Hlas column: Bret Bielema goes from Wisconsin fish fries to the SEC's shark tank

Opportunity knocked, with $$$$ behind it

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Cheez Whiz! Bret Bielema is leaving Wisconsin, where he was under contract for four more years and had just locked up his third-straight Rose Bowl? To go swimming in the SEC's deep pool of sharks?

What would it take to lure him into that, other than ego and money. The ego part is the chance to go after the biggest of college football’s big fish, Nick Saban of Alabama. Oh by the way, there’s also LSU and Les Miles. And Texas A&M. And Florida and Georgia and South Carolina ...

As for the cash, you know Arkansas’ deal with Bielema will dwarf the $2.5 million a year you were making in Madison.

From what I’ve gathered, Bielema didn’t rank alongside Aaron Rodgers, Friday fish fries and domestic beer as the most-popular entities in Wisconsin.

He won, and he won some more. But when I chatted with a well-heeled UW red-hot last spring at the Masters and asked what he and his Badger brethren thought of their head coach, the response was lukewarm. He said he thought Bielema’s offensive strategy in Wisconsin’s 21-19 loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl was wrongheaded, and didn’t think Bielema was a big-game coach.

I guess that’s if you don’t count Big Ten championship contests as big games. Which some may not.

While Wisconsin football is regarded as the House That Barry Alvarez Built, and may be for decades to come, show me another Big Ten school where they wouldn’t welcome three consecutive conference crowns and three straight trips to Pasadena.

Besides Ohio State and Michigan, find me a Big Ten fan base that wouldn’t be thrilled to be assured records of 68-24 overall and 37-19 in league play over the next seven seasons. Those were Bielema’s Wisconsin numbers.

The Badgers went 7-6 in Bielema’s third year, and people wondered if a tail-off to mediocrity had arrived. Alvarez’s players were graduating.

Wisconsin then went 10-3, 11-2 and 11-3 before this season’s so-so 8-5. Even this season has a rosy hue, though. When the Badgers played Nebraska in last Saturday’s Big Ten title game, they overwhelmed the Cornhuskers, 70-31.

Clearly, Bielema felt the time was ripe to explore other options. That resounding win over the Huskers made a heck of a most-recent impression. By the way, Bielema’s agent is Neil Cornrich, who also represents Kirk Ferentz.

College football is recruiting. SEC football is recruiting as an art form. Bielema recruits. Wisconsin has 10 players from football-fertile Ohio on its roster, and 10 more from Florida.

In 2002 during Orange Bowl week, I visited the home of Vanessa Brown, the mother of then-Iowa wide receiver Maurice Brown of Fort Lauderdale. Bielema, then co-defensive coordinator for Bill Snyder at Kansas State, had just finished his first season removed from the Iowa staff.

On Vanessa Brown’s refrigerator was a photo of Brown and the other Fort Lauderdale-area Hawkeyes, including defensive stalwarts Colin Cole and Fred Barr. Also in the pictures was Bielema, who recruited them to Iowa. “Coach B,” Vanessa Brown fondly called him when she showed me the photos.

Three years later, Bielema was Alvarez’s defensive coordinator. Two years after that, Alvarez handed the head coaching reins to Bielema. That was seven years ago. Now 42, he is probably smart to leave now.

Even winners wear out their welcome after a while, and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer has already begun to make life more difficult for Wisconsin football.

Not that being in the SEC West with Alabama and LSU and Texas A&M won’t be a lot harder. But it’s a fresh start for Bielema, and for an Arkansas program yearning for stability. It was only last season when the Hogs were No. 5 in the final AP rankings.

Hanging a 70 on Nebraska for another Rose Bowl is a pretty good closing act at Wisconsin, and a nice introduction at Arkansas. Bielema’s come a long way from being a team captain at Iowa 20 years ago.


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