Bielema ready for rugged SEC at Arkansas

Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long first met Bret Bielema

while in Miami attending an end-of-season awards ceremony

surrounding the 2005 national championship game.

Bielema was a 34-year-old up-and-coming assistant coach at

Wisconsin, and Long was the athletic director at Pittsburgh, still

a few years away from leaving to take over the Razorbacks program

for the retiring Frank Broyles.

Always one to network and keep his emergency file of potential

coaches ready, Long followed the career of that assistant he met on

the beach. Little did he know that he would one day hire Bielema to

coach Arkansas, helping end what had been a spiraling eight months

for the Razorbacks following the scandal-ridden exit of Bobby

Petrino.

The end of a secretive search came to an end Tuesday when the

former Wisconsin coach agreed to take over the Razorbacks. The

43-year-old was introduced at a news conference the next day,

giving Arkansas hope it can return to the upper echelon of the

Southeastern Conference.

”I’m very relieved,” Long said. ”You know, coaching searches

are stressful searches. There’s a lot depending on it. … It’s

always good to have a search completed. But I really feel good

about the coach we have to lead these student-athletes.”

Bielema, who left the Badgers after seven seasons, won’t coach

Wisconsin in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl game against Stanford. Instead,

he’ll immediately step in the hyper-competitive world of recruiting

in the SEC – home to the winners of the last six national

championships.

The former Iowa and Kansas State assistant could have a

difficult time initially selling an Arkansas program that was 4-8

this season and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2008.

However, he won’t have to go back far to remind recruits of success

at the school, which was 21-5 in 2010-11 under Petrino and finished

as high as No. 5 in the final rankings.

Given Bielema’s background as a defensive coach, the rugged SEC

seemed to him like the perfect fit. He said he had no apprehension

about joining an SEC West already loaded with Alabama and LSU,

among others.

”The thing I think probably intrigued me more than anything as

I’ve watched over the years the SEC, there’s a lot of coaches that

have my type of background that have had success,” Bielema said.

”I’m excited to work with the caliber of athlete the SEC can bring

and what we can bring here to the University of Arkansas is very

exciting.”

The Razorbacks had an equal amount of confidence in their new

coach after meeting with him Wednesday afternoon, and they

expressed little doubt Bielema could go toe-to-toe with the likes

of Alabama’s Nick Saban and LSU’s Les Miles.

”I don’t think, I know he can,” Arkansas cornerback Tevin

Mitchel said. ”You can see how confident he is. That’s a good

feeling for us as players.”

Bielema said he would interview each of the current members of

the Razorbacks staff, though he’ll he have to hire a new offensive

coordinator since Paul Petrino left to become the head coach at

Idaho. The Illinois native said he had six candidates in mind for

the position, a critical selling point to recruits for a school

that was among the country’s best under Bobby Petrino.

Led by current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson,

Wisconsin was sixth in the country in scoring in 2011. Bielema, who

was 68-24 with the Badgers, preached a balanced attack and said

he’ll tailor the offense to fit the players. Wisconsin running back

Montee Ball was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy last season, and

he’s second in the Big Ten this season with 1,730 yards

rushing.

”I’m going to recruit a certain way and you’ll get more and

more specific what you want as the years go forward,” Bielema

said. ”But if you don’t have the right dogs in the race, you’re

not going to win it.

”So whatever race we get into with our philosophy, we have to

make sure we have the right people to run it.”

Bielema knew of Arkansas’ fall from preseason top 10 this

season, sending a letter of support to Long about how he handled

Petrino’s firing and the hiring of interim coach John L. Smith in

April. He knows now that the challenge is to rebuild.

”I’m never going to lie,” Bielema said. ”I’m never going to

make something look better than it is. We’re a 4-8 football team

that a lot of people thought were going to be great in the

beginning of the year and we weren’t.

”… But right now we’re going to embrace being the underdog.

We’re going to throw two arms around it. We’re going to kiss it and

make it feel good.”