FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Bret Bielema and Jeff Long saved Arkansas football from the morass. No matter what happens from here, it’s an important note in their legacies.
The second sentence there is important, because things are not glimmering with hope right now. Fans are not the only ones displeased with the state of affairs at Arkansas. Fresh off an embarrassing 28-7 loss to TCU, fevers are running hot. Boosters are antsy. Even Long, the athletic director, at this point, senses the rising fire. Some may not believe that. Some may think Long is that oblivious Yankee who is only out for financial gain and doesn’t care about the reputation of the University of Arkansas.
Hate to break it to you — those two things are inextricably tied.
Fervent Hogs followers online can count on at least one reference a day suggesting Long never should have gotten rid of former coach Bobby Petrino. Not only was current coach Bielema a poor hire, he was an unnecessary one, they suggest. Petrino’s moral turpitude should have been overlooked. The coach is, after all, leading Louisville to a high national ranking without embarrassment.
It is easy to project, for those willing, the Cardinals’ successes to Arkansas. The whole, “Well if he’s doing it there …” thing. Sorry to say, though, things don’t work that way.
Bielema was, no matter what you think of his coaching skill right now, a grand hire. Because whether you want to believe it or not, Arkansas was a national embarrassment. It is not anymore, nor has it been since Bielema was hired.
Hand to the heavens, I believe Bret Bielema saved this athletic department from the ashes.
The state of Arkansas is a bit of a bubble. We are, geographically speaking, isolated from the bulk of the rest of the cities in the Southeastern Conference. And I use “we” not as the team or the school, but as an Arkansan. Specifically, as a northwest Arkansan.
When the Houston Nutt-Mitch Mustain-Gus Malzahn thing happened, it did make national news. For those who lived it through it locally, the saga was one of the most wild, absurd and very-Arkansas things that could have happened. But it wasn’t a national embarrassment. The rest of the college football world did not look at Arkansas, the school and athletic department, in shame. They chuckled and called them yokels, perhaps, laughing at the fringe of Hogville. They did not, however, speak with the disdain they would a few years later.
A wrecked motorcycle, a neck brace-wearing Petrino press conference, the lying, the hiring of Jessica Dorrell, the cover-up — all of that was, on the other hand, an epic imbroglio. It wasn’t the sort of “ha ha, look at Arkansas” thing the Triangle saga incurred. Petrino was more serious than that.
I was working at ESPN at the time as an editor. Just so happened, the evening most found out Petrino was lying, I was off work, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for a concert. My phone blew up. As the resident Razorbacks guy in my department (perhaps, at the time, one of the handful on the whole campus), I was supposed to be the one to run point our handling of the story. For days after, the texts or phone calls I received were along the lines of “They have to fire him.”
And Long did. About a year later, he had to hire someone, too. And after the nuttiness of the one season of John L. Smith, Long knew he had to hire a public relations specialist and a football coach. Not two separate jobs, mind you. One in the same.
The former Wisconsin coach removed as many bad seeds as he could. He made his students go to class and booted them off the team after one too many arrests or failed tests, academic and otherwise. He also began to win. Slowly. But he won. Arkansas has now been to bowls in three straight seasons. No one looks at the department, at Long, at the school with contempt. Bielema’s success has allowed Arkansas to do what it’s doing — increasing the stadium size, build student-athlete centers and practice facilities. It couldn’t have happened without Long and Bielema.
This is not a defense of Bielema’s current status. Arkansas has to win more games. He is, as I wrote Sunday, coaching for his job.
However, when the question is posed why Long fired Petrino and hired Bielema, the answers are plain. Long is also the man who hired Petrino. He’s the man who has put money back into Arkansas facilities and made the place more attractive in the long term.
Bielema and Long are the men who saved Arkansas from the ashes. And even if things are bad now, even if they grow more sour, don’t forget that. This team, this school, is a lot better off now than it was six years ago.