Bret Bielema: Things You Might Not Know

Wesley Hitt

On Saturday afternoon, the largest man ever to coach the Arkansas Razorbacks will cast his imposing shadow on the Fayetteville turf, throwing his first practiced glare at the intruders from Louisiana.

This coach, this high achiever, this legendary babe-recruiter (anybody not love Jen?) and partyasaurus, this Midwestern stray in SEC country is soon to plant his first mighty step in his own direction.

Echoes of the Frank Broyles legacy may sound through the valley. Arkansas football may recall the days when the coaching staff was loaded with more talent than the roster was, and opponents dreaded playing those little Hogs who fought so hard.

Bret Bielema won't owe his new legacy to anyone. He is reassembling a new Arkansas composed of parts salvaged from a one-season disaster, guided by the most intriguing set of coaches the Ozarks have seen since Broyles lifted Razorback football to the top of the college game.

Before this first season begins, we find that Hog fans need to know a lot more about where this coach came from, and where he might take us.

1. Bielema Was Not Really A Barry Alvarez Man

Bret Bielema was head football coach of the Wisconsin Badgers for seven seasons. Bielema was an assistant on the staff of Alvarez, the man who still is Wisconsin football, for only two seasons, as defensive coordinator in 2004-05. Bielema played and coached at Big Ten rival Iowa for 13 years. To Wisconsin, Bielema was the enemy longer than he was on the home team.

Rather, Bielema was a Hayden Fry man all the way (while the major influences on Alvarez were Bob Devaney at his alma mater Nebraska, Fry and Lou Holtz). The coaches who gave Bielema his big opportunities were Fry, coaching legend at Iowa; Bill Snyder, longtime Fry assistant; and Alvarez.

Fry, Snyder and Alvarez became living legends by being good enough to turn wretchedly bad football programs into winners. While that’s an awesome coaching pedigree, Bielema came to Arkansas hoping to build something of his own. On Saturday afternoon in Fayetteville, we get our first real look at what the Bret Bielema program is going to be.

2. Bielema Earned Every Promotion He Ever Got

Bielema grew up in a tiny west Illinois town. He might have been good enough to earn a wrestling scholarship out of high school. Instead, he walked on, uninvited, to play football for Hayden Fry at Iowa, after recovering from a broken leg late in his prep senior year. Bielema's story wasn't quite Brandon Burlsworth-epic, but he did earn a scholarship during his freshman season, lettered four seasons, was a sometime-starter at nose guard, and was elected a team captain. This rise from undersized nobody to team leader caught the attention of many in the coaching fraternity.

A few years later, Fry promoted Bielema from GA to linebackers coach, a highly unusual move from a head coach who had his pick of assistants. Bielema made his name in recruiting, successfully extending Iowa's talent sourcing into new regions such as south Florida. Fry’s last good Iowa team had nine all-conference players that Bielema had recruited.

Bielema's next major promotion required a move from Iowa to Kansas State - but not out of the Hayden Fry tree. Bill Snyder made Bielema (at age 32) not just LB coach but also co-defensive coordinator. Snyder had been offensive coordinator for Fry at two stops. In 2002-03, Bielema's K-State defenses gave up 14 points per game, as the Wildcats went 22-6.

Bielema became Wisconsin defensive coordinator beginning in 2004. First season, the Badgers dropped their points-allowed from 24 per game to 15. In the following winter, Arizona, Auburn and Texas tried to hire Bielema. To keep him, Alvarez named Bielema his successor in waiting in 2005.

3. As a Program Builder, Bielema Is In Uncharted Waters

Arkansas gave Bret Bielema his first opportunity to assemble all the leadership of a football team. When Bielema took over the Wisconsin program, he slid over from the position of defensive coordinator.  Ready-made team.

The new Arkansas head man had experienced a head coaching transition one time before he succeeded Alvarez. Bielema was on staff when Kirk Ferentz replaced Hayden Fry at Iowa after the 1998 season. Ferentz, a former Oline coach under Fry, had spent six seasons in the NFL before returning to college football. Bielema coached linebackers for Fry, then stayed in the same position under Ferentz for three seasons. But Ferentz was a legacy, having been longtime Oline coach under Fry (when Alvarez, coincidentally, was LB coach). Ferentz had little to change on staff when he succeeded Fry as head coach. Not much help there either.

Just like at Iowa for Ferentz, Alvarez's coaching staff was handed over largely intact to Bielema. Not that it stayed that way. DC Dave Doeren left for a head coaching job in 2011. Bielema had to replace six assistants after the 2011 season when offensive coordinator Paul Chryst became head coach of Pitt. Five others either went with Chryst, or got big raises at other schools.

4. Bielema Detached A Lot of Wisconsin Strings

Drawn from his coaching background, Bielema is a full believer in building the offense around huge, powerful linemen. An essential element: Those linemen are expected to master downhill run blocking and pass protection, like the pros do. But Bielema had little to do with the offenses of Wisconsin.

Chryst (a former Wisconsin QB) was offensive coordinator at Wisconsin from 2005-11, tight ends coach in 2002. Before that, he was best known as a Mike Riley disciple. Riley blended American and Canadian pro football schemes and forged high-powered offenses at USC (under John Robinson) and Oregon State. Chryst learned how to implement pro-style balance within the talent and time constraints of college football. Chryst’s innovations spiced up a moribund Wisconsin offense in Alvarez’s latter years, then put the Badgers among college football’s highest-scoring offenses several times under Bielema.

Now, if we are supposed to measure Bret Bielema by how well he replaced Chryst and five other assistants … one of his new hires was Mike Markuson, offensive line coach for Houston Nutt at four stops. Markuson was a poor fit. The Badgers, trying to master (or, perhaps not) Markuson’s more subtle blocking techniques, rushed for a mere 178 yards in their 2012 opener against Northern Iowa. The next week at Oregon State, Wisconsin with Heisman candidate Montee Ball gained 35 total yards on the ground. Bielema calmly assessed the situation, then fired Markuson before September was half over.

UW in the rest of the ’12 season had lows (19 rushing yards against Michigan State) and highs (564 yards at Indiana, 539 and 70 points on Nebraska in the Big Ten title game). The offense never was quite right. Needless to say, coordinator Matt Canada did not join Bielema in Fayetteville. Canada went to work with Doeren at North Carolina State.

5. Most Wisconsin Influence Is on Defense

Bielema didn’t load up his staff with Wisconsin alumni. His carryovers:

  • Chris Ash, defensive coordinator. Three years under Bielema at Wisconsin … eight at Iowa State.
  • Charlie Partridge, defensive line. Five years with Bielema at Wisconsin, five at Pitt, three at Iowa State.
  • Ben Herbert, strength coach. Wisconsin letterman and 11-year strength coach (four as head).

The defensive staff has some variety. Randy Shannon was so good as the defensive coordinator at Miami, he got to be head coach for four seasons. Arkansas is fortunate to call Shannon linebacker coach. Lone holdover from the Bobby Petrino regime is Taver Johnson (secondary), who proved himself at Ohio State and in the NFL.

To coach his offense, Bielema chose some strong personalities with no connection to the Alvarez tree. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney coached diverse schemes at Purdue, Tennessee and in the NFL. Sam Pittman mentored the offensive line with Chaney at Tennessee, having proved himself in the Big 12 and ACC. Running backs coach Joel Thomas had worked with Chaney at Purdue. Michael Smith (receivers) played and coached for Snyder at Kansas State.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the Arkansas defense came to look much like the defenses Bielema assembled at Iowa, Kansas State and Wisconsin. The head coach knows defense and has familiar assistants to put his system in place.

The real mystery is what Arkansas will look like on offense, as directed by Bielema, orchestrated by Chaney and Pittman, assembled from talent recruited largely by Petrino. The best runner they had at Tennessee was Montario Hardesty, who gained 1,300 yards in 2009. Tauren Poole went for 1,000 yards in 2010. The Vols’ offense gravitated toward tall passers and superstar receivers.

Practices have been mostly closed, but it is clear that Arkansas practices the power rushing game often enough to make it clear what comes first. Bielema’s Hogs will run. Chaney is good enough to ensure that Arkansas passes with accuracy and diversity, but run they will.

6. Arkansas Might Be Especially Good on Special Teams

Bielema’s mentors made sure he knew special teams inside out, and he took pride in coaching them at Iowa and Kansas State. He has other assistants well experienced with special teams, too. Arkansas’s past three head coaches (and the ersatz one last season) practically vacuum-packed their kickers in fear of accidentally coaching them. And coverage teams were uneven at best. Already, senior Zach Hocker has excelled, kicking and punting with new power and precision.

Controlling games on the ground, winning the special teams exchanges, stopping the run on defense … the Bret Bielema program begins to make sense. Injuries already have taken a big bite. Depth of talent shows thin spots where it’s obvious a different coach put these players together. Brand new starters across the board at skill positions give pause, a season after the more-experienced Razorbacks committed several seasons’ worth of turnovers and penalties.

Surprisingly early success would help the recruiting cause for Bielema’s new direction, but this season really isn’t about instant gratification. Bret Bielema is building his own identity at Arkansas. The first success could be when we, the outrageously rabid Razorback fans, can identify that direction and call it our own.


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