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If Arkansas Must Play In Little Rock, Bielema Must Figure Out How To Play Well In Little Rock

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There seems to be some sort of issue here.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

This is not a Great Stadium Debate column. I've written before, as much as it pains me to say as a Little Rock native and fan of games in War Memorial, the time to play games there has passed.

If Arkansas can buy out the contract to play games there right now and play all home games in Fayetteville beginning next season, I would be fine with that. I would be saddened that War Memorial wouldn't receive a proper send-off, but it would be understandable.

That being said, anybody can hate games in War Memorial all they want to and say the most derogatory things about Little Rock to their heart's content, but the contract for games in the state's capitol city is through 2018. If Arkansas cannot get out of it (and I honestly don't know whether or not it's possible) that means the Hogs will still play at least three more games there, including one SEC game one of those three years.

That means the Razorbacks have to play better there. Plenty of people over the weekend have cited Arkansas' embarrassing 1-5 record in War Memorial since 2012. They don't usually include the fact that the Hogs were 29-2 in Little Rock during the Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino tenures.

Anybody is free to theorize what happened to fortunes in Little Rock after the motorcycle accident, so here's mine. Houston Nutt is a Little Rock native and always seemed to truly enjoy and embrace playing in Central Arkansas, and the team typically played very well there, losing only to two very good LSU teams. Petrino never seemed to care for it, but his style of coaching was so intense his players probably would have played hard for him on a local junior high field out of fear if nothing else. John L. Smith was John L. Smith.

But Bielema, that's a different story. While he's never publicly said something as blunt as "I don't ever want to play in War Memorial Stadium," he has been vocal about his complaints regarding playing there. He's talked openly about the logistics of riding the bus to Little Rock and the inability to host official visitors off campus (both travel and recruiting restrictions apply to playing neutral site games in Texas, but I digress). He's talked about having to approach the game like a road game, something echoed by some players as well.

That all leads me to believe he doesn't like it, or at least, he certainly doesn't embrace it. I also don't think it's a coincidence many of Arkansas' worst performances of the Bielema era came in Little Rock. In addition to the Toledo disaster, the 2014 game against Georgia was easily the team's worst performance of the season. In Arkansas' lone Little Rock victory since 2011, the Razorbacks trailed FCS Samford heading into the fourth quarter before scoring late to win, and then lost in overtime to Mississippi State later in the season to solidify the division's worst record.

It seems to be a trend, which suggests an issue related to preparing for games in Little Rock. I don't know what Bielema says about playing in War Memorial to the team behind closed doors, but it doesn't seem ridiculous to think a lack of excitement from the coaches might translate to lethargic performances on the field.

And, frankly, it's fine if Bielema hates playing in Little Rock. It really is. He's just got to figure out a way to get every coach and player in the program excited about it. He can hate it to his core, but any negativity should stay quiet because he's got a game to win.

Besides, wasn't one of the big hurdles for the team this year supposed to be winning road games? Teams still have to play well in places they don't want to be. When the team travels away from Fayetteville, it's not always going to be Cowboys Stadium and every bowl won't be the Texas Bowl in a shiny new NFL palace. In college football, sometimes you have to win in War Memorial Stadium or on the road at places like Vanderbilt. Arkansas very easily could have ended up in the Liberty Bowl last year or the Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field instead of getting that great gift to go to Houston.

It's without a doubt easier to get people excited to play in the big shiny famous new places. But part of taking the next step as a program is winning when the team isn't in a friendly environment or even an exciting environment. Sometimes teams just have to show up somewhere they don't even want to be and dominate lesser opponents because it's what they do. Even if literally every Razorback fan stays on the golf course and attendance resembles a midweek afternoon baseball game in bad weather against Mississippi Valley State, the team still has to win that game.

Getting everybody ready to play in less than ideal situations is part of what that $4 million salary is for. Unless the contract can be bought out, anybody who doesn't want to play at War Memorial must find a way to get over it because there will be three more games there, and Arkansas will obviously have to play better in those games if the program is to achieve its goals.