Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bret Bielema leaves Wisconsin for Arkansas

Wisconsin was a perennial doormat of the Big "Ten" in football before Barry Alvarez took over as the head football coach in 1990.  Alvarez lead the Badgers to a 118-74-4 record, 8-3 in bowl games (including 3 Rose Bowl victories), and 3 Big "Ten" Championships (1993, 1998, & 1999).  Bret Bielema served as defensive coordinator under Alvarez at Wisconsin for two seasons (2004-2005) before taking over as the head football coach when Alvarez relinquished those duties to focus solely on being the Wisconsin athletic director (a position he held since 2004 after Pat Richter retired as athletic director).

On Monday I posted a question to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Wisconsin Badgers beat writer Jeff Potrykus's chat about the rumors of Bielema leaving Wisconsin for Tennessee.  Potrykus dismissed the rumor.  As it turns out, Bielema is leaving Wisconsin to coach in the SEC, just not for Tennessee.  Instead, Bielema accepted an offer to become the 32nd head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks, which is the team that Bielema beat 17-14 in his first season as head football coach of Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl.  The timing of Bielema leaving Wisconsin is surprising because he was set to lead Wisconsin to their 3rd consecutive Rose Bowl appearance in a little less than a month.

Bielema finished his seven year stint as head football coach at Wisconsin with a 68-24 record, 37-19 in the Big "Ten", 2-0 in Big "Ten" Championship Games, and 2-4 bowl games.

Let's look at Bielema's record, by season:
2006: 12-1 and 7-1 in Big "Ten"
2007: 9-4 and 5-3 in Big "Ten"
2008: 7-6 and 3-5 in Big "Ten"
2009: 10-3 and 5-3 in Big "Ten"
2010: 11-2 and 7-1 in Big "Ten"
2011: 11-3 and 6-2 in Big "Ten"
2012: 8-5 and 4-4 in Big "Ten"

Bielema had a lackluster bowl record, which always left a bad taste in Badgers fan's mouths throughout the 9 month off-season.  Here is Bielema's bowl game breakdown:
2006: beat Arkansas 17-14 in the Capital One Bowl on January 1, 2007
2007: lost to Tennessee 21-17 in the Outback Bowl on January 1, 2008
2008: lost to Florida State 42-13 in the Champs Sports Bowl on December 27, 2008
2009: beat Univ. of Miami (FL) 20-14 in the Champs Sports Bowl on December 29, 2009
2010: lost to TCU 21-19 in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2011
2011: lost to Oregon 45-38 in the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2012

Bielema's biggest accomplishment at Wisconsin will undoubtedly be going 2-0 in the only two Big "Ten" Championship games ever played (so far) in conference history:
2011: beat Michigan State 42-39 in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game
2012: beat Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten Championship Game

Wisconsin won at least a share of the Big Ten Title in each of the last three seasons: 2010 (Co-Champions), 2011 ("Leaders" Division Co-Champions, represented "Leaders" Division in the Big Ten Championship Game & won), and 2012 ("Leaders" Division representative in Big "Ten" Championship Game despite finishing 3rd in the "Leaders" division because Ohio State & Penn State were ineligible for post-season play & won).  The only hole in Bielema's resume is that he never won a Rose Bowl, going 0-2 while his predecessor and former boss Alvarez went 3-0.

There was some speculation after Bielema accepted the job at Arkansas that he still wanted to coach Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl but rumbling are that associate head coach/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge would get the nod in Bielema's place if Partridge doesn't follow Bielema to Arkansas.  I find Bielema wanting to coach Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl unrealistic on two fronts.  First, Arkansas wants Bielema to hit the recruiting trail immediately.  Second, Wisconsin wants to name Bielema's successor as soon as possible for recruiting purposes and might be able to use the chance to coach the upcoming Rose Bowl as a way to entice a slightly bigger name to take the job.

There are a ton of other jobs that you could argue are just as good or maybe even slightly better than Wisconsin (i.e. Clemson, Michigan State, etc) but what collegiate head football coaching jobs are unquestionably better than Wisconsin?  In my mind, here are the unquestionably better, and in most instances more risky, jobs:
- ACC: Florida State, University of Miami (FL), and Virginia Tech
- Big 12: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas
- Big "Ten": Michigan, Nebraska, and Ohio State
- Independent: Notre Dame
- Pac-12: Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, and USC
- SEC: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, and LSU

There is no doubt (in my mind at least) that Arkansas is bigger college football program than Wisconsin.  Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992 but has never won a conference championship and has only appeared in the conference championship game three times  Despite not having any SEC Championships, Arkansas fans still expect to win the SEC.

After finishing the 2011 season the 5th ranked team in the country, the Arkansas football program has fallen on hard times over the last eight months.  Bobby Petrino was fired as the head football coach of Arkansas after it was revealed that he was having an affair with a former Arkansas student-athlete that he hired to work him.  Former Michigan State head coach John L. Smith took a 10-month contract to coach Arkansas but could only muster a 4-8 record (2-6 in the SEC) despite having a ton of raw talent on the roster.  That all leaves Bielema with a bit of a mess to clean-up at Arkansas.

Let's not forget Bielema was born in Illinois, played football at Iowa, and coached football in the Big "Ten" for all but two years of his coaching career until now.  Bielema even took some shots at Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer insinuating that the Big "Ten" is classier than the SEC in terms of recruiting practices.  This all begs the question, why would Bielema take the Arkansas job instead of staying at Wisconsin?

As always, follow the money.  Even though Bielema was already one the 20 highest paid college football coaches earning $2.6 million in 2012 he didn't think that was enough I guess.  There are conflicting reports on Bielema's future annual compensation from Arkansas, some claim that Bielema signed a six-year contract worth $3.2 million a year while others report that Bielema is set to earn more than $4 million a year.  I planned on writing a post as the Badgers got closer to the Rose Bowl on whether Bielema was sufficiently compensated since he was the 5th highest paid coach in the Big "Ten" in 2012 but I guess Arkansas showed us that Bielema was underpaid at Wisconsin.

The Big "Ten" is a quality football conference but it is not nearly as deep or demanding as the SEC.  There are currently 14 teams in the SEC broken into the Eastern Division (University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of Kentucky, University of Missouri, University of South Carolina, University of Tennessee, & Vanderbilt University) and Western Division (University of Alabama, University of Arkansas, Auburn University, Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, University of Mississippi, & Texas A&M University).

Juxtapose that with the 14 teams that will make up the Big "Ten" in 2014 with this potential breakdown for the Legends Division (Indiana, Maryland, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers, & Wisconsin) and Leaders Division (Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, & Northwestern).  With Bielema headed to the SEC that leaves Indiana's Kevin Wilson as the longest tenured coach in the Legends Division (hired in 2010) and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz as the longest tenured coach (hired in 1999) in the Big "Ten".

Penn State is only a quarter of the way though four years of crippling sanctions so Wisconsin is poised to push Ohio State for the Legends Division Title for the foreseeable future.  That is simply not the case at Arkansas in the Western Division of the SEC.  Over that same time frame Alabama (thanks to Nick Saban), LSU (thanks to Les Miles), and Texas A&M (thanks to Johnny Football) will most likely finish ahead of Arkansas.  The love for college football down south is akin to professional soccer abroad so if Bielema thinks finishing 4th in the Western Division of the SEC is acceptable, he is sorely mistaken.

The pressing issue for Wisconsin now is getting a quality head coach hired as soon as possible.  The first name to surface was former assistant coach Paul Chryst who coached the tight ends at Wisconsin in 2002 before leaving the program to be the offensive coordinator at Oregon State for the next two seasons (2003-2004) before returning to Wisconsin as the offensive coordinator from 2005-2011 before becoming the head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh this past season.  Chryst only went 6-6 at Pittsburgh but that shouldn't matter much since Chryst is credited with landing a number of the offensive superstars that currently play for the Badgers.  Chryst released a statement that said he is committed to Pittsburgh but as Bielema showed, money talks.

Beside Chryst, former Wisconsin assistant coach Dave Doeren is another name that I am sure will surface.  Doeren held various defensive assistant coaching titles at Wisconsin from 2006-2010 before leaving the program to become the head football coach of Northern Illinois in 2011.  Doeren lead Northern Illinois to a 23-4 record including an upcoming BCS Bowl appearance (Orange Bowl) before leaving to become the head football coach at North Carolina State for next season.

For either Chryst or Doeren to become the next head football coach of Wisconsin, they would need very lucrative long-term guarantees.  I am not saying that Wisconsin has to sign either Chryst or Doeren but I am saying that it is time for Wisconsin to actually start paying the going rate for head coaches and more importantly their assistant coaches.  Bielema lost six assistant coaches last off-season and all were hired to similar assistant coaching positions besides Chryst.  Thus Wisconsin has to start paying their assistants because it might have been a big reason why Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas.

Assuming Bielema continued to keep Wisconsin bowl eligible on an annual basis his job was safe.  Now Bielema has to chase national titles with BCS bowl appearances on a near annual basis as a fallback position to keep his job at Arkansas.  Only time will tell if Bielema made the right decision.  As long as Bielema accepted the Arkansas job while fully appreciating the risks, I can't blame him for taking the new gig.  If Bielema is looking for a new employer in the next five years, he should have stayed at Wisconsin instead of going all-in taking the Arkansas job

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