When I found out Bret Bielema was in the gigantic box hidden under the Razorback red Christmas tree, like most of us, I was stunned. Admittedly, I didn't know much about him. I knew Wisconsin was a stable program that had been very successful in recent years, but he never came up in conversations about elite coaches around the country.
But after doing a quick bit of research on the man, I don't care. I'm intrigued. Hell, I'm excited. Not because I think Arkansas is destined for an SEC or national title, but because I can now simply look to the future and have some sort of idea what to expect. Regardless of any criticisms anybody has of Bielema, and there are some, the football team has direction for the first time in eight months. And it feels fantastic.
Since we all found out about Jessica Dorrell on April 5th, Razorback fans have been in, at best, a state of limbo. We spent the summer hoping the L experiment would be enough to keep a promising season alive, but that dream was swiftly eradicated eight days into the season. No need to rehash all of that now. It's all well-documented on this and many other sites. But with this hire, we can definitively say, it's over. It's all over.
It's a fresh start not just for Arkansas, but also Bielema. He never seemed to be fully embraced by Wisconsin fans. They say it's never good to follow a legend, and Bielema was squarely in Barry Alvarez's shadow in Madison, a shadow that was enlarged due to staying in the publc eye via the athletic director position. Bielema did make some mistakes that didn't help his case. There was the 2-point conversion attempt when the Badgers were up by 25 over Minnesota, the personal foul that likely cost Wisconsin a key victory over Michigan State, the statements about Urban Meyer's "SEC" recruiting tactics that Bielema hoped never infected the Big 10. His recruiting classes have never been highly rated.
But he wins and wins big. The hope now is that he's older, he's married, he's learned from his mistakes. Or even if he hasn't, he'll at least continue winning big. Either way, he's his own man now. He's not in anyone's shadow. Arkansas is his canvas on which he can either paint the football version of Mona Lisa, or shake up can of cheap beer and spray it everywhere.
And unlike the fans in Wisconsin, Arkansas fans can embrace him. He's not taking over for a legendary coach who is finishing another quality season like he was when he took the reins in Madison. At Arkansas, he's taking a program spiraling out of control and followed by a fan base clinging to recent memories of the brief taste of the college football elite from 2010 and 2011. As a result, fans want to support him. Actually, they're pretty desperate to support him. He's got nine months to build up that support by doing interviews and going to Razorback clubs where he'll tell stories of growing up on a hog farm and enjoying SEC weather and being the fun guy he seems to be. He'll also continue to be awesome on twitter by doing stuff like this:
When people ask him about having a rush-centric offense, he'll talk about hanging 70 on Nebraska in his last game and all the touchdowns Russell Wilson threw. He'll explain the similar recruiting situations between Arkansas and Wisconsin, such as how both are the only major schools in a state that doesn't produce a lot of local talent, but if that talent and enough quality players can be recruited to Fayetteville, he can develop them into an excellent football team. Very similarly to the big thing we liked in our Chris Petersen fantasies.
All of that should allow plenty of opportunities for Bielema to generate substantial goodwill throughout the Arkansas fan base before the season starts. The dude who put up the Petrino billboard near Morrilton may get a chance to put up a new billboard. It will be good, because next season includes a brutal schedule, and should be considered a success if bowl eligibility is attained.
However, no matter what happens in 2013, we can expect Bielema to stick around for 2014. And likely 2015. And hopefully beyond. We can once again not worry about "what are coaches telling recruits?" Bielema will be able to tell recruits about how they expect to be in Arkansas for a long time. About how he won three Big Ten titles, developed several draft picks, and expects similarly great things for the Razorbacks. And about how he has the support of Razorback fans across the state and everywhere else.