Bret Bielema explains his rationale behind proposed NCAA rule change
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema took heat on Thursday night for bringing up the death of Cal defensive lineman Ted Agu while discussing a proposed rule change designed to slow down hurry-up offenses during a gathering of Arkansas boosters. Bielema contends that he wasn't trying to use Agu's death to advance a rule that could benefit his team schematically. In an interview with SI.com on Friday morning, Bielema explained why he believes the rule is a player-safety issue.
During the booster meeting, Bielema said Agu had sickle cell trait, a genetic condition that renders carriers more susceptible to extreme muscle breakdown during strenuous activity. Cal officials have not commented on whether Agu had sickle cell trait. No cause of death has been released in the case of Agu, who collapsed and died on Feb. 7 during an offseason workout. The death of Ereck Plancher, who died in 2008 following an offseason workout at Central Florida, was blamed on complications from sickle cell trait. Devaughn Darling, who died in 2001 following an offseason workout at Florida State, also had sickle cell trait.
Bielema felt that some of his comments on Thursday were taken out of context. To eliminate that possibility, his answers to SI.com's questions about the proposed NCAA rule change have been transcribed in their entirety.
Update: Friday, Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour took to Twitter to blast Bielema.
"Bret Bielema's comments about our Ted Agu are misinformed, ill-advised and beyond insensitive," Barbour wrote. "Using the tragic loss of one of our student athletes as a platform to further a personal agenda in a public setting is beyond inappropriate."
SI.com: Why did you bring up the Cal player's death?
Bret Bielema: The reason I brought up the Cal player is this: We all have sickle cell players. To me, it's the most scary individual thing we face. There are no signs. There are no indicators. You test every one of your players when they come in. And there are players who come in that have no idea they have it. Then you've got to call the parents, sit the kid down and talk to them what it means -- what the possibilities of things happening are. It's a scary deal. But you contact the mom and dad and you tell them, listen, the one thing we'll do is we'll have our trainers locked into it. His coaches know. His position coach knows, and I know as the head coach. We're always going to be looking out for his well-being. You promise them that. I always make the guarantee when I'm in the parents' home. I say I can't guarantee playing time or a degree, but I'm going to guarantee that I'll help you get both. And the second thing I can guarantee is that I'll always look out for the safety and the well-being of your son. When you're halfway across the country, that means something. It means you're going to look out for their safety.
When this whole safety issue came up, everybody's thinking you're talking about knee injuries or hamstrings. I'm talking about the concussion crisis, sickle cell trait. This one [sickle cell trait] really scares you because you don't know when it's coming. The kids have difficulty breathing. They don't want to come out of practice or the game. All the ones I've ever been around, they want to stay in because they don't want their teammates to think they're quitting or stopping. What we began to rationalize is that when these players pass when they're involved in these conditioning drills, they pull themselves out of it or the trainer pulls them out of it because they're having difficulties. What if you're in the middle of the third or fourth quarter and you know that the kid standing 15 yards away from you or on the other side of the field has this trait. He's got this built-in possibility of something happening. Your doctors have told you about it. Your trainers have told you about it. He looks at you through those eyes or maybe the trainer even says, "Hey coach, you need to get him out of there." And you can't. You have no timeouts. He's not going to fake an injury. He's not going to fall down.
SI.com: But he's not faking an injury if he's in distress.
Bielema: But he won't come out. Those kids keep going. That's why they have these situations. They keep pushing themselves because they think they can push themselves through it. Every one of them, those kids don't pull themselves out. It's something I've paid close attention to because every year since I've been a head coach, I've had between two and seven -- sometimes as high as eight kids -- that have this trait, and it scares me to death. Because there are no signs.
SI.com: So why have the rule for only 56 minutes of the game? Why not for all 60?
Bielema: I would love for all of it, but there is no way that would go through. But I would love for [the rule] to be all of that. First of all, I thought we were talking about first down only. All of a sudden, it became every down. I'm not going to stop it. I was a non-voting member. And the only reason there is an uproar is because it will affect the way that we can substitute on defense. When I heard the statistic that in all the games they charted, there weren't games where they were snapping the ball within 10 seconds other than a couple of times during a two or three game stretch, that's when I'm like, "OK, you aren't going to affect their game."
SI.com: So why have a rule at all if it doesn't affect anything?
Bielema: It affects the scenario I just gave you.
SI.com: But if offenses are not going to snap it in 10 seconds, you should feel free to substitute, right?
Bielema: But you can't. As soon as you have guys running off the field, that's when [offenses] snap it. The guys that it makes no sense to are the guys who don't understand it. There were three coaches in that meeting room who were all fast-paced tempo, and they 100 percent agreed. And when the administrators heard what I just threw in front of them, they sat there with their jaws dropped. I looked right at the trainers in the room. I go, "Could that happen?" They're like, "Absolutely." OK, so that kid raises his hand and wants to come off and you have no physical way to get out of the game?
SI.com: He could come out of the game.
Bielema: He can't. He knows he'll cost his team a penalty. He'll give them a first down. That's why the kid is in a dilemma. You cannot come off the field until they substitute, and the reason they don't substitute is they know that.
SI.com: So your feeling is if he starts to come off the field at all, they're just going to snap the ball?
Bielema: I don't know. That's what they do. The reason they go quick to the line of scrimmage is they don't want to allow substitutions. You can ask any of those guys. They'll tell you that. This is an indirect consequence of the 40-second clock. When it was the 25-second clock, you had 10 to 12 seconds to get your guys on the field. When the 25-second clock was changed to 40, they had no idea that this was going to be a byproduct.
SI.com: So, with the 25-second clock, the umpire would be over the ball, the referee would give the ready-for-play signal, and then you got the 25-second clock started?
Bielema: Correct. When they did that study, it took them an average of anywhere from 12 to 15 seconds to get the ball in play. So that's why they came up with the 40-second clock. That's the evolution of it. Well, before the 40-second clock, during that 12 to 15 seconds, anybody could sub. That's why there's no issue when the ball goes out of bounds, or there's a timeout or a penalty. It automatically goes to the 25-second clock, and everyone can sub. If you sit down and rationally think about it, it's a no-brainer. It's not even a question. The reason I have said 100 percent from day one to where we are today is we are putting our kids in jeopardy of a catastrophic situation. Any coach that has a high-tempo offense, if you ask him if he has a player with sickle cell, they'll tell you yes. And if you say, "Could this situation arise?" they will 100 percent tell you, "I see where you're coming from."
SI.com: There are other conditions that essentially prohibit kids from playing football. This one they can play with. But would it make sense to have those kids on offense instead of defense so they're not at the mercy of the clock?
Bielema: Well, why not just change the rule so that it affects everybody on both sides of the ball. You just solidified the argument 100 times over. You should be on the committee.