A year after Arkansas's Bret Bielema was the subject of widespread criticism, his reputation is back on the rise behind success and brutal honesty.
Bret Bielema speaks his truth. No matter the audience, he is honest above all else.
Of course, there is a key distinction between speaking the truth and speaking his truth. That’s the reason the Arkansas head coach became one of the most disliked figures in college football last offseason, even prompting SI.com to write a column chronicling Bielema’s “fall from coaching grace.”
Bielema’s truth, which he isn’t afraid to share, can lack in veracity. Not unfamiliar with messaging faux pas—while he was Wisconsin’s coach in 2012, he implied that then-newly hired Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had committed recruiting violations—Bielema caught major backlash when he appeared to link the death of Cal football player Ted Agu to debates over a proposed rule change last February. Agu, who had sickle cell trait, died during an offseason conditioning workout; the proposal would have required offenses to wait 10 seconds after the start of the 40-second play clock before snapping the ball. Asked at an Arkansas booster’s function about the lack of evidence connecting hurry-up offenses to increased injuries, Bielema replied, “Death certificates. There’s no more I need than that.”
Yet 13 months after the firestorm over Bielema’s tone-deaf remarks—which he maintains were taken out of context—he approaches this offseason in an entirely different light. Following a disastrous 3-9 debut in Fayetteville, Bielema rebounded with an impressive 7-6 season in 2014. The Razorbacks shut out LSU and Ole Miss in November, becoming the first unranked team to hold ranked opponents scoreless in consecutive games. They ended the year with a 31-7 rout of Texas in the Texas Bowl in which they limited the Longhorns to 59 yards of total offense. If there is any coach who sums up the cyclical nature of college football, it’s Bielema.
“I’ve probably enjoyed this two-year run as much as any time in my career just because it’s something that you got your hands in,” he says. “You’re building it.”
For the first time since Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in December 2012, he has plenty to be excited about. After losing close affairs against Texas A&M (35-28), Alabama (14-13) and Mississippi State (17-10) early in the 2014 season, Arkansas closed strong, winning three of its final four. Its offense returns nine starters, headlined by four offensive linemen, and the team enters spring ball with higher expectations than it has had since former coach Bobby Petrino infamously crashed a motorcycle with his mistress on board in April ’12.
“Our guys have kind of tasted that success,” Bielema says. “That’s probably getting me more and more excited about the season ahead of us than anything else.”
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long says that even though outside perceptions of the program a year ago were largely negative, he didn’t doubt Bielema would get things back on track. It was just a matter of Bielema’s frank and tirelessly physical mindset permeating the roster, a process that was anything but instant. “When you’re inside, when you’re close to it, when you’re in the program, in the athletic department, you could see the building blocks he was putting in place,” Long says. “When I hired him, I knew it wasn’t going to be a quick fix.”
The Razorbacks appeared to turn a corner last fall. Behind a punishing offensive line that the school’s website claims was bigger than any other in the FBS or NFL (the starting unit weighed an average of 328.4 pounds per player) tailbacks Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins both rushed for more than 1,000 yards. The Hogs finished 10th nationally in total defense (330.2 yards allowed per game) and 11th in scoring defense (20.2 points allowed per game); they ranked 76th and 89th, respectively, in those same categories in 2013.
Bielema was rewarded in February with a contract extension that will pay him an average of $4.25 million through 2020. Long said talks regarding the extension began before Bielema won his first SEC game on his 14th try. While a coach who went winless in league play through a season and a half might seem more likely to be the subject of termination discussions, Long always kept his faith. “Behind the scenes, Bret was doing anything and more that you’d want a coach to do,” he says.
After arriving at Arkansas thinking, “I was Vince Lombardi,” Bielema believes he is a better coach for having gone through the struggles and successes of his eventful first two seasons. While his willingness to say what he thinks has gotten him in trouble, he doesn’t intend to change. “Honesty prevails over everything,” Bielema says. “If you begin to compromise who you are just for a better image, then that’s not going to last for very long.”
Indeed, while his dealings with players and assistants can be harsh—quarterback Brandon Allen recounted some general samples: “You need to lose weight,” “you need to get bigger,” “you need to get faster,” “you need to go to class more,” “you need to study more”—the coach is equally forthcoming with the positive, too.
“That’s the best part,” Allen says. “If you do good, he’s going to remind you of it.”
Following a season free from controversy, Bielema’s reputation is on the upswing. Arkansas landed the 25th-ranked recruiting class on National Signing Day 2015, according to Rivals.com, and figures to be a feared team come fall camp. Still, when his best record with the Razorbacks to date is 7-6, Bielema knows he has plenty left to accomplish. After all, he is just 10-15 overall and 2-14 in the SEC. A setback in ’15—when the defense will have to replace star linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon and linebacker Martrell Spaight—could leave Bielema and his hefty contract an easy target.
Yet he isn’t concerned. He says he doesn’t personally monitor public perception, though his staff keeps him informed. “I just don’t have enough time in my day to do that,” Bielema says. “I encourage all my loved ones and family to do the same. They don’t always follow by it. My mom probably reads too much Internet.”
The Internet is a safer space for Bielema’s mother right now. A coach who is winning can afford to be more outspoken. That’s good, as Bielema plans to keep sharing his truth, despite what history may suggest.