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We were all fooled.
With each flash of his smile and each ‘W’ he threw up with his hands, Bret Bielema had convinced everyone he was a Wisconsin guy, selling his program as one that could compete on the biggest stages and become a national brand.
And then with one stunning move, he turned from a salesman selling the ‘big W on the helmet’ to a salesman selling himself.
Bielema was introduced Wednesday as Arkansas’ third head coach in the past year. He flashed the same trademark smile, used the same clichés and his tie was virtually the same shade of cardinal, but his lapel pin had a new animal on it and he didn’t finish by saying ‘On Wisconsin,’ although he has almost let it slip a few subsequent times since.
And while it’s perfectly within his right to take another job at any point, the way he handled his departure was very anti-Wisconsin: selfish, deceitful and without care. One didn’t need to read too far between the lines to tell the way Bielema handled his move rubbed the players, coaches and his AD the wrong way. It was especially evident with the way Curt Phillips and Mike Taylor – two players Bielema recruited – talked about him … or didn’t talk about him.
Phillips said Bielema told the team Monday to ‘not make anything of it’ when they heard his name being brought up for open coaching vacancies. He was gone 24 hours later, as Bielema delivered the message knowing full well he was going to be speaking to Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, who did not ask Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez for permission, later that evening.
Taylor said he had no plans to speak to Bielema. He shouldn’t. After Bielema preached togetherness during a season full of close losses, who would have thought he would be the first to, as he put it, ‘spread his wings and fly a little further’ when a supposedly ‘better’ gig opened up?
That’s why Alvarez’s press conference Thursday morning announcing his brief return to the sidelines was a refresher course of what a Wisconsin guy is. Alvarez has had plenty of opportunities to leave Wisconsin since he turned the Badgers into a conference power in 1990, but there he sat, ready to lead his team on an interim basis to what he hopes is his fourth Rose Bowl win in as many tries.
Alvarez said Bielema ‘was like a son to me,’ but did agree when it was pointed out that sons don’t do that to their father.
Bielema becomes only the fourth Big Ten head coach since 1990 to leave a conference school for another job by his own decision. Arguably his departure was the biggest head scratcher of them all.
Bielema is not nor has ever been a SEC guy (he’s made that perfectly clear with some of the shots he’s fired over the bow in the past seven years). An Illinois native, an Iowa player and graduate, and coach at Wisconsin, Bielema is a Midwest guy through and through, even though he admitted to having some extended family in Arkansas.
Secondary, the decision of Illinois’ John Mackovic to Texas; Northwestern’s Gary Barnett to Colorado; Michigan State’s Nick Saban to LSU are all understandable because those programs were significant steps forward. Bielema’s move to Arkansas is a lateral move.
Arkansas went from talking about winning its first SEC conference championship to an ugly 4-8 season and competes yearly with Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M; four schools that make the top half of the Big Ten look like Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule.
Bielema told his players that it was his goal to build a program from the ground up and win a championship. Now, he's in the right conference for that with the SEC winning the last six national championships and a chance to win a seventh. If he is in the right situation to be competitive for a national title will be found out over the length of his moderately-higher annual contract if he makes it all the way through.
Alvarez laughed in retrospect when Bielema told him he felt he had a better chance to win a national championship at Arkansas, completely forgetting the fact that UW was ranked fourth in the country last October before back-to-back Hail Mary losses ended that dream. One could argue that had he managed the game or prepared his players better, the dream would have lived on.
“I can’t speak for what coach Bielema thinks or believes in,” said Taylor. “For me, I think we were two plays away from legitimately going to the national championship (last year).”
Make no mistake about it: Bielema was a good coach at Wisconsin. Named the conference coach of the year in his first season in 2006, Bielema was 68-24 in seven seasons at Wisconsin, won 11 or more games three times and won three straight conference championships. Bielema went 39-19 in Big Ten play, but against the best teams in the conference (Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State) during his tenure, he went 11-15.
He also went 2-4 in bowl games, including a 1-3 mark the past four seasons with teams he considered ‘his recruits.’
Bielema said following his first conference championship that he was trying to build the tradition to the point where Wisconsin is mentioned in the same sentence as Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State in the Midwest. He failed, because those three mentioned schools are ‘destination’ jobs that no coach leaves of its own free will, especially for a rebuilding project.
Bielema admitted it took him his first season to learn the words to ‘On Wisconsin.’ He seemed to have ‘pig sooie’ down pat from the start.
Whoever Alvarez hires, he will make sure that coach knows and appreciated the values Alvarez has established. In essence, he wants a guy that has Wisconsin tattooed on his arm. It’s not too much to ask since he’s already been spurred by a coach who had an Iowa logo engraved on his leg.