FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has agreed to become the new coach at Arkansas, taking over a program that stumbled from scandal into an awful season that had begun with hopes of challenging for a national championship.
Bielema has agreed to a deal between 5-7 years with the Razorbacks, according to a person familiar with the situation, which was first reported by Yahoo Sports. The person, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the school had not announced the hire, said a news conference was planned for Wednesday.
The move was the second stunning hire at Arkansas, which brought in John L. Smith after firing Bobby Petrino this year after he hired his mistress to work in the football department. Arkansas went 4-8 this season and athletic director Jeff Long announced after the season that Smith would not return.
Bielema is in his seventh season as Barry Alvarez's hand-picked successor at Wisconsin. He's 68-24 with the Badgers, with four double-digit win seasons, and he coached Wisconsin to a 17-14 win over Arkansas in his first season at the Capital One Bowl.
"He's the guy Jeff was after all along," the person said of Long. "It's hard to get these coaches to sit still."
The Badgers were down a bit this season, losing five close games. But they won the Big Ten championship game on Saturday in a 70-31 romp over Nebraska to secure their third straight trip to the Rose Bowl. They will play Stanford on Jan. 1.
The 42-year-old Bielema was the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin for two years before being promoted to head coach in 2006. He played for Iowa and started his coaching career there as an assistant under Hayden Fry and later Kirk Ferentz.
Bielema takes over an Arkansas program still reeling following the April scandal.
The Razorbacks had improved their win total in four straight seasons under Petrino, including a 21-5 mark in 2010-11, and finished last season ranked No. 5. They had talked openly in the spring about competing for the school's first SEC championship and perhaps a national championship.
Then came the April 1 motorcycle accident that led to Petrino's downfall. The former Atlanta Falcons' coach initially lied about being alone during the wreck, though the married father of four later admitted to riding with his mistress — a former Arkansas volleyball player he had hired to work in the athletic department.
Smith, who had been an assistant the last three seasons at Arkansas under Petrino, was chosen by Long to keep the same system intact for a team that returned first-team All-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson and a host of other key playmakers. The decision was lauded by the Razorbacks, who welcomed the personable Smith back with open arms.
The season hit the skids with a stunning overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 8, starting a four-game losing streak that dropped Arkansas out of the rankings. The Razorbacks were unable to recover and finished with the school's lowest win total since 2005 — missing a bowl game for the first time since Petrino's first season in 2008.
"It's very difficult for me to believe that is not a bowl-eligible team," LSU coach Les Miles said following the Tigers' win over the Razorbacks in the season finale. "Watching the talent there, (it's) very capable."
Arkansas has yet to win the SEC since joining the league in 1992, though it's played in the conference's championship game three times. It lost to Florida in the title game in 1995 under then coach Danny Ford and lost twice (2002, 2006) there under Houston Nutt.
The school had struggled to find its identity in the SEC since leaving the former Southwest Conference, but it appeared to have finally found just that under Petrino, who was hired after leaving Atlanta during the season in 2007.
The Razorbacks turned into an offensive powerhouse under Petrino. After winning 10 games and reaching the school's first BCS bowl game in 2010, losing to Ohio State, Arkansas won 11 games in 2011, capped by a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State.
While the country watched closely to see how Arkansas would react following Petrino's dismissal, Smith made headlines of his own throughout the season. The former Michigan State and Louisville coach told The Associated Press before the season that he would likely have to file for bankruptcy following land deals gone wrong in Kentucky. The 64-year-old filed in September — eventually revealing $40.7 million in debt — and came under fire from Arkansas fans for that and the mounting losses.
Bielema will look to end the turmoil and compete in an SEC West loaded with national powers Alabama and LSU, along with up-and-comer Texas A&M.
Long said during the season the new coach would be tasked with building on the recent success at the school, which is looking into expanding the 72,000-seat Razorback Stadium and is currently building an 80,000-square-foot football operations center.
"Our new coach will be an individual who shares the passion for success our fans do, and who is willing to work relentlessly to achieve our goals," Long said following the announcement of Smith's departure.