MADISON, Wis. — Last February, Bret Bielema stood at a podium that may as well have been a soapbox and proclaimed the virtues of the Big Ten way. It was National Signing Day, and with Bielema set to introduce the newest football class at the University of Wisconsin, he preached about recruiting with dignity and the importance of ignoring the cutthroat mentality of “other leagues.”
In doing so, he also body-slammed the Southeastern Conference to the turf.
Bielema, the now former Wisconsin football coach, accused first-year Ohio State coach Urban Meyer of using illegal recruiting tactics, presumably to lure committed players from other programs, that stemmed to his days at Florida.
“There’s a few things that happened early on that I made people be aware of, that I didn’t want to see in this league, that I had seen take place in other leagues,” Bielema said. “Other recruiting tactics, other recruiting practices, that are illegal.”
Nevermind the fact those practices weren’t actually illegal. The following day, Bielema made his disdain for the SEC even clearer by telling Sporting News: “We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC — in any way, shape or form.”
Well, Bielema is about to face a whole lot of the SEC. Because he’s stepping into the very problems he so adamantly scorned 10 months ago.
Bielema accepted the head coaching position at Arkansas on Tuesday after seven seasons in charge at Wisconsin. And in the process, he comes across as a walking contradiction, dealing a blow to the Big Ten and further propping up the SEC. Apparently, his comments didn’t scorch the earth badly enough in Fayetteville.
If the SEC is such a terrible place, then why did Bielema walk out on a Big Ten program one month from a third straight Rose Bowl appearance to a school that finished 4-8 this season?
On the surface, it appears to come down to a few simple factors that not even Bielema’s high-and-mighty talk could deny.
For starters, Bielema may not like the way the SEC handles its business off the field, but it’s difficult to argue with the conference’s tremendous success on the field. The SEC has won six consecutive national championships, and Alabama is one victory against Notre Dame away from making it seven.
Though Arkansas hasn’t played for any of those titles, the Razorbacks will have the opportunity every season in the SEC West to compete with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M for the right to play for a conference championship and national title.
“It certainly is no question a step up,” said Pat Richter, Wisconsin’s athletic director from 1989-2004. “You look at the division they’re in and things like that, it’s top-level. From a professional standpoint, you want to say, ‘I want to participate at the highest level.’ You’d be hard pressed not to say that’s the case.”
Richter, like many in the Badgers community, was surprised by Bielema’s decision to leave. But he noted that Bielema, even while coaching Wisconsin to a 68-24 record, has been criticized locally for his inability to win the most important games. The Badgers have won the Big Ten but have yet to win a Rose Bowl under Bielema, going 0-2.
At Arkansas, Bielema has an opportunity to feel appreciated taking over a program in desperate need of a reshaping. Bobby Petrino essentially doused the school in kerosene and lit a match with his salacious departure from the program after having an affair with an athletic department employee.
In April, John L. Smith took over a team that was expected to contend for an SEC West title and ended up stalling like a beached whale. He didn’t make it past the tag of interim coach.
“If you look at it from Bret’s perspective, he’s kind of getting beat up a little bit for not winning the big one,” Richter said. “Then someone comes along and offers you a pretty good contract and an opportunity to start fresh somewhere, that’s an opportunity you can’t turn down. I think he was probably looking out for himself.”
If it is true that Bielema couldn’t handle criticism at Wisconsin, then what will happen if Arkansas loses to Texas A&M and Florida to open SEC play in 2013? Big Ten fans might be passionate about their football, but SEC football is a religion. Plus, Arkansas fans clamoring for a big-name hire likely already feel disappointed about adding a coach whose team finished third in the Big Ten Leaders Division. The Badgers only reached the conference title game because of NCAA sanctions to Ohio State and Penn State.
Speaking of Ohio State, maybe Bielema recognized Wisconsin’s days as a player for a Big Ten title were numbered. Ohio State finished the season undefeated with Meyer, and the Buckeyes will be a favorite to play in the national championship next season. Bielema is just 1-5 lifetime against Ohio State.
“With Urban Meyer lurking out there and Penn State, it’s going to be a tough road in the future,” Richter admitted. “To be able to maximize your potential, I think that’s probably the way he looked at it.”
Money certainly is always a factor in these decisions. Bielema was making $2.5 million a year at Wisconsin, although he could have used other job offers as leverage to hike up his salary. He reportedly will make $3.2 million per year at Arkansas.
The reasons for Bielema’s departure are known only to him at this juncture. Maybe it was about respect. Maybe it was about ego. Maybe he simply gave in to an age-old adage as it pertains to the SEC: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.