FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — When Bret Bielema was hired at Arkansas last year, he arrived with the promise of bringing the school its first Southeastern Conference championship.
Instead, Bielema’s first season with the Razorbacks turned into the worst in school history — three straight wins and then nine straight losses, a 3-9 mark that included the program’s first winless season in the SEC since joining the league in 1992.
More than two weeks after a season-ending 31-27 loss at LSU, Bielema — burdened with the free time that has come following his first season without a bowl game— has had the time to evaluate his first season at Arkansas.
He is now making promises of landing “more of, and better” players, and the former Wisconsin coach has stayed busy recruiting the last few weeks. Bielema’s optimism remains firmly in place as he tries to establish the Razorbacks as a contender in the brutal SEC West, home to the last four national champions.
It turns out that Auburn — along with the team it defeated in the SEC championship game, Missouri — have given Bielema his best sales pitch to recruits.
“There isn’t anything more self-evident than to see two teams playing in the SEC championship game that had one win in the SEC total last year,” Bielema said during an interview with The Associated Press. “The cards couldn’t line up any better for where we’re at and where we want to be.”
Whether Bielema can deliver an Auburn- or Missouri-like turnaround next season is a long way from being determined.
He needs to find a replacement for defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, who was hired Monday as the head coach at Florida Atlantic. Bielema said he keeps a “three-deep” of potential coaches ready at all times, and that the three candidates for Partridge’s position are currently involved in bowl-game preparations or in the NFL. He hopes to have the new coach on campus before recruiting begins again in January.
National signing day in February has become Bielema’s top priority since the end of the season, a year in which he brought stability to an Arkansas program hit hard by the Bobby Petrino scandal and firing and a scuffling season that followed under interim coach John L. Smith.
The Razorbacks this year looked much more like the team that went 4-8 last season under Smith rather than the one that was a combined 21-5 over Petrino’s last two seasons in 2010-11.
Bielema said the change in systems, from a pass-centric philosophy under Petrino and Smith to a more physical style of play, led to many of this season’s issues. Arkansas was 12th in the SEC in both scoring offense (20.7 points per game) and scoring defense (30.8), and it was last in passing offense with an average of just 148.5 yards per game through the air.
Bielema said the Razorbacks need more playmakers — and quickly.
“It’s something that you’ve got to constantly understand that you have a philosophy, and the thing is it’s not as easy as just coming in and doing it,” Bielema said. “You’ve got to have the right pieces. If you’re running a Chevy, you need Chevy products. It’s not going to work too well with Nissan, Dodge, Toyota and Mercedes. You’ve got to do it with your players.”
Bielema also said his first run through the SEC showed that Arkansas needs to “makes some corrections” on offense and defense.
One area he doesn’t expect to change is his public presence on Twitter. The 43-year-old Bielema was well-known during the summer for engaging fans and critics alike on the social networking website, and though his tweet frequency has slowed since the start of the season and throughout recruiting, he doesn’t plan on changing how he acts because of the first losing season of his head-coaching career.
“I don’t go on Twitter and say, ‘Who can I get into it with today?’” Bielema said. “It’s hard to ignore stupidity, so if I see something that’s stupid and I have time to respond, I don’t see why I would deter.”
Bielema, who signed a six-year, $3.2-million annual contract, remained upbeat throughout Arkansas’ struggles this season, and he’s had the support of athletic director Jeff Long.
“I know now, even more than when I hired him, he’s going to be successful here,” Long said in October. “He’s going to build the program the right way. He’s going to recruit and bring the kind of talent we need to compete in the strongest division in the strongest conference in the NCAA.”
While Bielema has high hopes of adding an impact-ready signing class in February, the road to respectability doesn’t get any easier for Arkansas next season. The Razorbacks open their season at Auburn and have out-of-conference matchups at Texas Tech and at home against Northern Illinois.
“It’s a daunting schedule, but I think every SEC schedule is,” Bielema said. “Now there are some that are better than others. Some are a little bit lighter than others. That day may come for us, but the schedule is what it is.”
Q & A WITH BRET BIELEMA
Bret Bielema recently completed his first season at Arkansas, finishing 3-9 and missing a bowl for the first time in his head-coaching career. He sat down with The Associated Press for an interview Tuesday. Excerpts are below:
Question: Arkansas went 3-9, what’s the emotional toll of that?
Answer: “It is what it is. I don’t have a reaction one way or the other. Obviously (I) didn’t want to go 3-9, but it was the reality of what it was. For whatever reason, the good Lord decided us to be that way. There’s a certain amount of teaching that can come from a win, but I do think you learn more from losses than you do from wins. Just the inventory that you press, if you’re a true competitor, the way that you react. You’ll get more out of a defeat … Now, obviously, it’s not great for recruiting, it’s not great for anybody involved, fans, coaches, players, staff, whatever it is. But it is what it is.”
Q: Going back to last spring, you talked about fans coming up to you and saying, ‘We’re sorry for what you’ve gotten yourself into.’ Were they right?
A: “I don’t think a fan has any idea of what you have schematically, Xs and Os. … (T)hey don’t even have an understanding of what we’re trying to necessarily do. I know that the part that as coaches we can’t accept the 3-9. We can’t just say, ‘That’s what it is, and that’s what we’re going to be.’ We tried to win every game for what it was. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do it, but as a head coach, we learned a lot about we never want to go back to that point.”
Q: Professional criticism is one thing. When it turns and flips onto personal level, as it did this season with (wife) Jen, how tough is that to handle?
A: “The only thing I was concerned about her was just her safety. I mean, some people, when they claim they’re going to kill you and your dogs and, you know, hope you die in a car crash and make malicious comments, that’s … People are today a little off. I spend a lot of time away from home. One of the things that we did is talk to the people that we need to talk to to make sure that there wasn’t any potential threat to her safety and well-being. That’s my only priority, is the safety of my family, which right now is my wife and two little dogs that I do like.”
Q: Is the SEC West more or less daunting now that you’ve been through it? Any different take or perception now that you’ve seen it up close?
A: “I think the part that really jumps out to me is you’ve got a team that’s playing for a national championship (Auburn), and we’re a play or two away from being able to capitalize on that game. It shows kids how close you literally are. There isn’t anything more self-evident than to see two teams playing in the SEC championship game that had one win in the SEC total last year. The cards couldn’t line up any better for where we’re at and where we want to be.”
Q: What specifically on the field can we anticipate seeing that will be different next season?
A: “More of big offensive linemen that know how to play. Guys that will be similar to Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland. On the defensive side of the ball, you’ll see guys that want to be aggressive in the way that they play, the way they tackle, the way that they take the fight to them. And hopefully, overall, offense, defense, special teams, smarter players. Guys that understand the leverage of the football so that a five-yard play doesn’t turn into a 58-yard scoring play. Those kinds of things are things we’ll stress and definitely be better in a short amount of time.”
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