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.