By Doug Russell Special to Published Jan 03, 2012 at 11:00 AM

This one is going to sting for a while.

Not that last year's Wisconsin loss in the Rose Bowl was easy to accept, after all, few Badgers fans believe the better team won. However, this time around there is a feeling of letting your opponent off the ropes when you had them right where you wanted them. To be sure, Oregon is a fantastically talented team on offense, as is Wisconsin. But the stinger that will set in on the long plane ride home is that it was there for the taking.

Compounding matters for the Badgers and their fans is that this may have been the most balanced an offensive team Wisconsin ever had. With graduation (Russell Wilson, Patrick Butrym, Bradie Ewing, Josh Oglesby), possible early entry to the NFL (Montee Ball), and coaching defections (Paul Chryst and Bob Bostad, for now) the wait to return to Pasadena could be a longer one than anyone is prepared for.

In the 1990s we all got spoiled. After Barry Alvarez resurrected the moribund Wisconsin football program (and thus the entire athletic department), a trip to Pasadena became almost blasé. Of course, under Alvarez, the Badgers were 3-0 in the Granddaddy of them all; Alvarez and Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne even became members of the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame for their efforts.

But after 2000, Wisconsin hit a dry spell. Fans grew discontented after Dayne and other future NFL players Chris Chambers, Jamar Fletcher, Lee Evans, Mark Tauscher, Chris McIntosh, Casey Rabach and others left Madison and Alvarez couldn't keep up the pace he had set. Just two years after becoming the only Big Ten coach to win back-to-back Rose Bowls, the Badgers slumped to 5-7, missing the postseason altogether.

Even having "California Dreamin'" fresh in the collective memory back home did not stop the natives from getting restless.

Alvarez, also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, concluded his coaching career with appearances in the Alamo, Music City, Outback and Capitol One Bowls. Not exactly heady stuff for someone who had raised the bar higher than any Wisconsin coach had before him.

In 2006, Bret Bielema took over and continued the tradition of Florida bowl games. Mind you, this was a tradition no one really wanted to be a part of. In successive years, Bielema led his team to the Capitol One, Outback and Champs Sports (twice) Bowls.

After six straight years of Central Florida bowl games (the Outback Bowl is played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa; the Outback and Champs Sports Bowls are both played at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando), Badgers fans grew anxious, even disturbed, at the lack of progress by the one-time laughing stock of college football.

Remember, before the 1993 season, the last time Wisconsin went to any bowl game was the three-year (out of four seasons) run between 1981-84 during which the Badgers went to such exotic destinations as the Garden State Bowl in New Jersey, the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, and the Hall of Fame Bowl in Memphis.

Prior to that stretch, there had been almost 20 years between postseason appearances. Before Barry ("BB" in Wisconsin terms), the Badgers had exactly one bowl game win (the 1982 Independence Bowl).

In other words, we aren't talking about a whole lot of historical success here. Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, USC and Notre Dame this ain't.

My point in this history lesson is more a word of caution than anything else. Yes, Monday's Rose Bowl loss was disheartening, as was last year's. Most certainly there were opportunities that were missed and plays anyone wearing red and white would love to have back. Unfortunately it just wasn't meant to be. Wisconsin got beat by a faster, better, more opportunistic battle-tested program. Unlike last year's loss to TCU, most Wisconsin fans have to at least recognize that the better team won this time around.

So where do the Badgers go from here?

Social media being what it is; immediate, raw and vitriolic, some fans were calling for Bielema's ouster in the wake of the final gun.

"He can't win the big one!" according to one fan.

"The Badgers could have won if he hadn't used that timeout early in the half!" screamed another.

The fact of the matter is this: Bret Bielema is 60-19 in his career as Wisconsin's head coach. Moreover, Barry Alvarez has absolutely no intention of dismissing his hand-picked successor. And if you think you can influence the Wisconsin athletic director with your protests either via talk radio, internet postings, or good ole-fashioned letters to the editor, you obviously do not know the man on any level whatsoever.

Yes, there have been failures and breakdowns. No one could argue that. The same systematic breakdowns happened in back-to-back games this year. Oct. 22, a blocked punt and a "Hail Mary" at Michigan State evaporated hope that Wisconsin could play for the BCS title. The very next week, the exact same thing happened at Ohio State; only this time all hope that the Badgers could return to Pasadena was lost.

Or so we thought.

After two incredibly demoralizing losses, many lesser teams and coaches would have packed it in. But Bielema, the eternal optimist, kept his team chugging towards the finish line and doing so strong. It wasn't an accident that Wisconsin won their next five games to improbably (in a very strange college football season) get back to their stated goal of winning the conference and competing in the most historically significant football game in the world.

To the notion that Bielema cannot win the big one, he has presided over two straight Big Ten Conference championships, never had a losing record, knocked off the No. 1 team in the country in 2010, and won the inaugural conference championship game this season.

Yes, he is 0-2 in Pasadena. And while this fact may have given you a restless evening last night, I assure you, this fact will gnaw at Bielema until he can coach in Pasadena once again.

"I'll also thank Wisconsin fans for coming out here again," Bielema emotionally said to reporters after the game. "I know they're going to be disappointed, but we have the best fans in the world. And I think it truly showed the way they came out here again this year, back-to-back, and hopefully nobody gets tired of coming to the Rose Bowl.

"I'm not going to apologize for a group that won the division title, won a Big Ten title, and earned a chance to come out here and play a quality football team, and unfortunately came up a little bit short."

My point today is not to defend Bret Bielema, because he doesn't need me to carry his water. His .759 winning percentage is easily the best in university history. Yes, his use of timeouts is sometimes maddening, but the notion that you or I know the game better than he does is laughable.

This, of course, does not make him immune to criticism from analysts and fans; of course he will be second-guessed. That comes with the territory. But to look at his overall record and actually want a change made borders on the insane.

Perhaps it is a testament to how far the Wisconsin football program has come when back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances aren't enough to satiate the masses. Perhaps being good enough to have other BCS schools poach your assistants doesn't cut it anymore. Perhaps only having a Heisman Trophy finalist is more blight on the program than I had realized.

Remember last year's national champions? This year, Auburn finished 8-5 (4-4 in the SEC) and played in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

In 2009, Alabama won the national championship. In 2011, they went 10-3 (5-3 in conference) and played in the Capitol One Bowl.

In 2007, LSU won the national championship. In 2008, they finished 8-5 (3-5 in the SEC) and played in the Chic-fil-A Bowl.

I can keep going. But I think you get the idea. For every team that reaches a certain height, there is an inevitable letdown. Texas won the 2005 BCS Championship; the next year they played in the Alamo Bowl. One year after playing in the 2008 title game, Oklahoma was back in the Sun Bowl.

The natural ebb and flow of college football cannot be forsaken upon a program that has never achieved true greatness. Wisconsin has never won a national championship and hasn't played for one since the 1962 season (UW's only national title game).

No one likes to lose. Certainly no one likes to lose a championship-type game. But to suggest that after two such heartbreaking defeats to implode the entire program is beyond stupid, it actually borders on straightjacket time. There are plenty of programs that would love to go to the Rose Bowl with Bret Bielema at the helm; if not Wisconsin, then somewhere else. And then where would the Badgers be? Again, I beg the question of just who exactly would you suggest take over this program that will lead them to the AFCA Trophy?

Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

Doug Russell Special to

Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at

Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.

Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.

Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.