Bret Bielema should have been celebrating another Big Ten title at Wisconsin on Saturday night. Bielema and the Badgers had just won their third consecutive championship and the Rose Bowl berth that goes with it.
Instead of enjoying the victory, Bielema was contemplating what was next for his football staff.
In the hours that followed the game, a trio of assistant coaches approached Bielema about exploring opportunities elsewhere. Other schools could offer more money and they wanted to listen.
This wasn’t a unique situation. Figuring out who might leave and who might stick around had become tradition in Bielema’s seven years with Wisconsin.
Bielema, who was hired by the University of Arkansas on Tuesday, replaced six coaches from his 2011 Wisconsin staff. A year before that he had three coaches leave for better opportunities.
So he wasn’t caught off guard when the subject came up again over the weekend. More money was waiting for assistant coaches elsewhere.
“They were talking money that I can’t bring them at Wisconsin,” Bielema said. “Wisconsin isn’t wired to do that at this point. I just felt for me and for my future and my life and what I want to accomplish in the world of college football, I needed to have that ability to do that, and thankfully I’ve found that here at Arkansas.”
Taking the Razorbacks head coaching job was appealing to Bielema for a number of reasons. Being able to adequately compensate his staff — and in theory cut down on turnover — was among the selling points.
Bielema, in fact, took less money on his six-year deal that pays $3.2 million annually in favor of having more salary available for his staff. How much money Bielema will have to spend remains to be seen, but the Razorbacks — one of the more thrifty-spending teams in the Southeastern Conference — can offer far more than what Wisconsin could.
Arkansas paid its assistant coaches $2.3 million in 2011, according to the USA Today coaching salary database, which provides the most recent, comparable comparison of staff salaries. That total ranks middle-of-the-pack in the SEC, but would have put the Razorbacks among Big Ten elite.
Wisconsin paid $1.9 million to its assistant coaches in 2011, a total that put the Badgers among the Big Ten’s big spenders. Only Ohio Sate, Michigan, Nebraska and Illinois paid more.
Despite the Big Ten’s reputation as one of the most competitive and wealthy conferences in college football, the money for assistant coaches isn’t comparable to other leagues. And Bielema said he had no chance of fighting off the NFL from poaching staff members.
“I know I’m hiring the right guys because everybody keeps taking them from me," Bielema said during a news conference Wednesday in Fayetteville. "The NFL, they kind of upset me a little bit, because they’ve got silly money. They’ve got like Monopoly money.”
Bielema, who will consider hiring from the existing staff first, won’t have an unlimited budget on what he can spend. But Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long has said previously he was willing to invest more in the new coach’s staff.
Making sure the Razorback assistant coaches under Bielema could be well compensated was a topic of conversation during the initial meetings between the new coach and Long.
“He expressed early on that it was as much about his assistants, and being able to attract quality assistants and not lose assistants,” Long said. “I wouldn’t even call it a negotiation. We just talked about what was important, how we could reach both of our goals, and that’s first to win an SEC championship and then to win a national championship. We decided what we thought was the best way to go about it.
“That just says volumes about Bret and who he is as a person and a coach.”