After getting a taste of Urban Meyer's SEC-hardened recruiting chops last offseason, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema made a pretty definitive statement to Matt Hayes of The Sporting News. "I can tell you this," Bielema told Hayes in February. "We at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC -- in any way, shape or form." On Tuesday, Bielema changed his tune. The man who has led the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowls -- OK, this year's trip has a pretty big asterisk -- took the Arkansas job. Bielema didn't just want to be like the SEC. He wanted to be in the SEC. In the process, he dealt another major blow to the perception of the Big Ten as a competitive football conference.
A few months ago, Bielema hated the fact that Meyer recruited players committed to other schools from the moment he landed at Ohio State. Well, if Bielema hasn't already reached out to Alabama commitment Altee Tenpenny -- the North Little Rock High tailback who is the best high school player in Arkansas -- then Bielema isn't earning any of the millions Arkansas is about to pay him.
Aside from Bielema needing to explain his sudden philosophical shift, this is an excellent hire for Arkansas. Athletic director Jeff Long, who has ridden through a wringer since Bobby Petrino's ill-fated motorcycle ride on April Fool's Day, found a person perfectly suited to coach in a place with fantastic monetary resources but scant natural resources. At Wisconsin, Bielema had to turn over every rock to find players. He had to convince Floridians to brave the cold. He had to wait until after Ohio State and Michigan selected to sign players from those respective states. Then he went out and competed toe-to-toe with those schools on the field. He'll have to do the same at Arkansas. Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M can select players. Bielema will have to work much harder than his counterparts at those schools. Because while Razorbacks fans aren't as demanding as LSU or Alabama fans -- for whom anything less than a national title equals failure -- they aren't far behind.
Bielema will have to adjust his recruiting philosophy in the SEC West. If he considered Meyer a ruthless foe, wait until he meets Nick Saban and Les Miles. But Bielema probably will find a few things in the SEC to be better than they were in the Big Ten. Among them:
• SEC schools pay coaches a truckload of money.
• SEC schools allow head coaches to pay assistants a truckload of money. For a guy who lost six assistants after last season, this is huge. At elite programs in wealthy conferences, assistants should only leave for quality head-coaching jobs. This is something the Big Ten has been incredibly slow to figure out. Ohio State knows it now. So does Michigan, which in 2011 opened the wallet to allow Brady Hoke to hire Greg Mattison as his defensive coordinator. Apparently, word had not yet reached Madison that the easiest way to keep a head coach happy is to let him make his assistants happy.
• SEC schools pay coaches a truckload of money.
• SEC schools build ridiculous, palatial facilities. (Hey, when you can't pay the labor force more than a prescribed amount, you have to spend the money on something.) Arkansas already had more-than-adequate football facilities, but the Hogs are pumping even more money into a brighter, shinier football building. Wisconsin is in the process of upgrading its facilities, but the Badgers are light years behind the best of the Big Ten and nowhere near as far along as Arkansas in this department.
Bielema's exit has to feel like a giant middle finger to the Big Ten. In terms of pay, facilities, ease of winning the league and access to elite recruits (the most important criterion), Arkansas is behind Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M and probably even with Auburn and Tennessee. So Bielema, the winner of three consecutive Big Ten titles, left that league to take what is at best the sixth-best job in the SEC. What does that say about the Big Ten? (Other than the probability that Meyer and Ohio State are about to steamroll everyone for the foreseeable future.)
Bielema can succeed at Arkansas. If he can keep the future Darren McFaddens and Tyler Wilsons in state and then pluck the rest of his roster from Texas, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida -- bringing along current Wisconsin assistant Charlie Partridge would do wonders in the Sunshine State -- the Razorbacks can be competitive in college football's toughest division. At Wisconsin, the former Iowa defensive lineman identified diamonds in the rough and put tough, disciplined teams on the field. If he continues to prefer an offense that lines up and hands off and then uses play action to set up the pass, then he'll fit right in with Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Florida. Of course, he'll have to beat most of those teams to keep his job. For all of Petrino's success in Fayetteville, he never finished higher than third in the SEC West. Bielema will have to do better. He can start by forgetting any notions of a gentlemen's agreement and accept that in his new league, no one cares which bowl you reached. All that matters is who holds the crystal football at the end of the season.
A guy who can take Wisconsin -- with its built-in limitations -- to three consecutive Rose Bowls knows exactly how to tackle a tough job. If anyone can fulfill the entirely unrealistic expectations of the Arkansas fan base, it's Bielema. And if he can't, it's quite possible no one can.