Explaining Arkansas' Bret Bielema's fall from coaching grace
On the night of Dec. 1, 2012, Bret Bielema could do no wrong. Out of nowhere, his 7-5 Wisconsin team -- which had reached the Big Ten championship game only because two teams in its division (Ohio State and Penn State) were ineligible -- unleashed a season's worth of frustrations in a 70-31 rout of Nebraska. In doing so, Bielema's Badgers captured their third straight Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth, becoming the conference's first team in more than 30 years to pull off a Pasadena three-peat.
Three days later, Bielema pulled an even bigger stunner. With nary a rumor to suggest that he was leaving, Wisconsin's coach of seven years bolted for Arkansas. While Bielema hardly seemed a natural fit in Fayetteville, pundits lauded Razorbacks athletic director Jeff Long for what appeared to be a coup; he had lured the Big Ten's coaching darling to take over what most would consider a middle-of-the-pack SEC program.
Fourteen humbling months later, Bielema's reputation has taken a considerable hit. While some rebuilding was expected on the heels of Arkansas' 2012 season -- a season it spent in limbo under interim coach John L. Smith, who took over for the disgraced Bobby Petrino -- the Razorbacks went 3-9 last fall and endured their first winless conference campaign since 1942. On consecutive weeks in mid-October, they lost to South Carolina 52-7, and to Alabama 52-0.
Arkansas' decline last year flew largely under the national radar, but now Bielema finds himself in the news for an entirely different reason. Over the past two weeks, he has become the face of an unpopular NCAA rules committee proposal designed to slow the sport's hurry-up offenses. Breaking a week of silence on the matter last Thursday, Bielema set off a self-inflicted PR nightmare by referencing recently deceased Cal player Ted Agu in justifying his push for the slow-down rule, which he says is a player-safety measure. Asked by reporters covering a Razorbacks booster function about the lack of hard data linking up-tempo offenses to injuries, Bielema bluntly replied: "Death certificates. There's no more I need than that."
The jaw-droppingly tone deaf comment sparked a national controversy, and even after Bielema attempted to clarify his remarks in an interview with SI's Andy Staples, Cal AD Sandy Barbour excoriated Bielema in a statement on Friday afternoon. "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." Bielema issued his own remorseful statement shortly thereafter, though, as some have noted, it did not include an actual apology.
With Lane Kiffin now muzzled as a member of Nick Saban's staff at Alabama, Bielema is well on his way to replacing him as college football's most reviled figure.
Big Ten fans were already well aware of the coach's penchant for foot-in-mouth moments, but insinuating that Urban Meyer broke recruiting rules upon his arrival at Ohio State, as Bielema did early in 2012, seems trivial compared with milking another program's tragedy to push for a proposed rule change. Even if one takes Bielema at his word that he is only concerned about the risks for players with the sickle-cell trait (as opposed to attempting a schematic end-around to benefit his defense), he is making quite a leap in logic by suggesting that a player's death in an offseason conditioning workout presages a similar tragedy in a game.
The decline of Bielema's reputation is a wholesale transformation from the public perception of him while he was at Wisconsin, where he was indisputably cocky but largely noncontroversial. That can be attributed somewhat to the everything-is-bigger-in-the-SEC phenomenon. The coach of the Badgers is a national figure for roughly four months out of the year. At Arkansas or any other SEC school, a coach is always one sound bite away from becoming a weeklong storyline on The Paul Finebaum Show. There's also the possibility that the coach could become a caricature of himself, something encapsulated by the mocking #BERT nickname that became an unofficial metaphor for Bielema's persona sometime after his move to the Razorbacks.
In just his first year at Arkansas, Bielema took a jab at the Big Ten record of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who coached Michigan State from 1995 to '99. (Saban went 23-16-1 in league play with the Spartans; Bielema went 37-19 with the Badgers.) Bielema also accused Auburn of doctoring game film. Both moments were very Kiffin-esque. Meanwhile, Bielema's wife, Jen, caused the biggest stir with a one-word tweet -- "#karma" -- sent moments after Wisconsin, her husband's former employer, suffered an officiating-tainted 32-30 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 14. The then 3-0 Razorbacks did not win another game after that.
Bielema is hardly the sport's only brash, straight-talking coach, but public perception is far kinder when those types of coaches are winning. Take South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, for example, who rarely goes a week without taking a shot at Clemson, Georgia, Saban or another adversary. When Spurrier goes off, fans and media eat it up. The 'Ol Ball Coach is coming off three consecutive 11-win seasons and can say just about anything he wants.
However, not even Arkansas fans are particularly enamored with Bielema right now. It's one thing to have a 3-9 debut season at a long-suffering program -- Colorado, for example -- where patience is a necessity. But the Hogs are only a few years removed from consecutive top-10 finishes and a Sugar Bowl berth. If Bielema hopes to repair his damaged reputation, he needs to win big, and fast.
Bielema's current arc is reminiscent of another previously successful coach whose stock plummeted upon moving to a new conference. Michigan's Rich Rodriguez went 3-9 in his first season in Ann Arbor in 2008, and while the Wolverines improved each year thereafter, he could never shake that nightmarish initial impression. Rodriguez's ugly divorce from West Virginia -- followed by an NCAA investigation into practice-hour violations -- did not help his cause.
In Bielema's case, there's precedent within his own league for a quick turnaround. Last year's SEC champ, Auburn, underwent an unlikely renaissance after going 0-8 in conference play in 2012. And Arkansas, which was horrendous on defense for most of last season, showed signs of improvement in its last two games. It fell to Mississippi State 24-17 in overtime and lost to LSU 31-27 only after allowing backup freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings to engineer a last-minute, game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive.
Still, Auburn had signed four straight top-10 recruiting classes before Gus Malzahn returned to town and installed his lethal hurry-up offense. The Razorbacks, by contrast, have signed just one Rivals.com top 25 class in the past five years (No. 24 in 2011). Bielema's first full class this year ranked 11th in the SEC and 29th nationally. The good news is that Bielema won big with even less heralded classes in Madison. Wisconsin has long prided itself on taking blue-collar, overlooked prospects and developing them into NFL-caliber talents. Former All-America defensive end J.J. Watt was a walk-on who began his college career at Central Michigan. All-America linebacker Chris Borland was a two-star recruit, according to Scout.com.
The bad news, though, is that even with the three league titles that Bielema won with the Badgers, his Wisconsin teams rarely beat opponents with more touted high school talent. Under Bielema, the Badgers went 1-5 against Ohio State, 2-3 against Penn State and 2-4 in bowl games. In a study that strongly correlates recruiting rankings with victories, SB Nation's Matt Hinton divided the major-conference FBS programs into five tiers (five-stars, four-stars, etc.) based on their recruiting rankings from 2010 to '13. Wisconsin fell into the two-star group, alongside the likes of USF and Purdue, yet did not overachieve to the extent that one might assume. "They were actually very ordinary in that span against blue-chip competition, putting up losing records against five-star (2-3), four-star (3-6) and even three-star (5-6) opponents," wrote Hinton. "Much of Wisconsin's success is based on thorough, consistent dominance of its two-star peers in the Big Ten -- Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue -- against whom the Badgers have won 17 in a row."
That trend does not bode well for Arkansas, considering five of its six SEC West opponents (Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M) fell into Hinton's four- or five-star tiers. Yet, so, too, did the Razorbacks, so theoretically they're not that far behind their competition. But there aren't many Indianas on the schedule to help boost their record.
Even as Arkansas struggled last season, it produced a few promising young standouts, most notably running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, and defensive lineman Darius Philon. By the time the 2014 campaign kicks off, those players will have spent another nine months developing in Bielema's system. Several members of the incoming class should also contribute. It would be a surprise if the Razorbacks aren't noticeably improved.
But whether the 10-second rule ultimately passes next week, Bielema now has a lot of detractors across the country. His handling of the controversy, and his comments about Agu, won't soon be forgotten. All of that could contribute to a cloud of negativity much like the ones that previously hovered over Rodriguez and Kiffin.
The best ways for Bielema to turn around his reputation? Field an elite SEC team and, in the meantime, maintain a low profile. Both of those may be difficult to accomplish.