Here’s what the Arkansas and the SEC is getting in Bret Bielema:
After the Hawkeyes ended their school record 13-game losing streak with a 21-16 victory over Michigan State at Kinnick in 2000, fans rushed the field. Media walked out on to the field, kind of curious for an up-close view of a WIN. And a few Iowa coaches got caught up in the scrum.
I think I was headed to nudge into an on-field interview when — WHUMP — I got a huge slap in the back. I thought, what in the . . . turned around and saw Bret Bielema, then a young linebackers coach under second-year coach Kirk Ferentz.
I saw a huge grin. The kind of grin that wasn’t relief at the end of a trudge of a losing streak, but more like, “Just wait.”
“Whaddya think of that?”
Fast forward to the Orange Bowl in 2002. Bielema departed Iowa to become co-defensive coordinator, along with another former Iowa assistant Bob Elliott at Kansas State. I ran into him on the way into whatever the name of the stadium is or was at that moment.
I saw another huge grin. This one said, “Told you.”
You will see another Bielema grin Wednesday. Chronologically in step with his career, it’s got to be a “Just wait” grin, right?
Bielema will put on the Arkansas colors for the first time in a public setting Wednesday. After seven years and three straight Rose Bowl appearances and victories in the first two Big Ten title games, Bielema shocked the Big Ten region with his move to Arkansas and the SEC yesterday afternoon.
Bielema will get a raise, going from $2.5 million at Wisconsin to a six-year deal worth $3.2 million per year at Arkansas. I saw Twitterati deem that a nominal raise. These are people who own golden toilets and miniature giraffes, apparently. (Let’s not get into the cost of living between Madison — it’s a lot more posh than you think — and Arkansas. I don’t know much about Arkansas, only that it does have world class trout fishing and noodling.)
Bielema will get into the SEC, the premier college football conference in the country. Bar none. Don’t even start. Yes, Bielema blinked when faced with SEC-like recruiting fire from Ohio State’s Urban Meyer last winter. This seems like a contradiction, but look at Bielema. The guy started out as a linebacker walk-on from Prophetstown, Ill., and ended up a starting D-lineman and a co-captain at the University of Iowa.
There are weights and counterweights here that don’t fit.
Arkansas is a better job than Wisconsin? The Razorbacks finished 4-8 last season. Wisconsin hung 7o on Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. ESPN’s Ivan Maisel turned the mirror to it in this piece. “If the reverse were true, [Alabama coach Nick] Saban would have held a news conference at the Hayden Fry Center in Iowa City. That sounds downright absurd, which also describes the notion of Bielema leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas before early Tuesday afternoon.”
Bielema put some lip service to the “opportunities to reach coaching” goals. And that’s where the national spin is on Bielema’s move. The SEC is a “you can get there from here” proposition if the end goal is crystal footballs (of course, that’s the national championship trophy).
Yahoo Sports Dan Wetzel locks down that argument here. I agree, no other conference would have the cash and cachet to make this happen. The SEC is here (hand way above my 6-foot) and the Big Ten is here (hand around middle of the chest), if you’re talking about the crystal football.
If you’re talking about cable subscriptions, revenue and big revenue, the Big Ten is eye-to-eye with the SEC. Does that do anything for you? I didn’t think so. Ask Nebraska people. The Cornhuskers came from a “you can get there from here” conference. The Huskers won five national titles as a member of the Big Eight/Big 12 conference. Ask Nebraska fan if they think the Big Ten is a “get there from here.”
Urban Meyer and Ohio State will give the league a national peg in the news. Michigan and Brady Hoke might. And then maybe Nebraska and maybe if Bill O’Brien sticks it out at Penn State and builds the program over the next three seasons of scholarship reductions and postseason ineligibility.
The Big Ten is rich and, depending on how the Big Ten Network negotiations go with cable outlets out east, it could get “miniature giraffe” rich. Here’s a smart piece by the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Doug Lesmerises calling for the Big Ten to use some of that cable cash to lure a premier coach. This piece isn’t just that, it’s also a call for a competitor, someone to trade punches with Meyer.
Yeah, the Big Ten needs that. The Big Ten needs that badly. Competition is how quality improves. Want proof? Look at Iowa’s QB depth chart last fall.
That’s the big picture element. The Big Ten is rich, but the SEC has the crystal. (The bigger big picture is that the SEC is setting on diamond mines of talent and can rely on in-state players to build national title contenders.)
There’s also the Bret Bielema part of this. In that light, this was strictly business.
Bielema goes out with a hat trick of Rose Bowl berths. That’s the top of the mountain in Madison. The problem with being on the peak is the next step is down. And that’s where the Badgers are headed. Maybe not “4-8″ down, but maybe Outback Bowl or Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl down.
Remember when Bielema left Iowa. It was after the 2001 season, which was the springboard to 8-0 and the Orange Bowl in 2002. (Iowa was going to the Rose Bowl, but the Orange leaped in. You tore down Minnesota’s goal posts, remember?) Iowa clearly was climbing the mountain. Bielema had to see that.
And then he went to Kansas State about two weeks after Iowa’s 19-16 victory over Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl. Bielema, who spent 12 years as a player and coach at Iowa, looked at the expanded role as a chance to grow.
“It has nothing to do with Iowa, it’s just the opportunity ahead for me at Kansas State, career-wise,” Bielema said. “The opportunity I have to join another conference to broaden my horizons as a coach.” And “It’s a chance to put your name on a defense. As linebacker coach here, obviously, it’s a joint effort.”
Here’s what Arkansas and the SEC is getting in Bret Bielema:
Iowa just finished a 21-7 victory over Iowa State in 1992. Bielema, still in the heat of the moment, met then-ISU coach Jim Walden in the postgame handshake and said stuff.
“You’ve been a big prick. I’ve enjoyed kicking your ass the past five years.”
And then in the postgame, he danced around it but said, “I don’t want to take anything away from their players, but they’re not going to accomplish anything with coach Walden. He does more to motivate us than he knows.”
That’s what the SEC is getting and that’s what the Big Ten is missing.
You want that. You want that so much.