By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) Seven years ago, Bret Bielema walked into his first Big Ten head coach’s meeting. In the room were Joe Paterno, Lloyd Carr, Jim Tressel and Joe Tiller.
To say the 36-year-old rookie head coach was a bit of an outcast would be an understatement.
“I’m just kind of happy they let me in,” he said.
But Bielema was used to legends. After all, he played and coached for Hayden Fry at Iowa, became a defensive coordinator under Bill Snyder at Kansas State and was handpicked by Barry Alvarez to take over the program he built from scratch at Wisconsin.
While Bielema never had visions of being a coach until after his playing days were over in 1992, he was destined to be a head coach. And if he didn’t know it right away, he certainly knew it when Fry retired in 1998. In fact, he still keeps the letter in his desk to this day.
I always believed you had two “T’s” in your name because you work your butt off. Though I’m not with you personally, you know you’re in my prayers and you’ll always be like my son. I’m confident that you will have what it takes to become an outstanding head coach in the future. Love you, Hayden Fry.
After reading me the letter out loud in his Camp Randall office, Bielema paused as if to soak in the words again 12 years after it was written. He then walked back to his desk and put it in the same place he keeps it every day.
“Every head coach I ever left — Hayden, Kirk (Ferentz), Snyder — those three always said, ‘You are going to be a great head coach, best of luck’ and all that stuff,” Bielema told me. “I always love Coach Alvarez because he was the first one that gave me the job. All the other ones just wished me luck.”
Just a few feet away was the balcony overlooking what Alvarez had built in Madison. As if he needed a daily reminder, Bielema’s office had a penthouse view of the field at Camp Randall Stadium. Sure, the stadium had been there for years, but Alvarez’s success led to the renovations that expanded Camp Randall, erected the giant scoreboard, built the suites and constructed the very office we were sitting in that day.
That was July of 2010, shortly before a crucial season in Bielema’s career would begin. It was also not long after a disastrous 2008 season in which a year of extremely high expectations took a sudden turn in the wrong direction and ended with a Champs Sports Bowl beatdown at the hands of Florida State and a disappointing 7-6 finish.
“So many things that happened on the field came from indicators that were happening off the field,” Bielema said that day about the 2008 season. “There was a time in there where class attendance wasn’t what we wanted it to be or where it needed to be. The emphasis wasn’t there. All those little things ended up being big things in the end, no question. How they handled their day-to-day work habits and how we as coaches handled them.”
That last phrase was key. Players are always a reflection of their head coach.
There was a time — most notably in Bielema’s first two seasons as head coach — when almost everyone in Madison had a Bret Bielema story. Most were just rumors and embellished ones at that, but it’s never good when stories are flying around about the head football coach at a school like Wisconsin. Back then, Bielema was one of the few head coaches in the country living a bachelor’s life and he was certainly entitled to enjoy himself, but things came to a head when the Badgers started losing. Multiple sources over the years have said that Alvarez and a number of prominent figures around the program met with Bielema after the 2008 season to refocus the head coach.
It’s safe to say it worked. The following offseason can reasonably be called a crossroads in his career. Bielema went to work with a new attitude and it reflected in a new mindset inside the program. In 2009, the Badgers went 10-3, beating a good Miami team in the Champs Sports Bowl. That set the stage for 2010 and 2011, when the Badgers reached back-to-back Rose Bowls.
Bielema always says people are defined more by how they respond to adversity than success and he was living proof of that message following the 2008 season. His team’s performance in last weekend’s Big Ten Championship Game — following a disappointing 7-5 regular season — also reflected that go-to principle of his.
One of the first topics that came up in that Big Ten coaches’ meeting seven years ago was a possible Big Ten Championship Game. The conference was still four years away from announcing the addition of Nebraska and a title game, but that meeting included a serious discussion about expansion.
“I can’t give you an exact quote that was in there, but to say the room was embracing a championship game would not be an adequate or fair statement,” Bielema said.
But he wanted a title game. Bielema was only a few years removed from his days as Kansas State’s defensive coordinator where he helped the Wildcats beat No. 1 Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game.
“It was the best thing that ever happened in my coaching career,” Bielema said. “I had a very vivid memory of that game.”
So it’s probably fitting that Bielema, who was in full support of adding Nebraska and creating a conference title game, trounced the Cornhuskers 70-31 last weekend in Indianapolis to win his second straight Big Ten Championship Game — the only two that have ever been played.
As it turned out, that would be his final game at Wisconsin.
Bielema dropped a bombshell three days after the win, announcing that he was leaving Wisconsin to take the head coaching job at Arkansas.
The move came as a stunner to everyone, including those close to him in the Wisconsin athletic department. A reliable source indicated Sunday that Bielema had been contacted by the University of Tennessee, but there was no indication that he would actually leave for another job. If anything, it would just be used as a contract play.
Turns out, it was about way more than his contract. That much is clear after talking to numerous sources around the program in the last 48 hours.
So why did Bielema leave Wisconsin?
The following appear evident at this point: 1) Bielema felt underappreciated at Wisconsin and 2) He felt like he had a better chance of winning a National Championship at Arkansas.
Bielema has always been confident. Some call him arrogant, others call him cocky. Maybe both are true to some extent. But Bielema has never been afraid to say what he thinks — sometimes to a fault — and that has endeared him to the media.
It’s also why he wasn’t afraid to speak out about his desire for a Big Ten Championship Game seven years ago in front of a bunch of old-timers who were against it. And it’s also a reason why he outlasted every other coach in that room besides Ferentz and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, who was also a rookie head coach that year. Paterno was fired and passed away after a horrible scandal, Carr retired, Tressel was banned, Tiller retired and Ferentz would likely be out of job at Iowa if it wasn’t for an enormous buyout currently tied to his contract.
Bielema was the second-longest tenured coach in the conference — behind only Ferentz — when he bolted for Arkansas and frankly, he was leading one of only two programs that have improved over the last seven seasons while also avoiding NCAA sanctions (Michigan State being the other, although Northwestern would also be in that conversation).
And yet, fans in Wisconsin never appreciated him.
In a poll on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s web site, 66 percent of respondents were “glad to see him go” as of Thursday afternoon.
Bielema’s contentious relationship with the Badger fan base goes all the way back to when Alvarez named him his successor without a search process before his final season in 2005. Bielema had only been in Madison for one season and many questioned how the then 35-year-old could handle such a big job. To this day, few people know Bielema came in second for the Ball State job when he was only 31. No one really understood how highly thought of he was as a potential head coach. Bielema managed to win the fan base over by winning 17 of his first 18 games, but as soon as adversity struck in 2008, the unfair comparisons to Alvarez took off.
Even back in his office in 2010, Bielema’s frustrations with the fan base were evident.
“There’s no other venue where you make one single decision out there and you have 80,000 people who can give immediate feedback on what the success was,” Bielema told me. “That’s the part where over time you just learn to balance… believe me I love, and part of the reason why I came to Wisconsin and the reason why I love Wisconsin is the fan support, but you also have to take it with a grain of salt because they wear their emotions on their sleeves and it’s the longevity that you worry about.”
Back then, that quote was easy to gloss over, but given what happened this week, it’s impossible to ignore.
Bielema’s personal growth must be taken into account as well. Surely, he would tell you he matured during his time at Wisconsin. In my sit-down with him in 2010, while speaking about the changes in mentality within the program after the 2008 season, he also let it slip that he had started to think about marriage and raising family. He once viewed his single life as an advantage because he had more time to recruit, but things were changing. He met Jen — not Jennifer — while playing Blackjack in Las Vegas, and the two got married in the spring of this year. By Wednesday, he and his wife — who he rarely spoke about publicly in Madison before they were married — were on stage together chanting “Pig Sooie” in Fayetteville.
“I just felt it was time for me to spread my wings and fly a little farther,” Bielema said at his introductory press conference at Arkansas.
Whether or not coaching in Alvarez’s shadow in Madison bothered him, it is the reason why it was impossible to win over Badger fans.
After Alvarez announced Thursday he would coach Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, Badgers starting middle linebacker Chris Borland — many of the overlooked recruits Bielema brought to Madison, tweeted: “When anyone around this program simply says ‘coach’, you know who they’re talking about.”
He wasn’t talking about Bret Bielema. And he was recruited by Bret Bielema.
Just last Friday in Indianapolis, Bielema was bragging about bringing 12 NFL-ready players back for next season. By Tuesday, he had decided to instead take over a 4-8 Arkansas team reeling after the Bobby Petrino scandal. Clearly, creating his own legacy is important to him.
Chasing A Dream
“What today brings is an opportunity for me to stand in front of you and chase a dream.”
Those were Bielema’s words Wednesday when he addressed the Arkansas Razorbacks fan base for the first time. And it came one day after, according to Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, Bielema told the Badgers he was leaving because “he wants to win a championship.”
Talk about a slap in the face to his former players.
“I was a little surprised by that and he said that to me (too),” Alvarez said Thursday. “I wish him well. I thought we were very close to playing a national championship game a year ago.”
Indeed, Wisconsin was just two Hail Mary’s away from being undefeated in 2011 and receiving a likely berth to the BCS National Championship Game. And it’s easy for one to wonder why Bielema thinks he will have a better chance of winning a national title in the SEC, where he’ll have his hands full just getting out of the SEC West. But here’s the other way to look at this: Bielema had a once in a generation quarterback in Russell Wilson (who basically fell in his lap) and he still couldn’t get to the national championship game because his defense couldn’t stop a couple prayers in the final seconds.
Indeed, in recent years, Bielema talked more and more about winning a national title. He really thought he could do it at Wisconsin.
Then he lost offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to Pitt.
Losing Chryst was not a surprise. The offensive genius behind Wisconsin’s high-powered attack had been rumored for head coaching jobs for years. But Bielema likely did not envision losing a total of six assistants. Bob Bostad, a brilliant offensive line coach, followed Chryst to Pitt and eventually landed with the Tampa Bay Buccanneers. Joe Rudolph, his tight ends coach and top recruiter, also bolted for Pitt, although it was a very tough decision for him.
Now it’s become apparent money was an issue.
“I just wasn’t able to compensate them in a way that other coaches were,” Bielema said Wednesday. “I lost three coaches last year that were making $225,000 to making over $400,000 each.”
Alvarez also revealed Thursday that he helped Chryst get the Pitt job and it’s possible Bielema did not appreciate his athletic director shopping his offensive coordinator and then refusing to come up with the money to keep his other top assistants.
“This year, as soon as we won (the Big Ten Championship Game), I had three coaches come to me the day after the game and they had been contacted by other schools, offering them money that I can’t bring them at Wisconsin,” Bielema said. “Wisconsin isn’t wired to do that at this point. I felt that for me and my future, and for my wife, and what I wanted to accomplish in the world of college football, I needed to have that ability to do that. And thankfully I’ve found that here at Arkansas.”
Alvarez countered: “Every time someone has a hint they may take another job, it’s not prudent to jump and throw a pile of money at them. We all see what the salaries are. I know what the salaries are. I get charts with them. We’re more than competitive.”
Clearly, Bielema didn’t see it the same way. After not being able to retain his assistants last year, his mind started to wander elsewhere. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, he received an NFL offer last January and nearly left. In September, the Badgers lost to Oregon State and Bielema fired brand new offensive line coach Mike Markuson. He promoted graduate assistant Bart Miller to take over. That same month, knowing Arkansas was being coached by interim head coach John L. Smith, Bielema sent a letter to Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long expressing his support for how he handled the Bobby Petrino scandal.
Saturday night, shortly after Bielema’s Badgers won their third straight Big Ten title, an Arkansas representative left a voicemail for the coach requesting to meet with him in New York where coaches across the country — including Bielema and Alvarez — were gathering.
Bielema weighed the offer Monday evening and told Alvarez Tuesday morning he was accepting.
“As we went through the conversation,” Alvarez explained. “I said, ‘You’re not telling me you’re going to visit with the Arkansas people. You’ve already taken the job.'”
The answer was yes. There wasn’t even a chance to counter.
Alvarez wasn’t happy that Long didn’t notify him about his intent to talk to Bielema: “Normal protocol would be — before I talk to anyone, I will call their athletic directors.”
But there wasn’t time to fret. Bielema left the room and Alvarez immediately started his coaching search.
“I made contact with a representative of a coach that I was interested in, and I had him in my room five minutes after Bret left,” Alvarez said.
Time will tell if Bielema made a wise decision. He was only 11-14 against ranked opponents at Wisconsin and only 3-7 against top 10 opponents. Considering six SEC teams finished the regular season in the top 10, that might be a problem. On the other hand, if Bielema felt like he was being held back at Wisconsin, he probably views Arkansas’ fat pockets and brand new facilities (scheduled to open next summer) as the key to getting better recruits and competing on a grander stage.
“The opportunity to be in the SEC is something that I really wanted to do,” he said.
You certainly can’t fault the logic or ambition. And hey, if it doesn’t work out, that Iowa job might be open in a few years.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.