MADISON, Wis. — On Friday afternoon, as his Wisconsin football team prepared to face Nebraska in the Big Ten Conference title game, Bret Bielema spoke passionately about the future of the UW program.
“I’m really excited to play this game and play in our bowl game,” Bielema, 42, said. “I have 27 juniors. I believe 12 of them are going to be (NFL) draft-worthy. I’m very excited about the chemistry of the group that’s going to be coming back next year.”
On Tuesday night, three days after Bielema guided UW to its third consecutive Big Ten title, he was named head coach at Arkansas of the powerful Southeastern Conference, hired away from UW by athletic director Jeff Long.
“I am very humbled and honored to become the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks,” Bielema said in an Arkansas release. “During my conversation with Jeff he described the characteristics for the perfect fit to lead this program. It was evident we share the same mission, principles and goals.
“The infrastructure in place at Arkansas shows the commitment from the administration to accomplish our goals together and I am excited to begin to lead this group of student-athletes.”
The decision by Bielema, who has compiled a 68-24 record in seven seasons and was Barry Alvarez’s hand-picked successor, stunned everyone associated with the UW athletic department.
One source said Bielema met with Long on Monday night in New York City and finalized the deal there. He left New York City on Tuesday morning and informed the UW players of his decision during a brief but emotional meting Tuesday night.
Bielema is expected to be formally introduced as Arkansas’ head coach Wednesday.
Multiple sources close to the UW program said Tuesday athletic department officials and members of the team had no inkling Bielema was interested in leaving Madison.
Alvarez was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
One of the sources close to the program said late Tuesday that Alvarez will oversee the team in the interim and might coach UW (8-5) when it faces No. 8 Stanford (11-2) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif. Alvarez went 3-0 in the Rose Bowl in 16 seasons as UW’s head coach. His teams beat UCLA in the 1994 and 1999 Rose Bowls and beat Stanford in the 2000 Rose Bowl.
Earlier Tuesday, Alvarez issued a statement:
“I was very surprised when Bret told me he was taking the offer from Arkansas,” he said in the release. “He did a great job for us during his seven years as head coach, both on the field and off. I want to thank him for his work and wish him the best at Arkansas… .
“Along with finding a new coach, my other main objective is to make sure that our student-athletes, specifically our seniors playing in their final game as Badgers, have a tremendous experience in the Rose Bowl. We will do everything within our power to make that happen.”
According to two of the sources close to the program, Alvarez has a short list of candidates to replace Bielema. At the top of that list is former UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who is in his first season as the head coach at Pittsburgh.
If Alvarez decides UW would better served having a current member of the staff coach the team, the logical candidates are Charlie Partridge, associate head coach, co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach; and Chris Ash, defensive coordinator and secondary coach.
According to one of the sources close to the UW program, Bielema is expected to sign a contract that will pay him more than $4 million annually at Arkansas.
He is scheduled to make $2.6 million this season at UW, including a base salary of $400,000.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Bielema, who was married March 10, has agreed to a six-year contract worth $3.2 million per year.
He replaces interim coach John L. Smith, who went 4-8 with the Razorbacks this season.
Smith replaced Bobby Petrino, who was fired in April for misconduct. Petrino reportedly made $3.6 million per year as part of a seven-year contract signed in 2010.
According to Forbes Magazine, the Arkansas football program was the eighth-most profitable program in the nation with a value of more than $89 million.
In addition, school officials are upgrading the program’s facilities.
An 80,000-square foot football operations center is under construction and scheduled to be completed next summer. There are plans to expand Razorback Stadium, which seats 72,000. That project could cost close to $100 million.
Long, who was named athletic director at Arkansas on Jan. 1, 2008, recently signed a contract extension through 2017.
“Bret Bielema is an exceptional leader of young men and an outstanding football coach who has proven his program is centered on establishing an unshakable foundation that emphasizes the development of each student-athlete as an individual,” Long said in an Arkansas release. “Coach Bielema has led his team to a historic run of championships while seeing a record number of student-athletes recognized for academic achievement.
“Throughout his career, he has demonstrated a commitment to competing for a national championship with a program known for discipline, honesty and integrity. His tough, aggressive style of play has been successful and will be appealing to student-athletes and fans.”
Bielema was hired by Alvarez as UW’s defensive coordinator before the 2004 season.
He served in that role for two seasons, but before the ‘05 season Alvarez announced he would be retiring and that Bielema would take over the program in 2006.
Bielema posted a 12-1 mark in his first season and the Badgers closed that season with a 17-14 victory over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl.
Alvarez supported Bielema through a 7-6 finish in the 2008 season, which ended with an ugly 42-13 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
UW compiled a record of 32-8 over the next three seasons. UW’s five losses this season came by a combined 19 points. The Badgers secured their third consecutive Rose Bowl berth with a 70-31 victory over Nebraska on Saturday in Indianapolis.
One day before that performance Bielema talked about his time at UW.
“I’ve grown a lot as a coach,” he said. “As the head coach, I know in Year 7, I’m better than I was in Year 1.”