Bret Bielema was born in Illinois at a place called Illini Hospital. He played his college football at Iowa and has a tattoo of a tiger hawk on his leg.
Except for a two-year stint at Kansas State as co-defensive coordinator, Bielema spent his entire career in the Big Ten and was groomed by Barry Alvarez to take over Wisconsin. In February, after he objected to some of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer's aggressive recruiting tactics, Bielema said this: “We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC -- in any way, shape or form.”
Now, less than a year later, Bielema is leaving for a middle-of-the-pack SEC job at Arkansas. And that's a bitter pill to swallow not only for Badgers fans, but for the entire Big Ten.
Bielema is a Midwest guy, through and through, a coach who seemed sent straight out of central casting to lead a Big Ten program. He had a close-knit relationship with Alvarez, who became his athletic director, and on Saturday night he clinched his school-record third straight Rose Bowl trip with a surprisingly easy 70-31 Big Ten title game upset win over Nebraska. Bielema had received some minor criticism for dumping new offensive line coach Mike Markuson just two weeks into this season, but nobody was questioning that bold move after the offense steamrolled for 539 yards against the Huskers. Standing on the Lucas Oil Stadium field an hour after the win Saturday night, he looked as happy and contented as anyone in the often-deranged profession of coaching could be.
That's why Tuesday afternoon's news was so stunning. While coaches switch jobs all the time and are smart to stay one step ahead of the ax, Bielema had as much security and control over his team as he could possibly wish. Despite a 7-5 regular season, the program still appeared to be at its zenith. Bielema told me in the spring that while he liked his chances in 2012, he thought 2013 would be the best team he would ever have in Madison, which was saying a lot for a guy who'd averaged nearly 10 wins a season and all but made Pasadena his winter home.
So this raises two obvious questions: Why would Bielema leave? And if the Big Ten can't hold on to this coach, in this situation, does it have any prayer of actually competing with the SEC?
Arkansas isn't Alabama or Florida. It's a step behind the top SEC powers, but has a fan base that expects to win national titles. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is easily one of the Big Ten's best four or five jobs, though the arrival of Meyer has definitely made life much more difficult in the Leaders Division. Of course, if Bielema didn't want to deal with tough division rivals or intense recruiting wars, he picked a funny way of showing it by leaving for the SEC West.
Wisconsin presented its own share of challenges. The state does not annually produce a lot of Division I prospects, so the Badgers have to do a great job of evaluating and developing players. It said a lot that the team's starting quarterback and top receiver in the middle of this season both were walk-ons. But starting with Alvarez and continuing with Bielema, Wisconsin made a habit of churning out NFL starters from non-scholarship or lightly recruited players. It had a system, based first on dominant offensive lines and the running game, and that system worked like a factory line.
At Arkansas, Bielema will have much more access to blue-chip talent, but also far more competition for it. Simply getting to BCS games, as he has in Madison, won't cut it in Fayetteville. Bielema will also find that certain flaws that left him unloved by some Badgers fans -- some questionable late-game management, a personality that bordered on cocky at times -- are about to be magnified exponentially in the maniacal SEC.
The biggest advantage the Razorbacks can offer, besides a mascot that will remind Bielema of his family's hog farm, is money. Bielema was making more than $2.6 million at Wisconsin, ranking as the 18th-highest paid coach in the country. Early reports indicate that he will be paid more than $3 million by Arkansas. It's not just his own pay, though, that makes a difference. Six assistants departed Bielema's staff last offseason, and while Paul Chryst understandably left for a head-coaching opportunity at Pitt, the others all took jobs that were not major steps up.
The Badgers, like many Big Ten teams, have lagged behind other power leagues in pay for assistant coaches. In June, the Lansing State Journal reported that Wisconsin ranked only seventh among 10 Big Ten schools who reported their salaries for assistants, with a total pool of just under $2 million. Matt Canada and Chris Ash were among the lowest-paid coordinators in the league. Wisconsin also has dealt with some outdated facilities, though the school is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar improvement project.
The money angle is the most concerning for the Big Ten. Even though the conference ranks as the richest conference thanks to its successful cable network, it is still losing one of its top coaches over what appears to be mostly a pay issue. Decry the out-of-control salaries and never-ending arms race all you want. Just don't complain when the SEC is winning national titles and the Big Ten is not.
Only Pat Fitzgerald, who became Northwestern's head coach the same year Bielema took over the Badgers, and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz had been in their chairs as long as Bielema. The dean of coaches in the Leaders Division is now Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who just completed his second season.
Bielema had all the characteristics of a Big Ten lifer. Instead, like the college football world in general, he's moving to the South. Score another victory for the SEC, this one a disheartening upset.