The coaching carousel nearly spun off its axis today when the Arkansas Razorbacks announced their next head coach would be Bret Bielema, who up until today had been the head coach for the Wisconsin Badgers. Bielema bolts from the Big Ten for the SEC and a reported $1.5 million raise. But despite the money, Bielema has made a huge mistake.
The first major hit will come to Bielema’s reputation. This summer, the Wisconsin head coach said: “We (the Big Ten) don’t want to be like the SEC in any way, shape or form.” Six months later, he’s heading down south to take over Arkansas. Do you think fellow SEC coaches will let that soundbite slide out on the recruiting trail?
Then there’s the program he left for the program that he’s getting. Wisconsin has been built into a perennial Big Ten power, currently preparing to go their third straight Rose Bowl. The Badgers are an assembly line at this point of great offensive linemen and highly productive running backs, reflective of Bielema’s philosophy of running the ball up and down the field.
He leaves all that for an Arkansas team that finished 108th in rushing this season as they limped to a 4-8 record. The offensive line is suspect, he won’t get the benefit of having Arkansas’ best player, quarterback Tyler Wilson, next season, and the roster is filled with players suited to running a spread-offense designed to throw the ball all over the field.
In short, the roster will have to be completely turned over or Bielema will have to learn how to throw the ball more than he did this year when the Badgers finished ranked 115th in passing offense. Bielema’s heavy, power-running philosophy is the oil and Arkansas’ pass-happy roster is the water. Traditionally, that’s a bad mix.
And I realize that the competition in the Big Ten is going to ramp up with Urban Meyer taking over the Ohio State Buckeyes and making a play to control the Leaders Division for years to come, but Bielema has avoided Meyer just to run into the teeth of the toughest division in college football.
Now, instead of just having to overcome Ohio State while picking his teeth with the Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini and Purdue Boilermakers, Bielema gets to run the gauntlet of the Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers, Texas A&M Aggies, Auburn Tigers (who will be better) and the Mississippi State Bulldogs (who are on the rise). And all while trying rebuild a program that fell to pieces under John L. Smith this season.
I understand the allure of cashing in on an opportunity for a big payday, but in the long-term, this move will be a disaster for Bielema. He hasn’t shown that he’s able to build a program up from nothing as he basically continued the philosophy and foundation set up by Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin. At Arkansas, he’ll basically be starting from scratch.
Plus, without any ties to the south, and his open campaigning against the SEC all summer long, he’s going to find recruiting to be an uphill battle. If he thought recruits coming to Wisconsin weren’t impressed by his Iowa Hawkeyes tattoo, wait until he sees the eye rolls as he follows Nick Saban into a recruit’s living room.
This was a move made for money and perhaps vanity, with Bielema wanting to prove that he’s as good a coach as Saban or Les Miles. At the end of the day, however, he’s a stranger in a strange land who will be longing for the good old days in Madison, Wisconsin, where he didn’t make as much money, but at least he won some games.