Jan. 26, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- The genesis for Ben Strickland becoming a coach can be traced back to Brookfield Central High School and the lasting relationships that would drive him as an overachiever and walk-on to the Wisconsin football team.
There was the direction that he got from Jamie Meulemans, then a Brookfield Central assistant, who always showed "tremendous passion'' and pushed Strickland to "be your best."
There was also the inspiration that he drew from Luke Homan, a close friend and former high school classmate, who always encouraged Strickland to "chase my dreams and always dream big.''
Homan went on to play basketball at UW- La Crosse. In early October of 2006, he drowned in the Mississippi River. He was 21. Strickland had been coached on youth teams by his dad, Jerry Homan.
Less than a year after Luke Homan's death, Strickland was named one of Wisconsin's captains. He was not only the leading vote-getter but the first "non-starter'' to captain the Badgers in 10 years.
Strickland couldn't wait to share the good news with Luke's parents, Jerry and Patti.
The Homans can expect another phone call soon, if they've not already received one.
On Wednesday, it was announced that Strickland had been promoted from graduate assistant to a full-time assistant coach on Bret Bielema's staff and will work with the Badgers' secondary and special teams.
Strickland couldn't wait to tell his wife, Laura.
"As a GA, you don't make a whole lot, and she has been taking jobs to provide for us financially,'' Strickland said. "She has loved the places that she has worked at.
"But I hope now that if she does have other dreams and goals that I can help her achieve those because she has helped me go after mine and believed in me doing so.''
After serving the equivalent of a three-year apprenticeship -- one year as a quality control coach and two as a graduate assistant -- Strickland sighed and said, "This has all been worth it.''
Strickland was understandably moved emotionally when Bielema "told me that I'm going to be a great coach in this profession and he wanted to give me my first opportunity.''
In sum, there have been a lot of moving parts the last few months, Strickland admitted.
"It was kind of crazy,'' he said, "trying to finish up my masters, getting ready for the Rose Bowl and then with all the coaching changes going out recruiting and trying to find a job at the same time.''
Since he could no longer continue as a GA, he said, "I would have had to switch back to a quality control role. I had hoped this would work out the way things transpired, but I wasn't completely sure.''
Strickland never lost faith in himself, nor Bielema, nor the process.
"At the same time, I'm incredibly humbled by it all,'' Strickland said. "It's a dream come true to play here and now to feel that Coach B has the faith and belief to hire me on full-time.
"I'm going to work hard to not disappoint.''
Regarding what he can deliver, Strickland said, "I think Coach B understands the type of coach I'm going to be. I know there are a lot of guys out there who work hard to get a position like I've gotten.
"I don't take it granted for one bit. I'm going to always learn and always grow.''
In this regard, Strickland has already been introduced to recruiting. Because the Badgers were shorthanded on their coaching staff, they received an NCAA waiver to use Strickland on the road.
"Which,'' he said, "was obviously a great experience and gave me a chance to meet some of the high school coaches face-to-face. We interact with them when they came to (summer) camp.
"But it was fun to get out there and talk to them about their kids.''
While accompanying Bielema on a couple of trips, he said, "Coach tapped into my brain to see what types of thoughts I had and asked me football-type questions to see where I was coaching-wise.
"Obviously, we've worked together on a daily basis (the last three years), but I brought up things that we could have done better or things that popped into my head during the course of the year.''
Bielema has often mentioned Strickland's meticulous work habits and thoroughness.
"I'm probably better at writing than I am speaking -- just by having that little time to reflect,'' said Strickland, who has been known to be very detailed in his response to questions.
"I just love reading books on coaches and leadership -- learning from guys who have been successful in the past -- and taking those ideas and what I believe in and forming my own philosophy.''
During his first season in quality control, Strickland conceded, "It was really about keeping my head above water and just making sure that I was doing things that were required of me.''
The last two seasons, Strickland assisted Chris Ash with the defensive backs and Dave Huxtable with the linebackers.
"I feel like I've gained a better understanding of the game," he said.
All along the way, he emphasized that "I've learned from guys who are great teachers.''
That includes defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. It has been a natural mesh between Strickland and Partridge and Ash -- "Guys who had trust in me and who knew I had their back,'' he said.
Strickland knew it was reciprocal and "I know they had expressed if this were to take place (going full-time) they would be excited for me. They've been tremendous influences on my career.''
At one point, Strickland had to step away to see things more clearly. That was after getting his degree in special education and moving to Minneapolis to be with Laura, then his girlfriend.
"I knew I had to get away from the program for a little bit,'' he said. "But when I did, I missed the competitive side and the relationships and being on a team working towards a common goal.
"I just missed going through the ups and downs.
"Football is a special game. I feel blessed that I was able to play it and now, as a coach, I want to help young men have as good of an experience if not better than I had playing the game.''
Minneapolis was also the site of a seminal moment in his playing career, when Strickland recovered a blocked punt in the end zone to rally the Badgers past the Gophers at the Metrodome in 2005.
It was during his senior year that we learned so much more about how Strickland rolls.
Upon hearing that his friend Steve Johnson, a long snapper, would not have his scholarship renewed and would return to walk-on status, Strickland asked that his tender be given to Johnson.
Rationalizing that he had one fewer semester left than Johnson and only a handful of credits, Strickland decided that it would be easier for him to take on a part-time job than Johnson.
So he did, with UW facilities maintenance.
Strickland didn't want Johnson to find out, though he did after the fact through another source. Strickland, Johnson and Joe Thomas all ran in the same circles at Brookfield Central and Wisconsin.
That act of generosity was not surprising to anyone who knew Strickland.
"I've been around great coaches and people who have had great influences on my life,'' Strickland said. "And they have taught me to honor the game and to be there for young men.''
Which has allowed him to chase his dreams, and dream big.