In a move that has shocked college football fans and made non-college football fans thankful that they do not have a hobby that gets them really worked up about the career-driven relocation of a middle-aged, flat-topped man named “Bret,” Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema has apparently decided to ditch the Badger program, which is on the verge of its third straight Rose Bowl, for Arkansas, which is on the verge of not playing in a bowl at all this year because they went 4-8.
The success gap between the two programs this season is wider than usual but not an anomaly; while Wisconsin has won 175 games in the last 20 years, been to numerous Rose Bowls and established itself as a Big Ten power, Arkansas has won 139, and its high-water mark probably came when it made its single BCS appearance in the Sugar Bowl after the 2010 season. It lost that game, then a year later fired the coach who got them there when he got in an accident tooling around on a motorcycle with a young female athletic department employee who was not his wife. And while Wisconsin is at this point the B1G program best positioned for future success after Ohio State and Michigan, Arkansas clearly trails SEC rivals Alabama, LSU, Florida, Texas A&M, Georgia, Tennessee, and Auburn in prestige pecking order. Meanwhile, the Big Ten’s BTN cable network is raking in the dollars. Wisconsin and its conference are not suffering for national exposure or resources.
In light of this disparity, initial reports have speculated that Arkansas must have backed the proverbial money truck up to Bielema’s driveway. The linked article also mentions that Arkansas has superior “football facilities,” which always comes up in these stories: Apparently, a good life tip is that if you need to persuade a football coach of something, you should do it in the midst of a lot of really sleek-looking treadmills. The point is, Arkansas might not have the credibility of Wisconsin, but they want to, real bad.
And in light of this ambition, the Big Ten’s recent decision to add Rutgers and Maryland can’t have persuaded Bielema that the conference was going in the right direction. Bringing in those two middling-to-awful East Coast schools gooses short-term cable-subscriber numbers, and that might fool advertisers for a little while, but it hasn’t fooled the fans who have been justifiedly bemoaning the move’s diluting effect on their emotional connection to their team’s schedule and rivalries, and it doesn’t look to have fooled Bielema. If you’re a person who wants to succeed at the highest professional level and you happen to be a football coach, where would you rather work — the conference that just added Texas A&M to a lineup of stacked, historic programs, or the conference that added Maryland, incoherently calls its divisions “Leaders” and “Legends,” recently tried to move the Michigan-Ohio State game off of the last weekend of the year, is run by athletic directors whose idea of a bold coaching hire is someone who had a few OK seasons in the MAC, bleeds talented assistant coaches, and has generally become a synonym for self-defeatingly fraidy-cat, punt-from-your-opponent’s-30-yard-line football?
Bret Bielema, for all the old-fashioned connotations of his haircut, is not terrified of risk — last season, for example, he brought in Russell Wilson as a fifth-year senior transfer and handed him the team’s offense, with spectacular results. He probably saw the writing on the wall, and that writing says, “the people in charge of the Big Ten and its football programs don’t seem to understand how college football games are won or why fans like college football.” Today’s news might be a much-needed kick in the ass to the people in charge of what was once one of America’s greatest sporting institutions, but only if they understand this: Bret Bielema didn’t leave Big Ten football — Big Ten football left him.
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