One of the remarkable aspects of Bret Bielema's sudden defection to Arkansas just weeks before Wisconsin's appearance in the 2013 Rose Bowl is that Wisconsin isn't exactly a lightweight when it comes to spending on coaches. Per the USA Today, Bielema's salary was 18th in the nation for college football coaches, and that sounds about right. If you were to rank Wisconsin among the best programs in the nation, wouldn't it come in around No. 18?
Even when you factor in assistant coaches' salaries, Wisconsin is still hanging around at No. 22 in the nation, and that's hardly a large drop-off. It's a bit low compared to the Badgers' current prestige level, but not unreasonably so. Plus Bielema and his staff probably would have been in line for raises just for hanging around and continuing to succeed on the field. Nobody would have batted an eye at another million or so going to the staff after this season.
Ah, but off to the SEC goes Bielema, and there's one thing the SEC does better than the Big Ten: spend, spend, spend. Bielema is set to gain $3.2 million with incentives, a rather substantial bump in pay. Moreover, though, the SEC spends on assistant coaches—and that's going to mean better assistant retention, which has been Bielema's bane in Madison.
Think Bielema's doesn't mind it when assistants take better jobs elsewhere? He's so exquisitely aware of it that he mentioned it at his introductory news conference at Arkansas. Here's Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated:
I'm watching presser on delay .. Bielema flat out says "Wisconsin wasn't wired to" pay/retain good assistants. Will be able to at Arkansas.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) December 5, 2012
And to drive the point home, via Doug Heller of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Bielema: I wasn't able to compensate coaches the way I wanted to. Notes 3 assistants left for about 2x salary last year. #badgers— Dave Heller (@dave_heller) December 5, 2012
Indeed, going back to the USA Today data on coaching compensation, nine of the top 14 football programs in overall coaching staff compensation are from the SEC. And Arkansas is right in the middle of that mix, ahead of every single Big Ten school.
Call it what you will. Call it an arms race. Call it unsustainable. Call it a bubble waiting to pop. Whatever you call it, you cannot deny that the SEC is the one conference where the majority of the schools are trying to woo top-flight coaching staffs.
And while that might sound like "just an SEC thing," remember: The Big Ten is supposed to be the conference that's been leading the way when it comes to securing TV money for its member athletic programs. Jim Delany has been a mastermind of maximizing media revenue and this is what he gets in response? One of the top three coaches in his conference getting snatched away by a middle-of-the-road SEC school?
For the Big Ten, this is not exactly a good look.