For Badgers fans across the world, Wednesday, December 5th, 2012 was either a dream come true or a nightmare—depending on their view of the University of Wisconsin-Madison football team over the last seven years.
On that unseasonably balmy day in Wisconsin, Bret Bielema was far away and being formally introduced as the new head football coach of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. Quite a turnaround from the previous weekend, when he received the Big Ten Championship trophy on behalf of the Wisconsin Badgers.
Apparently, Bielema had done some horse trading in New York soon after the championship game, swapping his badger-themed gear for that of a wild pig. For Badger nation, this wheeling and dealing came as quite a shock.
Separation is often difficult, and the departure of Bielema after seven years at the helm in Madison has left many scratching their heads. The state of Wisconsin was just entering the late stages of healing from a messy departure by another football guy named Brett (last name Favre) before being blindsided by this announcement.
The timing of Bielema's decision seems especially perplexing.
The Badgers had just run away with the Big Ten Championship game against Nebraska in what was definitively their most complete performance in 2012 (and maybe ever) under the direction of Bielema.
The team, seemingly releasing months of frustration, steamrolled over the Nebraska Cornhuskers with more than 500 yards rushing. Behind record-setting running back Montee Ball and some capable backups, Wisconsin plowed straight into a collision with Stanford in the 2013 Rose Bowl.
The victory and the Rose Bowl berth were equally surprising given that the team had amassed only the sixth best record in the Big Ten during regular season play—qualifying for the championship game only because of sanctions against two other teams in the division.
A shocking win in the Big Ten Championship game might be fitting for an already quirky season in Madison. Early on, the team's nonconference schedule was marred by futility in the running game—typically a signature of the Wisconsin attack.
Then, ineffective coaching and/or player execution resulted in the Badgers' first nonconference loss during Bielema's tenure.
Next, a coaching shake-up to right the ship. Followed closely by an epic collapse against Nebraska, resulting in the Cornhuskers' second-greatest comeback in school history.
After that, three nail-biting, overtime losses against Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State.
The season culminated in a stunning and often unbelievably easy rout of the Cornhuskers, which punched a long-shot ticket to the Rose Bowl.
After all this, the head coach decides to resign. His resignation was like finding out that the roller coaster you are about to board was just repaired—it's either a really good thing or a really bad thing. It all depends on your perspective.
The drama of the Badgers' 2012 season makes Bielema's departure especially difficult to quantify.
As mentioned earlier, the Badgers lost their first nonconference game in seven years during the 2012 campaign. The team also lost four games against Big Ten opponents, resulting in Bielema's second-worst showing in the Big Ten since rising to the position of head coach.
For many fans (and most probably the players too), the losses were especially frustrating because each one was arguably a winnable game. And because of this, Bielema's polarizing effect on fans was almost like a rerun of the recent recall election involving Governor Scott Walker—two sides, one line drawn down the middle.
For those unfamiliar with the Wisconsin football program, this might come as a surprise. The Badgers just won the Big Ten Championship in unbelievable fashion. They are headed to their third consecutive Rose Bowl—a feat not accomplished by any Big Ten team since the 1970s.
One might think Bielema would be riding a rickshaw around Madison pulled by devoted fans, with a sleigh on hand for the occasional blizzard. But a deeper dive into Bielema's record at Wisconsin is a little like watching an HD television for the first time. Certain subtleties are revealed, some of which may not be as flattering upon closer inspection.
Coach Bielema's overall record in Wisconsin stands at 68-24—certainly a lofty accomplishment. However, looking at Bielema's resume with the aid of modern technology (i.e. Wikipedia) reveals some more flawed numbers, such as 2-7.
That's two wins and seven losses.
That's Bielema's record against teams ranked in the Top 10. Probably not the first statistic he gave athletic director Jeff Long at the University of Arkansas, which happens to compete in the SEC—which happens to include a large number of schools consistently ranked in the Top 10.
Peeling away another layer of Bielema's resume, we find that his record against teams ranked in the Top 25 is also below .500, at 11-13. And in big games (ranked opponents, non-ranked bowl opponents and Ohio State 2012—ranked but sanctioned), this record drops to 11-15. If all nonconference regular season games are removed from Bielema's record at Wisconsin—competition conservatively described as lower-tier—his record is 41-23.
Nothing to sneeze at there. But a far cry from his highly publicized record of 68-24.
In his introductory press conference, Bielema told NWA Media that "I'm not real quick with numbers." An examination of his record seems to support his own assertion—particularly numbers one through 10.
Given the Badgers will face No. 6 Stanford in the Rose Bowl, maybe the team will still achieve a favorable result even without Bielema pacing the sidelines. And the new Arkansas coach may agree with that too.
Upon hearing that Barry Alvarez would guide the players against Stanford, the new Arkansas coach joked during the same introductory press conference, "They might finally win one. Everyone tells me he won three and I lost two."
Aside from that comment, the Rose Bowl is probably not on the forefront of Bielema's mind. He will have other challenges in front of him as he cleans up the sty in Arkansas with the Razorbacks coming off a 4-8 record in the daunting SEC. It will be interesting to see if Bielema can indeed master the numbers one to 10 often found in the SEC and achieve his dream of winning a national championship.
The Badgers will have to clean up their own sett (technical term for a badger's den) too. After a blindside sack of the head coach by the Razorbacks, they'll have to pick themselves up, spit out the dirt, even out their shoulder pads and get back down to business.
In the short-term, they'll have to rally around Barry Alvarez and their FBS record-holding touchdown machine Montee Ball. If the Badgers can tap the same energy they used against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship, they'll be smiling during the trophy presentation. And Barry Alvarez will be collecting his fourth piece of Rose Bowl hardware—most likely forever undefeated in Pasadena.
After that, he'll take some time to pick a capable successor—again.