Bret Bielema believes there’s a specific moment on every recruiting visit in which something said or done shapes the prospect’s future path.
When Russell Wilson visited Wisconsin in June 2011, he faced a decision not only between schools (Wisconsin vs. Auburn) but sports (football vs. baseball). He had produced a good career as NC State‘s quarterback, but was also a fourth-round pick of the Colorado Rockies in the 2010 MLB draft. He wanted to see how far he could go on the diamond. NC State’s coaches wanted Wilson to commit to football, so they eventually released him.
Bielema, then Wisconsin’s coach coming off of a Big Ten title in 2010, desperately needed a quarterback. Before Wilson left Madison, Bielema left him with a parting thought.
“When he was leaving, I looked at him and I said, ‘Listen, if you don’t come to Wisconsin, go to Auburn, because the game of football needs you. College football needs people like you, and you’re going to be a great one,'” recalled Bielema, now head coach at Illinois. “I said that hoping I didn’t just push him to Auburn, but in reality, it drove him to us because he knew what he was getting into. He knew the profound effect he could have.”
Wilson joined Wisconsin June 27, 2011, as a graduate transfer with immediate eligibility. In announcing Wilson’s arrival, Bielema noted the move was “unusual” for a program rooted in player development, but added, “This is a special situation and Russell is the type of player and person that fits very well with our team.”
That fall, Wilson led Wisconsin to another Big Ten championship and produced the best quarterback season in team history — 3,175 pass yards, 33 touchdowns, four interceptions, 73% completions, a nation-best 191.8 passer rating and 338 rush yards and six touchdowns. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and was a finalist for the Maxwell Award.
Wilson was not the first graduate transfer — the NCAA implemented the policy in 2006 — but became the most prominent, a nod to both his talent and his position. Over the decade since, a number of other players began taking advantage of the flexibility, including several quarterbacks who didn’t see an upward path with their original teams.