Why did Bret Bielema make what appears to be a lateral move to Arkansas on Tuesday? And where does Wisconsin go from here?
Bret Bielema accepted the vacant head coaching job for an Arkansas Razorbacks football team that just went 4-8 under the watch of a former insane Michigan State head coach, who is now an insane unemployed person. Bielema leaves behind a Wisconsin Badgers squad that has just made its third straight Rose Bowl. He says he wants to coach in Pasadena, but there is a good chance that neither his former, nor future employer will allow it. Nor will fans, according to this incredibly scientific poll.
Bielema is leaving a team modeled in the image of the man who handpicked him to play caretaker. Wisconsin will have gone to Pasadena six times in the last 20 years when they play the Stanford Cardinal on Jan. 1, thanks to a simple system that requires large bodies and little head-to-head recruiting against the so-called "big boys" of college football. Bielema will make $2.5 million this season. He presumably could have had the job for as long as he wanted...
So what the hell happened?
Was it the money?
That was my gut reaction. Initial reports suggested that Bielema was set to make over $4 million per season to coach the Razorbacks. His current salary at $2.5 million ranked just fifth in the Big Ten, according to USA Today, behind Kirk Ferentz, Brady Hoke, Bo Pelini and Urban Meyer. In the SEC, it would have ranked eighth. There's a chance that Bielema was chasing a better pay day.
A more recent report from an Arkansas TV station puts Bielema's salary at $3.2 million, however, which is a much more modest pay increase. After another successful season (ignore the means for now) it seems likely that Wisconsin would have been able to match Arkansas' offer if it wanted to, what with all the money coming in from the Big Ten's latest demographics grab.
So was it the pressure, then?
A Florida high school coach dropped a very interesting nugget in an ESPN 760 AM report earlier today:
"I talked to him yesterday. He sounded down," said Daniels. "He said he had offers in front of him and had some decisions to make."
"He had always said he wanted to retire at Wisconsin, but he took a lot of heat this year (5 losses). I don't think Bret has that kind of skin."
Brutal gameday decisions haven't endeared Bielema to fans, despite a 68-24 record as head coach. See: Danny O'Brien being inserted during the final two minutes of a 3-point Nebraska game. There is a chance that a disappointing five-loss season rubbed Barry Alvarez the wrong way, too, though that may never be known at this point. All we have is one quote from a high school coach.
Then again, if the quiet tut-tuts of a polite Midwestern fanbase are enough to send Bielema packing, how could he possibly think he will able to handle a wackadoodle fanbase in Fayetteville? Is he ready to take on the ire of this lady? Does he have any idea what she is capable of?
Bielema will have to have to restore prestige to a program, something he has never had to do in his lone head coaching stop, and he will have to do it while taking on Alabama and LSU every year. If he wanted to escape pressure, he sure did an awful job.
Is coaching in the SEC that awesome?
Maybe? I will agree that the SEC is on another plane of talent than the rest of the college football universe, something that will be all too apparent when the conference takes on the Big Ten in three New Year's Day bowl matchups. Win in the SEC, and you could have a statue erected in your honor while you are still prowling the sidelines. At Wisconsin, he would have had to wait until a whole year after he retired.
He will certainly have access to an incredible pool of talented high school prospects, but then again, when has he ever proven to be a superlative recruiter? His staff at Wisconsin did a stellar job developing 3-star talent to the blueprint laid out by coaches before them. He has to trust that he knows the blueprint well, and that it won't be ripped to shreds the second he sets foot in Tuscaloosa. Alvarez built Wisconsin up in front of a patient Wisconsin fanbase used to decades of losing. The Razorbacks went 11-2 in 2011.
So what now?
The big man is gone, and whatever the reason, the sense from Twitter and from discussions with friends seems to be relief. Bielema was never an exalted head coach at Wisconsin despite his success, but there was never a good reason to let him go. He did what a lot fans hoped and walked away, leaving Wisconsin free to find someone to, in theory, take the program to higher heights.
I never really understood the hate. While recognizing the dunder-headed things he has done on gameday, Bielema has to be commended for running a program that did more with less than just about anyone in college football. The latent idea that he was being hand-held by Alvarez seems somewhat silly after seven years helming the team.
We will see whether maintaining success at Wisconsin is really as easy as Bielema made it look, as Alvarez reaches out for another head coach. The first decision to be made will be whether to promote from within. Chris Ash could be considered if Charlie Partridge does leave with Bielema, as has been reported. If not Ash, then Alvarez could seek out someone else with ties to Wisconsin to ease any transition costs. Paul Chryst has no doubt been on his phone for much of this evening.
Wisconsin is about to undergo another makeover, just when fans had gotten used to the new coat of paint. Things are certainly about to get interesting around here. We'll see whether it's any fun.