FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Bret Bielema stood at the podium in a cramped room underneath the south stands at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. He had just finished talking to his Arkansas football team, which had just lost its third-straight game — this time by 32 points to Auburn.
The chagrin on his face was immediate. The entry was reminiscent of the Quaker era. It was like a witch being led to the townspeople. Bielema knew what was coming and he stood there, fielded his questions like an adult, gave reasonable answers, then exited.
Such a display doesn’t matter to the fan base, who want him gone more and more after every loss. It may not even matter to the people tasked with making that decision, whether Bielema stays or goes after the season. Other issues are at hand.
Other issues besides wins and losses, even. Bielema and athletic director Jeff Long have a complex history. Any coach who followed Bobby Petrino on a full-time basis was going to.
Accordingly, it’s no lock Long and the board remove Bielema from the job at season’s end.
Things haven’t been bad for that long
One of the most common things I hear among those most frothy about removing Bielema as coach is that “it never worked.” Let me just be blunt about it: that’s an outright lie.
The same people who were all about “you can’t count his first season,” are the ones now going on about Bielema’s 27-31 overall record and his 10-26 SEC one. If we aren’t counting that first season — and we shouldn’t — Bielema is 24-22 and 10-18. Are those good marks? Not especially. They’re also far more indicative of the Bielema era.
If those tallies are enough to get rid of him, then fine. Remember how fired up people were after that 7-6 season? Or the 8-5 one the next year? Retroactively becoming angry about them, and changing an approach with how the numbers are crunched because a change is wanted, is disingenuous.
By the way, Bielema hasn’t even been terrible for a full season yet. Yes, this year reeks something awful. Don’t forget, though, before Game 12 of last year, he was in line for the best Arkansas season yet. Of course, the Missouri and Virginia Tech games were disasters — as has this season. That’s still a grand total of nine consecutive games in which Arkansas was miserable.
You can say that 2014 and 2015 were disappointments, but no one – at all – thought that, then. Saying it now is changing history because of your own unhappiness.
Injuries have sabotaged this year
Injuries can’t be an excuse. It might not even be a reason, but it’s worth considering.
Personally, I thought Arkansas was a five-win team this year even before Ryan Pulley went down. The bar was not set terribly high. Lots of others, however, figured Arkansas should have, at least, another seven-win year. Not getting there is a disappointment to many folks, including those on the board and in the athletic department.
If the proclivity, though, by those important people is a preference for Bielema, then it isn’t a stretch to chalk up the poor season to poor luck. Rawleigh Williams III was the SEC’s leading rusher in the regular season last year. He was out before it started. Ryan Pulley was (is?) a future NFL cornerback. He was lost in the first game. Frank Ragnow is the best center, at least, in the nation. Gone. Jared Cornelius is the team’s best wide receiver. He was healthy for all of one complete game before being lost. Austin Allen, the best returning passer in the SEC, hasn’t been healthy in weeks.
You take off a team’s top quarterback, running back, wide receiver, cornerback and offenive lineman and see where that team finishes.
If someone wants to make it a reason, it can be made, without quarrel.
Arkansas can roll in money like a pig in mud
You know that massive addition to the north end of Razorback Stadium? You know how that came about? Bret Bielema.
Bielema did enough winning — and instilled enough confidence in the staff, donors and fan base — during the bulk of his tenure to put Arkansas back among the well-thought-of in college football. When Bobby Petrino wrecked his motorcycle, Arkansas was a national joke. When John L. Smith had his stint as the interim coach, the joke ceased being funny. It was just sad.
The Razorbacks were a disgrace. Had it not been for the scandal at Penn State, there was not a bigger punchline in college football than Arkansas. That was for a good calendar year.
Bielema turned that around. Arkansas has not been the butt of a joke — until these last nine games — since. That’s 4 1/2 years of decency, because no one in their right mind is blaming Bielema for what happened in that first year after Smith.
Bielema and Long saved this program from dire straits. And while it might be argued any competent coach could have, or “yes, but, it’s no longer that way,” that’s acceptable.
I’m just telling you why things are not quite as sewn up as most Arkansas fans think.