Tuesday, December 04, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Bielema: He’s huge success

Leader sports editor

Jeff Long knew he needed a big hire to appease Arkansas fans, and he got it in shocking fashion. Of all the wild rumors that have circulated in the past two weeks, none were about Bret Bielema, the coach of the Wisconsin Badgers for the last seven seasons, whose appointment was confirmed Tuesday evening.

It came out of nowhere. For the past week, most believed Boise State coach Greg Petersen had finally accepted one of the many offers he’s gotten from major schools at the end of every season, and would be Arkansas’ new coach. At about noon Tuesday, news spread like wildfire that Arkansas had actually hired Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy.

Other coaches reportedly on the short list for the job ranged from Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn to ESPN analyst John Gruden to TCU’s Gary Patterson to Washington’s Steve Sarkisian. No one ever mentioned Bielema.

Long has been under pressure since April from the crazies who felt he should’ve kept Bobby Petrino. But even those who supported his decision to fire Petrino after he hired his mistress to his football staff were beginning to grow more and more unhappy that Long had been unable to snag a big hire by now.

Many other schools fired their coaches in the last couple of weeks of the season. That meant more competition on the market, and Hog fans everywhere began to blame Long as the prospects of landing that big-name hire seemed to grow smaller by the hour.

But that was just uninformed fans’ perception. Long played this one very close to the vest and landed that big fish Hog fans were hoping for.

Of course, many fans aren’t happy with Bielema as the new head Hog. Most of those fans just aren’t yet aware of how successful he’s been at Wisconsin.

It’s true Barry Alvarez first took Wisconsin to the top of the Big Ten when he won back-to-back conference championships in the mid-90s. But Alvarez never reached that pinnacle again in his last 10 years and handpicked a then- 35-year-old Bielema to be his successor.

Bielema just got the Badgers into their third-straight Rose Bowl. Four of his seven seasons have been 10 wins or more, but this year is not one of them. It helped that undefeated Ohio State is not eligible for a bowl this season, but getting to the Rose Bowl during what was supposed to be a rebuilding year is a sign of a great coach.

Bielema emphasizes defense, which is a must after four years of bad defenses under Petrino.

Bielema’s offenses at Wisconsin have consistently been among the best in the nation, though he does it differently than the pass-happy teams like Oklahoma State and Arkansas, or the spread teams like Oregon and Boise State that have consistently been at the top of yardage and scoring statistics.

Bielema’s Wisconsin teams had crushing ground games. There are three former Bielema running backs in the NFL, and none are as good as Montee Ball, who is still at Wisconsin. There are also 12 former Wisconsin offensive linemen in the NFL.

There are some things to dislike about Bielema, but most of them are personal. He’s not all that likable, according to those near the Wisconsin program.

He’s arrogant and says things that later make him seem disingenuous. For example, when asked about former Florida and current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s recruiting tactics, he said, “At the Big Ten, we don’t want to be like the SEC in any way, shape or form.”

But he does, apparently, want to be part of the SEC.

Bielema also has a reputation for running up the score. That doesn’t mean continuing to score with backups on the field running the base offense.

Most famously, in 2010 while leading Indiana 76-20, Bielema, with his starters still on the field, called for a play-action pass that resulted in a 35-yard touchdown reception and an 83-20 final score. But that kind of thing doesn’t seem to upset fans anymore.

It would also be important for Arkansas fans who aren’t happy with the hire to remember how successful coaches with Big Ten backgrounds have been in the SEC. Nick Saban, Les Miles, the two most recent SEC coaches to win national championship, both have deep roots in the Big Ten.

Miles played at Michigan and was an assistant coach there before becoming head coach at Oklahoma State. He left that job to replace Saban at LSU.

Saban was head coach at Michigan State for five seasons, going an underwhelming 34-24. He finished fifth twice and sixth twice before parlaying his second-place finish into the LSU job in 2000. By comparison, Bielema is 68-24 in seven Big Ten seasons with three conference championships and one second-place finish.

The offense will continue to excite, and the defense won’t be disgraceful. Winning will soon return to The Hill.