The cardinal and white backdrop looked familiar. So did the man in the suit addressing a gathering of media members, athletic department personnel and boosters. But the face of Wisconsin’s football program for the past seven years wasn’t in Madison on Wednesday afternoon. Instead, he stood at a podium some 700 miles southwest in Fayetteville, Ark.
That’s where everything officially changed at an introductory news conference. Bret Bielema, the former Wisconsin coach, now belongs to Arkansas. For those Badgers fans who thought they were hallucinating, the first real clue indicating otherwise came when Bielema, wife Jen and Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long stood with hands in the air, fingers fluttering, ready to join voices in the Razorbacks’ famous Hog Call.
“Let’s call those hogs,” Bielema said.
Wooooooooo. Pig. Sooie!
Wooooooooo. Pig. Sooie!
Wooooooooo. Pig. Sooie!
The entire scene was surreal and hammered home that Bielema’s 68-24 record isn’t coming back to Wisconsin. Arkansas has its coach of the future, while Wisconsin is left scrambling to pick up the pieces less than one month before the Badgers play in their third consecutive Rose Bowl.
The question now is: How should Wisconsin football fans feel about their former coach’s legacy and his walking away just four days after leading the team to a Big Ten championship victory? Relieved? Angry? Resentful? Abandoned?
Bielema never was fully embraced by the fan base — in large part because he followed a living legend in Barry Alvarez and had yet to actually win a Rose Bowl in two tries. Certainly, nobody thought he would stay forever, but it seemed reasonable to think he would bask in the apex of his accomplishments. No Big Ten team had played in three consecutive Rose Bowls in 34 years — not even Alvarez’s teams. At Wisconsin, it doesn’t get any better than that.
But then, that’s exactly the point.
This is as good as it gets at a Wisconsin program that has its limitations. Bielema was aware of them and wanted to find something else. Something that, while not better now, could be better in the future. If that makes him a bad guy in some folks’ minds, then so be it.
“I came here to chase a dream. I’ve never been to a place where I can give them something they’ve never had,” Bielema told reporters Wednesday, explaining that winning the Big Ten championship at Wisconsin had been done even before he arrived.
“At Arkansas, it’s never been done. We never won an SEC title. Been in the game three times. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out you win the SEC title, you might be playing in the big one, especially after 2014. That is what a dream is all about.”
The limitations Wisconsin presents are particularly evident when it comes to financial resources — a point Bielema didn’t shy from Wednesday. In the SEC, where money seemingly grows on trees when it comes to football, there is more to go around to retain assistant coaches.
Bielema noted that after last year’s Rose Bowl, three of his assistants approached him about other coaching jobs. At Wisconsin, they made $225,000. Elsewhere, offers were flying in that exceeded $400,000. Not surprisingly, they left.
This year, after Wisconsin defeated Nebraska 70-31 for the Big Ten title last Saturday, Bielema said three more of his assistants were receiving interest from other programs.
“They had been contacted by other schools and were talking money I can’t bring them at Wisconsin,” Bielema said. “Wisconsin isn’t wired to do that at this point. I just felt for me and for my future and my wife and what I want to accomplish in the world of college football, I needed to have that ability to do that. Thankfully, I’ve found that here at Arkansas.”
It should be noted that Bielema, too, is making more money at Arkansas after signing a $3.2 million annual contract with $700,000 in incentives available per year. At Wisconsin, he was making $2.7 million. He reportedly turned down more money from Arkansas in an effort to offer better pay for his future assistants.
Bielema’s willingness to state what Wisconsin didn’t have might ruffle some feathers back in the Cheesehead State. Some suggest if Bielema were a better game manager, then maybe Wisconsin already would have played in the national championship game. Still, his success — even when compared with Alvarez’s — is stunning.
Alvarez is beloved at Wisconsin for turning a bottom feeder joke of a program into a respected Big Ten establishment and winning three Rose Bowls.
But in his 16 seasons, Wisconsin finished ranked in the AP Top 25 just six times. In Bielema’s seven seasons, the Badgers closed the year in the Top 25 on five occasions and could make it six with a victory against Stanford in the Rose Bowl next month. Both coaches won three conference titles, although Alvarez’s Rose Bowl wins will forever seem to overshadow Bielema’s other achievements.
On Wednesday, Bielema inadvertently spilled the beans that Alvarez would be coaching Wisconsin in this year’s Rose Bowl, temporarily leaving his position as the school’s athletic director and returning to a game in which he is undefeated.
“I just heard that before I came here, which will be awesome,” Bielema said. “They might finally win one. Everyone tells me he won three and I lost two.”
The comment, no doubt, was meant as a jab to the fans that so heavily criticized Bielema and those that didn’t think he accomplished enough. But the reality is, he helped keep Wisconsin relevant for his seven years in charge before ultimately doing what was best for him and his family. Who wouldn’t do the same if presented with a similar opportunity?