It’s been an interesting week in college football and the Big Ten. Let’s start off with what took place in Madison on Tuesday and the fallout from Bret Bielema’s leaving the Wisconsin Badger program.
BIELEMA BYE-BYE: Former Iowa Hawkeye Bret Bielema is leaving Wisconsin after three straight trips to the Rose Bowl. That’s tall cotton no matter what school you coach at but certainly for Wisconsin. Why did Bielema take is act to Arkansas?
First off, it appears Bielema was thinking about leaving Madtown before the 2012 season even started:
Interesting note: Bielema sent Jeff Long a letter in Sept. Include coaching philosophy/appreciation of job Long has done.
— Chris Bahn (@cbahn) December 5, 2012
Yeah, that seems straight up crazy, doesn’t it? Just like when Bielema fired his offensive line coach a few games into the season. Some writers said that seemed like an SEC move. Perhaps there was a grand design all along, or a bit of an audition?
I spoke with a few folks on Wednesday, some who are very connected to the Wisconsin program. Each and every one of them said that Bielema was not universally liked in Madison. Some feel he has been too abrasive, saying the wrong things at the wrong times. A few years back, when Wisconsin had just finished a 7-6 season under Bielema, I was taken aback with the tenor from some Wisconsin corners as it related to anti-Bielema sentiment. This was in 2008, Bielema’s third year as Wisconsin’s head coach. In his first two years he went 12-1 and 9-4 and won 13 straight games over those two years. Then in year three he goes 7-6 and there were far too many people calling for his head. Folks I spoke with told me that Bielema has never forgotten that and it didn’t set well with him.
Another related issue was the ever present spector of Barry Alvarez, the architect of the Wisconsin program. It’s not like Barry sailed off into that good night; he was the Athletic Director and had an office overlooking Camp Randall Stadium. While Bielema was Alvarez’s handpicked successor, Alvarez didn’t exactly give Bielema the kind of space I think Bret (or most coaches) would have preferred. Alvarez kept a presence in the program as well as throughout the community.
When Hayden Fry stepped down and Kirk Ferentz stepped in at Iowa, Fry all but disappeared into the landscape and let Ferentz have all the room in the world. That wasn’t the case in Madison.
Another issue facing the Wisconsin program in a pinch-penny mindset; this is a Top 11 athletic department as it relates to revenue. Their men’s basketball program regularly sells out the Kohl Center, the football stadium seats over 80,000 and it’s always packed…heck their hockey team averaged over 14,000 fans per game in 2008, the most recent attendance figures displayed by the NCAA’s website.
Perhaps things aren’t so rosy, however. Wisconsin’s Athletic Department is 11th in revenue (Iowa is 12th), they are showing less than a million dollars in athletic department profit based on the most recent figures you can see here.
Bielema shifts to the 14th largest Athletic Department in terms of revenue and Arkansas shows profits of more than $11 million dollars prior to any subsidy adjustment.
Arkansas has better facilities than does Wisconsin and is willing to let Bielema pay his assistants more money, something that was also a sticking point for him in Madison.
Go back to that embedded tweet from above; Bielema reached out to the Arkansas AD before the 2012 season began. This was on the heels of Bielema losing six assistant coaches last offseason, something that is unheard of in the Big Ten or any other school that is in the midst of great success, as Wisconsin was.
Sure, when you succeed you are liable to lose some coaches who want to break out on their own. But six in one season? You have to figure that finances played a part in that scenario and one would also suspect that Bielema went to bat to get more money for his assistants and was stonewalled.
The financial angle makes the most sense. While Ohio State appears to be loading up for another run of dominance, Bielema just left Madison, where he was likely going to be the second best team in the Leaders Division at worst for the foreseeable future due to the turmoil facing Penn State, he joins the SEC West where he can only hope to become the third best team behind Alabama and LSU, not to mention competition from Texas A&M and Auburn.
There is little debate that Bielema made things much more difficult for himself by moving into the SEC West as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. He’ll make over $3million per year and given that he has the same agent as Kirk Ferentz, you’d have to believe his buyout at Arkansas will be pretty valuable. But he’s going to have far more competition just to finish third in his division than he ever would have had in the Big Ten Leaders. Arkansas has a solid program; they’ve won 104 games since the start of the 1999 season to Iowa’s 100. But they aren’t Alabama or LSU and never will be.
Bielema will earn $3.2 million per year for six-years at Arkansas when he was making roughly $2.5 million per year in Wisconsin. “I just felt it was time for me to try and spread my wings and fly a little bit further,” Bielema said at his Razorback presser on Wednesday. Perhaps, or the Wisconsin Athletic Department has some money problems. Given what is coming down the pike for Big Ten teams I just don’t think they have money problems for very much longer (more on that in a bit).
Bielema’s Wisconsin teams have qualified for three straight BCS bowl games. I think it’s going to be a long, long time before he sees another one.
WHAT NEXT, WISCONSIN? As I see it, the Badgers need to hire Paul Chryst away from Pitt in order to maintain a semblance of continuity. Chryst was born in Madison, played quarterback for the Badgers in the mid to late 1980′s and served as Bielema’s Offensive Coordinator until leaving the program last winter to become the head coach at Pitt.
Simply put, he is the perfect fit. If the Badgers are unable to bring him back to Madison, especially when he’s at a black hole job like Pitt, the Wisconsin program may be in a world of hurt. I think they will get him.
LEAGUE EXPANSION & REVENUE: While I was reading some articles on the Wisconsin changes and other Big Ten news, I came across this item from ESPN. It’s about Big Ten expansion and how Michigan State’s Athletic Director saying that 16 makes more sense than the current 14 members.
Then there was this snippet that really caught my attention:
Yo! $40 million per school per year? That’s an additional $16 million per year per school to what league teams are receiving right now. That is an incredible figure (I’d seen other estimates last month in the $30 to $35 million per year range) and would also suggest to me that the league is going to get to 16 sooner as opposed to later. Why? Focus on the line that talks about the new media rights deal in 2017.
If the league can add two more teams from TV markets where it currently does not have a presence (which is the only reason for them to expand), it makes sense to do that BEFORE you go and negotiate the new media rights deal in 2017. These deals don’t just happen overnight, so I would expect the league to grow to 16 teams within the next two years to give the league plenty of time to get its house in order before the negotiations get real serious.
Once they get to 16 teams, there will likely be two, eight-team divisions. That means you play every one of your division foes (seven games) per year and we will likely see the league slate expand to nine games, so you’d play two teams from the opposite division each season. That would allow you to face each team in the opposite division two times in eight years.
Let’s circle back to that $40 million dollar per year number for a second…that’s $16 million more dollars per year per school. High priced buyouts aren’t as high priced as they might once have appeared, but that’s a topic for another day…or year…or hopefully never.
LOCALIZE IT: What does the Wisconsin situation mean for Iowa? Iowa and Wisconsin certainly knocked a lot of heads on the recruiting trails. 2002-2011 the schools were 14th and 16th in the FBS in winning percentage. They share a border and similar football philosophies and for much of that 10-year span, when one program was winning big the other one wasn’t; only in 2010 did they both win 10 or more games in the same season.
That makes sense, as neither program has an historic pedigree to match Ohio State or Michigan. They have been fighting for the same turf for the majority of the past two decades and when one program has encountered a rough patch or bad news it has seemed to benefit the other.
Will Wisconsin’s loss be Iowa’s gain? It’s too early to tell. Iowa has their own issues to deal with right now, still dealing with some transition in the program. Wisconsin just entered another transition period which really began last year when six coaches left the program.
I know this may sound harsh, but the numbers bear it out; what’s bad for Wisconsin has been good for Iowa and vice versa.
NOTE: In an earlier version of this item, I incorrectly stated the $7.7 million dollars Wisconsin receives from subsidies as being from state taxpayer funds, when they were from student fees. That’s a commentary for another day. The fact remains that Wisconsin’s expenses are less than $700,000 ahead of revenues and I believe that Bret Bielema most certainly left Wisconsin in part due to financial issues.