How Bret Bielema navigated tragedy in preparation for Arkansas's clash with Alabama
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The back room of The Catfish Hole hums as red-clad diners await the guest of honor. Catfish (of course), shrimp and the world's best hush puppies disappear quickly from the buffet. When Bobby Petrino coached here, they packed the place every fall Thursday for Petrino's radio show. The faithful did not show up so faithfully because of Petrino's cuddly personality. They came because he won. During that John L. Smith year that no one likes to talk about, they cut the room in half and still couldn't fill the space. It's nearly packed again as Bret Bielema presides over his fourth season.
Bielema arrives with his wife Jen. His parents, Arnie and Marilyn, sit at a table near the back of the restaurant. Bielema takes a mug of black coffee and sits down next to Chuck Barrett, the voice of the Razorbacks. That's when Pat Gazzola, Northwest Arkansas' No. 1 purveyor of fried fish, hush puppies and fried pies, addresses the crowd. "We're going to call the hogs like we always do," Gazzola says. "Then we're going to sing the fight song." Gazzola then runs down a few more things happening in town between Thursday and Saturday night. He closes with one final agenda item.
THEN WE'RE GOING TO BEAT ALABAMA!
The hogs are called. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! PIG! SOOOOOOOOOOOOIE! The fight song is sung. The show begins, and Barrett asks Bielema to tell listeners across the state how Arkansas is preparing for the nation's top-ranked team.
"Standard normal operating procedure," Bielema says.
Wait. Didn't Bielema hear? The Hogs are playing Alabama. Standard? Normal? These are not the words used to describe epic upsets. Bielema doesn't care. He has learned in 10-plus years as a head coach that standard and normal are the only way to succeed in these situations—even in a week rendered anything but standard or normal by the opponent and by a tragedy no one saw coming.
The first time Bielema faced a No. 1 team as a head coach, he treated it like a special occasion. "We threw two fake punts," Bielema says of the 2007 matchup between Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Buckeyes entered the game atop the polls and 9–0. They left 10–0. Bielema's Badgers trailed only by a touchdown late in the fourth, but the dam broke and the Buckeyes rolled to a 38–17 win.
Sitting in his office earlier this week with another No. 1 team on the docket, Bielema thinks back to that loss. He had assumed he needed to pull out every stop to topple the Big Ten's big shot. That desperation rubbed off on his players, too. "You're not going to win that game," Bielema says. Ten-plus seasons as a head coach have taught him that even if you're coaching David, you can't make Goliath even bigger than he already is. That's why Wisconsin prepared for Ohio State in 2010 the way the Badgers had prepared for Minnesota the week earlier. And when the No. 1 Buckeyes came to Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers beat them 31–18 in Bielema's fourth crack at Ohio State.
Saturday, Bielema will get his fourth crack at Alabama. He has spent the entire week preaching that his players must prepare as they did for TCU or for Alcorn State. The only way to beat the Crimson Tide, Bielema surmises, is to become the type of team that prepares as if it's facing the nation's top-ranked team every week. In the SEC, only one team has prepared that way for the entire time Bielema has worked in the league, and it isn't Arkansas. It's Nick Saban's Tide. Saban became the most successful coach in the game because he recruits the most talented players and because he discovered how to make a large group of 18- to 22-year-olds behave in a consistent manner on a week-to-week basis. Think back to when you were that age. Remember all those emotional peaks and valleys? Now imagine 100 of you at that age. The ability to focus the energies of such a group is why Saban makes $7.5 million a year and has won four of the past seven national titles.
In Bielema's estimation, the only team that can beat Alabama is a team that acts like Alabama. "I want to beat Alabama. It's not out of hatred. It's not out of spite. It's out of respect," Bielema says. "I'm one of those guys who believes you honor the guys who have earned it. They're the gold standard. They're the measuring stick." When Bielema arrived at Arkansas, there were red-letter weeks and "Ring the Bell" games. Inside his program now, there are only opponents that must be beaten to go 1–0 for the week. That record, by the way, is inscribed inside the neckline of the Razorbacks' jerseys. But how do you keep everything normal when the week is anything but?
Jen Bielema wanted nachos, and on a rare Saturday night off, her husband planned to oblige. The Razorbacks had rolled to a 52–10 win against Alcorn State in Little Rock in a game that kicked off at 11 a.m. local time. So upon their return to Fayetteville, they had a night to themselves. They visited East Side Grill for their Big Table Nachos. After nachos, the happy couple would lounge in the pool and watch football. Ricky and Lucy, their two Yorkshire Terriers, would watch for stray snacks.
While at the restaurant, Bret Bielema's phone buzzed. He looked down. It was Marty Ragnow, the mother of Hogs' center Frank Ragnow. He pressed Ignore, figuring she would leave a message if the matter was important enough. Less than a minute later, Bielema's phone buzzed again. Marty Ragnow. He figured it had to be urgent, so he answered. On the other end of the call, Marty said Frank's father Jon had just died of a heart attack. Could Bret find Frank and be with him when Marty delivered the news?
Bielema immediately called Arkansas offensive tackle Dan Skipper, one of Ragnow's best friends on the team. Skipper's fiancée is close to Ragnow's girlfriend. Bielema kept trying to build a support system as quickly as he could. He dialed Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen and told him to round up the rest of Ragnow's best friends on the team. They would all meet at Bielema's office. Bielema then called Ragnow and told him he needed to see him in his office. While Bret waited outside the building, Jen unlocked her husband's office and ushered the other players inside. They sat on the leather couches and waited to hug their teammate.
Ragnow rode up to the football complex on his scooter, smiling. Bielema ushered the 319-pound junior into the building and dialed a number. "Two things," Bielema remembers telling Ragnow. "First, I love you. Second, here's your mom."
Bielema's voice cracks when he reaches that part of the story. He choked up Monday discussing it at his weekly press conference even though he'd spent the previous two hours trying to convince his body to leave the tears inside. He didn't show his emotions in public like this until his sophomore year at Iowa. The Hawkeyes had just beaten Michigan in October 1990 when Bielema's position coach came to inform him that Bielema's 27-year-old sister Betsy had died in a horse-riding accident near Seattle. That night, Bielema sat in the middle seat of the back row of a minivan that belonged to the father of Iowa quarterback Paul Burmeister. Burmeister and four other teammates had collected Bielema driven three mostly silent hours to deliver Bielema to his hometown of Prophetstown, Ill.
After laying his sister to rest, Bielema was told that someday what happened would make sense. Now, he can't help but think those events prepared him to handle some of the more tragic events in his players lives. In 1996, Bielema was Iowa's linebackers coach when linebacker Mark Mitchell's mother was killed in a car crash while traveling to the Alamo Bowl. A bowl sponsor offered Iowa the use of a jet to help Mitchell get home to Des Moines, Iowa, faster, So Bielema took Mitchell to his family—just as Bielema's Hawkeyes teammates had done for him.
Saturday, Bielema and Arkansas administrators put out the word that they needed a jet. The NCAA makes exceptions to its rules to allow schools to help their athletes in times of tragedy, and this was such a case. "When the NCAA is at their best," Bielema says, "is when other people are at their worst." Warren Stephens, a billionaire Arkansas booster from Little Rock, had a jet landing in the area that night. So Bret, Jen and Ragnow boarded the plane, and a short time later the Bielemas delivered Ragnow to his mother and siblings in Victoria, Minn.
With the No. 1 team coming to Fayetteville and one of their teammates away and grieving, how could this week be normal? Bielema and his staff would have to try to make the week feel as ordinary as possible in spite of the circumstances. Ragnow hopes to play, but sophomore Zach Rogers has been working with the first team at center in his absence. Meanwhile, offensive line coach Kurt Anderson and graduate assistant Brey Cook filmed videos of game plan installation to send to Ragnow. Most of the videos explain how to block the future pros on Alabama's defensive line. One, though feature's a guest appearance from Bielema, who popped in to say Whazzzzzzzzupppp! to Ragnow.
Ragnow's teammates understand the challenge ahead. The oldest remember 2013, when Alabama crushed them 52–0 in Tuscaloosa. Of the eight SEC losses Arkansas suffered through in Bielema's first season, that was the worst. That showed him exactly how much work he needed to do. Still more players remember the following season, when eventual SEC champion Alabama came to Fayetteville and escaped with a 14–13 win. The Hogs had missed an extra point that would have forced overtime, and a fumble through the end zone turned a touchdown that would have won the game into a touchback and Alabama ball.
Even more remember last year in Tuscaloosa, when the Hogs led 7–3 at halftime and trailed 10–7 as the fourth quarter began. The eventual national champion Tide would pull away for a 27–14 win, but the Razorbacks understood they could play with Alabama if they limited their mistakes. Alabama wins some games before the ball is even kicked. Some opponents look across at the collection of five-star athletes and give up before the first play. But most of the Razorbacks have played enough competitive quarters against the Tide to squash that intimidation. "That's half the battle," linebacker Brooks Ellis says. "Just believing you can do it."
Arkansas secondary coach Paul Rhoads understands this concept well. Rhoads was the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh in 2007 when the Panthers shocked West Virginia and kept the Mountaineers from playing for the national title. Rhoads also was the head coach at Iowa State in 2011 when the Cyclones toppled previously undefeated Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were then left out of the BCS title game in favor of an Alabama-LSU rematch. So if you happen upon Rhoads, feel free to thank him for his part in ushering in the College Football Playoff. In both those cases, Rhoads says, the teams were hyper-focused all week at practice. They didn't do anything different in their preparation; the players simply locked in for every meeting and practice. Rhoads understands why some teams will try to make radical schematic adjustments against an elite opponent, but he also understands why that rarely works. Teams must break tendency to succeed against the meticulously prepared Tide, but they must do it with small wrinkles to their regular gameplan and not huge shifts in philosophy.
"If you're not who you are and you're not putting your kids in a position to play fast because they know what they're doing," Rhoads says, "you're not going to beat a team like this." Meanwhile, sticking to (mostly) the basics keeps an underdog from making mistakes against an opponent such as Alabama that will make few mistakes of its own. "I learned a long time ago that the No. 1 way to win a football game is not to lose it," Rhoads joked. "And they don't lose very many football games."
Back at The Catfish Hole, a man named Steven asks Bielema to wish Steven's father a happy birthday. Steven's father is likely turning 70-something. One birthday present is a chance to ask Bielema a question of his own.It's a doozy. "On Saturday with 15 seconds to go," the man says, "are we going to have another erotic moment?" This is a reference to the Razorbacks' 31–7 win against Texas in the 2014 Texas Bowl. The following summer, Bielema described the Hogs' win this way:
A win against Alabama wouldn't be borderline anything. It would validate Bielema's program and thrust it into the thick of the race for the SEC West title. The problem is that while this team has improved in some ways—squeaking past Louisiana Tech in 2016 instead of losing to Toledo in 2015; beating TCU in 2016 instead of getting blown out by Texas Tech in 2015—it has stepped backward in other ways. This Razorbacks offensive line doesn't enforce its will as previous ones did. Eleven snaps inside the 2-yard line across two separate possessions against Texas A&M generated three points. The score was tied in the third quarter when Arkansas turned the ball over on downs after four runs inside six feet. After that, the game spiraled out of control and the Aggies won 45–24.
This week, Anderson challenged his linemen to honor their grieving teammate by preparing the way Ragnow prepares. He is that steady, meticulous player Bielema wants all the Razorbacks to be. He'll play Saturday if he can.
On Thursday, Evan Hollister stood in the back of the room watching Bielema's radio show. Hollister's son Cody plays receiver for the Hogs. Asked about Bielema's response to Ragnow's father's death, Evan Hollister said he wasn't surprised in the least. The elder Hollister learned all he needed to know about Bielema in the aftermath of a gut-wrenching overtime loss to Texas A&M in 2014. After the Hogs had gagged away a fourth-quarter lead, Bielema could have thrown a fit. Instead, he told his players to take a knee and counseled them that it simply wasn't their time. At some point, they would win games like that one, but they hadn't reached it yet.
Have they reached it now? Only if the Razorbacks can do the ordinary exceptionally well to cap a week that has yet to feel normal.