Bret Bielema has had more than nine months to prepare for the first time he takes the field at Arkansas, his first game as a head coach anywhere other than Wisconsin.
Despite all of that preparation, don’t expect Bielema to take a look around and enjoy a big-picture moment when the Razorbacks open their season at home Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette.
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Bielema, who signed a six-year, $3.2-million annual contract at Arkansas last December, did his best Monday to deflect any questions about his emotions leading into the game. He was more focused on what’s been an offseason of hard work, though he did offer up one striking comparison between this week and his first game as the head coach at Wisconsin.
”At that time, I was single, so I didn’t talk to a lot of people,” Bielema said. ”My wife (Jen) keeps asking me every day, `How do you feel?”’
Feelings aren’t a strong suit when it comes to games for Bielema, who called himself ”removed” during games and said, ”On game day, I’m just like a different cat.”
What has been a point of emphasis for the 43-year-old has been his opening game each season as a head coach. Bielema is 7-0 in season openers, including a 35-14 win over Bowling Green his first season as head coach at Wisconsin. It’s a streak he’d love nothing more than to run to 8-0 this weekend.
”The thing about openers is that it really does get down to how you handle adversity,” Bielema said. ”Something is going to pop up, and you can’t have that `Woe is me,’ you can’t have anybody flinching, you have to have people focusing on getting that moment right.”
Arkansas’ opponent this weekend, the Ragin’ Cajuns, figure to provide Bielema with a high degree of difficulty. Louisiana-Lafayette has put together back-to-back 9-4 seasons under coach Mark Hudspeth, including a pair of wins in the New Orleans Bowl, and it returns dual-threat quarterback Terrance Broadway and a host of other playmakers.
If the Sun Belt Conference co-favorite provides Arkansas with a bit more trepidation than the usual season opener, it’s with good reason. This is, after all, a Razorbacks team still recovering from last season, a 4-8 disaster in the wake of the Bobby Petrino scandal. It was a stunning loss to a Sun Belt school – Louisiana-Monroe – that began Arkansas’ fall from Southeastern Conference contender to also-ran a year ago.
Bielema has done his best to avoid any discussions about what happened with the Razorbacks before he arrived. However, the only way he’ll be able to completely erase any lingering doubts will be to win – beginning this week.
Just don’t expect the moment to overwhelm Bielema, who coached Wisconsin to three Rose Bowls during his seven seasons at the school.
”You know what, pressure comes from within,” Bielema said. ”Pressure is made by you. The pressure I can feel is the one that I want to absorb.
”You may think it’s cliche, but I just don’t worry about it. I only worry about what’s in front of me.”
Bielema put the Razorbacks through a mock game last Friday in an attempt to bring the team completely up to speed with anything that might be new under its new coach. That includes a new starting quarterback in sophomore Brandon Allen, along with a style of play Bielema hopes is much more physical than what Arkansas played under Petrino and interim coach John L. Smith last season.
Of course, the coach himself will be the centerpiece of what’s new – though he did coach in Razorback Stadium during the team’s spring game. Saturday, however, will come with much more on the line.
And that’s just fine with Bielema.
”We’re only given 12 guaranteed game weeks a year,” he said. ”They’re very, very special.”