December 10, 2012 at 1:00 am

Power of SEC hooks Bret Bielema

Bret Bielema stunned the college football world last week when he announced he was leaving Wisconsin to be head coach at Arkansas. (April L Brown/Associated Press)

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly once called this time of year the "silly season" for college football coaches.

The carousel gets rolling as school after school decides they must dump their current coach for the next best thing. Some do it because they're tired of losing, many others because their guy just jumped ship for what he perceives is a better gig.

In a lot of cases, that is absolutely correct.

It's the scenario that is taking place at Northern Illinois, Arkansas State … the list goes on. The coach at those schools got a chance to move up to the big leagues. In college football, that means a job at a BCS conference school.

But none of that is silly. What is silly is when a coach makes a move that is difficult to fathom.

For instance, the coach that is preparing to lead his team in its third consecutive BCS bowl game has been wildly successful over the last seven years and is firmly entrenched in a part of the country he calls home.

That describes perfectly Bret Bielema, the man who wins the title for The Silliest of the Season.

'Chasing a dream'

Fresh off a beat-down of Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game, Bielema was introduced on Wednesday as the head coach at Arkansas.

Hmmm. Yeah, that sounds about right.

At his introductory press conference, Bielema spewed all the requisite phrases about building a winning tradition, recruiting the right kids and making the Razorbacks fans proud.

My favorite, however, was when he actually alluded to dreaming about coaching at Arkansas.

Hold on. The kid who was born in Illinois, played at Iowa and has coached exclusively in the Midwest has dreamed about football greatness in Fayetteville, Ark.?

Of course he did.

OK, maybe he didn't actually say he dreamed about coaching Arkansas, per se, but he did say he was "chasing a dream … one that started on a pig farm."

He might never win a game at Arkansas, but at least Bielema got the fans on his side with that line. It will surely have them forgetting about Bobby Petrino, motorcycle accidents, former volleyball players and a hapless former Michigan State coach.

But back in Madison, the mood is likely not so cheery.

After all, the Badgers just lost their coach to the SEC. That's the same conference Bielema hammered in the off-season when he told the Sporting News, "I can tell you this, we at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC in any way, shape or form."

Bielema was angry that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, fresh off his days in the greatest football conference in the history of mankind, was grabbing recruits left and right, even those who had already committed to other schools.

Wisconsin lost in that deal, so did Michigan State.

Apparently things have changed. Or have they?

Bielema reportedly told Wisconsin that one of the reasons he wanted to leave a top Big Ten program for a middle-of-the-pack SEC program was for a chance to win a national championship. Mind you, he was telling this to a group of kids that just won the Big Ten title game — again — and was preparing to play in its third straight Rose Bowl.

That notion didn't sit well with anyone at Wisconsin, including athletic director Barry Alvarez.

"I was a little surprised by that, and he said that to me," Alvarez said. "I wish him well. I thought we were very close to playing a National Championship game a year ago. We just won three (Big Ten) championships. I don't know."

This is coming from the man that hired Bielema to be his replacement and will now step in to coach the Badgers against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

More pay for assistants

It seems odd if that is truly the reason, but coming up with just one seems difficult in this case.

Bielema will make more money, sure, but not a ton. He was earning $2.6 million annually at Wisconsin and will make $3.2 million at Arkansas.

What will change is his ability to pay his assistant coaches. Bielema had to replace six this year and, after the win over Nebraska, the possibility of losing more to better paying jobs loomed once again.

"They were talking money that I can't bring them at Wisconsin," Bielema said. "Wisconsin isn't wired to do that at this point."

There's also the conspiracy theory that it was the necessary step to someday end up the coach at Iowa, his alma mater. Some assume the move to Arkansas will help him create better recruiting contacts in the South while providing just enough time for Kirk Ferentz to wear out his welcome in Iowa City.

In steps Bielema, fresh off dominating the SEC West.

That one seems like a bit of a stretch, but if Bielema is giving the same speech in Iowa City in three years, I'll be the first to say I was wrong.

Following Saban's footsteps

No, to me this is about a coach who simply wants the next biggest thing. Bielema trashed the SEC in the summer, but even he couldn't deny the conference's dominance. They have been the best, and this is Bielema's chance to prove he belongs.

He's trying to follow the footsteps of Nick Saban, the last Big Ten coach to bolt for the SEC. He won a national title at LSU, left for the NFL, came back to Alabama and won again and might win another next month.

Will Bielema follow the same path? Time will tell.

Wisconsin fans will never likely see Bielema the same way. Just ask Michigan State fans how they feel about Saban.

But in this silly season, the silliest of them all believes he is just following his dream.

He can only hope he didn't just leave his dream behind. That would be silly.

mcharboneau@detnews.com

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