaches, is a noted workaholic – the coach finally has someone who will make him smile during the ups and downs of coaching a big-time college football program.
Bielema, 41, announced his engagement to Jennifer Hielsberg, 26, who he had met three years ago in Las Vegas. The two are trying to keep their courtship mostly private and have withheld Jen’s last name in public comments.
“What I always say is Bret has always had tunnel vision,” Arnie Bielema told Lost Lettermen in a phone interview Monday.
But the aftermath of his meeting with Jen was the first time that anyone – or anything, for that matter – had allowed Bielema to see the field, so to speak.
“Nothing ever seemed to take me away from what I was focused on career-wise,” the coach told FOXSports.com last month. “That’s always a roadblock. Most people weren’t understanding of someone’s schedule that is so weird and unique.”
That is, until the longtime bachelor met Jen in an unusual place to find long-term love: a Las Vegas casino.
As the story goes, according to FOXSports.com, Bielema was playing blackjack at the Wynn Las Vegas, where he spotted his future fiancee while in Sin City for a 2008 Wisconsin fundraising event.
Bielema had been the head coach at Wisconsin since 2006 after a short stint as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Iowa (1994-2001), Kansas State (2002-03) and in Madison.
He skyrocketed through the coaching ranks to obtain the Badgers’ head job partly because he had a singular focus on football without a family to provide any other responsibilities.
“(My career) didn’t involve anybody else’s lives, especially like uprooting kids or anything along those lines,” Bielema told FOXSports.com. “I think I was able to move through my profession maybe at a quicker rate than others just because I didn’t have those outside factors.”
But Bielema told the website that his chance meeting with Jen – who he spotted wearing a “teal tank top, blue jeans and black flip-flops,” according to FOX Sports – has given him balance in his life.
When Jen caught Bielema’s attention that night, the coach brazenly walked up to her, introduced himself and eventually asked if he could teach the Vegas newbie how to play blackjack. He did so over the next five hours, the website said, when she won $600 and he won her phone number.
FOX said that the two didn’t see each other again for five months but kept in constant contact despite Jen, a Tampa native, returning to Florida.
They had made a connection – and it had nothing to do with football. In fact, FOX said that Bielema hadn’t even told Jen that he was the Badgers’ head coach. She didn’t find out until months after they first met that he was the head man in Madison.
According to the story, Bielema had told Jen upon meeting her that he was preparing for Wisconsin’s football season but didn’t elaborate. Jen didn’t think to ask.
“Oh, OK,” Jen said she told Bielema at the time, according to FOX. “That’s cool. It didn’t mean anything to me.”
And that must have been a first for Bielema, who has been defined by football since being a captain at Iowa.
Men wanted to talk to him because of what college football means, and women either didn’t want to date him because of his job or only because of it.
But Bielema described Jen to FOX as “different.”
So much so that the two are planning a life together after Bielema proposed on cruise during March’s spring break. They have a wedding registry prepared online and have set a date for next March 10.
It must certainly add to the stress of running one of the top programs in America when you factor in ironing out all the details of the Big Day and planning a honeymoon that will take place just over two months after Wisconsin’s season will end.
But don’t think that Bielema has lost his passion for football. With the Badgers still in a race for a Big Ten title, he certainly will be focused on getting them back on track after their folly in East Lansing.
“Nothing has gotten in the way of winning the Big Ten title,” the coach’s father told Lost Lettermen. “That’s why they waited until next March to get married and the engagement took place after football was over.”
Spoken like a true Bielema.