Two coaching moves in the Big Ten this week are interesting particularly from a standpoint of program ceilings.
Before this season I had already begun to think Wisconsin’s program had peaked. The 7-5 record certainly did not change my mind despite the blowout of a wishy-washy Nebraska team in the Big Ten championship game.
I never really felt Bret Bielema was a good game day coach, but he obviously did a good job of running a program overall. I think a lot of the success on the field had to do with the fact he knew what type of guys to recruit for Wisconsin and where to find them. A lot of credit for that no doubt goes to Barry Alvarez as he laid down the blueprint and left plenty of players behind to help him get off to a good start. (Bielema’s soft landing also benefitted from missing Ohio State in 2006.)
Like any program, Wisconsin has a ceiling. That ceiling is lower than Ohio State and Michigan. Bielema probably knows that. Perhaps that’s even why he is headed to Arkansas now. My first reaction was you’ve got to get out while the getting is good.
Considering the role Michigan’s disastrous hire of Rich Rodriquez (and before that the barely noticed nationally decline in the latter years of Lloyd Carr’s tenure masked by a misleading 2006 season) and sanctions at Ohio State played in the Badgers’ rise these past three years, there is little chance he will replicate his first seven years in the next seven.
Carr’s national recruiting push opened the door for other Big Ten teams to build relationships with a lot of quality programs and players in Ohio, and Rodriquez’s bizarre ideas about what types of players he could win with in the Big Ten only made it easier to upgrade the roster.
Will he have the Razorbacks consistently contending for division titles in the SEC? I doubt it, but only time will tell. Bringing in a well-known coach with a tendency toward power football has its appeal, and Bielema cashing in now certainly makes all the sense in the world. (I kind of feel like he owes Wisconsin AD Alvarez more loyalty than that after the opportunity Alvarez afforded him in the first place, but that’s debatable.)
I think he has the right type of personality to recruit in the South, and he’s already experienced as far as going after talent in Florida. Success in those areas will of course have as much to do with his staff as anything, and it remains to be seen who he will hire.
Though Bielema made his early mark as a defensive coordinator, his Wisconsin defenses were never particularly scary.
The offenses were, but the man who schemed them up had already left for Pitt last year and took several of Bielema’s top assistants with him. The work Paul Chryst did in Madison (his hometown) rarely got the attention it deserved, but he did an excellent job playing to the strengths of his personnel while still mixing things up. As quarterbacks coach he also got a surprising amount of productivity out of a string of nondescript talents (prior to the tremendous Russell Wilson), something key to keeping the running game from getting swarmed.
The bottom line is that while Bielema put together an impressive winning percentage, it is rather hollow. He was 14-17 against the other top six teams in the league, and that includes a 3-2 mark against rival Iowa and 2-1 record against Nebraska. Despite talk he posed a threat to Ohio State, he was 1-5 against the Buckeyes. He went 3-2 against Michigan, again benefitting from the dip of that program, and was a game below .500 against both MSU and PSU.
In regards to his ability to coach on Saturdays, it’s interesting to note he lost to the two worst teams Ohio State and Michigan produced during his tenure, sub-.500 squads of 2011 and 2008, respectively.
Bielema was 2-4 in bowls, including an 0-2 mark in the Rose Bowl, and couldn’t really hope to get a signature out-of-conference win in the regular season because of Wisconsin’s pitiful scheduling habits.
Now, that is not to say the Badgers are better off without him. People tend to forget that before Alvarez came along, Wisconsin was mostly a doormat for about 30 years. Sometimes you have to know who you are and be satisfied with what you have.
Bielema’s replacement probably won’t have as good a seven years as Bielema just finished, but I doubt Bielema would have either if he’d stayed in Madison.
If they can find a better game manager who is as good at identifying and attracting players for his system, maybe the Badgers will be better. They might also be worse.
Meanwhile, Darrell Hazell’s widely reported jump to the Big Ten is intriguing in a number of ways as well.
A former Jim Tressel assistant at Ohio State, Hazell has great knowledge of the Big Ten. With roots in the east at Rutgers (among other places), he could be uniquely qualified to function in the new Big Ten after Maryland and Rutgers join the league, too.
That could turn out to be especially important at a place like Purdue, which I think along with Indiana is the hardest place to win in the league.
The fact is Hoosier State just does not produce a lot of players, and that situation is exacerbated by the fact there are two programs there to fight over them. Of course the proximity of Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan just to name three is another issue.
If there is any benefit to expansion, it’s the added money and exposure from the Big Ten Network. Hazell might be coming along at just the right time to take advantage of those things and lift up a program that has one Big Ten title in the past four decades.
This is easy for me to say because it’s someone else’s career and opportunities can be fleeting, but I am inclined to think Hazell would have been better off waiting for a job with a higher ceiling, but I guess there’s no reason he can’t follow Bielema’s lead if his star ever shines as brightly.