DESTIN, Fla. — Considering the way the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 2016 football season ended — with consecutive, ugly second-half collapses resulting in a 7-6 record — a big question entering 2017 involves coach Bret Bielema’s job security.
Bielema is 25-26 overall and 10-22 in SEC games through four seasons at Arkansas. Those records had improved each season until 2016 and many fans have openly — and in some cases aggressively — questioned whether the Razorbacks will ever sniff the top of the SEC West standings under Bielema.
After all, in 2010 and 2011 — Arkansas’ final seasons under Bobby Petrino — the Razorbacks won a total of 21 games and appeared primed to make a serious run at breaking through and winning an SEC title.
So, is Bielema on — or approaching — the hot seat?
Absolutely not, according to his boss. And this wasn’t one of those soft denials that some athletic directors respond with to these questions; Long was emphatic.
“Bret is the leader of our program,” Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long told SEC Country during an interview this week at SEC spring meetings.
“The leader is more than just winning games — and I know some fans don’t wanna hear that. Trust me, it doesn’t mean we aren’t competing with every fiber of our being to win in the toughest conference and the toughest division of that conference. But when you look at what Bret’s doing, we’re building a program that’s built on an outstanding foundation.”
For his part, Bielema said he does not feel like he’s under pressure entering 2017.
“I understand why people would think that,” Bielema said, “but I think our program is in a place where we’re extremely healthy.”
Bielema added that he considers three elements key to the building of a program — academics, staying out of trouble off-the-field and then, obviously, on-field success.
“In academics, we’re high as we’ve ever been,” Bielema said. “Socially, we don’t have a lot of problems. I’m not saying we’re all sitting around the camp fire singing ‘Kumbaya’ every night together, but our guys aren’t behaving poorly away from the game.
“So the element we have to raise is just our athletic performance.”
In order to address those issues, Bielema shook up his defensive staff, replacing defensive coordinator Robb Smith will Paul Rhoads and adding new defensive line coach John Scott Jr. and outside linebackers coach Chad Walker.
The Razorbacks spent the spring installing a new 3-4 defensive scheme.
“There’s gonna be nothing more special than when a Bret Bielema team wins an SEC championship, plays in that final four,” Long said, “because you kown what? He’s done it the right way.”