By Chris Mahr
Before arriving at Lost Lettermen, among my two most notable bylines were season previews for Wisconsin’s 2011 and 2012 football teams, written for Sports Illustrated.
After all, he was a man with deep Midwestern roots. A native of Illinois who played at Iowa and then briefly with the AFL’s Milwaukee Mustangs prior to assistant coaching gigs with the Hawkeyes, Kansas State and Wisconsin before taking over in Madison.
What’s more, he was highly successful, going 68–24 and leading Wisconsin to three straight Big Ten titles and subsequent Rose Bowl appearances. So naturally I was taken aback upon hearing on Tuesday that Bielema was leaving for Arkansas — as I’m sure many college football fans were.
Why leave the comforts of Wisconsin (in regards to recent success) for the melodrama of Pig Sooie Nation and the trench warfare of the SEC?
That was my first reaction. But after spending the past day mulling over the move — by far the most noteworthy coaching change thus far — I’ve come to see that it made a lot of sense for Bielema to take the Arkansas job when it was offered to him.
And not just because of the money. Yes, the $3.2 million annual salary Bielema will receive from the Razorbacks represents a 28% raise from what he was making in Madison, but that’s not nearly enough to be considered a “Godfather offer.”
What it really comes down to are three factors.
No. 1: SEC vs. Big Ten
It’s a never-ending drum to beat, but this season truly established that when it comes to caliber of play in college football, the SEC is on one level and everybody else is on another.
Of the conference’s 14 members, six finished in the BCS Top 10. A staggering accomplishment considering that the sport’s second most successful conference this season, the Pac-12, could only boast four teams in the Top 25.
And several times, the Big Ten has played the role of whipping boy whenever the SEC has flexed its muscles in inter-conference matchups. Ohio State was routed in consecutive BCS title games by Florida (2007) and LSU (2008). Alabama crushed Michigan State in the 2011 Capital One Bowl, 49-7. Michigan looked completely undeserving of its No. 8 preseason ranking in a 41–14 humbling at the hands of the Crimson Tide on opening weekend.
Bielema had a choice between college football’s premiere conference or remaining in a league that was often exposed by the SEC and whose rebuttal to the SEC’s recent expansion was by adding a pair of football “heavyweights” in Maryland and Rutgers.
No. 2: Change in Scenery
I initially saw that aforementioned life spent entirely in the Midwest as a reason why Bielema would never leave Madison. In fact, it might be a reason why he decided to go.
I’m not indicating that life as the coach of a Big Ten program isn’t great. Or that spending one’s entire life in the Midwest isn’t worthwhile. But let’s face it; Bielema is a major college sports coach. And there’s something about the DNA of such people that always has them looking out for new opportunities, new challenges and new position openings.
While he’s never said it, Bielema likely took a cue from the last Big Ten coach to leave for another job. A coach who, like Bielema, had spent the bulk of his coaching career in the Midwest: Nick Saban.
Saban left Michigan State for LSU following the 1999 season, and since then he’s been entrenched at the top of his profession. Bielema is surely hoping for a similar trajectory and feels confident enough that he can do so.
No. 3: Unappreciative Wisconsin Fans
This is the biggest elephant in the room.
You’d think that Badgers fans would be crestfallen to see the departure of a coach who had led the program to the top of the Big Ten three years running. Instead, what you’re greeted with on message boards is mostly apathy. In some inexplicable cases, all-out excitement that Bielema is gone.
Seriously? In seven years at Wisconsin, Bielema had as many seasons with 10-plus wins (four) as Barry Alvarez did in 16 years. And Alvarez is a living legend in Madison. Bielema constantly kept the Badgers roster loaded with immoveable offensive linemen and game-changing running backs, two must-have ingredients in a recipe for perennial Big Ten success. And he was a very adept recruiter.
Yet somehow, Badgers fans never seemed satisfied. There were calls for Bielema’s head following a 7–6 season in 2008, which he only somewhat silenced with three straight years of 10-plus wins. While not privy to the chatter in and around Madison, I assume that those grumblings rose up again this year after the Badgers went a disappointing 7–5 in the regular season.
Yes, I acknowledge that Bielema had had some often adverse and game-changing issues with game and clock management. But he deserved much more credit for Wisconsin’s success than Badgers fans conceded to him.
Satisfying the notoriously hard-to-please legion of Razorbacks fans will be similarly tough. But at the very least it will be a different fan base he’ll have to answer to.
Plus, Bielema has earned the chance to answer them. And it made sense that he chose to try.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire