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As Bret Bielema heads for Arkansas, Big Ten's allure fades in shadow of SEC

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

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Bret Bielema had been head coach at Wisconsin since 2006. (AP)

Bret Bielema grew up on an Illinois hog farm, rising when it was still dark to help feed and care for 2,500-plus animals. Then he'd head to school. There were no frills in that life, just determination. Bielema only received Division III football interest, yet decided to walk on at Iowa, eventually working his way to a scholarship and eventually a team captaincy.

How Big Ten is this guy? He was born in Illini Hospital, has a Hawkeye tattoo and eventually became a young head coach, just 36, at Wisconsin – the handpicked successor of Barry Alvarez. He averaged 9.5 wins a year. He was the kind of guy who didn't just play and coach in the Big Ten but represents the Big Ten. He's burly, smart, funny and down-to-earth. He believes in power running, physical defenses and big meals. He was successful in maximizing what he had.

He wasn't afraid to take shots at the SEC and to hold up the supposed ethics of the Big Ten. Yet he wasn't some elitist. He wore wind breakers in the dead heat of summer, dreaded when it got so cold he had to put on socks and looked like a guy who would be quite content knocking down something from G. Heileman, the old-school regional microbrew, if you will.

He won the Big Ten title in each of the past three years. And, sure, this time he was helped by Ohio State and Penn State being in NCAA trouble. Still, there he was Saturday night, with a five-loss team, hanging 70 points and humiliating Nebraska anyway.

The Big Ten isn't going to shut down because 42-year-old Bret Bielema decided Tuesday to head to Arkansas, head to the SEC, whose recruiting culture he once pretended to look down his nose at.

[Related: SEC shocker: Arkansas Hires Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin]

Wisconsin will find a new coach and continue on. The league still has good people and good programs. There's plenty of potential, plenty of momentum at some places. And, at least for national relevance, it can be thankful that Urban Meyer is at Ohio State, where the road to more undefeated seasons just became even easier.

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Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said he never thought Bielema would leave. (AP)

But both the Badgers and the league were better with Bielema. He was supposed to be a Big Ten lifer, a quality coach at a quality program helping add depth to a league in desperate need of anything positive.

Instead he becomes a real-time, real-life example of the pecking order of college football.

"I was very surprised when Bret told me he was taking the offer from Arkansas," Alvarez said Tuesday, which pretty much summed up the feelings of everyone. As sure as you can't imagine Steve Spurrier coaching in the North, you didn't envision Bielema heading South.

The Big Ten understands it isn't the hottest league, or the coolest league, or the best league anymore. It isn't unusual for the CBS broadcast of the SEC to beat Big Ten games in the ratings even in Midwestern markets. But the conference still has a ton to offer, including good football.

So what does it say that suddenly the Big Ten isn't even good enough for Bielema, the kind of Midwestern guy who appreciates the beauty of grey skis and blue collars?

[Also: Four days Northern Illinois football will never forget]

There's hardly any legitimate competition between the Big Ten and the SEC anymore. At least, not on the field. That's just reality. But the Big Ten wants to think it is closer than it is while clinging to the idea that it still has something over southern football, leaders and legends, that type of stuff.

Wisconsin is an incredible school. Madison is a top-line college town. Camp Randall is as rowdy and fun an environment as there is. Bielema was under no pressure, was well-paid and was winning comfortably and consistently

Yet it wasn't enough.

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Wild Story of the Week

Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

Not much went right for Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game. The Cornhuskers were hammered by Wisconsin 70-31 in Indianapolis.

But Nebraska's first touchdown was one of the rare things that did go right.

Taylor Martinez took a shotgun snap and looked for an open receiver. The pass rush got to him quickly, and he began to retreat. Then he retreated some more. And a bit further toward his own end zone he went.

The line of scrimmage was the 24-yard-line. At one point, Martinez backpedaled across the 5-yard line before finally reversing his field. He found a seam up the left side and sprinted back to where the play started. At about the 20-yard-line – still behind the line of scrimmage – he cut the play back to the middle. Since almost half of Wisconsin's defense had chased Martinez back inside the 10, there weren't a lot of defenders in red shirts left.

Martinez spotted a huge running lane toward the right side of the field and hit it before cutting back toward the middle and finally stumbling into the end zone to complete a crazy, improbable, Houdini-like touchdown.

It went in the books as a 76-yard TD run even though Martinez was more than 95 yards away from the end zone. And when all the spins, turns and whirls were added up, he traveled close to 120 yards to gain 76.

– Phil Watson

The Big Ten is on an epic run of bad breaks from tragic to comical, from the horrors of Jerry Sandusky, to the 12-0 Buckeyes being barred from the postseason, to endless non-conference humiliations, to a five-loss team in the Rose Bowl, to Jim Delany trading out the league's tradition for the "demographics" that two historically under-performing, debt-ridden football programs might – might – be able to provide.

Arkansas doesn't get to steal Wisconsin's coach. At least, that isn't how the old pecking order went. Bielema had the third-best job in the league, one that was going to get even easier based on expansion, where he was staring at a cake division with only Ohio State a worthy opponent.

Instead, he left for a region he's never recruited, for a cut-throat culture he's previously railed against, to take an Arkansas job that might be the fifth best in its division, one ruled by no less than Alabama and LSU.

The truth is, he has a better chance of winning it all in Fayetteville than Madison. And he'll win games. He's a good enough coach to win anywhere. And, really, how couldn't he go? There's better facilities, richer budgets, closer proximity to talent, the thrill of the big time, huge exposure, monster challenges, fresh rivals, and, of course, more money.

[Also: Johnny Manziel leads Dr. Saturday's All-America Team]

The truth is, Bielema must know if he fails on the big stage, he can always go back and find a big Ten program desperate to hire him.

This is the reality of college football right now. The Big Ten commissioner is obsessed with building a cable network. The SEC commissioner is determined to build the NFL Lite, where even the second- and third-tier programs are budding powerhouses.

The SEC had four job openings this year. It has already hired the champion of the Big Ten (Bielema) and Sun Belt (Gus Malzahn to Auburn) as well as the defensive coordinator from the ACC winner (Florida State's Mark Stoops to Kentucky). And it might get the coach of the Big East champ (Louisville's Charlie Strong is reportedly the top candidate at Tennessee).

Everything just gets bigger and bolder and more competitive down there. It's the greatest show on field turf and the appeal of it all is drawing in fans and television viewers and recruits and, well, even about the most Big Ten coach you could ever find.

Bret Bielema, raised on an Illinois hog farm is going to call the Hogs down South, suddenly too good for the league he was seemingly made to help lead until he became a legend.

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