The move we all saw coming has now been made. If it wasn’t already obvious, the firing of Jeff Long as athletics director made it all but official.
You’ll see lots of coaching lists from now until the hire is made. For this one, I’m wanting to take a bit of a different approach. I’m focusing on one thing: fit. Arkansas is not an easy place to win. Without perfect fit, long-term success is not possible.
Basically, I don’t think we can make an informed decision about who Arkansas’ next coach will be until we determine why Bret Bielema failed. He was 68-24 with three Big Ten titles at Wisconsin, so he’s not an objectively bad coach. His failure can be attributed to reasons beyond his general aptitude. Understanding those reasons is critical for Arkansas moving forward.
Son of a pig farmer
When the hire was announced, I was impressed at the general prestige of the hire, but I didn’t consider it a particularly visionary hire. From day one, I was worried that the fit wasn’t right. The best anecdote for why the fit wasn’t right actually came in Bielema’s introductory press conference.
Bielema mentioned that he grew up on a pig farm. Sports media took that factoid and ran with it. And it’s hard to blame them! He’s the perfect Arkansas coach right? The coach of the Hogs grew up on a hog farm! The cultural fit appeared to be perfect.
Except it wasn’t. Arkansas isn’t called the “Razorbacks” because of our pig farms: according to the USDA, Arkansas is 25th nationally in pork production, well behind Midwestern states like Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Wisconsin. Arkansas is the Razorbacks because Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto accidentally let several boars loose in this part of the country during a 16th-century trip, and they became an invasive and ornery species.
Pork production stats are only the beginning, and I think the pig farm story helped conceal the fact that Bret Bielema is not a good cultural fit for Arkansas, and it was mistaken thinking on the part of Bielema and possibly Jeff Long to think he was. Allow me to explain.
Iowa, Kansas State, Wisconsin… and Arkansas?
I can see Jeff Long’s thinking: he looked at Hayden Fry (and now Kirk Ferentz) at Iowa, Bill Snyder at Kansas State, and Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin and decided that is the kind of program he wants. Consistent winning at places where it’s hard to win consistently. Good grades, no legal trouble, and definitely no mistresses on Harleys. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re all actually part of the same coaching tree (it dates back to Fry himself). So why not get a member of that tree to build that kind of program in Fayetteville?
I suspect Bielema thought Arkansas would be like Iowa or Wisconsin: he would recruit corn-fed offensive linemen, fullbacks, and middle linebackers here at home, and raid south Florida for his speedy skill players. Simple, right?
Not so much. Arkansas isn’t like Iowa or Wisconsin. Don’t let those anti-NWA Little Rockians fool you: even when you drive on I-49 through Rogers, you are *not* in the Midwest. Arkansas doesn’t have the linemen, fullbacks, or linebackers that Bielema’s offensive system requires. Arkansas high school football produces speedy receivers, running backs, and tight ends with regularity. It also is capable of producing pro-style quarterbacks, long defensive ends, and some defensive backs. It produces very, very few offensive linemen and linebackers.
Houston Nutt also makes a good point:
Nutt on the lack of SEC talent in the state of Arkansas: There are a lot of 6-foot-6 guys who aren’t going to be in the NBA, and you need to get them out on the football field.— Bo Mattingly (@SportsTalkwBo) November 14, 2017
SB Nation’s Bud Elliott summed things up well, noting on a podcast the day Long was fired: “Wasn’t Bielema’s thing supposed to be pounding the rock and wearing teams down the fourth quarter? It seems like that was their biggest weakness.” Pretty much. In the end, a hyper-efficient passing game in 2015 was the height of the Bielema era.
Geography always wins
So Bielema’s system relies on players he can’t reliably recruit. That’s a recipe for failure. So why was there progress for a while? As I mentioned above, I wasn’t impressed with the creativity of the hire, but I was impressed by the prestige. And that’s worth something. All coaches get an “initial momentum” after being hired. The higher the prestige of the coach, the bigger the front-end recruiting boost. Since Bielema couldn’t reliably recruit the players he needed, he really needed that front-end boost to make connections in places he could get players for his scheme. And like Bobby Petrino, Bret Bielema was able to turn that boost into an impressive first-year recruiting class that was ultimately responsible for nearly all his success in Fayetteville.
Consider first the players he inherited: Brandon Allen, Jonathan Williams, Mitch Smothers, Keon Hatcher, Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, Jared Collins. Now add in the key contributors from his first class: Austin Allen, Alex Collins, Hunter Henry, Drew Morgan, Denver Kirkland, Dan Skipper, Martrell Spaight, Brooks Ellis. That’s a who’s-who of top Hog players over Bielema’s time.
But he’s been here five years. By now, guys from his second and third classes should have made a name for themselves. So who’s the best player brought in after the first year? Frank Ragnow, Sosa Agim, Dre Greenlaw, and Ryan Pulley are the top names that come to mind. Four good players, but collectively they are hardly at the level of the guys listed above.
It should be obvious that Bielema failed to capitalize on his initial recruiting success. Going 3-9 in year one with multiple off-field gaffes (like #karma) didn’t help. Another reason for the failure was the departure of his Florida recruiters. Charlie Partridge and Randy Shannon landed Collins, Kirkland, and others. Both were gone by 2015.
In the end, after his inherited players and first-year recruits were gone, Bielema had to fall back on the players he could reliably recruit. The Arkansans. Some kids from northern Louisiana, eastern Oklahoma, and the Dallas area. Not many offensive linemen there. Ty Clary and Johnny Gibson were walk-ons. Colton Jackson hasn’t looked like an FBS-quality player at any point in his career. Those are the Arkansas kids. The two “good” linemen are from Minnesota and Denmark. Bielema then compounded his offensive line problem with a bad hire of Kurt Anderson.
It’s a similar story on defense. The state doesn’t produce many defensive linemen or linebackers, although the Hogs got lucky that both Ellis and Spaight came around at the same time. After the players that were on campus by the Spring of 2014 were gone, Arkansas literally didn’t have enough defensive linemen left to run a 4-3 defense. So Paul Rhoads switched to the 3-4, and Arkansas’ defense didn’t improve in a season when it desperately needed to. I wrote in January that a switch to a 3-4 was very risky and very hard to implement. Of course! Arkansas can’t get three SEC-quality linebackers, so now we’re going for four?
I write all of that say this: demographics matter! Geography always wins. The only scheme that will win at Arkansas is the one that relies heaviest on players that can be obtained through Arkansas’ traditional recruiting pipelines. It’s tempting to suggest “let’s just go hire an ace recruiter, then we can get whoever we want!” Don’t fall victim to this temptation. That simply isn’t how it works.