With Bret Bielema leaving town for Arkansas quicker than a newly-hired Wal-Mart executive yesterday, Badger fan concerns now shift from the Rose Bowl to what's next. Despite the turmoil 2012 presented, it marked a third straight Big Ten Conference championship and a third straight Rose Bowl.
Regardless of your opinion of Bielema's coaching ability, he leaves Wisconsin on a perch with a long potential fall. Wisconsin won at a similar rate with Bielema as it did with Barry Alvarez -- Alvarez posted a .610 winning percentage compared to Bielema's .739, but Alvarez went 8-3 in bowls and inherited a team that had won just six games in three seasons. Overall, Bielema maintained what Alvarez built.
A disastrous coaching change -- at least, the worst fear goes -- could send the program back into the dark ages of Don Morton and John Jardine. Have coaching changes wreaked such havoc in the Big Ten?
There have been 36 coaching changes in the conference in the past 25 years. Typically, there is a small drop-off in year one, followed by incremental improvement in the following two seasons. Measured by the Simple Rating System -- a statistical rating system that measures teams by points above average -- teams worsened by 1.5 points in year one, improved by three points (net of plus-1.5) in year two and improved by another two points (net of plus-3.5) in year three. The entire set:
There have been a few notable quick-turn success stories. John Mackovic, Ron Turner, Lou Tepper and Ron Zook all had relative success at Illinois within their first three years, increasing the team's rating by at least eight points. Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), John L. Smith (Michigan State), Jim Wacker (Minnesota), Glen Mason (Minnesota), Jim Tressel (Ohio State), Joe Tiller (Purdue) and Alvarez also oversaw teams that improved by at least eight points after three years at the helm.
It's not an impressive list -- only Alvarez and Tressel were able to sustain success. Alvarez kept the Badgers routinely above-average (both for the NCAA and for the conference) while Tressel returned Ohio State to a perennial championship (both conference and national) contender after a brief hiccup in John Cooper's final seasons.
The problem? Only two of those most-improving coaches were improving teams with a talent base to begin with. Only Tepper's 1992 Illini and Tressel's 2000 Buckeyes were coming off above-average (5.5 SRS or better) Big Ten seasons. Even Tepper's best team -- the 1994 version with the fourth-best defense in the country -- managed to win just seven games; he was never able to translate that team's fantastic defense in to wins.
The Badgers are just 8-5 but the Simple Rating System gives them credit for close losses and blowout wins -- it's largely based off points scored and points allowed. As such, the team finished 2012 with a sharp 10.09 SRS, the 24th-best in the country. Therefore the Badgers fit squarely in the "already above average" category, a situation that has seen just 12 coaching changes in the Big Ten conference since 1987:
The tale we get here is mixed. The general progression from these coaches is not encouraging: on average, the clubs have worsened by five points in year one, negligibly improved in year two, and improved by three points in year three (minus-two net). Wisconsin fans shouldn't be surprised -- we saw the relative dysfunction early in 2012 as the Badgers adjusted to a nearly wholesale change in the coaching staff, the closest thing you can get from an outright coaching change.
But, as long as there is some patience, this isn't a problem -- these programs, for the most part, are healthy enough to maintain success as long as the dropoff isn't precipitous -- as it was for Rich Rodriguez in Michigan and Bobby Williams in Michigan State. Otherwise, these coaches -- including Bielema himself, who oversaw the second-worst three-year drop since 1987 -- managed to keep their programs in contention thanks to the head start they enjoyed upon their hiring.
So for the Badgers, the mission is to avoid disaster. The club is young and returns many of its important players, which should help the transition. A lull is to be expected unless the new coach is on the level of a Saban or a Tressel -- an unrealistic expectation -- but if the team can stay in bowl contention throughout the new coach's early years, it should be able to at least remain a top-25 team and one of the Big Ten's top three or four squads.