(Eds: Updates. With FBC–Arkansas-Bielema-Q&A. With AP Photos.)By KURT VOIGTAP Sports Writer
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.
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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.”