DESTIN, Fla. — Bret Bielema seemingly had it made at Wisconsin.
He coached the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowls, averaged almost 10 victories per season for seven years, and built up a respectable following on Twitter.
But he left it all for Arkansas after last season. And he didn’t go just for the money.
Bielema wanted to prove himself in the best conference in the country. You can’t do that in the Big Ten.
Although Arkansas could be the worst team in the SEC this fall, Bielema couldn’t resist the opportunity.
You can question his judgment. You can’t question his confidence.
Confidence seems to be a common attribute among the coaches who recently have taken over losing SEC programs.
They have something else in common. They aren’t just recruiting to their school. They’re recruiting to the SEC.
And it’s working.
Look what James Franklin has done at Vanderbilt. His first team won six games and qualified for a bowl. His next team won nine games.
That’s 15 victories in two seasons for a program that won four games the previous two seasons.
How confident is Franklin? He’s so confident that he didn’t take another job after going 9-4 last season.
He believes he can keep winning at Vanderbilt by recruiting to the school and the conference.
He delivered his recruiting sales pitch for reporters at the SEC spring meetings this week: “We sell an opportunity to get a world-class education. There’s only a handful of schools that can compete with us.
“We have that, coupled with an opportunity to play in the SEC as well. So if you’re a kid who wants to chase both of your goals at the very highest level, where else would you go?”
Recruits are buying what Franklin is selling. They’re also buying Hugh Freeze’s pitch at Ole Miss.
Like Franklin, Freeze hasn’t been all talk. He surprised everyone by winning seven games in his first season at a school that had lost 16 of 22 games the previous two seasons.
He followed that up in February with a top-five recruiting class.
Mark Stoops at Kentucky and Butch Jones at Tennessee have yet to win a game. But they already have turned heads.
Stoops got Kentucky fans so excited in his first few months on the job that more than 50,000 of them showed up for the spring game. He improved Kentucky’s 2013 recruiting class drastically in what little time he had and has nine commitments for the 2014 class.
Jones’ salesmanship helped the Vols draw more than 60,000 fans to their spring game. He’s selling recruits, too.
UT already has 14 commitments for 2014, proving recruits believe Jones can turn around a program that has suffered three
consecutive losing seasons.
Auburn went 3-9 last season and was outscored 150-20 in its last three SEC games under Gene Chizik.
But that didn’t prevent new coach Gus Malzahn from assembling an impressive staff of assistants, who already have had a favorable impact on recruiting.
“Every school in our league has something to sell,” Freeze said. “If you get a coach who believes it and has a lot of passion about it.”
Maybe Bielema is another one of those coaches.