Bret Bielema didn't start his career at Wisconsin, but he appeared to feel right at home in Badger Land.
He had good and sometimes great teams. He had a great boss in athletic director Barry Alvarez, who handpicked Bielema as his coaching successor after the 2005 season. He made pretty good coin ($2.6 million). He seemingly had much more job security than most major-conference coaches. As long as Alvarez was around, Bielema was safe. He talked before this season about the promise of the 2013 squad.
But he evidently didn't have enough resources to keep him in Madison. Why else would he leave such a good situation? He'll also inherit much better facilities and more money to hire top assistants.
A decent portion of Wisconsin fans never fully embraced Bielema, despite his success in continuing what Alvarez had built with the Badgers. Although Alvarez played at Nebraska, he's a Badger, through and through. Alvarez is the reason the program is nationally relevant. Bielema never achieved that status despite winning 12 games his first season, as well as three consecutive Big Ten titles. Badgers fans never truly felt Bielema was one of them. His in-game coaching was questioned, especially after the 2012 Rose Bowl.
Bielema's surprising exit, on the heels of Wisconsin's dominating performance in the Big Ten championship game, leaves Alvarez scrambling to find the Badgers' next coach. He'd be wise to hire one of Wisconsin's own.
Alvarez could pull a Bill Snyder and reinstate himself as head coach. Crazier things have happened, and although Alvarez, who turns 66 on Dec. 30, seems more than content in his current role, he still loves the game.
A much likelier approach would be to bring Paul Chryst home.
Chryst grew up in Madison, played for Wisconsin, coached the Badgers' tight ends in 2002 and returned in 2005 as the team's co-offensive coordinator. He moved into the permanent coordinator role in 2006, which he occupied until becoming Pitt's head coach following the 2011 season. Chryst led record-setting Wisconsin offenses in 2010 and 2011 and had been coveted for several jobs before taking the one at Pitt.
The loyalty questions (fair or unfair) that sometimes surfaced among fans with Bielema likely wouldn't be there with Chryst. He knows the program, knows the town and knows the fan base. He makes a lot of sense.
Darrell Bevell's name also will come up. Bevell played quarterback for Alvarez and led Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl championship after the 1993 season. Although he started his career in the college ranks, he has been in the NFL since 2000 and serves as the Seattle Seahawks' offensive coordinator. Like Chryst, he has Wisconsin roots and would make a lot of sense.
Would Dave Doeren take Alvarez's call? Doeren, the former Badgers defensive coordinator under Bielema, accepted NC State's head-coaching job on Saturday, hours after winning his second straight MAC championship at Northern Illinois. Although Doeren's Wisconsin ties aren't as strong as Chryst's, he has spent much of his career in the Midwest.
It's a tough day for Wisconsin, which enjoyed stability and success under Alvarez and saw it continue with Bielema. The Badgers' program is a lot closer to Ohio State's and Michigan's than it is to the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. To see a coach leave for a good but not great SEC job can't be easy.
Wisconsin needs to decide what it wants to be. It'll soon have an upgraded athletic facility. Will there be additional resources to attract top assistants? Bielema lost six, including Chryst, after the 2011 season. So there had better be. The challenges in recruiting always will be there, but Wisconsin has found ways to overcome them with player development.
This is a very good program that shouldn't be viewed as a stepping stone, especially to a place like Arkansas.
Alvarez needs to hire someone who sees Wisconsin as a potential destination job.
Hope he didn't lose Chryst's number.