The departure, on the heels of Wisconsin advancing to its third consecutive Rose Bowl appearance, comes as a shock because Bielema was not generally considered a coach looking to leave. Just three days ago, Wisconsin crushed Nebraska, 70-31, in the Big Ten championship to earn another Rose Bowl berth.
Bielema, in his seventh season at Wisconsin, is 68-24 (.739 winning percentage) and has helped build the program into a respected Big Ten power. He went 12-1 in his first season in 2006 and has finished every year with a winning record. From 2009-11, Wisconsin tallied double-digit victories each year, marking the first time in program history the school achieved that feat.
"I was very surprised when Bret told me he was taking the offer from Arkansas," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said in a prepared statement. "He did a great job for us during his seven years as head coach, both on the field and off. I want to thank him for his work and wish him the best at Arkansas.
"I have a responsibility to our student-athletes, our football family and our fans, one that I take very seriously. It is my responsibility to ensure that the football program continues at a high level, and I have already started the process of trying to find a new head coach."
Arkansas did not retain interim coach John L. Smith after the Razorbacks finished this season 4-8. Smith replaced Bobby Petrino, who was fired in April amid a scandal.
The move from the Big Ten to the SEC could be financially motivated for Bielema. Bielema's total compensation package at Wisconsin was $2.5 million annually. His base salary was $400,000, with $2.1 million coming from program revenue and gift funds. Bielema's latest contract was a five-year deal with Wisconsin that lasted through Jan. 31, 2017.
Smith signed a 10-month contract at Arkansas worth $850,000 in April. But Petrino's salary was worth $3.5 million per year, and the Razorbacks could be looking to make a big-name splash as they attempt to compete in the rugged SEC West with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M.
Before Petrino's resignation, Arkansas was on the rise in the SEC. In 2010, the Razorbacks finished 10-3 and reached the Sugar Bowl against Ohio State. In 2011, Arkansas went 11-2 and played Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl.
This season was among the most trying of Bielema's tenure at Wisconsin. He hired six new assistant coaches in the offseason, including four on offense. Just two games into the season, Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the team's poor performance in a 10-7 loss against Oregon State.
Wisconsin finished in third place in the Leaders Division but advanced to the Big Ten title game because Ohio State and Penn State were declared ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions.
Bielema served as the Badgers' defensive coordinator in 2004 and 2005 and was the hand-picked successor to Alvarez, who coached at Wisconsin before becoming athletic director.
Bielema has reportedly expressed an interest in coaching Wisconsin during the Rose Bowl, but it's unclear if he'll be allowed to stay on that long. As for a successor to Bielema, there are few options on the Badgers' current staff. Charlie Partridge, Wisconsin's co-defensive coordinator, is in his fifth season with the program and is the longest-tenured remaining coach. Defensive coordinator Chris Ash is in his third season, although he could be headed to North Carolina State to join former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who was recently named coach after leaving Northern Illinois.
Wisconsin (8-5) will play Stanford (11-2) on Jan. 1 in Pasadena.
"Along with finding a new coach, my other main objective is to make sure that our student-athletes, specifically our seniors playing in their final game as Badgers, have a tremendous experience in the Rose Bowl," Alvarez said. "We will do everything within our power to make that happen."
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