FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Bret Bielema has never failed in his 12-year career as a head coach.
Sure, the former Wisconsin coach – now in his fifth season at Arkansas – has had his moments of defeat. He went 0-8 in the Southeastern Conference in 2013 soon after he arrived.
Through any disappointment with either the Badgers or at Arkansas, there’s always been the sense that Bielema would find a way to turn any momentary frustration into satisfaction. That things would get turned around.
But Bielema’s history of success has been put to the test like at no other time during his career since the end of last season. After a 28-7 loss to No. 20 TCU last week, the Razorbacks have lost three of their last four games – failing to score in the second half of each of those defeats.
The losses have thrown a sudden halt to what had been a steady build for Bielema at Arkansas, a school that appeared on the verge of challenging for a Southeastern Conference championship before former coach Bobby Petrino’s affair and disastrous end to his career with the school.
It’s a state still smarting from the pain of its former coach’s misdeeds, one that is on its sixth season of rebuilding.
Fans are wondering if Bielema is the one to lead the Razorbacks back to their role as an SEC contender, when they posted a 21-5 record over the 2010-11 seasons and made a Sugar Bowl appearance against Ohio State.
Arkansas has now fallen to 26-27 under Bielema, leading to a week of frustration from fans on both talk radio and message boards. One of those fans, Johnny Mullens, even questioned Razorbacks athletic director Jeff Long about how coaches are evaluated and the current state of the program during a Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting earlier this week.
Bielema left the field in Razorback Stadium last week to a steady chorus of boos, and he appeared to react to the growing pressure in the post-game news conference and his weekly television recap – which was filmed moments afterward. Razorbacks kicker Cole Hedlund missed two chip shots during the loss, from 23 and 20 yards out. The misses were critical in a game that saw Arkansas down 14-7 in the fourth quarter before two late TCU touchdowns, and a visibly upset Bielema didn’t shy away from criticizing the junior afterward.
”The two missed field goals were just embarrassing,” Bielema said. ”We’ll go for it every time, or we have to find a new kicker. I’m done with this.”
He also went on to words such as ”inexcusable,” ”juvenile” and ”ludicrous” to describe the missed kicks and addressed the fans’ growing negativity later in the week.
”Every fan, or anybody that’s getting on our players or anybody that says anything about me, understand that we came here with all the same ideas as well,” Bielema said. ”We want to be successful, we want to give success on Saturdays just as much as anybody – even tenfold.
”But today’s world is mean and it’s just what it is.”
Arkansas’ sub-.500 record under Bielema is hardly what the school had hoped for from a coach being paid $4.25 million annually through the 2020 season.
Long has remained absolute in his support of Bielema in recent weeks, repeatedly pointing out the overall strength of the football program – one plagued with disciplinary problems and academic struggles under Petrino’s watch.
The College Football Playoff committee member has also been busy overseeing a $160 million expansion of Razorback Stadium and addressing the possible end to Arkansas’ split home venues between Fayetteville and Little Rock following next season. So, the timing of the TCU loss and Bielema’s recent struggles are hardly ideal.
”In this game, in this day and age, there is cause for alarm after every game you don’t win,” Long said. ”I don’t have any more cause for alarm (after the TCU loss). We lost the game and we are going to work hard to win the next game.”
Long is well aware the Razorbacks improved their win total in each of Bielema’s first three seasons. They appeared on their way to making that four straight years of improvement a year ago, but second-half meltdowns against Missouri and Virginia Tech were the difference between an eventual seven-win season and a possible nine victories – while also leading to an offseason of questions about Bielema’s future.
Those questions have grown even louder in the last week, though any realistic discussion about Arkansas dismissing Bielema must include his hefty buyout numbers – $15.4 million through the end of this year and $11.7 million next year before dropping to $7.9 million and $4 million over the last two years of his contract.
Even if Bielema can’t deliver on the promise of winning the SEC that he made when he was hired away from Wisconsin, Arkansas and Long want more than anything for him to simply be more competitive in the league. He was largely given a pass for that 0-8 conference record in 2013 because of the fallout from Petrino’s firing, but his 10-14 SEC record since is underwhelming.
”We see it all, we hear what (fans) are saying,” Arkansas senior quarterback Austin Allen said. ”We can’t worry about what they think, it’s all about what this building thinks, what coach (Bielema) says, what the coaches say and how we work.”
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