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A little over four years and one month ago Bret Bielema left Wisconsin to become the head coach at Arkansas.
This was just days after the Badgers had won the Big Ten championship game. It was both a surprise and blow to the collective ego of the Big Ten, which wasn’t just losing to the SEC on the field anymore, but in the hiring process too.
Bielema was a young (42 at the time) and successful coach who didn’t see the Big Ten as a place to achieve his dreams. This despite being set up in the best program in the league’s West Division, ready to win for seasons to come and earn enough money to buy Sheboygan. Rival fans love to pick on Bielema, but it’s never good when your championship coach is getting plucked.
Worse, he was a guy who grew up on an Illinois hog farm and walked on at Iowa.
The Big Ten was no longer cool enough … for him?
On Friday, the University of Minnesota, long a middling, if not uninspiring, Big Ten entrant, hired P.J. Fleck from Western Michigan, where the 36-year-old ball of energy and ambition turned a one-win team into a 13-1 Cotton Bowl club.
The Big Ten (and not just Michigan or Ohio State, mind you) was cool enough … for him?
College football is cyclical and the Big Ten has been on quite the upswing since Bielema bolted to Arkansas, where he has found only moderate success. While the southern league is now the wholly owned property of Nick Saban’s machine in Tuscaloosa, the Big Ten has continued a coaching overhaul.
Urban Meyer, who was finishing his first season at sanction-riddled Ohio State when Bielema left, won a national title in Columbus and is putting the finishing touches on a monster recruiting class.
Jim Harbaugh, who coached San Francisco to the Super Bowl four years ago, left the NFL to restore Michigan.
James Franklin departed Vanderbilt and rebuilt post-Sandusky Penn State in three short seasons.
Mark Dantonio emerged as an elite coach and turned Michigan State into a nationally prominent program, this past season not withstanding.
Paul Chryst returned to Wisconsin from Pitt and not only has maintained the Badgers program (it just defeated Fleck and WMU in the Cotton Bowl) but almost certainly ended the revolving door in Madison (Bielema’s replacement, Gary Andersen, jumped to Oregon State after just two seasons). Chryst, 51, was born in Madison, raised in Platteville and probably learned from Bielema that the grass in Wisconsin is pretty darn green.
That’s a heck of a crew right there. And there’s more, too.
Northwestern has been able to retain the excellent Pat Fitzgerald, who maximizes a program with obvious limitations as well as anyone, yet hasn’t felt the need to jump elsewhere. Kirk Ferentz gets plenty of criticism at Iowa, but it’s worth remembering he had the Hawkeyes a play or two from the playoff a season ago.
Last year Illinois landed Lovie Smith, who once led the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl, offering rare hope for the Illini. Last month Purdue picked up highly regarded Jeff Brohm, fresh off a 30-10 run at Western Kentucky.
No, not everything is perfect.
Nebraska’s Mike Riley enters his third season with a grumbling fan base as the Cornhuskers continue to search for their old success in the Big Ten. Indiana, on an upswing of late, was forced to fire Kevin Wilson due to concern over treatment of players (it promoted defensive coordinator Tom Allen). Rutgers and Maryland are still trying to find their way, to say the least.
A few struggles have always been the case, though. What hasn’t always been is a lineup of coaches this strong in the Big Ten – whose glory days were often dominated by just two programs, Ohio State and Michigan.
If a guy like Fleck can see a promising path via Minneapolis – and eventually deliver on it – then that’s quite the upgrade. Fleck is a tour de force personality who rowed the boat at Western Michigan to unimaginable heights. He’s college football’s first millennial coach, a completely different type than those who usually pace Big Ten sidelines. With the Gophers, he inherits a good program courtesy of Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys.
Where others have seen recruiting challenges from weak instate talent and brutal weather, Fleck obviously sees a great city, vibrant campus and a beautiful new on-campus outdoor stadium that anyone would love to play in.
Whether he is successful remains to be seen. In the past, guys like him might not have even tried, choosing to ride out another year in Kalamazoo while looking for a place with more recent success and better recruiting dynamics.
Not anymore. The Big Ten had one of its most exciting seasons in years, and while its 3-7 bowl record and the Buckeyes’ dreadful semifinal performance may have shown that declaring it the best league in America was premature, we’re a long way from Bielema rushing off to Fayetteville.
Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin should all begin next season in the top 10.
Meanwhile the hottest young coach in America will be perched in the Twin Cities trying to figure out how to beat them.
Next thing you know it’ll be snowing in Alabama.
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