“Bret took over a train wreck. I don’t think anyone truly understands the social issues, the academic issues, the things he walked into.” – Former Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash on Bret Bielema’s arrival at the University of Arkansas.
The 2012 Arkansas Razorbacks had 8 players arrested, for everything from DUI to residential burglary. 10 players for the Hogs were maintaining a GPA below a 2.0. When new head coach Bret Bielema would call a kid into his office to talk about grades or performance, the players were petrified. However, instead of getting yelled at and berated, they were coached and helped. As running back Johnathan Williams put it “The coaches were like, ‘Why don’t you come in our office to talk?'” Williams said. “We were like, ‘What?’ That wasn’t even something we had in our heads we could do.”
Nov 22, 2014; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema celebrates with cornerback Carroll Washington (21) after the game against the Ole Miss Rebels at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas defeated Mississippi 30-0. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
21 players with F’s on their report cards from when he arrived at Arkansas has dropped to only 5, and in the second summer session, the Razorbacks boasted a team cumulative GPA of 3.0. A complete culture change at Arkansas was underway. Even with the arrests of CJ O’Grady and Blake Johnson for alcohol related incidents, the number of arrests at Arkansas since Bielema’s arrival stands at 3. Add to that, the ability Bielema has to schmooze with fans and donors around the state was making the university very happy as well. Petrino was winning games, so donations were solid throughout his time at Arkansas. But man, he was a jerk. Big time donors and alumni would just assume to mail the check into the program and watch them win as opposed to having to sit through a scripted, forced to smile Bobby thank them for their support. Bielema hit the ground running at Arkansas, making more stops at booster events around the state in 1 year than Petrino would ever even imagine attending.
An impressive increase in academic performance, a fun loving demeanor, and a drop in off the field issues made the university, and the fans, happy with Bielema’s progress. Add to that, the sudden jump in on the field performance at the end of the 2014 season with shutout wins over LSU and Ole Miss, and a bowl victory over Texas. Despite a final record of 7-6, and having no conference road wins, Bielema was signed to a big extension by UA athletic director Jeff Long, and the Hogs came into the 2015 season with a #18 ranking.
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You all know the rest. Schedule-gate, Kliff-gate, injuries upon injuries upon injuries, and the holes in the defense. Arkansas stands at 1-2 and some Razorback fans are calling for his head already, while websites and papers across the country start asking the question of “Is Bret Bielema on the Hot Seat?”
No. No he is not. First off, media and fans, you aren’t allowed to yell at Bret to shut up after encouraging him to talk and strut around all offseason. I’m not just talking about local journalists like myself who were happy to see the Hogs getting some respect again. Dennis Dodd of CBS, the Associated Press, SB Nation, and many others all took the time write about, laugh with, and praise coach Bielema’s “swagger” and jokes. I know here in Arkansas we loved the “Borderline Erotic” comment about beating Texas. This is who Bret Bielema is. Stop pretending like you didn’t know that he has a propensity to speak his mind.
Secondly, as I stated earlier when talking about having to replace so many key players on defense, the Arkansas Razorbacks are simply not the same team from last year. The loss of Spaight, Flowers, Philon, and Mitchel have left the Hogs with massive holes to fill, and Hog fans just kinda thought we would be ok. Hog fans were clearly wrong.
Aug 30, 2014; Auburn, AL, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks safety Rohan Gaines (26) closes in on Auburn Tigers running back Corey Grant (20) during the first half at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
And that, friends, is the thing that makes 2015 and 2012 so similar, and kind of the only thing. You thought you could run a Bobby Petrino offense in 2012 without Bobby Petrino? False. That cannot be done. The lack of Bobby on the sidelines and in practice killed that team. You thought that a team that only has 14 players on it from 2 combined recruiting classes, both recruited by a coach in Petrino that is notorious for not recruiting defenses, would be able to replace 4 NFL quality defenders? False. Just like in 2012, fans cry about the wrong things. John L. Smith wasn’t the catalyst, he was the scapegoat. Do you REALLY think that with Petrino in 2012 that team would have won 10 games? There was no way. That defense lost Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin, Jericho Nelson, and other key players, and was in no shape to play in the SEC. I mean, the leading tackler on that 2012 team was Ross Rasner. So is it really that surprising that the 2015 Razorbacks are struggling defensively? It shouldn’t be.
This brings me to my final point, and the reason I wrote this essay on the state of the Razorbacks: Bret Bielema is the best solution for the Hogs ills. The biggest problem for the Razorbacks right now is lack of depth. In his first year at Arkansas, Bielema was able to get guys like Alex Collins, Hunter Henry, Martell Spaight, Carroll Washington, Denver Kirkland, and Dan Skipper. His first class was impressive, and every class going forward has been good. If you go look at the 2015 class, you’ll see a lot of names that you might not recognize. That’s because they’re redshirting. For the first time since Bielema got to Arkansas, he’s built up enough depth at some positions that he has the luxury of redshirting players.
Bielema is rebuilding the program the right way. He’s getting quality players that stay out of trouble and get good grades. The program just isn’t as far along as fans thought it was. The defense is going to be an issue for a while. Not to keep harping on Petrino’s lack of recruiting for that side of the ball, but there is not a single Petrino recruited linebacker on the team any more. At all. In 2011 and 2012, there were a combined 7 linebackers signed by the Hogs. None of them made in through 2012. That type of lack of depth is showing on the field right now, as true freshman Dre Greenlaw is now starting at weakside linebacker.
I understand the frustration, Hog nation. I really do. I’m sick of being the doormat in the division just like you are. I’m obviously upset at the way the Hogs have played so far, and the 2012 comparisons are understandable. But I don’t feel like I did in 2012. We had no head coach and no recruiting going on, and were just left hopeless. That’s not the case anymore.
Last year’s recruiting class was the highest rated class in Razorbacks history, going by overall star rankings. This year’s class could actually be better, with the addition of McTelvin Agim, an ESPN 5 star defensive end. While a losing season may impact recruiting some, the loss of a head coach would be devastating to this program. That would be the 3rd new coach in 9 years, meaning a 3rd rebuild in a decade. No coach will take on that task. You will not get a good hire. Bret Bielema is a good coach, that is in a tough situation, and is coming through it exactly like we all knew he would: loudly. Don’t concern yourself with what Bielema says. You shouldn’t be concerned until he stops talking. A silent Bielema is about as ominous a thing as I can think of.
Also, his buyout is like, a billion dollars or something. So we’re not firing him, anyway.