Fan Interference: Lose-lose for Bielema, Badgers?

C3K sports blogger looks ahead to life without Bret
Fan Interference: Lose-lose for Bielema, Badgers?

Surprises are rare these days.

What eventually becomes fact usually begins as a speculative tweet, an exploratory blog entry, or a suspicious story coated in “unnamed sources indicate” or “anonymous reports suggest.”

Apart from unexpected deaths or accidents that no one could foresee, rarely does breaking news really shock anymore. That changed this week when the reports came in from ESPN.

And though you are still probably trying to process the news, it’s time to face the reality of the situation:

The Packers have indeed re-signed running back Ryan Grant.

The move does make some sense: Cedric Benson and James Starks are out with injuries, Alex Green has underwhelmed, and the Packers need someone to at least provide just a distant hope of a run game. And it’s not like desirable running backs are wandering the streets waiting to be signed . . .

Oh, that’s not the sports news you thought I was referring to?

You must be thinking of Robin Yount shooting Cubs manager Dale Sveum in the ear while on a hunting expedition. After losing 101 games and getting shot by his best friend, did anyone have a worst 2012 than Sveum? Well, maybe anyone who saw this.

All right, all right, you’re talking about the news that Wisconsin Badgers head football coach Bret Bielema, after leading the Badgers to their third straight Rose Bowl, has left to become the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Yes, that was a surprise, apparently from everyone from UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, who will now coach the team on January 1 against the Stanford Cardinal, on down.

For the immediate – and I do mean very immediate – future, this sudden turn of events could be beneficial for Wisconsin: The team and Alvarez will be keenly motivated to prove that they can win despite the defection of the man who led them there, plus a victory would keep Alvarez’s unblemished Rose Bowl mark alive (he’s now 3-0).

But long-term, despite the “we’ll show ‘em!” attitude from most Badger faithful stunned by the news, Bielema’s departure is undoubtedly a setback for the program.

Fans can complain all they want about Bielema not being able to win the “big one” (a notion he completely dispelled this year in Indianapolis, although it bears repeating that he was just 2-4 in bowl games while at Wisconsin) or about him being brash and arrogant (who can forget that unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Michigan State that cost them dearly in a one-point loss to Michigan State in 2008?), or that he’s simply a jerk, as indicated by this.

What Badger fans can’t overlook, and what they’ll miss about Bielema the most, is that he was a straight up winner: He persevered in 17 of his first 18 games as a head coach – remember, he had no prior head coaching experience before succeeding Barry Alvarez – and went 68-24 overall.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” attitude that some Badger fans are showing to Bielema reminds me of how many Vikings fans – including my parents – treated former Minnesota Vikings head coach Dennis Green. For years, people wanted Green gone, despite the fact that in his ten seasons, the Vikings missed the playoffs only once. In the ten years since his departure, the Vikings have made the playoffs only three times (and once as an 8-8 team). People there now miss Denny Green.

So I do think that Badger Nation will miss Bielema, but you can’t really fault the guy for leaving. After all, we tell our children to always accept new challenges and we applaud other people in the public eye for branching out – ooh, Rihanna’s acting! – that why should we treat Bielema any differently? Out of loyalty? Come on, if Bielema put together a couple of losing campaigns, would fans want the University to show loyalty to him? Nope. They’d want him replaced.

Perhaps the struggle to keep that winning tradition alive played into Bielema’s decision: Though the team is going to lose only nine seniors to graduation, it’s a key nine, including RB Montee Ball, LB Mike Taylor, and offensive lineman Ricky Wagner. Plus the Badgers’ quarterback position is unsettled, and if Joel Stave struggles next year, Curt Phillips won’t be around to bail him out. Also, assuming no other violations surface, Ohio State will be eligible for postseason play next year, which presumably would place the Badgers’ chances of appearing in a third straight conference championship game in serious jeopardy. Whether it is or not (and only time will tell), maybe Bielema saw the arrow pointing down for the Badgers football program and wanted to exit a winner.

But will he be a winner at Arkansas? It’s tough to feel confident about it. In the SEC, Bielema won’t have perennial doormats like Indiana, Illinois, or Minnesota to kick around. The SEC is the toughest and best conference in college football; in the west division alone, Bielema will have to compete with national powerhouses Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M. It’s a killer grind every season, and Arkansas has continually struggled to rise above the stiff competition, appearing in the SEC Championship Game only three times since its inception in 1992 and never winning. The program hasn’t claimed a national championship since 1964, six years before Bret Bielema was even born.

Worse, the program is right now a bit of a laughing stock, less than a year removed from the Bobby Petrino scandal involving the former head coach’s adulterous relationship with a student-athlete development coordinator that he had hired. Interim head coach John L. Smith struggled in his only season as head coach, leading Arkansas to a 4-8 record and a sixth-place finish in their division.

Obviously the University of Arkansas feels Bret Bielema can turn the program around and do so quickly. Obviously Badger fans feel the team can thrive without Bielema. But signs point to the developments this week ending in a lose-lose situation for the Badgers and Bielema, with neither side potentially having as much to celebrate next holiday season as they do this year.

Bret, we wish you the best. Barry, great to have you back, even if it is only for one game. And readers, remember – you better not cry, you better not pout, but most of all – you better not go hunting with Robin Yount.