For those regular readers (or those who have taken the time to read the About tab above) you may know that I’m a proud graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Four of the best years of my life were spent owning a phone with a 608 area code.  In my tenure I held season tickets in the student section as any good college student would.  While I cannot claim my attendance to be perfect (proudly never saw a kick-off and only stayed for the 5th quarter on Parents Weekends), a good Badger fan I became. 

During my freshman year in 1999 I was lucky enough to walk onto campus and have a Rose Bowl championship team serve as my indoctrination to the program.  I took what savings I had squirreled away from the summer and over the holiday break followed the team to Pasadena to watch them beat Stanford 17-9 on the first day of the 21st century.  Little did I know that that first season would end up being the high water mark of the program’s success since. 

While Ron Dayne received the accolades for that team (via the 1999 Heisman Trophy), the true architect of the program was head coach Barry Alvarez.  Alvarez had inherited a team in 1990 that had last won a Big Ten title in 1984 and had won all of seven conference games in the six years since.  He is still the school’s all time winningest coach, hase the second best winning percentage (60.5% to Bielema’s 73.9%), he’s won eight bowl games – three of which were Rose Bowls (the school had won a total of six bowl games prior to his arrival), and he and John Robinson from USC remain the only coaches to be undefeated in their Rose Bowl appearances (minimum three games). 

During Barry’s tenure Wisconsin became known for their dominant offensive and defensive lines as well as linebacking corps comprised of dairy fed in-state talent.  A pipeline of talented east coast running backs followed, anxious to rack up yardage behind the gaping holes the men in the trenches opened for them. 

In 2004 the patriarch of the Wisconsin Badger football program took over the Athletic Director role at the university on top of coaching, and in 2006 officially handed the head coaching title to Bret Bielema, his hand-picked successor. 

Bielema continued the in-state recruiting tradition while bringing in skill position players from the east and southeast corners of the country and the program continued to succeed.  They’ve won the Big Ten the past three years (including the only two Big Ten Championship games in history) and thus are on their way to their third straight Rose Bowl this month (having lost the previous two).  Based on the past few paragraphs one would think that the Wisconsin football program was one big happy family.  Like any true family however I believe tempers, egos, and emotions were boiling under what appeared to be a peaceful surface.

**The rest of this article is purely speculation on the part of the author based on personal observation and the examples provided**

My antennae was tweaked to a disturbance in the force in Madison on a cold November morning back in 2011 when the Chicago Tribune published a story by Tim Bannon about the salaries within the various athletic departments at each of the Big Ten schools.  My eyes were immediately drawn to two interesting tidbits.  The first item to catch my attention was that Bret Bielema’s salary was listed at $400,000, the lowest in the conference by far.  The next closest was Luke Fickell, an acknowledged one year fill in at Ohio State after the NCAA suspended Jim Tressel, who made $750,000 (his replacement this year – Urban Meyer is pulling in a cool $4 million base salary – ten times that of Bielema’s last year).  The second interesting fact was that Barry Alvarez receives $2.5 million a year to serve as Wisconsin’s Athletic Director, which was the highest amongst his Big Ten AD peers by a whooping $1.7 million dollars.  It’s true.  No other Big Ten Athletic Director made north of $800,000 in 2011.  Click the link if you don’t believe me.

What this tells me is that Madison is still Barry’s town and everyone else is just paying rent.  How would you feel if you knew your boss was making more than twice as much as his contemporaries while you are earning less than a one year fill-in placeholder while you’re coming off of a conference championship and on your way to a second (as of the writing of the article)?  Workers riots have started in Mexico over less income disparity.

I’m sure there was some degree of a father-son relationship between Alvarez and Bielema as again, Bielema was the hand-picked successor after having zero head coaching experience at the college level prior to taking over the reigns in Madison.  Some debt of gratitude was surely owed, but six years had passed and Bielema had clearly maintained the program at a level equivalent to, if not higher than how Alvarez left it.  The dude deserved to get paid.  If nothing else he raised the profile of the program in the national media’s eye which has got to be worth something right?  (I have verification from a very reliable source that there is more truth to that rumor than the link gives credit)

So while I was standing in the security line at an airport last week, I started to receive texts and tweets from college football oriented friends telling me of Bielema’s taking the Arkansas head coaching jobShock was not my reaction.  In some respects I had known this day was coming.  I’d say I was surprised as Wisconsin had just laid the wood on a heavily favored Nebraska team in the Big Ten Championship Game a few nights prior (to the tune of 70-31) and in doing so had punched their ticket to a third straight Rose Bowl.  These are not the normal circumstances under which a head coach leaves a successful program.

If I had to put my speculation hat on I’d be willing to bet that Arkansas, a school reeling from the Bobby Petrino scandal last April, who’s looking to get back into the conversation in a competitive SEC West Division, made contact with Bielema and made the proverbial godfather offer to a chronically successful & underpaid head coach.  I would then wager that Bielema, armed with said offer, walked into Alvarez’s office and asked that he finally get compensated for what he’s worth, showing Barry exactly what another school thought that amount to be.  For my final trick I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say that Alvarez reviewed the offer, took a look at Bielema, and promptly told him to take a long walk off a short bridge.  And that’s how we got to where we are. 

There are a couple things to remember here.  Barry Alvarez has a bit of an ego.  From having a statue built in his honor at Camp Randall (how many Athletic Directors oversee statues erected in their own honor?) to making a cameo on HBO’s Entourage (along with Mike Ditka and Jerry Jones – two other guys known for trying to avoid the spotlight), Barry has gone out of his way to make sure he remains the face of Wisconsin athletics, particularly the football program.  Without getting into too much of the rumor and innuendo business I will say that stories of Barry’s ego preceded him on campus even thirteen years ago.  My roommate sophomore year grew up in the Madison area and in his youth he had a job where he was hired to put up the Alvarez Christmas tree each December (that alone says something – who hires a service to put up their Christmas tree?  Badass motherf@ckers do, that’s who).  Some of the stories he told about the Alvarez household & the gifts and tips he was offered for the service he provided made for some memorable tales around the Barbarian table.  There were also persistent rumors (totally unsubstantiated for the record) of Barry getting to know some of the more spirited supporters within the student body personally (for the record I think similar rumors abound about every single head coach on a major college campus – it’s just that Petrino got caught). 

As exhibit A I would submit the story that came out this week that despite Bielema’s willingness and desire to coach the team in Pasadena on January 1st, Alvarez has taken the responsibility upon himself to lead the team onto the field – despite not having coached a down of football in over six years.  In the process Barry has graciously accepted a $118,500 bonus to do so (plus an additional $50,000 if they win).  Think of the balls it takes to do that for a second.  You tell the coach who you selected to take over for you, and who subsequently has lead the team to three straight Rose Bowls (something Alvarez never did), to take his offer and stick it so you can step back into the spotlight on a national stage to coach your old team in the biggest bowl game on New Year’s Day.  That’s some brass ladies and gentlemen.  It’s like when your ex-girlfriend who dumped you for the star quarterback in high school starts calling you again wanting to hang out once she’s heard your band signed a recording deal.  

It’s worth noting however that with the Napoleon Complex in full swing from Alvarez’s camp, the one thing you are not hearing is an outcry of support from Badger Nation begging Bielema to stay.  Truth be told, this humble fan thinks the jury is still out as to just how good of a coach he really is.  Since taking over in 2006 Bielema’s teams have always finished with a winning record (the worst being 7-6 in 2007) and he has four double digit win seasons to his name (the best being 12-1 in his first year with Alvarez’s players).  But when the stakes are at their highest, and the game comes down to the chess match between the men wearing headsets on the sidelines, more often than not Wisconsin has come out on the losing end these past six years.  Aside from beating a #1 Ohio State team in 2010 (in Madison for what it’s worth), the only other game I can think of where Wisconsin was just flat out better prepared than the competition was the Nebraska game three days prior to his leaving. 

On top of losing the majority of coaching battles that take place on Saturday mornings in the fall, I also don’t know that Bret Bielema is much of a recruiter either.  While he deserves kudos for maintaining Alvarez’s approach of retaining the in-state talent, the Badgers are never in the discussion of having a top recruiting class in the Big Ten let alone the country.  Much like Alvarez, Bielema never was able to lure a top quarterback recruit to Madison outside of the one year wonder that was NC State transfer Russell Wilson.  You’re telling me that with a guaranteed line like Wisconsin fields every year, and receivers from Al Toon to Chris Chambers to Lee Evans to Nick Toon (not to mention tight ends like Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, & Lance Kendricks), no quarterback worth his salt wants to come and play in this offense? 

I would describe Bielema’s tenure as one of maintaining a program and getting the most from what are somewhat limited talent resources.  In moving to the SEC where Arkansas will play division foes LSU and Alabama every year, Bret is going to have to pick up his game in terms of X’s and O’s as well as the calibur of Jim’s and Joe’s he brings onto campus.  If his leaving isn’t about the money then I sure can’t imagine that he’s doing it to go finish third in the SEC West year in and year out. 

So Wisconsin finds themselves at a strange crossroad.  Will Alvarez make the ultimate ego play and stay on as head coach and Athletic Director for a year or two making a miraculous return to the sidelines after six years away?  Will the Rose Bowl come and go with Barry either receiving incredible praise for saving the team if they win or a pat on the back for stepping in to a no-win situation if they lose (win-win from his perspective), followed by his hiring another upstart coach for peanuts to start the cycle over once more?  News came out today that Bielema is taking his current defensive coordinator Chris Ash to Fayetteville with him.  Will he continue to poach various Wisconsin coaches leaving his old program stripped bare?  I don’t have all the answers but I know that the whole thing just doesn’t feel right.   

It’s a shame I guess that egos can get in the way of such a good thing.  If you look at the expectations of the Wisconsin program twenty-five years ago to where it is today, the bar has undoubtedly been raised.  With Urban Meyer arriving at Ohio State this year, and subsequently leading them to an undefeated record, the balance of power in the Big Ten has most likely shifted once more.  Perhaps Bielema wanted to get out while he was still on top?  We may never have all the answers here but what I can tell you is that the loser in all of this is the University of Wisconsin and their dedicated fans.  This past week of events pales in comparison to some of the terrible stories which have surfaced across the college football landscape in recent years.  With that said I still wish these men could have put their egos aside and keep their likeness to badgers on the field as opposed to at the negotiation table.                    

***EDITOR’S NOTE: After publishing this post a reader sent me the following link.  It basically says that Bret Bielema received the vast majority of his salary ($2.1M) from the Wisconsin Board of Regents (read: shady booster club) as opposed to from the school directly.  This explains the astrik next to his $400,000 salary noted in the Chicago Tribune report referenced above.  The Tribune was only able to access the data provided because as state funded institutions, the vast majority of Big Ten Athletic Directors and coaches are technically public employees.  Wisconsin has opted to go the more public-finance-conscious route (or shady under the table payment method – you be the judge) to pay their football coach.  So in fact Bielema was earning more towards the upper middle class of Big Ten coaches in 2011 as opposed to the drastically under paid amount reported initially.  In taking the Razorback’s offer however he is recognizing a $700,000 pay increase.  I continue to support the premise of the body of this article in that the egos in play drove him out more than anything and the university and its fans are the real losers here)