We should establish this up front: Plenty of the phrases that Arkansas Razorbacks football coach Bret Bielema uses — most of them, in fact — lack a single curse word. “Cut drill,” for example. Also: “Grind it out,” “Run some skelly,” and “Let’s give the kids a snack.” All Bielema’s, all clean, and all uttered while he’s sitting in his new office, surrounded by his new staff in his new state.
But there’s a problem with the rest of Bielema’s cleaned-up sentences. On this morning, at least, they’re almost impossible to understand. Bielema is auctioneering his way through a 9 a.m. meeting, packing so much jargon into so few breaths that unless you work for him, you can discern nothing about the strategies being tweaked or the plans being made.
When he slows down, however, the cursing starts. And when the cursing starts, Bielema transitions from coach-as-CEO into coach-as-giddy-overgrown-child. And that’s when all the questions that have followed Bielema from Wisconsin to Arkansas — primarily, what the hell is he doing here? — start to find answers.
On personnel: “That,” he says, referring to senior Kiero Small, “is a goddamn fullback.”
On campus tours: “We bring the kids on a tour, we fucking wow ’em with the facilities, then we show ’em all the shoes and shit — that’s gonna make a big impression.”
On Tuesday: “Man, fucking Tuesday was awesome.” Since Bielema arrived in Fayetteville, he’s had a lot of days like Tuesday.
A few months ago, this whole scene seemed unlikely, at least to the public. Mike Gundy was supposed to be sitting in Bielema’s chair, or maybe Sonny Dykes or Kirby Smart or Gus Malzahn. Someone talented but not fully established; someone looking to move up; someone who could say the word “y’all” without embarrassing himself, who’d spent at least a handful of Saturdays in stadiums east of Dallas and south of Cincinnati.
But there’s Bielema — he of the three Rose Bowls, the Eisenhower-era offense, and the geographically neutral accent — leaning forward in his chair, hog logo on his polo, casually referencing trips to Springdale and Pine Bluff and Texarkana as if he’d spent his life preparing for this, his opportunity to tour every last stop in the Ozarks, the Ouachitas, and the Arkansas plains.
The spring game is approaching. There will be evaluations of players and introductions to fans and opportunities to dazzle and entice elite recruits. And among the many conversation topics that get Bielema excited — along with talk of Fayetteville barbers and Twitter policies and business cards and that one hit in practice where a fullback met a linebacker with the kind of violence typically seen only at Alabama, LSU, or in the NFL — among all those, recruiting sparks the most gleeful profanities. Because in recruiting, Bielema gets to sell this program, his program, the supposedly middling program that wooed him away from a school that had reached the nation’s most prestigious bowl three years in a row. He gets to show them why he’s here and why, he believes, any 320-pound lineman or 4.3-running receiver should come and make himself at home in beautiful northwest Arkansas.
An assistant tells the story of a recruit getting lost at another school’s spring game. He was forgotten by coaches and left to wander around campus by himself.
“Fucking amen,” says Bielema. “None of that bullshit. Here, we have a plan.”
That plan wouldn’t exist, of course, if not for a certain accident involving a coach and his mistress on April 1 of last year.
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long was riding a bus back to Fayetteville from an administrators’ retreat when he got a phone call with the news: Razorbacks football coach Bobby Petrino had crashed his motorcycle. Long walked to the front of the bus to tell university chancellor Dave Gearhart. There was no talk of another passenger, no hint of a cover-up, no warning that in a matter of days Long and Gearhart would be managing college football’s newest and sexiest maelstrom. “Our only thought,” says Gearhart, “was ‘We hope he’s OK.'”
And really, he was, aside from the fact that he’d told a passerby not to call 911 so he could find a private escort to the hospital. That he’d done so to hide that he was riding with a 25-year-old woman who was not his wife; that he’d had an “inappropriate relationship” with that woman, hired that woman, and given that woman a $20,000 gift; and that he was trying to cover it all up with an outlandish lie — aside from all of that, he was fine. Broken ribs, a cracked vertebra, a few scratches. Nothing more. Give him a neck brace, schedule a press conference, and move on.
But soon, reporters and administrators got a look at the police report. The presence and identity of Jessica Dorrell was revealed. Petrino’s lie was exposed. And suddenly his status as the most beloved coach in recent Arkansas history was thrown into jeopardy. Long placed the coach on administrative leave, and over the next five days, he conducted a series of interviews with everyone involved and discovered the extent of Petrino’s misdeeds. Intermittently, he met with Gearhart to discuss their options.
The fans had already made their views clear. A large majority wanted Petrino to stay. Long and Gearhart talked through alternatives to termination. Could they fine Petrino, suspend him, penalize him in some way that was sufficiently harsh but would allow him to keep his job? Eventually — inevitably — Long told Gearhart, “We’ve got to do what’s right.”
On April 10, Long sent Petrino a letter of termination. That night, Long stood at a podium at Bud Walton Arena and announced his decision. He mentioned the $20,000 gift. He emphasized the number of times Petrino had declined to tell the truth. He explained every factor that led to his decision. He paused when talking about the players, and he composed himself after getting choked up.
Seven hundred miles away, University of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema watched from home. Bielema was in the middle of spring practice with a Badgers team that had just played in its second consecutive Rose Bowl. Yet he’d grown frustrated with his inability to pay high-priced assistants, and he’d always had a restless streak. He didn’t expect he would leave Wisconsin anytime soon, and even if he did, he had no clue where he might go.
But as he sat on his couch watching the press conference, he knew he liked the man he saw on the screen.
We’ve heard the phrase after every coaching change with every team at every level in recent years: “Change the culture.” As in, Before, we didn’t watch much film, but now we’re changing the culture. Or: The last coach went on a joyride with his employee/paramour, but I’ll tell you what, we’re really changing the culture.
And so it is at Arkansas. Good thing, because these players have been through a lot. There was the Petrino firing, which angered some on the team, and then the hiring of interim coach John L. Smith, who led them to a 4-8 season. And now that Bielema has arrived, staff and team are all still feeling each other out.
“It would be disrespectful to the kids if we didn’t acknowledge what they’ve been through,” says defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. “You often see evidence of it. There’s been a lack of trust. You tell a kid he should feel free to come into your office anytime, and you can tell he maybe doesn’t trust what you’re saying. Or maybe there’s a kid struggling in class. Maybe he thinks he’s going to get screamed at or he’s going to have to run. Well, maybe he’s going to be mentored.”
Petrino was cantankerous and brilliant, lifting Arkansas to 10-win seasons with the cold force of his offensive ingenuity. Bielema, on the other hand, is a manager of people and a master of logistics. “He’s a CEO,” says Mark Taurisani, Bielema’s longtime football operations director. “When it’s not the middle of the season, he spends as much time on academics as on football. If guys are getting parking tickets, he wants to figure out a solution. If we’re deciding on a postgame meal, he wants to be involved. He has his hands in everything.” In Madison, Bielema even had a network of local cops who told him which players were out at which bars on which nights.
Arkansans embraced Petrino’s prickly genius, not because it fit their culture, but because it worked. Bielema’s approach — an aggressive 4-3 defense paired with a balanced offense built around the power-run game — fits more snugly with the state ethos. “If you didn’t know he was from the Midwest,” says Razorback Foundation executive director Sean Rochelle, “you would think he was from here.” And although SEC football has long been a vessel for expressions of Southern exceptionalism, many of the conference’s most successful coaches come from the Midwest. Les Miles, Nick Saban, and Urban Meyer all have roots in Ohio. Mark Richt is from Nebraska. In fact, among the league’s 14 current coaches, eight were born in states with Big Ten programs, while only five hail from SEC country.1
It makes sense. “You’re talking about a population shift,” says Partridge, who spent more than a decade coaching in the Midwest but was born in Florida. “It’s the Rust Belt versus the Sun Belt.” And as the population and talent have shifted south, those coaches have followed.
And now here we are, with the SEC more than halfway to a decade’s worth of consecutive national titles, with a coach like Bielema willing to leave a secure and successful Big Ten program to run a team that has never won an SEC championship. And all of this raises the question: Is it better to coach a middling SEC program than to coach a perennial contender for the Rose Bowl? Bielema won’t get too deep into this discussion, because he won’t define Arkansas as “middling,” but he does say that coaching in Fayetteville, even with the program’s limitations, brings him closer to a national title than he would have been at Wisconsin. It’s tough to argue either way on that point — in most years, an undefeated Wisconsin team would play for the title, as would an SEC championship-winning Arkansas team, even with a loss. And sure, Arkansas has to deal with Alabama and LSU, but now that Urban Meyer is rolling at Ohio State, Wisconsin will have a similarly formidable division rival.
But here in the SEC, a straightforward formula has developed. Win the league (or in the case of Alabama in 2011, just finish second in the division), head to the BCS championship game, and then do what you must with whichever sacrificial lamb the rest of the country offers. And while Arkansas may never be able to outrecruit and outplay Alabama or LSU over the long term, it can position itself for the rare year, like Auburn’s in 2010, when talent and schedule and luck align, resulting in a shot at the championship. Then there’s the upcoming playoff, which figures to include two SEC teams most seasons. “That was a big factor,” says Bielema. “That gives us an even better shot.”
But the final math on this is actually quite simple. Players are attracted to competition, and facilities, and the chance to stay near home. Coaches are attracted to competition, and resources, and the chance to earn lots of money. For these reasons, Bielema should have better players and coaches at Arkansas than he did at Wisconsin. And with better players and coaches, he will have a better chance at winning it all.
That’s a good thing, because as Razorbacks fans watch rivals collect national championship trophies as if they’re discount antiques, they’ve come to expect a crystal football of their own.
“Yes, the state is pretty poor,” says Doc Harper, an Arkansas sports blogger and columnist. “And there aren’t very many people here, but at the same time, we’ve won a basketball national title.2 We win track national titles,3 and people care about that. We’re Bill Clinton’s home state. We’re the home of the largest company in the world.4 We expect certain things.”
Bielema has taken quickly to the state. He’s settled on a favorite barber, lunched with legendary UA coach Frank Broyles, and autographed the occasional prosthetic arm. When he travels to Razorback club meetings, he arrives armed with names and backstories of fans and boosters, as well as enough overzealous bravado to incite a hog-calling (and blog-trolling) frenzy.
Arkansans have responded in kind. A few hours after strength coach Ben Herbert arrived on a red-eye from the Rose Bowl, he was stopped on the street by an admiring fan. Again, this is the strength coach. While driving to Forrest City, in eastern Arkansas, on a recruiting trip, Partridge showed his ID when checking out at a gas station. The clerk took the Wisconsin license and started trembling: “Are you one of the new coaches?”
Says Bielema: “There’s a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of great fans everywhere you go in college football. But here it’s taken to another level. Everywhere you go, it feels like every single person is on Red Bull. Every room is fever-pitched.”
Let’s go back a couple decades, to 1988, when an 18-year-old Bielema left Prophetstown, Illinois, where he’d grown up baling hay and helping on the family pig farm, to attend the University of Iowa.
There, he earned a spot as one of coach Hayden Fry’s famed corn-and-contact-fed walk-ons. In Iowa City, Bielema grew. From 190 pounds to 230 to 260. From linebacker to end to tackle. From walk-on to starter to all-league. From a wannabe farmer to a real-life, complete-with-a-whistle-and-everything Big Ten football coach.
All of this took about six years.
After Bielema graduated, Hayden Fry asked him to be a graduate assistant — that’s when Bielema says he began to imagine becoming a coach. From his first day on the job, Bielema would sit in meetings and imagine himself at the head of the big table, devising schemes, managing coaches, developing players.
He went from GA to linebackers coach to co–defensive coordinator at Kansas State, then to defensive coordinator at Wisconsin. So before his 35th birthday, there Bielema was, coaching one of the best defenses in the country and learning from Barry Alvarez, one of the most accomplished coaches in the Big Ten. After his first year on the job, he got a call. It was Tommy Tuberville, then the head coach at Auburn. Tuberville needed a defensive coordinator, and he wanted Bielema.
Bielema thought it would be unwise to leave Wisconsin after just one year, so he told Tuberville no. But it was then, after that flirtation, that Bielema decided maybe, someday, he might like to coach in the SEC.
Soon after Bielema turned down the Auburn job, Alvarez called Bielema into his office. Alvarez had one more year of coaching left in him, he said, and then he would move away from the sidelines and take over as Wisconsin’s athletic director. And when that happened, he said, he wanted Bielema to take his job. He wanted to make Bielema, at age 35, one of the youngest coaches in the country.
You’re probably well aware of what happened when Bielema took over at Wisconsin, but to review: The Badgers went 12-1 in his first season, and over the next six years they planted themselves alongside Ohio State and Michigan as lords of the Big Ten. There were those three straight Rose Bowls, something that only Woody’s Buckeyes and Bo’s Wolverines have done.
You might also know that Bielema was liked, but never quite loved, by Wisconsin fans; that he was considered competent but workmanlike, certainly not a genius, and that his success was explained away by factors like Ohio State’s and Penn State’s respective probations and the Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan.
Yet Bielema’s marriage to Wisconsin felt permanent. He was never going to get fired, but you also didn’t hear him mentioned for jobs at USC or Florida or in the NFL. And let’s face it: Bielema seemed at home in Wisconsin because Bielema looks like the alpha Wisconsinite. He’s a bulbous, round-shouldered cheese curd of a man, someone who was born to rack hay or to stomp the sidelines at Camp Randall.
And yet Bielema sometimes wondered about other jobs. In the offseason, he would talk with his agent about which opportunities might be appealing. “You want to think that kind of thing through when you’re not in the moment of having to make a decision,” he says. “Just imagine different scenarios.”
One of Bielema’s favorite aspects of the Wisconsin job was that the Badgers were the only major program in the state. If he ever left, he wanted a similar situation. Yet Wisconsin had its drawbacks. There was the makeshift recruiting base; there was the matter of inhabiting a collective shadow cast by Ohio State, Michigan, and the Packers. And then there was money.
Bielema made plenty — $2.6 million, to be exact — but his assistants’ salaries trailed behind those at similar programs. So every winter, Bielema endured the same phone calls, the same shrugged-shoulder meetings. Another coach called, Bielema’s assistants would tell him. And those coaches offered paychecks that Bielema couldn’t match.
Typically, they also offered promotions. Position coaches became coordinators. Coordinators became head coaches. Some jumped to the NFL. “You want your assistants to move up,” Bielema says. “But you want it to be a hard decision. You want them to only be willing to leave if they’re walking into a dream situation. You don’t want money to ever be a factor.” In his last three years in Madison, Bielema lost 12 assistants. Every winter, he spun it to the media as a positive. But every spring, he wondered how his new staff would jell.
Jeff Long, the Arkansas athletic director, had met Bielema in Miami in 2005. They were in town on behalf of their schools, Wisconsin and Pitt, both of which were finalists for some corporate-sponsored highlight-of-the-year award, the kind of thing that matters little to its recipient but a great deal to its sponsor — the kind often given with a giant check and a furry mascot and a series of grinning photos on the beach.
Long wore a suit. Bielema wore flip-flops. Long left impressed. He made a mental note to himself, as he often does when meeting new coaches, to keep an eye on Bielema’s career. “You’re always watching young coaches,” says Long. “Even if you think your coach is going to be with you for a long time, you want to know about who’s out there, just in case.” So Long already had Bielema on his mind last September, when he checked his mail one day and found a handwritten letter sent from an address in Madison, Wisconsin.
Just wanted to say that this note is long past due. As I watched your press conference this past spring I wanted to reach out and say how much I respected your actions but more important your words. As a head coach I know that my comments are looked at in every way possible. Here at UW I have a great AD because he is a man of his word & asks the same for all of us. Best wishes moving forward and stay strong. It was the right call! Best wishes, Bret
It was a letter written with a certain knowledge that Arkansas would soon have a job opening (interim coach John L. Smith never seemed like he’d hold the position for long), but nonetheless, Bielema expressed no direct interest in coming to Fayetteville. Bielema is known for handwritten missives — he sends them to coaches, athletic directors, reporters, and supporters — and he insists that there was nothing solicitous about his note to Long. But as Long read it, he says, “It struck me. I had a little bit of an Aha! moment. ‘Hey, maybe he might be interested.'”
During the coaching search, when Long called friends in the Big Ten, he tried to disguise his intentions for Bielema. “I would ask, ‘Who are the coaches in your conference I should be looking at?'” he says. “I’m asking who’s a good coach, but also who is not being appreciated by his administration, who doesn’t think he’s in the best position, who might be interested in leaving. I would ask a number of questions about every coach they mentioned. So nobody could leave that conversation and think, He’s targeting Bret Bielema.”
Long heard that Bielema had grown frustrated with the constant turnover in his coaching staff at Wisconsin. One day in November, Bielema talked to one of his departed assistants, Dave Doeren, then the coach at Northern Illinois. The Huskies were in the middle of a 12-2 season, on their way to the Orange Bowl, and Bielema asked Doeren about his own chances of moving to a bigger conference after the season. The way Bielema tells it, Doeren mentioned Arkansas as one of the most desirable potential openings. (Doeren, now the coach at NC State, says he does not remember this specific conversation.)
“One of the things we talked about was that you could go to Arkansas and be by yourself in the state, just like we were at Wisconsin,” Bielema recalls. “That was appealing.”
By then, Bielema’s Wisconsin team had salvaged its season. With Ohio State and Penn State on probation, the Badgers were crowned champions of the ____________5 division. They went to Indianapolis and won the conference title game. Bielema went out and celebrated that night. And at some point early the next morning, he glanced at his cell phone, where about 50 messages awaited his reply. One, he saw, was from an area code in northwest Arkansas.
Bielema met with his coaches that Sunday. The conference schedule was over; this was the beginning of job-offer season. “You might hear my name come up,” he told them. “Ignore it. It’s not really anything.” But Bielema knew he wasn’t the only member of his staff who’d gotten calls. “Before you make any decisions about any offers,” he said, “I’d love if you’d talk to me first.”
Newly married, Bielema asked his wife, Jen, what she thought about Arkansas. “There was something about the idea of sharing something,” he says, “of starting new together — that was an exciting thought.” Jen agreed. He decided to call back Jon Fagg, an associate AD at Arkansas, that night, almost 24 hours after hearing the original message. Fagg and Long were both preparing to travel the following night to the National Football Foundation awards dinner in New York.
They agreed to meet at a private home in Manhattan. But before Bielema left, he addressed his team in Madison. Only two days after earning a trip to the Rose Bowl, the players had already grown uneasy. A year ago, they’d lost two-thirds of their coaching staff. Now, former Badgers assistant Doeren had just taken the job at NC State, and talk circulated about more UW assistants joining him in Raleigh. Bielema wanted to offer reassurance. “You’re going to hear my name,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.” And then, the one line he wishes he’d never said: “I’m not going anywhere.”
That night, he flew to New York. Long and Fagg had lined up meetings with other coaches, but they spent much of Monday night with Bielema. From the beginning, it was clear: This was less a job interview than a recruitment. They pitched him on the facilities, on the financial commitment to winning, and as if it were even necessary, on the chance to coach in the SEC.
“I never expected they would offer what they offered, as far as budget, assistant salary pool, that kind of thing,” Bielema says. “It floored me.” Bielema gave strong indications that he would accept the offer. Long wanted to speak with Alvarez before making it official, but Bielema asked him not to. He wanted to have that conversation himself.
Alvarez was also in New York for the awards dinner. Bielema went to his room and broke down the details of Arkansas’s offer. It included $3 million in assistant coaches’ salaries, about 50 percent more than he’d had at Wisconsin. “By this point,” Bielema says, “between Saturday night and Tuesday morning, I had five coaches who had gotten offers from other schools. Offers I couldn’t match. So we were about to go through this whole thing again.” Bielema told Alvarez, “I need an increase in my salary pool. I need new contracts.” Alvarez told Bielema that Wisconsin couldn’t match Arkansas’s offer.
“Well,” Bielema remembers telling Alvarez, “then I can’t do this anymore.” Bielema has long referred to Alvarez as a father figure. He says no coach — not even Hayden Fry, his coach at Iowa and his first boss — has done more for him. They stood and hugged. “I’ll always love you like a son,” Alvarez said.
“I knew,” says Bielema, “as soon as I walked out that door, things would never be the same.”6 He left and told Long that he would take the job only if Arkansas would fly him back to Madison so he could address the Badgers in person. “Jeff saw how I was dealing with the fact that I had to say this to my players,” says Bielema, who admits he might have changed his mind and declined the Arkansas job after seeing his Wisconsin team in person. “He saw I was having a very difficult time. My players mean the world to me. Honest to goodness, after going in there, it would have crossed my mind — I could have walked.”
But instead, Long had Bielema sign the letter of acceptance while they were on the plane to Madison. By the time they arrived, Bielema had officially agreed to become the next coach at Arkansas. So he stood in front of his players — the same players he’d told “I’m not going anywhere” just 24 hours earlier — and he let them know that he was leaving for the SEC. He told them he’d always be there for them. He encouraged them to chase their dreams. And then he pointed to a door at the front of the room and a door at the back of the room. “It’s your choice,” he said. “Anyone who’s mad and who wants to walk out the back door, that’s OK. I’m gonna walk out the front door, and I’ll wait there for anyone who wants to say good-bye.” Out of 120 players, Bielema says, 115 walked through the front door.
So now here he is. It’s a Thursday afternoon in April, and the Razorbacks are spread out inside their indoor practice facility, running individual drills as Bielema roams the field. Watch a Division I football practice and you stand gobsmacked by the perfectly calibrated brutality — all that flesh colliding in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. It’s a staggeringly efficient orchestration. There are men hitting each other, yes, but then there are men holding cards that instruct them how to hit each other, standing next to men holding clipboards to chart how well they hit each other, standing next to men who give them water to fuel their hitting of each other, standing next to men who yell for them to hit each other harder.
It’s a half-pads day, so the contact is muted but still jarring. And in all of this — with so many coaches and assistants assigned so many tasks to help manage so many players, it can be difficult, in many practices, to figure out exactly who the head coach is. After all, the head man is usually just another guy in a polo shirt on a field full of guys wearing polo shirts.
Not so at Arkansas. As Bielema walks the field, all ripe smiles and kinetic girth, he draws your eye. There’s no question that his manila folder is the manila folder, that his shouts of “Let’s go!” are the shouts of “Let’s go!,” that in a room full of large men with enthusiasm and money and power, he’s the biggest, the richest, the most excited, and the most powerful. Many coaches seem like they’re trying to fit an idea of what a football coach should be — some image of authoritative, testosterone-soaked benevolence. Bielema doesn’t seem to be making any effort. That’s just who he is.
Bielema likes to roam and shout encouragement, but during individual work, he never lingers in one place. “If they know I’m watching, they change what they’re doing,” he says. “Sometimes good, sometimes bad.” On Bielema’s manila envelope, he has written the plan for each period of the practice, along with notes on where he wants to focus his attention. He sees a wide receiver running routes with his mouthpiece dangling. “You see that?” he tells me on the sideline. “You just can’t do that. That’s not how you’re going to run a route in a game.” The player is only 15 yards away, but Bielema decides not to say anything. That would slow down practice, and Bielema wants to keep the tempo up. Instead he’ll tell the position coach, Michael Smith, to address it in a meeting.
Individual drills turn into seven-on-seven sets and the periods roll by. As practice reaches its end, quarterback Brandon Allen lofts a fade pass into the corner of the end zone, incomplete. Bielema blows his whistle, and the players stop and kneel in a circle just inside the 10-yard line. Bielema talks through spring-game logistics, then turns his attention back to that final play.
“Here,” he says, “everything is magnified.” He’s talking about the red zone, but he could also be talking about Arkansas, about the SEC, about this point in his career. “Everything you do out there is important, but here is where it counts most.”
On the last day of August, Arkansas will kick off against Louisiana-Lafayette, and Bielema will step to the sideline for the first time in this new conference. Hog calls will echo above and around him. The stadium will rumble with Week 1’s blind optimism. The temperature will be warmer, the athletes faster, and the expectations higher. There will be more tailgaters, sundresses, and reporters. For now, on this practice field, every rep is geared toward preparing for that moment, when Bielema will begin to answer the question of just what the hell he’s doing down here.
“Shit just got ratcheted up,” he says to his players. He’s still talking about the red zone, but the subtext is there. “Shit got ratcheted up 110 degrees.”