IOWA CITY — Were Bret Bielema like most college football coaches, he might again be leading Wisconsin against his Iowa alma mater Saturday in Kinnick Stadium.
Bielema had his reasons for leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas last December. More money for him and more to pay good assistant coaches seem like the most practical of them. Everyone understands money.
But it may have been as much or more a chance to go somewhere with wreckage and be a beloved builder instead of remaining a program’s caretaker who would always be compared to his predecessor, Barry Alvarez.
Most coaches either ignore or pretend to ignore criticism from fans. While Bielema’s teams are built on old-fashioned fundamentals and physicality, he’s probably been too new-school when it comes to social media.
In the last off-season, he showed he could give as well as he gets on Twitter. But that’s a game a coach can’t win and shouldn’t play. His wife, Jen, sure didn’t endear the couple to Wisconsin folks when she tweeted #karma after the bizarre final-play ending of the Badgers’ September loss at Arizona State.
Now Bielema prepares his 3-5 Razorbacks (0-4 in the SEC) for a home game against Auburn Saturday while the players he left behind try to defeat Iowa and stay on a possible path to a BCS bowl. His absence doesn’t dim the Wisconsin-Iowa rivalry or the significance of Saturday’s game by a single watt, but things always seemed to be more interesting when he was involved.
He has ruffled feathers in a variety of ways over the years, on and off the field. Just Tuesday, he brought up a complaint about the game tape Auburn sent to Fayetteville for the Razorbacks’ viewing.
But unlike what the former Iowa player and assistant coach walked into at Arkansas, he left the Badgers’ cupboard well-stocked for his successor, Gary Andersen. The players Andersen inherited are capable, and already knew how to win.
The only coach who has won a Big Ten championship game is Bielema. The only time Wisconsin won three straight league football titles was 2010-2012.
But Alvarez was 3-0 in Rose Bowls, while Bielema was 0-2, and that rankled some UW fans. Meanwhile, most of the Big Ten’s other fans wonder what it’s like to go to Rose Bowls.
The guy was 68-24. After Alvarez’s recruits were graduates, Bielema’s recruits produced. Yes, his team backed into the Leaders Division title last year because of NCAA probation to Ohio State and Penn State. But the Badgers squashed Nebraska in the league championship, 70-31. Then Bielema left.
On my TheGazette.com podcast this week, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Badgers beat writer Jeff Potrykus said “I’ve yet to encounter anyone in a position of authority who said that Bret was forced out. It was not suggested he leave, he wasn’t on a hot seat, the athletic director didn’t say ‘Hey, if you want to go, go look for a job.’ ”
“I was surprised,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “Went home that night and told my wife, ‘If I’m ever surprised at what happens in college football, just hit me with a baseball bat.’
“Coaches a lot of times, successful coaches, have a lot of choices to make all the time. He was more than successful at Wisconsin, extremely successful. Other people want to try to lure good people to their places.
“It will work out for him, I’m sure. It’s worked out well for Wisconsin. They’re doing really well.”