FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Bret Bielema wasted little time in playing to the eager crowd.
The new Arkansas football coach picked up the microphone at halftime of the Razorbacks’ basketball game against Tennessee, said some kind words about his first few months in Fayetteville and then laid down the gauntlet — for himself and his coaching staff — to a state hanging on his every word.
“We came to Arkansas for all the same reason,” Bielema said. “We didn’t come here to play in the (Southeastern Conference); we came here to win the SEC. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
The roar of approval was deafening inside Bud Walton Arena. It was exactly the kind of moment, and bravado, that a program still smarting from a season gone south was craving. So far, it appears the masses couldn’t be happier with a coach who prides himself on directness, one who feels like he has plenty left to prove even after leading the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowl appearances.
For Bielema, his new job represents an opportunity to step out of his comfort zone for the first time in his career. The former Iowa walk-on who cut his coaching teeth under the likes of Hayden Fry, Kirk Ferentz, Bill Snyder and Barry Alvarez finally has a program all his own.
“In my mind, the reason I made the jump was I wanted to prove something more,” Bielema told The Associated Press. “I came here to win an SEC championship.”
Arkansas has yet to win a conference championship since leaving the former Southwest Conference for the SEC in 1992, falling three times (1995, 2002 and ’06) in the championship game. The Razorbacks appeared on the cusp of joining the SEC’s elite under former coach Bobby Petrino, finishing No. 5 in the country following the 2011 season, but that was before Petrino’s infamous motorcycle accident with his mistress aboard that led to his downfall.
Enter Bielema, who was hired on Dec. 4 to pick up the pieces of a 4-8 season under interim coach John L. Smith.
What Arkansas has discovered in the first two months under its new leader is a coach seemingly unafraid of just about anything or anyone. That includes the rugged SEC, home of the last seven national championships, and critics of his departure from Wisconsin. Bielema has simultaneously engaged his fans and dismissed his critics on Twitter, one keystroke at a time.
“Enjoy life alone,” Bielema responded to one online heckler.
“Hope your children don’t follow you on Twitter,” he wrote to another.
“Why hate? Life is too short,” was still another tweet.
“If someone says something to me, I’m not going to hold back,” Bielema explains. “That’s just how I am in person. If someone comes up to me one-on-one in an airport or a restaurant and says something to me, I’m not going to … I’m not going to shy away from that.”
Bielema insists that his departure from Wisconsin and the Big Ten was never intended to put either in a negative light.
“But when you brag about the situation you’re in, people become sensitive,” he said.
Bielema signed a six-year, $3.2 million annual contract with the Razorbacks. The deal culminated a decade-long flirtation with joining the SEC for the 43-year-old, who was once offered the defensive coordinator job by then-Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. He sought plenty of outside advice before turning down the Tigers then, and he did the same due diligence about the Arkansas job.
One of the people Bielema talked with before being introduced as the new coach was Smith, whose 10-month contract runs through Feb. 23.
The former Michigan State and Louisville coach was recently named the new head coach at Division II Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., beginning March 1. However, he’s stayed in Fayetteville while serving out the consultant portion of his contract, telling Bielema he was “available at any given time.”
The two, who knew each other from their coaching days in the Big Ten, have talked in detail about the returning players for the Razorbacks.
Smith also gave Bielema “the lay of the land” about Arkansas’ administration and fan base, both of which Smith praised — even after he was often ridiculed online and on the airwaves as the Razorbacks fell from the preseason top 10 and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2008. Smith infamously told reporters to “Smile!” following a 52-0 loss to Alabama, and he said it’s difficult for any coach to keep fans happy over the long term in today’s coaching profession.
“It’s hard,” Smith said. “When you’re on top and then you leave, it doesn’t end well then. If it’s the other case, where it ends because they have to fire you, it doesn’t end well then, either. So, you’re kind of caught as a coach anymore.”
Arkansas has seen its share of less-than-graceful exits during its last three coaching tenures — from Houston Nutt’s paid departure for Mississippi to Petrino’s firing and Smith’s temporary hold on the job. All of it has thrown an aura of instability over a program that had seemed on the rise with the likes of Ryan Mallett, Knile Davis and Tyler Wilson leading the way on the field.
Bielema isn’t concerned about the tide of public support turning on him at Arkansas, saying he doesn’t believe that has to happen. The closest he’s come to a losing season as a head coach was a 7-6 campaign in 2008, his third season at Wisconsin.
The Badgers followed that with three straight years of double-digit wins, and Bielema said the key for him during the struggles was self-analysis and how he handled himself.
It’s a lesson he plans to carry over to the SEC.
“It can turn for other people; it doesn’t have to turn for me,” Bielema said. “I don’t care where you are at in life. Everything is about how you react to what happens. It’s not what happens; it’s how you react to it. I think that’s the part that I know I control.”
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