FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long’s eight-month search for the program’s next head football coach finally ended Tuesday. The result wasn’t exactly an expected one, either.
Long announced Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema as the Razorbacks’ new leader in a news release Tuesday night. It came hours after Bielema’s surprising decision to leave Wisconsin became widely known. Yahoo! Sports was first to report the news.
Bielema, 42, will be introduced during a news conference at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
“I am very humbled and honored to become the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks,” Bielema said in a news 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.
“This program will represent the state of Arkansas in a way Razorback fans everywhere will be proud of.”
Arkansas and Bielema agreed to a multi-year contract believed to be worth $3.2 million annually, according to a source. Bielema’s Wisconsin contract paid him more than $2.6 million a year, which is the 18th-highest total among college football coaches according to a recent database compiled by USA Today. His contract also includes a $1 million buyout, which must be paid within 120 days.
Bielema doesn’t have Southeastern Conference coaching experience, but the Illinois native and former Iowa defensive lineman has enjoyed success in the Big Ten Conference.
The Badgers were 68-24 during Bielema’s tenure, reaching a bowl game each season. Wisconsin is 8-5 this year, but earned a third straight trip to the Rose Bowl after beating then-No. 14 Nebraska, 70-31, in the Big Ten Championship Game last Saturday.
Bielema is one of only 12 active head coaches — and 16 overall — to have led a team to at least three BCS bowl games. His 40 wins over the last four seasons also are tied for the most of any four-year stretch in Wisconsin history.
“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 a news 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 Razorback fans. He not only shares the vision and values for the future of Arkansas football, he embraces them.”
Bielema’s Wisconsin teams have plenty in common with two of Arkansas’ SEC West rivals, Alabama and LSU. The Badgers are known for their solid defense and powerful run game, which has been spearheaded by record-setting running back Montee Ball in recent years. Wisconsin was ranked 12th in the nation in rushing offense (237.8 yards) in 2012 and 13th in total defense (320.9 yards).
It will be a change of pace from Arkansas’ offensive philosophy under former coach Bobby Petrino. The Razorbacks were among the SEC’s leaders in passing offense the past few years with the program built around quarterbacks and receivers. Arkansas finished 105th in the nation in rushing (118.7 yards a game) and 72nd in total defense (409.9 yards).
Arkansas players were not available for comment Tuesday, but several appeared to speak out about Bielema’s hire via Twitter.
“Wisconsin offered me out of hs I like it,” running back Jonathan Williams said.
“I’m excited about this decision,” cornerback Tevin Mitchel said via Twitter.
Fayetteville High quarterback Austin Allen, who has verbally committed to the Razorbacks, also chimed in on the potential philosophical changes for the Hogs.
“I know he likes having a good defense and having a good defense in the SEC tends to make you a good team,” Allen said Tuesday.
Bielema’s hiring was the unpredictable end to a busy day, which began with multiple reports suggesting Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy had been hired. Gundy met with Long this week, according to multiple reports. He also reportedly met with Tennessee about its coaching vacancy and could remain in consideration for the job.
But it wasn’t long before Bielema’s move became official, which surprised many.
“I never heard him mentioned, so it is a surprise,” Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe told Stephens Media in Washington D.C. on Tuesday.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, citing multiple sources close to the Wisconsin program, said athletics department officials and members of the team had no idea Bielema was interested in leaving and were stunned to learn the news.
It included Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez, who hired Bielema as defensive coordinator in 2004 and promoted him to head coach two years later.
“I was very surprised when Bret told me he was taking the offer from Arkansas,” Alvarez said in a statement released by Wisconsin on Tuesday night. “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.”
How well Bielema settles into the SEC remains to be seen.
The coach will likely be reminded Wednesday about his comments regarding former Florida and current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s aggressive recruiting tactics earlier this year. The outspoken Bielema referenced the SEC in his criticism.
“I can tell you this,” Bielema said, according to multiple reports. “We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC — in any way, shape or form.”
But now, Bielema is in the SEC and in charge of an Arkansas program in need of new life after crashing from its 21-5 run under Petrino in 2010 and 2011.
The troubles began with Petrino’s firing last April and continued through coach John L. Smith’s one-season stint, which ended last month with a 4-8 record. Bielema is expected to begin the rebuilding process with a team meeting Wednesday afternoon.
“And like that its on … Yes sir,” fullback Kiero Small said via Twitter.