Bielema embracing underdog role
Bret Bielema says he still has not unpacked a single box in his new house.
The Arkansas coach hasn’t had the time for the little things since being hired in December. From learning the current Razorbacks to recruiting the new ones, Bielema’s free time has been scarce.
Bielema should have plenty of time over the next few months to settle in to his new home. Arkansas put the finishing touches on its set of 15 spring practices with last weekend’s Red-White game.
It was an opportunity for the Razorbacks to show off what they’ve learned so far under their new coach, and just how far they’ve come in the last year since Bobby Petrino’s firing and the turmoil that ensued. It was also an opportunity for Bielema to reflect on just how at home he already feels in Fayetteville and with his players, just a few short months after leaving Wisconsin.
”Those first two months, it was like I was literally taking a media guide on the plane when I was traveling and trying to memorize faces and names and stuff,” Bielema said. ”And now to know your entire roster and be able to say something to them by name is a big deal.”
Bielema’s eagerness to learn his players was evident throughout the spring in their comments about his willingness to open his door and talk – about football and life. Following the spring game, Bielema and his staff had dinner with the Razorbacks and their families, meeting many of the parents for the first time.
The dinner was just one example of the new Arkansas. The school has experienced a little bit of everything in the last year, from Petrino’s demanding and less-than-personal approach to the over-the-top personality that was interim coach John L. Smith.
The Razorbacks flourished under Petrino’s rigid ways, finishing a combined 21-5 over the 2010-11 seasons. They reached the school’s first BCS bowl game during that stretch and had a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State.
However, Petrino’s firing led to an epic collapse last season, from preseason No. 5 to a 4-8 record, the school’s lowest win total since 2005.
”Our experience was we used to be a lot more business-like when coach Petrino was around here,” Arkansas senior quarterback Brandon Mitchell said. ”Then it got more relaxed when coach John L. came around, but I think it got too relaxed. I think this coaching staff has that middle ground that you want with it being business out there on the practice field and in the meeting rooms, and also when you’re not talking Xs and Os, being able to be a family.”
The love-fest between Bielema and Arkansas, where his outgoing personality has been welcomed at fan clubs across the state, is great but the question remains: How quickly can he pick up the pieces from last year’s disaster and rebuild a team that became an afterthought in the Southeastern Conference?
Bielema has embraced the role of underdog, a position Arkansas is likely to occupy this season after last season’s collapse and the loss of All-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson to the NFL.
The new coach compared this team to his first with the Badgers in 2006. That team had low preseason expectations but finished 12-1, including a Capital One Bowl win over the Razorbacks. Bielema isn’t quite ready to proclaim Arkansas a national factor, but he is hoping the school can compete with SEC West foes such as national powers Alabama and LSU.
”I don’t think a lot of people have their eyes on Arkansas right now, and I think that’s a position that we really, really like,” Bielema said. ”And I think it’s one that you can work up to the other.”
The Razorbacks appeared to answer one of their biggest offseason questions marks during the spring, with sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen emerging as the front-runner to become the team’s next starter.
Allen was named the first-team quarterback after an 11-of-16, 158-yard passing performance in the spring game, and he’s hoping for a summer of stability while preparing for a schedule that includes trips to Florida, Alabama and LSU.
”No one really expects anything, but we know as a team we’re something special and we can shock a lot of people,” Allen said.
Regardless of the daunting task at hand, senior defensive end Chris Smith believes Bielema gives Arkansas the best chance to win. Smith was offered a scholarship by Bielema while he was at Wisconsin, and he said the new coach’s impact can be measured in one way for a team that was desperately in need of a leader.
”Basically, he’s brought hope to everybody,” Smith said. ”A lot of guys, a lot of seniors that didn’t play last year, are playing with the (first team). Guys are really showing their true talent. I think that’s one thing he brought is the hope that we can do this, we can be good.”