OXFORD, Miss. — Cocky. Confident. Hubristic. No one had seen those traits in Bret Bielema for almost a year.
That guy, though, was back Saturday. And his football team was, too.
For one day, anyway.
The Arkansas coach’s disposition was self-assured following his team’s game against Ole Miss. He was not about to censor himself. Not completely. The man known for speaking his mind for most of his tenure with the Razorbacks had become more and more reserved in recent weeks. Arkansas had been in the midst of its worst season since Bielema’s first in 2013. Calls for his job were not uncommon. The danger was real. Bielema had, in turn, began to button down his remarks. The brashness was rarer.
Appropriately, when he entered the press room after the Razorbacks’ 38-37 win over the Rebels, though, he was glowing. Bielema had the disposition of a man vindicated.
“It’s huge to get an SEC win. It’s good to get back on track. It’s good to get clo–.”
Bielema had begun with with coach-speak.
“I’m not going to say that we’re close because you guys get your panties in a bunch about it, but gah dang, we’re right there.”
The win was Arkansas’ first in league play this season. Bielema’s team was last in the SEC West entering Saturday. It took a Connor Limpert field goal with 4 seconds left to propel the Razorbacks (3-5, 1-4) over a team with just one SEC win.
It was enough for the says-what-he-wants Bielema to return. He was right, as well. Fans and some of the more partial media types were becoming annoyed with the coach’s regular phrasing every week. None of them wanted to hear about how “close” Arkansas was with the Razorbacks sitting at 2-5, winless in league play and losers of three straight.
But Bielema wasn’t necessarily wrong. And to himself, he definitely wasn’t wrong. So, he brought back the old persona.
For example, this nugget: Arkansas entered Saturday 0-18 in the Bielema era when trailing an opponent at halftime. They’re 1-18 now after Arkansas rallied for its biggest comeback in 20 years after trailing 31-7 late in the second quarter. Bielema was asked if this halftime was different than the ones before in such games.
“Oh, hell yeah. Yeah, it was different,” he said. “We brought music in the locker room, which is — I hope I don’t have to talk to my mentors about that we play music like that — if it gets them going, I’ll bring a damn DJ … we’ll do what we have to do.”
A proud, confident Bielema stood in front of the media for about 15 minutes, answering questions with a smile and some attitude.
But 1-18 is still a funk. Arkansas needs a lot more than a close-shave, 1-point, final-seconds win over a crummy team with a self-imposed bowl ban to save its season. It probably needs more than that to save Bielema’s job, too.
That funk, more than anything else in the last four seasons, has been the biggest problem with Bielema teams. When holes were dug, they didn’t have the wherewithal to climb out of them. Saturday marked the first time in almost a calendar year the Razorbacks outscored an FBS opponent in the second half. Last year’s win over Florida was it, 10 whole games ago.
That game was also the last time anyone saw Arkansas display some swagger. The 2016 Razorbacks lost three of their next four games following the dominant performance against Florida. LSU dominated Arkansas. If Mississippi State had a competent defense, the Bulldogs would have beaten Arkansas. A bad Missouri team did. And who can forget the collapse against Virginia Tech?
All that carried over to 2017. These Razorbacks were mostly the same as those in demeanor. They needed a jolt, any way they could get it. If Bielema’s words and temperament Saturday carry over to his team, they may now carry that confidence. Finally.
Whether it’s too late will be determined after Thanksgiving when Arkansas finishes its regular season. Wonderment whether Bielema might not make the trip back to Fayetteville after the Ole Miss game ceased when Limpert’s kick went through the south end zone uprights.
Now comes the hard part. Keeping it up. Can they?
“Oh, hell, yeah.”