Bret Bielema Has Work Cut Out For Him In The SEC

By Rick Stavig
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Just how big of a difference is there between the SEC and the Big Ten?

A Big Ten pundit would say the SEC is overrated, then boast of the academics at the institutions in their conference.

That’ll be fine and dandy when science fairs start being held in front of 100,000 fans eight times a year. Until then, it’s about results on the football field.

A perfect example of the difference between the two conferences was brought to light yesterday when the Arkansas Razorbacks hired Bret Bielema away from the Wisconsin Badgers.

The Badgers have won the Big Ten title three years in a row while the Razorbacks were 4-8 this year and haven’t won a conference championship since 1989 (in the defunct Southwest Conference). In essence, the best coach in the Big Ten left for a mediocre SEC program. Why?

Obviously it’s just about the money, right?

Not really. Sure, a $600,000 raise is nice, but Bielema will be making $3.2 million next year, far beneath the likes of Alabama’s Nick Saban ($5.5 million).

No, it’s not about the money, it’s about the prestige. It’s about the challenge of competing against the best players and the best coaches in all of college football. Boy, does he have his work cut out for him. If he wants to have anything close to the success he had in Madison, he better put on his big boy pants, because he’s going to have to evolve as a coach for this challenge.

Bielema will need to take his current recruiting strategy and scrap it. Throw it out and start over. That lame sales pitch that hardly worked in Madison won’t have a chance in Fayetteville.

Bielema’s Badgers never had a top 25 recruiting class. Here’s how their last four classes were ranked: in 2012 they were 56th, in ’11 they were 40th, in ’10 they were 87th and in ’09 they were 43rd. In the SEC, he should expect roughly 12 out of the 14 teams to finish in the top 25 nationally. 56, 40, 87 and 43 won’t even come close to being good enough.

He hasn’t had a highly ranked recruiting class and still wins games, so he must really know how to develop talent, right? That can and will work in the Big Ten, but not down south. Now he’s in a conference where every single coach not only brings in elite recruiting classes, but ALSO develops that elite talent into All-Americans.

Last year, newly minted Ohio State Buckeyes Head Coach Urban Meyer came into the Big Ten establishment and shook things up. The antiquated rule in the conference of not recruiting a verbally committed player made Meyer laugh. He snagged a few recruits that were committed to Wisconsin and Michigan State, infuriating Bielema and MSU coach Mark Dantonio.

Well, Bret baby, this is your worst nightmare. There’s no “gentlemen’s agreement” regarding recruiting. It’s competitive to the one hundredth power. A coach shouldn’t feel confident about a player heading his way until he receives a fax on National Signing Day with that player’s signature. In essence, Bielema had a problem with Meyer’s recruiting principles. Now he’s going against 13 other coaches who do things the same way.

Bielema will struggle with the culture as well. Anyone who has spent any time down south knows it’s a different world. It’s vastly different from the Midwest, where Bielema has spent his entire life. Bielema was born in Illinois, then attended and coached at Iowa, Kansas State and Wisconsin. He never recruited southern players and never established a recruiting network in the deep south. He’ll have to hire a coaching staff that’s loaded with southern recruiting experience to make up for his deficiencies.

Another thing that will be tough on Bielema will be starting over. The program he inherited at Wisconsin was already established by Barry Alvarez, and everything was already in place. Arkansas is a fractured team that needs to be rebuilt both physically and psychologically. The Razorbacks began the season with preseason All-Americans at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Now those guys are gone and a group of young men without an identity is left behind.

Bielema will need to start over, repairing the psyche of the players first. Remember, this is a team that was supposed to compete for the National Championship this year until ol’ Bobby Petrino went for a motorcycle ride and the result was a four-win season. These players have lost their heart and confidence. Bielema will need to create that for the first time in his career.

All in all, it was a fantastic hire for Arkansas. A mediocre SEC team just snagged a coach who’s going to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year. Bielema’s game philosophy also meshes with the powers that be in the SEC: a power running game and strong defense. Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia–the heaviest of the heavy hitters in the SEC–all share similar philosophies.

But he’s got a ton of work to do. Alabama and LSU will be top ten next year. Texas A&M will be returning a potential Heisman Trophy winner (Johnny ‘Football’ Manziel) and could also be top ten. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are programs on the rise (especially Ole Miss), and Auburn is two years removed from a National Championship. And that’s just the SEC West, kids. If you win, generations of kids will be named after you. If you lose, you’ll be fired next year.

Welcome to the SEC, Coach Bielema!

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