Farewell, Bret Bielema: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Wesley Hitt

From our fanbase to yours, we present: The Bret Bielema Experience.

So, you stole our head football coach, eh Razorbacks? Okay, well played. But at least know what you're getting into. We've seen others try to give you a heads up, but with all due respect, you need to hear it straight from Badger Nation itself.

For a coach who led a program to three consecutive Big Ten championships, you'll find a surprising number of Badger supporters saying 'good riddance' this week. I'm no Bret Bielema apologist, but I'm no hater either. Wisconsin football will survive, and may in fact grow into something better after this move. Who knows. Folks happy to be rid of Bielema are being awfully short-sighted in my opinion, yet their complaints are by no means unfounded.

So what was it like to root for Bret Bielema?

The Good

Bielema's career record (68-24) speaks for itself. He has proven that he can take an established program, maintain success and even raise the bar in some areas. That is a fit in Fayetteville. Success isn't the only thing I'm worried Wisconsin might miss once Biels is gone, though.

1. He gots balls, man

Bret won me over in 2006, while still a young and fiery sideline honcho, when he flustered Joe Paterno with his exploitation of a little-known loophole in the new kickoff rules. Bielema is not afraid to stick it to a rival or run up the score from time to time. It also took some sack to call out coaching goddess Urban Meyer publicly when Bielema felt wronged last year, so he deserves some credit for that kamikaze move. And most recently, he risked blowing up the entire season to correct his own mistake when he fired new offensive line coach Mike Markuson just two games into the experiment, leading to this fantastic quote:

"Panic is for the outside world," Bielema said. "Reality is where I live."

2. Strengthening the brand

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Whether it was ending every interview with the phrase "On Wisconsin," extolling the virtues of a "1-0" mentality or starting the tradition of throwing the "Dubs Up" with two hands, Bielema was always finding ways to promote Wisconsin. It was visible, it was deliberate, and -- at least in this house -- it was appreciated. An older, more established/respected head coach (read: Barry Alvarez) might think he was above this type of thing. I, on the other hand, think it is essential, and I will miss that about Bret Bielema maybe more than anything. More of program leader than in-game strategist, Bielema's players always bought in to what he was selling.

3. A track record of good hires

The Markuson debacle earned Bielema a demerit, no doubt. But Markuson's replacement -- former quality control assistant Bart Miller -- has righted this ship enough to be headed to Pasadena once again. The jury is still out on offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who showed some redeeming qualities in the Big Ten Championship Game after a frustrating regular season.

A list of Bielema's coaching moves at Wisconsin reads pretty well overall and he likes his guys to climb the ladder. His first staff in 2006 included new hires Bob Bostad (TEs), Dave Doeren (Co-DC, LBs), Mike Hankwitz (DC), Randall McCray (DL), and John Settle (RBs). Bielema also dumped Brian White and Jeff Horton in favor of Paul Chryst as the lone offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Bostad (2012) and Settle (2011) left for the NFL, while Doeren and Chryst are now head coaches.

In a controversial move, Bielema fired Hankwitz after UW dipped from the nation's No. 2 scoring defense in 2006 to No. 6 in Big Ten in 2007. To replace Hankwitz, Bielema promoted Doeren, under whom a stout Badger run defense returned. Former Wisconsin lineman Joe Rudolph, who turned out to be a deft recruiter, replaced Palcic as tight ends coach. Bielema also brought in Charlie Partridge, the current co-defensive coordinator and associate head coach, as defensive line coach. Chris Ash was hired as the defensive backs coach in 2010 and quickly rose to co-defensive coordinator for the last two seasons. The following year, newly hired nickelbacks coach Greg Jackson went to the NFL and Doeren took head coaching job at Northern Illinois.

The success continued when Thomas Hammock (now assistant HC and recruiting coordinator), was hired as Wisconsin's running backs coach in 2011. Hammock has overseen record-breaking campaigns by Montee Ball, as well as gathered a 2013 class currently ranked 26th in the country and made a flashy start to the 2014 class. Even though Chryst took Rudolph, newly hired linebackers coach Dave Huxtable, and initially even Bostad to Pittsburgh this past season, promoting Miller and hiring LB coach Andy Buh appear to be excellent moves by Bielema. Getting Eddie Faulkner back in the program as tight ends coach was also a positive. Faulkner and new wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni have continued to successfully recruit Ohio together.

4. Raising the bar on recruiting

Along with his constant promotion of UW's program, another underrated aspect to Bielema's tenure was his ability to relate to the young men he was recruiting. He was singularly focused on and enthusiastic about Wisconsin football. He was relatively young. He had a decked out Wisconsin room in his newly-built house in which to "close" recruits.

People anxiously waited to see how Bielema would fare without Alvarez's players and after a one-year blip, the new guy's eye for talent more than held its own. He continued the strong walk-on program that Alvarez established, which helped him continue to develop those diamonds in the rough (J.J. Watt). Since 2008, Wisconsin has had 21 players drafted to the NFL. So even though the state only produces a couple of Division I prospects every year, Bielema was attracting talent to Madison and helping players realize their potential.

5. His teams were disciplined

On the gridiron, Wisconsin was among the least penalized teams once again in 2012, after being the least penalized team in the nation two seasons ago. Discipline of this nature is easy to take for granted after a while, so I hope Badger fans realize how good they've had it lately. A lot of thanks goes to the position coaches for this, but ultimately the credit goes back to Bielema for putting together that staff and stressing discipline program-wide.

Off the field, just as in any big-time athletic program anywhere else, some negative moments occur with a roster full of college-aged men. It's unavoidable. But Bielema dealt swiftly with bad seeds, even if they were prized recruits, on several occasions. That is respectable and emblematic of a man who ran a clean program.

The Bad

But why all the negativity toward Bielema? It certainly wasn't due to running up the score. I loved that part.

1. Graduated from Andy Reid's Time Management School

Even Bielema would admit he's not a stellar X's and O's guru. Perhaps most infuriating is that Bielema hasn't learned anything about proper clock management. Call all three of your timeouts in a tie game, helping your opponent drive for the winning Hail Mary? Sure, why not? Imagine you're now coaching in the biggest game of your life ... say, the 2012 Rose Bowl. Would you take a chance to win away from the most efficient quarterback in the country (Russell Wilson) by blowing all your timeouts through the first five minutes of the third quarter -- and worse yet, just on the less than 50/50 hunch that a call on a kickoff goes your way?

2. Comes up short in big games

Feeling pressure from A.D. Barry Alvarez is understandable: Alvarez went 3-0 in Rose Bowls, 8-3 in all bowl games. Meanwhile, Bielema is 2-4 in bowl games and until this week's news, losing his third Rose Bowl in a row was a distinct possibility. Furthermore, Bielema is 1-5 lifetime against Ohio State, and has a losing record against Michigan State and Penn State as well. While he went 3-2 against a down Michigan program, Bielema was only a combined 1-10 on the road against those four aforementioned teams.

Big wins include the 2007 Capital One Bowl versus Arkansas, 2009 Champs Sports Bowl versus Miami, toppling No. 1 Ohio State and beating Iowa on the road back-to-back in 2010, plus both Big Ten Championship games. But the relative scarcity of these moments made the beat downs of lesser teams all the more shallow.

3. Don't let him coach the special teams

In what could be viewed as a stubborn move, Bielema insisted on adding the special teams coaching to his duties shortly after becoming the head coach. It's not unheard of for a head coach -- Urban Meyer does the same -- but Bielema's special teams were awful during that time. As soon as Bielema swallowed his pride and delegated those responsibilities, the Badgers started going to the Rose Bowl annually. Coincidence?

4. The thin-skinned accusation

Yes, it's kind of true. I never realized how much heat Bielema may have been fielding from fans, boosters and his own boss until his comments after the Big Ten Championship about winning a Rose Bowl. And he awkwardly tried to make light of the situation again during his Arkansas introduction press conference. Apparently, Bielema's response is to run away -- wait, what??

Never was Bielema's nature to complain more evident than when Urban Meyer rolled into the Big Ten, started flipping recruits left and right, causing all sorts of ruckus in Bielema's world. Maybe Biels was trying to act tough, to stand up to the new alpha dog, but it came across as just the opposite. It sounded whiny. Remember this?

"I can tell you this," says Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema. "We at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC--in any way, shape, or form."

The Ugly

1. That ... that face

No, I'm not judging Bielema's looks in general, I'll let others do that. But the most annoying thing about Badger Saturdays that I won't miss? This look ...

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A vacant stare off into the distance when something's not going right, compounded by an expression that can only be described as "trying to whistle while constipated." Television cameras routinely catch Bielema in this pose, when you would expect most other coaches to be yelling for an explanation from the refs or talking on the head set to his other coaches to determine what the hell just happened. Nope, Bret just stays motionless, like someone played a prank on him and he just woke up in bed at the 50-yard line.

2. Can you believe the words ... that are coming out ... of my mouth

Bielema always appeared to be a straight talker, almost to a fault. So it is a relatively new phenomenon to be questioning his forthrightness. He glossed over his two-faced remarks about the SEC's culture when being introduced as the new head Razorback and the Arkansas media let him get away with it.

As another example, Bielema had always praised UW tight end Jacob Pederson, but this past offseason, he tried to say this year's group of tight ends was the most talented he's ever been around. That is high praise. It is also ridiculous ... considering Bielema coached three current NFL tight ends in the same season once (2007 - Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham, Lance Kendricks). Nice hyperbole, coach.

Continuing the trend, Bielema's inconsistent explanations for whether shifting back to Danny O'Brien (the "two-minute quarterback") was injury-related or not never held any water. He even tried to play games with his quarterback decisions this year, coming out with a reason for selecting a starter later in the week that contradicted what he had already said. Don't even get me started on the complaints about Meyer's recruiting and then openly flipping recruits to come to Wisconsin (which I am all for, by the way -- just don't complain about someone else doing it better). For the record, that last complaint is just more evidence that Bielema will be a successful great coach in the SEC.

To summarize, it got to the point this season where I simply stopped putting any stock into what Bielema said anymore. I didn't expect that and I didn't like it.

3. Bielema's bro-tastic reputation

Despite all his success on the field, Bielema probably never escaped the reputation he built early on around town. When Bielema took the defensive coordinator position in Madison, he was a 30-something bachelor, who became more eligible and more famous when he was handed the head coaching gig after two seasons. Bielema had to swap his privacy for the haters and rumors that come with the territory. Now, I'm not here to throw dirt on him, but let's just say there are far too many first-, second- and third-hand stories of the guy floating around to ignore the fact that Bielema liked tipping back brewskis and chasing tail.

Good for him, though, he was single. Has Bielema made a 180-degree turn since meeting his bride Jen? Hopefully so. Is that enough to prevent the reputation from following him to Arkansas? This remains to be seen.

Because the frat boy image popularized on the Internet didn't come out of thin air. Mixed with his bravado discussed earlier, you have the recipe for a personality that might rub people the wrong way. Of course, that's probably par for the course in the SEC too. Just know that opponents will have a treasure trove of ammo for those imminent barbs.

(On a side note: With the shadow of Don Alvarez hanging overhead, jokes instead of respect, and no money to keep his talented assistants, Bielema was posturing for a move months ago. Now, you have to also imagine being the new wife and not only running into peeps around town that don't care for your husband's coaching skills, but also overhearing how he's sleazy to boot? So if you're a Southern belle from Florida, do you encourage your man to press reset and get a fresh start down South? Of course you do! And Arkansas wants Bielema after a potential six-loss season?! Sell high friend, sell high ... it all makes sense, really.)

*****

So, there you have it, Arkansas. You are getting a winner. A winner who will promote the Razorback brand with dedication and enthusiasm -- even if that means blowing all three timeouts early and starting a fight with Les Miles.

But ask yourselves, are you getting the young, hungry Bret Bielema or the mid-life crisis Bret Bielema? The one who's grown fat off the land (literally or figuratively, you decide) and now has a family. For better or worse.

Remember what ultimately destroyed the original Tiger Woods as we knew him? Committing to marriage. I'm just sayin' ...

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Have any favorite Bielema memories? Leave them below in the comments.

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For more Wisconsin coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.

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