Bielema Face photo credit: My telephone during the 2012 Rose Bowl, when Bret Bielema watched Russell Wilson spike the ball with no time remaining.
1. Only days after qualifying for a third straight Rose Bowl, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has decided to trade "On Wisconsin" for "Woo Pig Sooie."
Bielema officially announced the move at a press conference on Wednesday; Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports first reported the move a day earlier.
In trading Madison, Wis., for Fayetteville, Ark., Bielema throws himself into the Thunderdome that is the SEC West. Instead of going to the Big Ten Championship by default, instead of competing with Ohio State and a Penn State program about to be nailed with scholarship and bowl restrictions, Bielema will line up across the sidelines from Nick Saban and Les Miles at least once a year. Instead of trying to contain Braxton Miller for two more years, he will need to dream up ways to stop Johnny Manziel for another three. And instead of complaining about SEC recruiting tactics, Bielema finds himself in the heart of those off-season, living room battles.
The Arkansas job represents a modest annual pay bump, from the $2.5 million he earned this year at Wisconsin to a reported $3.2 million, according to the of Kurt Voigt of the Associated Press.
2. Still, why leave? Some have surmised that Bielema reached the ceiling of the Wisconsin program, that he wanted to pursue the challenge of leading the Razorbacks to a championship. He said as much to ESPN during his first press conference as Razorback head coach. Others guessed that he was frustrated watching his assistants leave for better paid jobs; he also mentioned that in those same interviews. Another theory is that if Bielema truly wants to chase a national championship, Arkansas has a better shot than Wisconsin.
But let's consider what Bielema is trading.
In the Big Ten Leaders division, he would begin competing with a rebuilt Ohio State, which is no doubt positioned to become the class of the conference for the immediate future, especially considering that the Buckeyes had somewhat of a down year and still finished undefeated. Urban Meyer will no doubt clean up in recruiting like he always does and across the conference, Michigan also proves a difficult challenge on the field and in recruiting.
Other than those two, Wisconsin is currently the third-best program in the conference; with the weak Leaders Division, you could argue that it's the second-best job in the Big Ten. Penn State can go undefeated for the next three years, but still won't sniff a post-season bowl. Purdue just fired its coach again. Illinois, with a first-year coach, have lost 14 conference games in a row and Indiana, well Indiana is really excited about where Tom Crean has the basketball team.
3. Now consider the SEC West.
Among these seven teams, two were considered the best two in the country for much of the year. Another team is led by a player who might be the first freshman Heisman trophy winner ever.
If Urban Meyer and Ohio State are intimidating, Nick Saban and the Alabama war chest should be downright terrifying. Then follow that up with a road game at Baton Rouge. Two years ago when a two-loss Arkansas played a BCS bowl – they were blown out by both LSU and Alabama by 24 points both times. You round things out with Texas A&M and Meyer disciple Dan Mullen at Mississippi State.
Two years ago, Arkansas played in that BCS bowl. But look at Auburn, a doormat this year in the SEC West. Three years ago they won the National Championship. Things can dovetail quickly with the amount of talent in this conference, ask Tennessee. This isn't to say that Bielema can't coach or to ignore his accomplishments. He can flat out coach. But it is a bit misguided, if not unrealistic, to expect that Bielema will immediately continue to win 10 games a year like he did in Madison.
4. While Barry Alvarez certainly did the heavy lifting in building a strong program capable of winning the conference, Bielema advanced the Badgers into a perennial candidate to win the conference. During the 45 years and five coaches before Alvarez and Bielema, Wisconsin football won only 39 percent of its games, compared to 66 percent since.
As much as Bielema was a walking twitter hashtag, he routinely delivered results on the field.
Where does Wisconsin turn now? The first Badger acolytes who come to mind already have jobs. Paul Chryst doesn't want to leave Pittsburgh. Dave Doeren already took a job with North Carolina State. Other Badger assistants, like Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge, might be following Bielema to the SEC. Going any further back gets ugly: Darrell Bevell hasn't coached a college team since 1999 and Brad Childress is currently the offensive mastermind behind the Brandon Weeden project.
Other big-name coaches who were floated in the Tennessee and Auburn coaching searches have already resigned for more money at their schools or found new jobs.
For instance, perennial "Is he available?" candidate Chris Peterson of Boise State has already been floated – as he is with every coaching search – and has taken his name out of consideration for the Wisconsin position.
Picking a new head coach isn't easy. Of all people, Gopher fans realize that. Consider that it took a high profile school like Notre Dame five coaches and 16 years to find a suitable replacement for Lou Holtz. It took Alabama – ALABAMA! – a decade and five coaches before they landed on Nick Saban. Michigan threw millions of dollars at Rich Rodriguez, and then threw millions more at him to leave. Gopher fans watched that program struggle through Jim Wacker, tread water back to occasional respectability and then drown under the false braggadocio of a tight ends coach.
While Bielema will be hard-pressed to match in Arkansas what he accomplished in Wisconsin, Wisconsin will be just as hard-pressed in finding someone to match what Bielema accomplished in Madison.