Bret Bielema threw Razorbacks fans some red meat -- cardinal red, specifically -- at Monday's Little Rock Touchdown Club season-opening program.
Coach B has become an opening day tradition for the club, and on Monday the luncheon program was moved downtown to the Marriott from its usual WLR Embassy Suite digs to accommodate the overflow crowd.
Middle-aged men in Hog polos filled downtown sidewalks prior to lunch, heralding the club's season opener and that time of year when teams begin to transition from fall camp to game prep...and visions of Sugar Bowls dance in men's heads.
As usual, Coach didn't disappoint. (Has the man ever not owned a room?) Country music sensation and Bielema pal Justin Moore of Poyen (Grant County) even led a rousing Hog call to welcome Coach on stage.
Once there, Bielema stressed that he loves coming to Little Rock (even if he does count it as a 'road game'), and shared an anecdote about his first trip to central Arkansas. He'd just been hired, done his intro presser in Fayetteville, and was flown into Little Rock to recruit Martrell Spright.
While in town, he reached out to PA blue chipper Hunter Henry, whom he'd tried to recruit for his "previous stop." Henry wouldn't give him the time of day when calls originated from Madison, but as Arkansas head coach, "he took my first call."
Of course, Coach B ended up getting 'em both, and each was instrumental in Arkansas' late season turnaround last fall.
"My first contact with Little Rock was great and it's only getting better ever since."
Bielema noted the A&M, Bama and Mississippi State losses as particularly tough. Against A&M, "we were up two, well, three touchdowns...'til they invented a tripping call. But....he tripped him." And the fumble on the 6-inch line along with the missed PAT against Bama still haunts him.
"We leave 10 points on the field and miss a PAT...that one sits with me now."
The loss in Starkville was especially tough on Trey Flowers, he said. The Hogs had just let another one slip through their fingers, and the stand-out defensive end needed some extra love. We'd led the nation's top-ranked team for most of the game until one big play late turned the tide for the Maroons, and Flowers took it especially hard.
The Hogs headed home for a bye week, and the remainder of the season was defined by how coaches and players handled it. "On Wednesday after the bye week, I saw something change. And then LSU week was magical."
The Hogs faded late at Missouri -- "we still have to learn to win an SEC road game" -- but were prepared and clearly the team that came to win in Houston in December.
Other nuggets from Bielema's half-hour address:
- Coach B on Mike Anderson and the hoop Hogs: "It's been a tough stretch this offseason...but the Lord only tests those who can handle it. Mike'll be OK."
- Bielema said he told Moore -- let's call him Gilligan to Coach B's Skipper -- that when the Hogs win an SEC championship, he's gonna join Justin on stage at a show to sing "This Is My Town."
- It appears the UA's moving forward with plans to enclose the north end zone with luxury and club seating. Bielema told luncheon attendees that the environment on campus created by all the construction is "awesome right now" and that the end zone project is "coming up."
- On the Texas Bowl: "Coach Broyles called me half an hour after the bowl was announced....'Coach, let me tell you about this game,'" he finished in his best Broyles drawl.
- J-Will probably "is moving on," Coach B said, but worst-case scenario, "he comes back for his senior year." Not a bad worst-case scenario. Bielema said if there's one team that could take a hit at the position, it's Arkansas. Coach said AC is looking better than ever.
The difference in Bielema's Little Rock appearances has been striking. From appreciating the rebuilding job ahead in year 1 to hopeful optimism for progress in year 2, he knows he's got a team now. 7-6 is what it is...barely .500, even if earned against arguably the country's toughest schedule. And Coach is the first to admit it. But the turnaround he's orchestrated in Fayetteville is impressive.
Despite another schedule that could pose as an NFC South slate, the Hogs are poised for big things if they can learn to close out the close games and win on the SEC road.
Hog fans can sense it, too.
Of course, visions of Sugar Bowls and now playoff berths dance in our heads this time of year. Hope indeed springs eternal in August. Yet somehow we find ourselves crawling back up the mountain, and those visions don't seem so far off.