Bret Bielema always had the look of an upwardly mobile coach, a go-getter who would never stay in one place for long.
Still, it was a stunner when Bielema left the University of Wisconsin football program to take the coaching job at Arkansas, if only because it looks like a lateral move at best.
The Bielema-to-Arkansas bombshell exploded Tuesday, just three days after his Badgers won the Big Ten Conference title and a trip to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year. Despite that run of success, Bielema was a polarizing figure in Wisconsin, where his approval rating never matched his win total.
In the wake of Bielema's departure, athletic director Barry Alvarez, who hand-picked Bielema as his successor, must find another coach who can build on the program Alvarez created. In the meantime, there are many questions to be answered.
• Will UW miss Bielema?
Depending on who succeeds him, quite possibly. Bielema never won widespread acceptance, but he did win games. On balance, his plusses far outweighed his minuses.
There is no doubt Bielema improved UW's recruiting, especially in Florida. He also put together a consistent, run-oriented program based on bringing in high-quality young men and developing them as players.
On the other hand, Bielema's game-day coaching became a lightning rod for criticism, especially this season, when UW lost five by a total of 19 points. Bielema's brash demeanor and tendency to speak before thinking also rubbed people the wrong way.
• Why did Bielema leave?
Most likely, three reasons. He will get more cash at Arkansas. He thinks he'll have a better chance to win a national title in the SEC. And he will escape the criticism — some justified, some not — that reportedly hasn't sat well with him.
Bielema will get a significant bump in pay, going from $2.5 million to a reported $4 million a year. Just as important, Arkansas has boatloads of money and a willingness to spend it on assistant coaches and facilities.
Bielema will be closer to the nation's most fertile recruiting grounds at Arkansas, though it should be remembered the competition for recruits in the SEC is more intense, too. If Bielema chafed at the recruiting tactics Urban Meyer brought to Ohio State, he's in for a surprise because Meyer learned them in the SEC.
It's no easier on the field in the SEC. Arkansas is located in the SEC West with Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn, which makes the Big Ten Leaders Division look like a stroll in the park.
Still, it may be that Bielema thinks UW's program has topped out and won't be able to compete with Meyer and Ohio State in the division, thereby giving his critics more ammunition. But if Bielema thinks people were too critical of his decisions in Wisconsin, wait until he finds out how rabid SEC fans are.
• Should Bielema coach in the Rose Bowl?
No, there is no reason the coach at Arkansas should coach UW in a bowl. As much as Bielema loves the players he brought to UW, his loyalties would be divided and the players wouldn't be given the best chance to succeed.
• Who should coach in the Rose Bowl?
Unless Alvarez comes out of retirement for one game, a move that would probably energize the team and the fan base, the best choice would be respected associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partidge. The other top candidate would be co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, but he is rumored to be joining the staff of former UW assistant Dave Doeren at North Carolina State.
• Who should UW's next coach be?
First and foremost, someone with local knowledge, someone who knows how the program operates and understands how it wins. The Badgers' time-tested formula for success — recruit size from the state, feet and hands from elsewhere, then run the ball — shouldn't change, and the new coach should reflect that.
The best person to provide that continuity would be favorite son Paul Chryst, who was a bowl-eligible 6-6 this season after leaving UW to take over the reeling program at Pitt. There was always a sense that Chryst's offensive wizardry propped up Bielema anyway, a notion that gained traction when UW struggled on offense this season. The problem might be getting Chryst, a man of great integrity, to come home one year after he pledged his loyalty to Pitt.
Alvarez stuck with someone he knows when he promoted Bielema from defensive coordinator seven years ago and it seems likely he'll do so again, even if he can't land Chryst. Doeren is unlikely to move just days after taking the Wolfpack job and a source said he's not an Alvarez favorite anyway. But there are others who could intrigue Alvarez.
Former UW quarterback Darrell Bevell, the Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator, has spoken of returning to UW, but he's been in the NFL since 2000 and seems happy there. Another former Alvarez player, Joe Rudolph, is Chryst's offensive coordinator at Pitt, though he has only one year of experience in that capacity. Still, Alvarez wanted a proven recruiter when he hired Bielema and Rudolph is a terrific recruiter.
• Does Bielema's departure mean UW is a steppingstone job?
Absolutely not. It is one of the top 20 jobs in the nation and Alvarez should be able to attract a worthy successor.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com or 608-252-6172.