College football coaches are politicians by necessity -- even though, like many politicians, they claim to hate politics. So it was not surprising to see Bret Bielema package himself up for a sales job Wednesday. He told Arkansas fans that his new gig is "an opportunity to chase a dream ... a dream that started on a pig farm."
Get it? Bielema grew up on a pig farm in Iowa. Arkansas fans yell "
Bielema at Arkansas is a strange sight, though it will seem remarkably normal when he stands on the same field that Les Miles is eating.
I should not be surprised this move. I tell myself this every time I am surprised by a coaching move or free-agency decision. Don't be surprised. LeBron James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami? Steve Spurrier left his alma mater, Florida, for the Washington Redskins? Albert Pujols left the Cardinals for the Angels? DO NOT BE SURPRISED.
Then news broke that Bielema was leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas.
And ... I was surprised.
Not just surprised. Shocked, baffled, confused ... wondering what Bielema was thinking ... doesn't he realize he belongs at Wisconsin? ... maybe I should call him and offer to buy him coffee and chat about it or something.
This is my own failing, and it is one that isn't going away. I think a lot of sports fans have the same failing. We forget how all-consuming these jobs really are.
We think of these guys as people, when they don't even think of themselves as people. They define themselves by the jobs they hold.
I try to put myself in Bielema's shoes -- which, unlike his ever-expanding slacks, might actually fit me. He lived in a great town, Madison. He had the perfect boss, Barry Alvarez, a guy who hired him twice (as an assistant and head coach) and understands better than anybody else on the planet what it is like to be the head football coach at Wisconsin. A lot of coaches grumble about their administration. Bielema had it pretty good.
Bielema had taken the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowls, and that means three things:
1. The Badgers are capable of being very good quite often. This isn't Indiana football or Penn State basketball. A coach can win consistently at Wisconsin. Alvarez did. Bielema has won even more.
2. The Wisconsin program does not have to be rebuilt. It is in great shape.
3. Bielema had the one thing every coach claims to want, and the one thing most Americans have coveted in the last four years: job security. If Wisconsin went 3-8 next year, Bielema would not have been fired. If the Badgers followed it up with 6-6, he would not have been fired. He could go to sleep at night knowing that.
What else? Bielema has spent most of his life in that part of the country. Madison is less than three hours from his hometown of Prophetstown, Illinois. Bielema played at Iowa and has a Hawkeye tattoo on his left calf.
To sum up: He had a great job with a great boss, surrounded by people who love him, not too far from where he grew up. He made more money than he could possibly need and was in line for a raise.
That would be enough for most of us. Most of us are not football coaches.
These guys eat, live, and think the job for almost every minute of every day. Do you want to know what football coaches are thinking about? Two words: Next and more.
Next play, more points, next game, more wins, next recruiting class, more money. Next job. The neighbors across the street might as well live 100 miles away.
And this, I think, explains my surprise. I looked at Bielema's old job, old boss and where he lived, and I thought, "That guy belongs there. What a great gig. He can stay there another 20 years and be beloved." And Bielema was thinking about next and more. He got more money for himself and, I presume, for his assistants. He surely thinks his next few recruiting classes at Arkansas will be more talented than his last few at Wisconsin, and so he can squeeze more wins out of that job.
Who knows? He might be right. He is a terrific coach.
Does he belong in the SEC? Well, in the last two days, a lot has been made of this comment to the
"I can tell you this," he said. "We at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC-in any way, shape or form."
Read that quote, and you think Bielema is betraying his ideals, his roots, his league. But that would be a mistake, too. Bielema wasn't thinking about any of those things. Roots? Who cares? He was thinking about next and more.
He was taking a shot at the next guy in his way. That happened to be Urban Meyer of Ohio State. Bielema did not like how Meyer recruited. (I don't think Bielema publicly said what the problem was -- people assume it is because Meyer recruited players who had already committed, but I don't think it is that simple.)
In this case, the guy in Bielema's way was not even IN the SEC. But that was an easy way for Bielema to fight back. (And Meyer, who is a master at taking down the guy in front of him, verbally and publicly, should appreciate that.)
So now Bielema goes to Arkansas, where he gets more money and a place in the SEC, where national championships are won these days. He has decided that a better shot at the national title is what matters most to him. He is entitled to make that decision. But it says a lot about how football coaches think, and it's just one more reason I would be a horrible college football coach.