Two of the remaining three football coaching vacancies in the SEC have been filled.
Bret Bielema is taking his brand of power football to Arkansas, leaving Wisconsin after seven seasons.
Auburn has turned to Gus Malzahn to restore a program that made an unprecedented fall two years after winning the national title with Cam Newton operating the then-assistant coach’s high-powered offense to perfection.
Kentucky previously filled its vacancy by hiring Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. Tennessee has yet to announce who will take over its program from the fired Derek Dooley.
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Arkansas released a statement Tuesday night saying Bielema has agreed to a deal to take over the program reeling following the firing of former coach Bobby Petrino.
A person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information hasn’t been released publicly, said the deal is for six years and $3.2 million annually.
Bielema, Barry Alvarez’s hand-picked successor at Wisconsin, was 68-24 with the Badgers, with four double-digit win seasons. He coached Wisconsin to a 17-14 victory against Arkansas in his first season at the Capital One Bowl.
“His tough, aggressive style of play has been successful and will be appealing to student-athletes and Razorback fans,” Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long said in a statement. “He not only shares the vision and values for the future of Arkansas football, he embraces them.”
Bielema is leaving the Big Ten for the SEC and a Razorbacks program that opened the year with hopes of challenging for a national championship only to become mired in the Petrino scandal before stumbling to a 4-8 finish.
The move was the second stunning hire this year at Arkansas, which brought in John L. Smith as the interim coach after firing Petrino for hiring his mistress to work in the athletics department. Long announced after the season that Smith wouldn’t return.
Bielema seems likely to bring a far different approach than what the Razorbacks have become accustomed to. Arkansas continually ranked among the SEC’s best passing teams under Petrino while Bielema is known for his dominant offensive lines and slew of running backs.
“During my conversation with Jeff (Long), he described the characteristics for the perfect fit to lead this program,” Bielema said in a statement. “It was evident we share the same mission, principles and goals.”
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball tied Barry Sanders’ long-standing single-season record of 39 touchdowns last year, and this year became the FBS career leader in touchdowns. He has 82 touchdowns after running for three Saturday night in the Big Ten title game against Nebraska — a 70-31 romp that secured the Badgers third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl, where 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.
Malzahn was the Tigers’ offensive coordinator during their 2010 national championship run before heading to Arkansas State for his first college head coaching position. He received a five-year contract worth $2.3 million annually to try to get the team back on solid footing.
“I recruited a lot of them and have very good relationships,” Malzahn said. “I just told them our expectations are to win championships. Whatever happened last year happened last year. It’s a new day. We’re going to put a good brand of football on the field and we’re going to have fun doing it.”
He led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record, a Sun Belt Conference title and a berth in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, then parlayed that into a job in the powerhouse SEC.
Several hundred fans greeted Malzahn’s plane, and he rushed along the line exchanging high-fives. He promised to get Auburn “back to winning championships.”
“I’m just tickled to death,” he said. “It’s a true honor for me to be the head coach of the Auburn Tigers. I spent three years here and I can honestly say it’s the best three years of my life. I feel connected forever.”
The 47-year-old Malzahn returns with his fast-paced, no-huddle offensive style. He replaces former boss Gene Chizik, who was fired one day after a 49-0 loss to No. 2 Alabama to complete a 3-9 season.
Malzahn hasn’t ruled out coaching in the bowl game for Arkansas State, which said he had a $700,000 buyout.
Athletics director Jay Jacobs declined to say who else he interviewed, but said it didn’t matter.
“The characteristics that he brought to the table were head and shoulders above everybody else,” Jacobs said.