Sunday, December 9, 2012

Bret Bielema and Bill O'Brien: So similar, so different

Bret Bielema is the quintessential, totally self-absorbed big-time college football coach, while Bill O'Brien is cut from a different cloth.

Wisconsin is a generally likeable football program by nature, but the Badgers became insufferable several years ago.

Because Wisconsin football was inextricably linked to its new head coach.

The smarmy, unctuous, squinty phony on their sideline was just too much to take. So Wisconsin became unavoidably unlikeable.

And this week, Mr. Disingenuous, Bret Bielema, verified for everyone that, yes, the Bielema critics are indeed correct in their assessment of the noxious, self-absorbed blowhard.

(Nonetheless, Bielema shares the "Mr. Disingenuous" moniker with Lane Kiffin and perhaps a few others.)

In September, Bielema sent a handwritten letter to the Arkansas AD, Jeff Long, praising him for the way he handled the firing of the Razorbacks' scandal-ridden football coach, Bobby Petrino.

And oh-by-the-way, Bielema also used the opportunity to detail for Long his philosophy on coaching. And, Jeff (wink, coy smile), did you notice how successful I've been at Wisconsin (twirl of the finger in the hair)? And Jeff, this is crazy, but call me, maybe.

Long called, and right after the season he and Bielema consummated their secret courtship. Even though just a couple of days before, Bielema's quarterback at Wisconsin says Bielema told him he could safely ignore any reports he might hear about Bielema leaving Wisconsin, because the coach wasn't going anywhere.

It's not like Bielema had a change of heart about leaving in those two days. It's that he had started paving his way out of Madison in September!

This was also the guy who, relentlessly, punctuated every conversation with the words "On Wisconsin," like he was a sorority pledge. The guy who couldn't get enough of the camera, his face seemingly everywhere on ESPNU and the Big Ten Network. The guy who tweeted like a PR flak. The guy who gleefully ran up the score on several overmatched opponents in 2010-11. The guy who rented a QB, Russell Wilson, for four months. The guy who skirted the ethical line on many issues, such as in 2006 when he purposely had his kickoff team sprint ahead 5 yards clear of the kicker and smash into unsuspecting opponents, in order to exploit a rules loophole and run out the clock in the half. It wasn't the rules-flouting that was the big problem, it was the brazen, reckless manner in which he did it.

What. A. Jerk.

Wisconsin is better off without him. Welcome back to the likeable club, Badgers. Good luck in your coaching search.

So, why would Bielema, the handsomely paid, successful, hand-picked successor (at a very young age) to the man who built the Wisconsin program - hand-picked by the man who built the program, AD Barry Alvarez - want out of by-all-accounts wonderful Madison? To go to, for all intents and purposes, an identical job in a strange place he has little connection to that is not known as one of the world's, um, finer lifestyle locales?

Maybe cabin fever set in. Maybe he's a guy who wants a new challenge and just gets antsy every seven years or so. Maybe he just wanted to be even wealthier.

But clearly, also, there were some sort of conflicts or issues behind the scenes. Bielema indicated he couldn't pay his assistants enough to retain them at Wisconsin, and that he was losing too many of them too frequently. (Others have claimed assistants fled Madison not because of money but because of Bielema). This is emerging as Bielema's go-to rationale, as he cited it specifically on the Mike & Mike radio show last week, saying Wisconsin put debilitating restrictions on what he could pay assistants.

Several reports also indicated Bielema felt he wasn't getting his ego stroked enough by the fans and administration. Guys with massive egos always feel that way.

Apparently his appreciation for being selected to take over a healthy, vibrant Big Ten football program as a young pup in his mid-30s had waned. In the end, he wanted to stick it to Wisconsin, not thank them.

The national media - surprise! - had no idea what to make of this. The most popular knee-jerk, totally incorrect narrative was that Bielema leaving the *powerhouse, No. 3 in the Big Ten* Wisconsin program for Arkansas was another Sign of the Apocalypse for Big Ten football and verification of total world dominance for the SEC. Never mind that the SEC lost two-time national champion coach Urban Meyer a couple of years ago, and Meyer resurfaced in - ta-dah! - the Big Ten. And that Wisconsin should be able to replace Bielema with a very high quality coach. And that if Wisconsin really didn't want Bielema to leave, wouldn't it have had more than a paltry $1 million buyout in his contract?

(*Powerhouse, and 3rd-best program in the Big Ten, being the national media's erroneous assessment of Wisconsin's stature. That assertion ignores facts such as Wisky's 4-4 record and 3rd-place finish in the Leaders Division this season, and key factors such as quality of facilities, fan base, tradition/historical success, revenue, etc. In fact, the Badgers are no better than the No. 5 program in the league, behind the clear Big Four of Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State. Here's something else to chew on: Bielema's record (68-24 overall, 39-19 in conference, counting both Big Ten championship game wins) in his seven "powerhouse" seasons in Madison was worse than Joe Paterno's (66-20, 38-15) his final seven seasons at Penn State. The national media has ridiculed Penn State's final years under Paterno, yet they were better than Wisconsin's. Hmm.)

Here's what actually happened with Bielema: A successful, unhappy, big-ego coach exploited a unique opportunity - Petrino's remarkably sudden dalliance-downfall just as his Arkansas team was peaking - and made a lateral move, thinking he might find more happiness and backslapping elsewhere. Good luck with that, coach.

Bielema is the guy who comforts his buddy's girlfriend after the break-up ... and then does a little more than comfort her, while cheating on his own girlfriend.

You stay classy, Bret.

Let's be clear. This has nothing to do with Bielema deciding to take another job. He has every right to pursue what he perceives to be a better opportunity. It's the manner in which he did it, and all of the malarkey spewing from his mouth at the press conference, that makes it so distasteful and vintage Bielema. Such as his claim that Arkansas is the only place he ever would have left Wisconsin for. Yeah, right coach - Arkansas, and any other Top 30 program willing to offer a raise and praise him effusively like a divine ruler.

Some more ludicrous media reports suggested Bielema left because he didn't think he could win a national title at Wisconsin. Interesting, because Bielema and Wisconsin were two late-game Hail Mary plays from an appearance in the national title game just last season. (Bielema's late-game management was criticized again in the wake of those 2011 defeats. He's no Bill Walsh.) And when was the last time Arkansas threatened to reach the national championship game?

National media types also made an issue of Bielema's down-his-superior-protuberance comments earlier this year about the Big Ten not wanting to be anything like the SEC. That was merely Bielema playing to his constituency - Wisconsin and the Big Ten. It wasn't a window into Bielema's soul.

So what's the point here? Bragging about being proven right about Bielema's soul, or total lack thereof? Maybe a little bit.

But more than that, the Bielema affair might contain a lesson for Penn State fans regarding Bill O'Brien's status. And, it highlights, once more, just how amazing it was for PSU to have Joe Paterno as its head coach.

The snickering trolls will LOL! and OMG! at that comment, due to the Sandusky scandal. That of course completely misses the point, and if you don't get why, you never will.

With Paterno and his incredible longevity and consistency - 46 years! - you never had to worry about the things Wisconsin fans find themselves worrying about right now, along with fans of so many programs every single season: Is our coach leaving? Should our coach be fired? Who will take over the program? Can the new coach maintain it the way we have grown accustomed to and enjoy and love? If the new coach succeeds here, will he leave? On and on it goes. The stability at Penn State was truly incredible. Even the assistants almost never left.

Sure, early on, Paterno almost took some big money offers. But then came decades of stability and integrity and excellence.

Which of course naturally leads us to O'Brien.

The end-of-season speculation about O'Brien (who is a mere three months older than Bielema) possibly departing Penn State has been just that - speculation. He has, to any public knowledge, reciprocated no interest from any possible suitors, and betrayed not an iota of wanderlust.

The speculation is based on the fact that with rare exceptions (Paterno), seemingly every successful coach - as O'Brien was in his first season at Penn State - always has one eye on a bigger and better and higher-paying prize. Or a "Dream Job." Or wants to stay one step ahead of the executioner. Or has an ego that needs constant stroking like Bielema's. Or burns out. Or has a gimmicky style that doesn't last long in the same place. Or has a strained relationship with the athletic director and/or administration, as it appears Bielema may have.

That last one - a deteriorated relationship with the people he works for - seems like the only thing that, hypothetically, could ever drive O'Brien from Happy Valley prematurely.

There is absolutely nothing about O'Brien, about who he is, about what he represents, about how he conducts his business, that suggests he would leave PSU prematurely - with "prematurely" being defined as "before stabilizing the program for the long-term, through the sanctions and beyond."

So, it says here, O'Brien will coach at least three years at PSU, through the 2014 season and the 2015 recruiting class.

By then PSU will be a year away from bowl eligibility; will be operating at maximum efficiency within the framework of the 15 scholarships a year/65 scholarships total limitation; and will have nowhere to go but up.

The Lions will be bowl-eligible in 2016, back to 25 scholarships a year in 2017 and back to 85 scholarships total in 2018.

In other words, every player PSU will be recruiting after the Class of 2015 signs essentially won't be playing under any sanctions. It will be all-sunshiney future for Penn State football at that juncture. The end of this dark period will be in plain sight. Someone on-staff might be ready to take over, to maintain some continuity.

Then, at that point, if O'Brien wanted to leave for whatever reason, it could happen. At that point he could feel, legitimately, that he had done the job he was tasked to do when hired - successfully guide Penn State through this most extraordinary post-scandal period.

Then again, O'Brien might stay at Penn State for 25 years and win five national titles.

But at least until the end of the 2014 season, he won't leave for more money. Or for the Dream Job, whatever that may be. Or for the NFL siren call. Or because he fears being replaced. Or any other of the usual, normal reasons - except one.

Barring the unforeseeable, only a soured relationship with AD Dave Joyner, or with Joyner's replacement, or with some other very higher ups in the PSU hierarchy, could get O'Brien to forego his commitment to Penn State.

For more insight, analysis and opinions about Penn State football, check, or follow Pete Young on Twitter @AllPSUfootball.

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