Like many Razorback fans, I’ve spent probably a considerable amount of time over the last two weeks becoming more familiar with new coach Bret Bielema. I don’t believe I’ve reached “creepy-stalker” level, but probably still unhealthy. I tell my wife it’s all for work, but she knows.
A quick glance through most of the articles over the last few weeks list some combination of his top accomplishments. Three straight Rose Bowls. 68-24 overall record. Four 10-win seasons. Three top-10 finishes. His Badgers beat the 2010 Ohio State team that went on to beat* Bobby Petrino’s best Razorback team in the Sugar Bowl. 22 draft picks since 2007 and much more.
With that kind of resume, it’s natural to assume Bielema attracted some highly rated recruiting classes to Madison in order to do all of those things, but he didn’t. It’s his proverbial cricket in the salad. According to Rivals.com, only in 2007 did he have a class within the top 35 in the nation, and even finished 87th in 2010 . Bielema’s detractors around the country point to this as a reason for limited success in big games, particularly losing records against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State.
Recruiting is a tricky topic to discuss. Every recruiting service attempts to disguise it in a black and white science, where each high school and junior college player is deemed to be of specific quality and his future potential predetermined. But whether it’s a two-star player like Chris Gragg or Jamaal Anderson getting drafted, or three-star quarterback Johnny Manziel winning the Heisman Trophy, it’s very easy to find examples of players outperforming their expectations. On the flip side, Texas hasn’t had a recruiting class finish outside the top 5 since 2008, but the Longhorns have finished well outside the top 5 each year since 2010.
All that being said, one thing all of the most recent SEC champions have in common is that they have highly rated recruiting classes. And they follow them up with more highly rated recruiting classes to ensure depth. In a conference as competitive as the SEC, with six teams in the BCS top 10, top-notch recruiting has become mandatory to compete amongst the best. For a program to win a conference title without them, it would be a first in the conference’s modern era.
Traditionally, Arkansas normally doesn’t have classes listed among the elite, but it can happen. Bobby Petrino’s 2009 class was ranked 16th, and his 2008 class would have been ranked higher if Ryan Mallett’s transfer had been included. Those are the two classes that led to Arkansas run among the college football elite in 2010 and 2011. It’s not a coincidence. It’s hard to imagine Bielema being as successful in the SEC as everyone wants him to be if his recruiting classes are ranked the same as his Wisconsin classes.
The good news for Razorback fans is that he’ll have better resources to bring those recruits to Fayetteville than he had to bring them to Madison. Much has been made of Bielema’s comments about the low salaries for his assistants at Wisconsin, and the ability to pay and retain assistants was a big draw for him to come to Arkansas.
The less-publicized upgrade in resources will be the recruiting budget. At Wisconsin, Bielema’s recruiting budget was among the smallest of any BCS program. In 2011, it was the smallest of the ten Big 10 schools required to disclose their budgets at $204,181. If the difference in budgets continues, Bielema should enjoy a budget more than triple that of Wisconsin’s. Arkansas 2011 budget was $666,419. And it’s not as though there are so many great football players in Wisconsin that the coaching staff didn’t have to travel far to haul in great players. Florida, which does enjoy that luxury, had a 2011 budget of $602,929.
That extra money means Bielema and his staff will be able to make more trips, take longer trips, see and evaluate more players, and dedicate more resources to top targets. If the adage is true that you get what you pay for, Bielema was able to bring Wisconsin much more than what the Badgers paid for. His record of developing players is among the best in the nation, and if more resources at Arkansas allow him to bring in better players, and develop them as well as he did at Wisconsin, the Razorbacks will be in great shape to compete with anybody.
If you’ve ever worked where you felt you weren’t provided the resources to do your job to the best of your ability, you know how frustrating it can be. At Wisconsin, Bielema worked for an athletic director who is paying himself $118,500 to take Bielema’s place on the Wisconsin sideline during the Rose Bowl. That figure is more than half what soon-t0-be-Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash made all year in Madison. The money also could go to Wisconsin’s recruiting budget, but it’s instead going straight to Barry Alvarez’s pocket.
It should be noted that Bielema himself was a walk-on at Iowa who worked his way up to being a team captain his senior year, and puts an emphasis on recruiting players with a similar hard-nosed mindsets. He told USA Today in 2011:
“What I’ve really learned is kids have to like to play football here. We drill it in them, and they experience it 365 days a year. You can’t be tough players just on game days. You have to do it all year-round, and you have to like to practice, too.”
That philosophy often found Bielema at odds with the recruiting services. He said in the same article:
“A kid will be recruited by us, then if another school recruits him, he gets two more stars,”
Seeing potential in players that aren’t getting much attention will always be an important part of coaching, and it is something Bielema has excelled at doing. But in order to take a program a step further than he was able to take Wisconsin, Bielema will have to win recruiting battles for top prospects more frequently than he ever has. For the first time in his career, he has the resources he wants to do just that.