When Bret Bielema announced on Dec. 5 that he was leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas, it came as a shock to most of the college football world.
Why would a man who has taken his team to two straight Rose Bowls and qualified for a third leave high-and-dry for a school that just finished up a disappointing 4-8 season?
It may be difficult to understand at first, but 1-5 against Ohio State and 2-3 against Penn State isn’t all that hard to comprehend.
Talking about his decision to leave Wisconsin, Bielema said (via Yahoo!) ''I just felt it was time for me to try and spread my wings and fly a little bit further.”
Fly a little bit further? How is it possible to fly further than three straight trips to the Rose Bowl, in a division with the likes of Alabama and LSU?
The short answer is that it may not be. Bielema may not even have that much success in Fayetteville. But the potential for future success is much greater at Arkansas than it would have been moving forward in Madison.
Current athletic director Barry Alvarez would like to think that he has built something great at Wisconsin, and who can really argue with him? Before Alvarez took over in Madison, the Badgers were a college football afterthought, winning a total of three conference titles between 1913 and 1992. By the time Alvarez stepped down as head coach, the Badgers had captured three more Big Ten titles and had been to 11 bowl games.
Even with the legacy of Alvarez and Bielema’s success afterwards, Wisconsin has not managed to grab the Big Ten by the throat for the long haul.
With the hiring of Urban Meyer in December 2011 and Meyer’s subsequent undefeated season in his first year, Ohio State seems to have staked its claim as the beast of the Big Ten. With the recruiting history of Meyer and the allure of Ohio State itself, it wouldn’t be crazy to say that Wisconsin would be playing second fiddle to the Buckeyes as long as Meyer is head coach.
Bielema can talk all he wants about how he left Wisconsin in a better place than he found it, and that is mostly true. Never before has Wisconsin won three straight Big Ten Championships.
But the wins against Ohio State and Penn State will be even harder to come by in the coming years, and it isn’t like Bielema has dominated those teams during his tenure as head coach.
Surely, Bielema sees what happened to fellow Big Ten coach Kirk Ferentz. The Iowa head coach experienced a terrific three-year stretch between 2002 and 2005 in which the Hawkeyes won a share of two Big Ten titles and won at least 10 games each season. Ferentz became one of the most sought-after coaching commodities and is now one of the highest paid coaches in college football.
But in the last three years, Ferentz’s teams have taken a step backward, and in 2012, the team failed to win at least six games for the first time since 2000.
This isn’t to say that Ferentz wanted to leave and that his current struggles have prevented him from doing so. But clearly Bielema wanted to leave, and there is no better time than the present.
It is unlikely that Wisconsin will ever experience the success that it is enjoying right now. Three straight Rose Bowls by a Big Ten school not named Ohio State or Michigan is unheard of.
While Alvarez believes that Wisconsin is a destination school for any coach in the nation, the truth is that the two beasts of the Big Ten (Ohio State and Michigan) are again regaining their footing, and it will be difficult for the other teams to compete.
Bielema took the best offer he could find: an SEC coaching job, more money and the potential to win in the best conference in the country.
In the coming years, a four-team playoff may allow Bielema to lose a game but still earn a semifinal matchup. Such is life in the SEC. It also highlights the fact that he doesn’t necessarily need to beat Nick Saban and Les Miles each year to be considered successful.
Bielema was on top of the world at Wisconsin. Unfortunately, down is the only direction those on top can go.
When Alvarez announced he was going to coach Wisconsin at the Rose Bowl, some saw it as a jab at Bielema, the decision not to hire a coach away from a school a testament to loyalty (via Yahoo!). But Bielema can’t really be blamed.
For someone clearly looking elsewhere, now was the best time to bolt.