Bret Bielema is more anxious about being a new dad than closing the gap with Alabama

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Monday July 10th, 2017

HOOVER, Ala. — Bret Bielema asked the SEC to move up his SEC Media Days appearance because he worried he might be on baby watch. As it turned out, he arrived Monday as a new dad with a new story about toughness. “My wife is a trooper,” the Arkansas coach said of his bride Jen, who delivered Briella Nichole Bielema at 4:44 a.m. Sunday after 26 hours of labor. “She’s small in nature but huge in heart. She didn’t want to take any painkillers. So she tried to do it a la carte—au natural.”

Later, the man who has run two different major college football programs realized he had an entirely new perspective on responsibility. “On the drive home, looking in the rearview mirror and seeing your child in the back seat in a car seat, whew. That’s a little bit different,” Bielema said. “I live on the backroads on the east side of Fayetteville. There’s not a lot of traffic, but I was looking for every car coming sideways. Any possum, deer, whatever. I was ready for it.”

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But Bielema is a coach in the SEC. The new dad glow only delayed the first hot seat question by about 12 minutes. The Razorbacks closed last season by losing a winnable game at Missouri and blowing a 24-point lead to Virginia Tech in a Belk Bowl loss that sealed a 7–6 finish. Their defense was especially porous against the run, and coordinator Robb Smith quickly found another job at Minnesota following the bowl loss. As Bielema enters his fifth season in Fayetteville, Arkansas has yet to take the leap that his Wisconsin teams took. Asked Monday if he was anxious about the season and its impact on his job, Bielema told a story about his fourth season in Madison in 2009, with the Badgers coming off a 7–6 finish.

“I remember a young buck asked me a question if I felt nervous or anxious about the season,” Bielema said. “I just said that we’d just worry about the things we do. We won 10 games and then went on to win three Big Ten championships. And that guy is no longer in the business. I always think about that.”

Bielema understands the angst. “I understand why people focus on the last two games,” he said. “It’s nice to talk about. It’s a great talking point.” He then rattled off an interesting stat. He has been at Arkansas for 51 games, and he pointed out the difference between his first 20 games there and his most recent 20. In Bielema’s first 20 games, the Razorbacks went 7–13. Of the teams in the SEC, only Kentucky (4–16) was worse during that period. In Bielema’s last 20 games, the Razorbacks have gone 13–7.

“I know where we’re going,” Bielema said. “It hasn’t been as fast as everyone wants.”

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Welcome to life for the rest in Nick Saban’s SEC. Alabama has been so dominant and has sucked the competitive oxygen so thoroughly from the rest of the league that coaches wind up on the hot seat even though it’s unclear whether anyone else could do any better. Bielema, for what it’s worth, is not on any kind of hot seat with anyone who matters at Arkansas. Athletic director Jeff Long isn’t prone to rash decisions, and Long understands the Razorbacks’ place in the the SEC’s caste system. An occasional run toward the West Division title would be nice—the Hogs last won one in 2006—but that may be impossible as long as Saban is in Tuscaloosa.

Bielema isn’t nervous or anxious, and he shouldn’t be. If the Razorbacks take a huge step back this season, perhaps he should be next year. But for now, he’ll likely follow his own advice and worry about what he needs to do. At the immediate moment, Bielema’s most pressing task is to provide support for the two ladies—the tough one and the little one—back at home. Meanwhile, he’ll probably learn some lessons he can pass along to his players. Jen Bielema’s grittiness during labor probably won’t be one of them, though. “If there is one thing I’m not going to share with my players,” Bielema said, “it’s the birthing experience.”

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