Bielema’s Departure Raises Questions But They’re Not the Right Ones
Bret Bielema has left Wisconsin for Arkansas. You are supposed to be morally shocked and offended by that. But you aren’t.
You aren’t because this isn’t 1988. You are well aware that any reasonably ambitious coach, even one who has spent almost his entire career near U.S. 151 between Interstates 80 and 90, would take a phone call from an SEC athletic director and would sign a contract if it meant a bump in pay. Or even if it didn’t. You are aware that the SEC is Where It’s At in college football right now.
So when you see and hear reactions about Bielema’s anonymous, Big Ten-steeped, corn-fed style of coaching not translating well to the Smothering Ego Conference, you are able to shrug them off. You know that Nick Saban and Les Miles have done just fine playing Big Ten football in the SEC without always having world-melting talent at the skill positions. You know that David Shaw wasn’t wrong when he said that you can win with any scheme because you know it’s not the scheme that matters, it’s …
[WARNING: All Iowa and Michigan State fans please skip the rest of this sentence]
… the execution.
Granted, it’s the coaches who teach the execution, but it’s the execution. And not merely the execution, but the thing being executed. You know, the plan. Since you know these two things, you know two more things: One, that people in Big Ten country are right to be concerned about what Bielema’s departure means, and two, that those same people are drawing all the wrong conclusions.
Yes, there’s a problem in Big Ten football, but it’s not the problem everyone is hovering over. It’s not a lack of talent. It’s not a lack of anything. It’s an overabundance of caution among the coaches.
To put it bluntly, most of the coaches in the Big Ten over the past couple decades have clung to a basic philosophy of stressing line play and sitting on ten-point leads. That was the modus operandi for Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr; it still is Kirk Ferentz’s m.o. This has not failed anywhere except on the field in nonconference games against teams from other BCS automatic-qualifier conferences. It has filled stadiums. It has earned bowl trips. It has garnered pay raises and lengthy, barely justified contract extensions. It has sold several TV contracts and a whole new network. It has made red ink unnecessary for Big Ten athletic departments, even though it’s more boring than CSPAN 2.
It is the worst sort of dull grey thinking — get a small lead, then don’t make mistakes and keep it. And we just lost one of the few coaches in the conference who wouldn’t fall victim to it.
Spare me your talk about Bielema’s shortcomings as a coach. Nobody cared what the fox thought about the grapes. Two years ago I saw him demolish the No. 1 team in the country (Ohio State) with a superior game plan and players who were coached up beyond their star rankings. He took a castoff from Central Michigan and turned him into J.J. freaking Watt. The man can coach football.
So why isn’t he going to be coaching in Wisconsin any more?
You can look at a lot of reasons. Maybe he hit the ceiling in Madison. Maybe he thinks he’ll never be able to beat Urban Meyer. (I doubt that one since he’ll be facing Micromanager Napoleon and The Hat every year now.) Maybe his Floridian wife wants nothing to do with Wisconsin winters.
Maybe UW — along with a lot of Big Ten schools — doesn’t get that the market for assistant coaches has changed. A lot.
We’ll start with Iowa, because right now Iowa football is the go-to example for throwing football money to the wind. Kirk Ferentz’s two coordinators, Greg Davis and Phil Parker, make $300,000 and $301,000 respectively. That is a whole lot of money in Iowa City. (It’s a pretty tidy sum anywhere, of course.) But it’s about 7% of what Ferentz makes and it’s not really that much more than Iowa pays some of its position coaches, the ones who are charged with teaching the players to execute. Bielema noted that UW didn’t want to free up more money for his assistants, and Barry alone knows why. Bielema was tired of losing good assistants to other programs because he couldn’t get them more money in Madison.
Some Big Ten schools cough up the bucks and get quality assistants. Luke Fickell and Greg Mattison each make $750,000 at Ohio State and Michigan respectively. Nobody in either fanbase thinks either of those guys is overpaid. That’s the price for a top-notch coordinator these days. Pay it and you get the best. Don’t pay and you get one of these guys: lifers nobody else wants, young coaches who will bolt for a contract you’re unwilling to match, or coaches like Greg Davis who are available for 65% of what they used to cost. That’s good enough for a lot of schools — Iowa is hardly alone in underpaying its assistants — because you, the fan, won’t quit watching even after multiple 7-5 or 6-6 seasons. Why spend the bucks if the only thing it does is reduce your profits?
Because you want to compete, that’s why. Because the point of having a football team is to win games, not just pay for the cross-country team. Because you recognize that college football is not just a business, but an entertainment business, and people do not find persistent mediocrity or incompetence very entertaining. And because just making it to a third tier bowl game is ultimately not enough for you.
That sort of fire is missing in the Big Ten right now, more among athletic directors than among head coaches. Should Big Ten fans be worried that Bielema’s departure is a sign of things to come? No. We should be worried that Bielema’s departure is a sign of what’s already here: a conference that is too in love with its own culture to risk change. At this moment there are eleven permanent head coaches in the Big Ten. Ten of the eleven have either been assistants at Big Ten schools, head coaches in the MAC, or both. (Bill O’Brien is the sole exception.) There are no outsiders, and it’s a good bet that Wisconsin won’t hire an outsider to replace Bret Bielema. “Gotta have continuity. Gotta have somebody who understands our culture.” How many times have you heard those words in Big Ten coaching searches?
How many times have you said them?
There’s nothing magical about football in the Midwest or the Great Lakes or wherever it is Big Ten country exists these days. The coaches who stress ball control, stiff defense and minimal passing don’t do so because cold weather makes vertical passing impossible. You needn’t look any further than the Green Bay Packers to see that. No, they stress that style of ball because that’s what they know how to coach, and they can’t find the right assistants to let in a little fresh air. They can just draw up a scheme straight out of the old Atari arcade game with the Xs and Os and blame “execution” when it doesn’t work. The most maddening part of that is … they’re right.
Great football costs a lot of money to produce. How good do you want to be? Bret Bielema wanted to be better than Wisconsin was willing to pay for. Can he pull that off at Arkansas? I don’t know, but unless Barry opens the checkbook, the Badgers certainly aren’t going to get better.