Former University of Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema has no regrets about the way his nine years with the program came to an abrupt end almost three weeks ago.
But he still gets emotional talking about some of the things that transpired after it was announced he was leaving UW after seven years as head coach to become the head coach at Arkansas.
In an interview with the State Journal on Saturday, Bielema’s first with a local media outlet since his departure, he was asked if he burned any bridges with the way he left UW.
“I understand how people are going to say that from the outside world, but I would doubt very much, after people had 48 hours to kind of gather themselves, anybody I worked with, or worked around, or was part of my staff would have any negatives or animosity,” Bielema said.
“Everybody loved it because it was going so well there and probably thought it was going to stay that way for a long, long time. The main reasons I made the move are very important to me ... I really don’t have any regrets at all.”
Bielema elaborated on the reasons for — the chance to win a Southeastern Conference championship and his frustration over the money he could pay assistants — during a conference call with reporters. He followed it up with a phone interview with the State Journal.
“The driving forces were an opportunity to be a head coach in the SEC, at a school that really has no other pro sports team and is the major college sports team in the state,” Bielema said in the teleconference. “And the second thing was to jump up my assistants’ salaries. There was a contract situation and a salary pool that just didn’t allow me to retain assistants.”
At Arkansas, the money Bielema has to pay assistants is believed to be almost twice as much as it was at UW.
“If I had the same salary pool here that I had at Wisconsin, I would have never left,” he told the State Journal.
Bielema confirmed two of the UW assistants he hired who the Badgers wanted to keep — co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge and strength coach Ben Herbert — are sticking with their commitments to Arkansas.
Partridge and defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who also is joining the Razorbacks’ staff, were scheduled to fly to Fayetteville, Ark., on Saturday with their wives for their first chance to tour the facilities.
Herbert and UW director of football operations Mark Taurisani, who also is going with Bielema, were in Arkansas on Friday.
Bielema said he is flying back to Madison with Ash and Partridge, then driving to his parents’ house in Prophetstown, Ill., where will “lay low” until Jan. 2.
Understandably, Bielema said he doesn’t expect to see any other former co-workers on his swing back through Madison, saying it would be too “uncomfortable.”
While Bielema may not have regrets about how his departure played out, he gets emotional talking about the subject. He said some of the UW players tried to contact him, but he didn’t think it would be appropriate to respond.
Bielema believes he did the honorable thing after accepting the Arkansas job in New York City on Dec. 4, then insisting he fly back to tell his players face-to-face in a meeting.
“I felt it was the only way I could do it,” he said. “I could have just flown to Arkansas and done whatever. I wanted to get in front of that team, I wanted to wish them the best of luck at the Rose Bowl.
“I probably didn’t say everything as clearly as I wanted to. I said, ‘I want to chase a championship.’ What I meant was, I want to chase an SEC championship. I’ve been part of a Big 12 championship, I’ve been part of a Big Ten championship, I’ve never been a part of an SEC championship, it’s something I want to do. That was a driving force for me.”
Bielema also told those players in a meeting the day before not to pay any attention to rumors he might be leaving. He said he was responding to other rumors players had heard, which he said were false, about other potential jobs.
“At that point, that was me being honest,” Bielema said. “There were reports of other jobs and other opportunities that were beginning to surface and a couple of the players had said something. ...
“I wanted to clarify that. There was only one school I returned conversation back to, that was Arkansas, I really didn’t feel at that point it was going to escalate to the level it did as fast as it did.”
As for the initial contact from Arkansas, Bielema acknowledged it came prior to the Big Ten Conference championship game, but said there was “not really any dialogue” until the day after the game.
By the time he checked his phone Sunday morning and saw the message from Arkansas, “I found out three of my staff had already been contacted (for) other job opportunities and the dollar figures they were talking, I knew I wouldn’t be able to match in any capacity. That kind of started the ball running in my head about opportunities elsewhere.”
Bielema confirmed he told his coaching staff not to contact Dave Doeren initially after he was hired as the head coach at North Carolina State. He said he got that news less than four hours before kickoff of the title game.
“That’s when I knew he’d go after a certain number of our guys,” Bielema said. “I kind of walked up and said, ‘Hey, good news about Dave,’ they were all smiling. I said, ‘Let’s just get through this game and we’ll talk tomorrow.’ I knew he would try and take some of the guys.”
Perhaps the messiest thing having to do with Bielema’s exit is his relationship with UW athletic director Barry Alvarez.
“Life goes on,” Alvarez said. “I have no animosity toward Bret. Bret did a good job for us here. Some things I disagree with, in how they were handled, but everybody handles things their own way. I’m way past that right now, I’m focusing on a football game. ... I don’t sit there and hold a grudge on what happened, whether I agree with it or not.”
Bielema said Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long wanted to call Alvarez right away and let him know about the contact. “I said, ‘Please, let me do this in person if we get to the point where I think I’m going to take the job,’ ” Bielema said.
Instead, Alvarez didn’t find out Bielema was talking to Arkansas until after he accepted the job. That’s because Bielema was afraid Alvarez would be able to talk him out of it if he told him sooner.
“We haven’t spoken since,” Bielema said. “I’ve reached out a couple times. We’ve got common friends, I think we’re going to get to where we need to be, but I knew he was going to be very upset with me for a long time. Hopefully, over time, we’re going to be able to erase that.”
As for Alvarez, he also expects to reach that point — eventually. “Not right now, though,” he said. “But some day.
“Bret and I were too close, spent too much time together. We had a father-son relationship. We talked every day. I wouldn’t just throw that out. But right now is not the time.”
Bielema said he has reached out, through intermediaries, to new UW coach Gary Andersen to provide any assistance if needed.
“I want Wisconsin to have nothing but success,” Bielema said. “It’s ridiculous to think anything other.”