Bye bye, Bret

I was finishing my blog for today yesterday, and then I saw news that must have been made up: Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema is leaving to become the head coach at Arkansas.

The Wisconsin State Journal’s Tom Mulhern and Andy Baggot report:

Some of the people closest to Bret Bielema had absolutely no idea before the news broke on Tuesday afternoon that the University of Wisconsin football coach was leaving for Arkansas.

The news stunned not only Badgers fans but several people in Bielema’s inner circle. …

One person close to Bielema used the word “blindsided” to describe the reaction of people inside the UW athletic department to the coach’s departure.

That’s a good description, although the number of Badger fans really upset about Bielema’s departure appears to be a minority.

Why is that?  Bielema was 68–24, with three Big Ten titles, most recently Saturday, and three consecutive Rose Bowl berths, including Jan. 1. That’s something no Badger coach has ever accomplished, including his boss, Barry Alvarez. (Yes,  Bielema lost two, but losing the Rose Bowl is better than not getting to the Rose Bowl.) The last coach to accomplish three consecutive trips to Pasadena was Michigan’s Bo Schembechler. Camp Randall Stadium is full, and the Badgers regularly send players to the NFL, including, as Packer and Bear fans know, last year’s quarterback, Russell Wilson.

The Capital Times’ Paul Fanlund explains from a season-ticket-holder’s perspective why Bielema’s departure isn’t of the level of, say, Vince Lombardi’s leaving Green Bay:

Consider this contrast: Former coach and current Athletic Director Barry Alvarez not only resurrected an awful program two decades ago, but he routinely seemed to make excellent adjustments during games and excelled, when given time to prepare, at winning the biggest games, as he did in three Rose Bowls.

Not so Bielema.

His in-game decisions often seemed to perplex many fans I know. It is not just the fact that he lost the last two Rose Bowl games, but that he seemed to be outcoached each time.

To wit:

In the Rose Bowl against TCU two years ago, the Badgers reached about the 30-yard-line with a half minute left in the first half and, instead of taking a shot to get it deeper or even score a touchdown, Bielema inexplicably let the clock run down and UW missed a long field goal attempt.

Then, late in the game, down by 8 points, he seemed in no rush to get his offense down the field. UW eventually scored, but consumed most of the clock. When the 2-point conversion failed, they were left to try a futile onside kick.

Last season, there was the sense among some fans that the Badgers underperformed with a once-in-a-lifetime talent at quarterback in Russell Wilson. UW lost two Big Ten games on late-game Hail Mary passes (Michigan State and Ohio State), possibly costing Wisconsin a shot at a national title.

Later, in the rematch against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game at Indianapolis, the Badgers could have sealed the victory with a late first down. Instead of trusting Wilson, now an emerging NFL star, to roll out and either run or pass, the Badgers tried a slow-developing sweep, came up short, and were forced to punt. …

And then there are the three losses in overtime this season.

To be fair to Bielema, he doesn’t make the offensive play calls; former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst did and current offensive coordinator Matt Canada does. (More about Chryst later.) But as the head coach, Bielema is responsible for them, and he is responsible for clock management, whether good or bad. On the other hand, Fanlund appears to have selective memory about the conservative nature of Alvarez’s teams. The last UW coach to miss a bowl game entirely was Alvarez.

Some would argue Badger football fans have become spoiled. There is probably an element of that. On the other hand, when you consider the major investment buying UW football tickets now entails (including the mandatory–voluntary contribution to keep your seats where they are), long-time football fans probably feel entitled to feel entitled.

I wonder myself what the hell Bielema is thinking. Yes, he’s reportedly getting a pay raise from $2.2 million to $4 million. But if Bielema’s critics are correct that he’s an overrated coach, he’s going to get his clock cleaned in the Southeastern Conference, which is better than the Big Ten, or T1e2n, or whatever number it not is. (I’m predicting Bielema will be looking for a new job within five years, in part because I doubt Arkansas can compete with the SEC’s Alabama, Georgia, LSU or Florida.)

Fanlund and numerous other critics notwithstanding, UW was just fine with Bielema’s work because of one number — each home game’s attendance at Camp Randall. Even though UW generates much more revenue from athletics than it did (thanks to former athletic director Pat Richter and former chancellor Donna Shalala), if football gets a cold, every other UW sport gets the shakes. Camp Randall generates revenue, but not if people aren’t going to games.

Wisconsin has a, shall we say, interesting history in pursuing football coaches. In 1966, UW interviewed Schembechler,  then coach at Miami of Ohio. Schembechler picks up the tale from beyond the grave:

After we won our conference title in my third and fourth seasons at Miami–1965 & 1966–Wisconsin called. From the outside, it seemed like a pretty good job. Wisconsin’s a good school in a great league. It was about ten o’clock on a Sunday when I walk into this meeting room to face twenty guys sitting around–and some board member falls asleep, right there in front of me! Now what does that tell you?

They also had a student on the committee, and this kid asks me how I would handle Clem Turner, a Cincinnati kid, who was always in trouble. Well, how the heck do I know how I would handle Clem Turner? I’ve never met him! And that’s exactly what I told that kid. But I’m thinking, Who the hell’s running this show?

The whole thing lasted maybe forty minutes, and the second I was out that door I walked to the nearest pay phone and called Ivy Williamson, the Wisconsin athletic director, and told him to withdraw my name from consideration.

Former Badger quarterback John Coatta got the job. A 23-game winless streak followed. Coatta was replaced by UCLA assistant John Jardine, who had only one winning season, but was one of the biggest UW boosters you’d ever see after his resignation.

Jardine was replaced by Ball State coach Dave McClain, who had four consecutive winning seasons and three bowl berths. McClain’s 1986 team looked to be quite good, but McClain didn’t live to see it, dying of a heart attack two days after the spring game. McClain’s interim replacement, Jim Hilles, went 3–9.

Hilles was one of the five candidates to replace, well, himself after the 1986 season. The other four were West Virginia coach Don Nehlen (whose Mountaineers lost to Notre Dame the year of the Fighting Irish’s last title), Northwestern coach Francis Peay (who had beaten Wisconsin in McClain’s last season), Wyoming coach Dennis Erickson (who had beaten Wisconsin in Madison in 1986, and who would go on to win a national title at Miami of Florida), and Tulsa coach Don Morton, who had been successful at Division I-AA North Dakota State running the veer option offense.

Clearly, Wisconsin should have hired Nehlen or Erickson. Instead, Wisconsin chose Morton over Hilles, in a situation where either choice was a bad choice. (That may have been destiny because three positions — football coach, athletic director and chancellor — became open in that order. There was a rush to name a new coach because Wisconsin wanted to grab an attractive candidate before some other college did. Morton was hired, after which his old boss Ade Sponberg was hired to replace Elroy Hirsch as athletic director, after which Shalala was hired to replace Irving Shain. Shalala then fired, in this order, Sponberg and Morton.)

Moron (for some reason I keep forgetting to put the T in his last name) won three games his first season, including Ohio State (which ended up excusing coach Earle Bruce from further employment). He then sank backward to one win, over Minnesota in a game in which the offense was shut out (the two Badger scores were a punt return and an interception return). Despite doubling the win total to two one season later, Shalala decided she had seen enough of Don Mor(t)on and his efforts to drag down the entire UW athletic department with him. (Proof that the Peter Principle exists in college athletics: Mor(t)on never coached college football again.) Don’t like the fact that UW doesn’t have baseball anymore? Don’t blame then-athletic director Pat Richter; blame Mor(t)on.

(My father and I attended Mor(t)on’s last game. Attendance was listed at 19,000; actual bodies in seats were no more than half that. At the pregame Union South pep rally, I yelled out, “LECKRONE FOR FOOTBALL COACH!”, which got a big cheer. UW Band director Mike Leckrone’s sport is basketball, not football, but a Leckrone-coached football team would have every gadget play in the playbook, and some that aren’t.)

I had not known this until reading this, but apparently there was one other coaching candidate to replace Mor(t)on besides Alvarez — Michigan assistant Lloyd Carr. (Who has one thing Alvarez doesn’t, a national championship as a head coach.) Alvarez, however, had the pedigree — Nebraska linebacker, Iowa defensive coordinator and Notre Dame defensive coordinator. Whether it was Alvarez or Richter or Shalala or all three, everything you see in Madison now — Rose Bowl wins, NCAA basketball tournament trips, hockey national championships, the Kohl Center and renovated Camp Randall — all stem from hiring the right guy (Alvarez) and not the wrong guy (Alvarez’s predecessor, if that’s what you want to call him).

Of course, UW’s had adventures in hiring for other coaches. Basketball coach Bill Cofield was fired in 1982 and replaced by UW–Eau Claire coach Ken Anderson instead of, among other potential candidates, Wisconsin native Tom Davis, who ended up beating Wisconsin like a drum when Davis went to Iowa, Anderson went back to Eau Claire after a few days, and Ball State coach Steve Yoder was hired instead. After Yoder (who did as well as he could at UW, a couple of National Invitation Tournament teams) was fired, his replacement, former NBA coach Stu Jackson, lasted two seasons before Jackson returned to the NBA. Jackson’s replacement, Stan Van Gundy, lasted one season. Van Gundy’s replacement, Dick Bennett, quit during the 2000–01 season; his replacement, Brad Soderberg, lasted the rest of the season.

(If you’re thinking the preceding paragraph means UW will avoid coaches with NFL connections, that would be a reasonable conclusion.)

Cheesehead TV has the first definitive list of potential Bielema successors, including, interestingly, Alvarez. (Bill Snyder, also a former Iowa assistant coach, retired from Kansas State, then unretired four years later.) It wouldn’t surprise me if Alvarez, instead of one of Bielema’s assistants, coached the Badgers in the Rose Bowl. For what previous history is worth, UW has gone after assistant coaches (Coatta, Jardine, Alvarez and Bielema) less often than they’ve gone after head coaches (McClain, Yoder, Bennett and Bo Ryan, plus hockey coaches Jeff Sauer and Mike Eaves).

Being a major college football coach isn’t easy today. Fans want (1) a winner that (2) plays a fun-to-watch game. (Winning is always the priority; if you can’t achieve either, your name is Don Mor(t)on.) The Athletic Department wants a team that puts fans in the stands. Academic administration wants a team that does well in the classroom and doesn’t violate NCAA rules. The sports media wants a quote machine such as late basketball coach Rick Majerus or, for that matter, UW’s Bo Ryan. (Probably the best Badger coach by any standard was hockey coach Bob Johnson, who excelled at all phases of his job, including media availability.) And the athletic marketing people would like the team to look  more stylish (thus leading to increased merchandise sales), such as …

The most obvious candidate is Chryst, a UW grad and former assistant. Much of Bielema’s success can be tied to Chryst, who was probably the best offensive coordinator Wisconsin has ever had. The question will be whether Chryst can be persuaded to leave Pittsburgh after one year.

Some would argue Bielema is the best coach UW could have gotten, and letting him leave means the current glory days are over. I recall sitting next to a fan at a UW game in 1988 who said he thought McClain should have been fired, presumably because McClain couldn’t get over the seven-win hump. (Well, neither did Mor(t)on, since he won six games in three years.) I’ve seen situations where coaches were fired because they couldn’t get over “the hump,” however that was defined, and their replacements couldn’t even get to “the hump.” This is different, though, since Bielema chose to leave his $2.2 million and pretty much guaranteed employment to get more of the former but less of the latter.

3 thoughts on “Bye bye, Bret

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