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Lessons Learned From His Arkansas Tenure, Bret Bielema Has a Decision to Make

Two months removed from being fired at Arkansas, Bret Bielema knows how he'll change his approach whenever he returns to the sidelines. Plus, another video of Nick Saban dancing, another quarterback who could be in the 2018 mix at Michigan and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.

Bret Bielema moved rather abruptly in November from scanning recruiting lists to scanning honey-do lists. The former Arkansas and Wisconsin coach expects that to be a temporary change.

“I had a morning last week where I had to drop the dogs off to get groomed, pick up a UPS package, make a stop at the pharmacist to pick up a prescription for my daughter and pick the dogs back up,” said Bielema, who became a dad for the first time in July and who was fired in November after five seasons at Arkansas. “I said ‘I need to get back into coaching pretty quick. This is getting to be too much.’”

Bielema already has been offered other jobs—assistant roles in the NFL or a television gig analyzing college football—but he hasn’t jumped at one yet because he wants to take stock before diving back into football. He’ll get a reminder of his skill as a college coach on Sunday when six of his former players populate the rosters of the Super Bowl participants*. If New England tailback James White scores a touchdown, Bielema will think about recruiting White from powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and locking in on the less heralded back while many of Bielema’s colleagues coveted future North Carolina star Giovani Bernard. If defensive tackle Beau Allen makes a huge stop for the Eagles, Bielema will remember recruiting the Wisconsin legacy out of Minneapolis. (Bielema said Allen’s parents plan to host White’s parents this week. Their sons may be playing one another now, but they were Badgers together.) If Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers sacks Nick Foles, Bielema will rejoice again that Bill Belichick got a steal in the fourth round of the 2015 draft. Arkansas coaches knew Flowers could produce in the NFL, but as that draft dragged on, they wondered if anyone at the next level saw what they saw. Belichick did, and Flowers has played more like a first-rounder.

*To hear Bielema, former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, former Texas coach Mack Brown, Oregon State assistant—and former head coach—Mike Riley, former Michigan assistant Bill Harris (the guy who recruited Tom Brady) and many others share their memories of the Super Bowl participants they once coached, tune into Channel 84 on SiriusXM on Friday at 9 p.m. and all weekend.

Bielema said “about a half dozen” NFL teams have reached out to him about coaching at that level next season. He’s thinking about it, too. He realizes he wouldn’t be able to walk into a head coaching job, but he’s intrigued by the idea of coaching the best players without dealing with some of the more annoying aspects of recruiting. “I don’t mind Twitter,” Bielema said. “But when a kid makes a decision based on how many Twitter followers he gets, that’s when I’m about ready to tap out.”

Bielema also could take a year off from coaching and work in television. He’s one of the few coaches who wouldn’t have to change anything about his delivery to succeed on television. He never had much of a filter in press conferences and interviews, so he wouldn’t need to be convinced to offer an unvarnished opinion. If ESPN or Fox executives are looking for ideas, a coaches film room featuring Bielema could replace a traditional broadcast crew for one game a week. It would be spectacular television. It doesn’t need to be the biggest game of the week. The format would help liven up a more middle-of-the-road game between two evenly matched teams. Or just put Bielema in the studio and let him crack wise with Adnan Virk. That would work as well, but it wouldn’t be as fun as the first idea. “If I got into TV,” Bielema said, “I’d want to be the best.”

More than likely, Bielema will wind up back in college as a head coach at some point. He went 29–34 at Arkansas, but he has three Big Ten titles on his résumé from Wisconsin. He’ll get another chance. But when he gets that next chance, he’ll probably approach it a little differently. “I don’t have any regrets. I didn’t cheat. I don’t do anything that I need to be concerned about,” Bielema said. “I just wish I’d had a little bit more time, but the powers that be made that decision. Now you move on to the next one, but it was a learning experience for sure in every regard.”

Since getting fired, Bielema has thought a lot about what worked so well at Wisconsin and what didn’t work at Arkansas. The biggest difference between the two, he believes, was how well he understood the Badgers’ program before he took over as the head coach after spending two years as Barry Alvarez’s defensive coordinator. “I want to go into a situation where you know everything that’s going on,” Bielema said. “I didn’t have to worry about uncovering land mines halfway into the job.”

Bielema estimates that he’d spent about 24 hours in Arkansas in his entire life before taking the Razorbacks job. At Wisconsin, he knew exactly what the program’s strengths and deficiencies were. Plus, Alvarez had provided a spectacular blueprint for success. (A blueprint current Badgers coach Paul Chryst has followed quite well.) At Arkansas, Bielema had to learn all that on the job. The fallout from Bobby Petrino’s firing and a disastrous season with John L. Smith as the interim coach necessitated an overhaul, but if you examine Bielema’s record, he actually came through that part O.K. The 2015 season, when the Razorbacks went 8–5 overall and 5–3 in the SEC, seemed to indicate a turning of the corner.

But Bielema admits he didn’t initially realize how deep a team needed to be on both lines of scrimmage to succeed in the SEC West. The Razorbacks didn’t have that competitive depth, and it became apparent in Bielema’s final two seasons. That isn’t an issue that can be fixed immediately through recruiting, either. The big guys require several years of development.

It may be that no one can build that sort of depth at Arkansas. Elite offensive and defensive linemen are the toughest players to find and land, and Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M are always going to get the first crack at such players because of geography and/or tradition. The previous sentence isn’t meant to excuse Bielema’s record. It merely reinforces his point that he should have better understood before he took the job how difficult it would be to recruit the type and quantity of players he needed to recruit to play the style he wanted to play. New Arkansas coach Chad Morris, whose preferred offensive style is more similar to those in the Big 12, may have an easier time finding what he needs. That said, the job is always going to be hard. The Razorbacks won the SEC West three times between 1995 and 2006, but the dynamics in the division changed when Alabama hired Nick Saban in ’07. Even Petrino’s best Arkansas team (the excellent 2011 group) lost by an average of 24 to Alabama and LSU.

Bielema will have to do more homework the next time he takes over a college program, but his success at Wisconsin suggests he can win elsewhere. But when he does get that next head-coaching job, there may be less of him. Bielema said he put on too much weight at Arkansas, allowing the pressure of the job to affect his diet and knock him out of a regular workout routine. So as he contemplates the next step, he’s also slimming down. “In the morning, I start off with one grapefruit. I’ve had 14 days of that now,” he said. “I loved grapefruit 14 days ago. I don’t know about that now.”

A Random Ranking

The television world has gone reboot crazy. Netflix has Fuller House, which catches up with the Full House characters 25 years later. ABC will do the same with Roseanne later this year. Netflix also has produced a more modern twist on One Day At A Time, and reboots of Charmed, Murphy Brown and The Greatest American Hero are on the way. I’m not particularly interested in watching any of these—other than to see if the new Greatest American Hero messes with an all-time great theme song—so here are the top 10 shows I’d like to see rebooted or updated.

1. Magnum, P.I.

This would need to be a reboot, because the main plot of an update would involve a 70-year-old T.C. still trying to collect from Thomas for all those helicopter rides.

2. A Different World

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Anything Cosby-adjacent is a touchy subject, but I’d love to know what happened to Whitley and Dwayne Wayne.

3. Parker Lewis Can’t Lose

This single-camera gem was way ahead of its time. So let’s see how everyone wound up in middle age. Hopefully Corin Nemec isn’t too busy.

4. Fantasy Island

If the CW can make the Archie comics dark and sexy (Riverdale), somebody can find an edgy version of Ricardo Montalbán.

5. Thirtysomething

Yuppies are more ridiculous now than they were in the ’80s. Maybe Timothy Busfield can play a main character’s dad. 

6. The A-Team

The movie was terrible, so we need a show that can properly introduce a new generation to the members of a crack commando unit that escaped from a maximum security stockade and currently survives as soldiers of fortune.

7. Night Court

I don’t want a reboot. I just want Harry, Mac, Christine, Dan and Bull back in Manhattan Criminal Court Part II.

8. LA Law

Dozens of shows have copied the sexy lawyers aesthetic this show invented. So why not just copy it and keep the name?

9. Tales from the Crypt

M. Night Shyamalan has already tried to bring back this horror series, but it’s apparently mired in estate law hell.

10. Amazing Stories

This anthology series was a more optimistic Twilight Zone. And never mind, because the reboot is happening.

Three and Out

1. Dear five-star recruits, please keep making Nick Saban dance during in-home visits, and please keep posting videos of those dances on the web. For those who haven’t seen Saban’s previous encounters with the Cupid Shuffle and the Electric Slide, remember this: The man was a college safety. He’s got loose hips.

2. The MMQB’s Robert Klemko wrote an excellent examination of Baker Mayfield’s Senior Bowl experience that included former Ohio State defenders Jalyn Holmes and Tyquan Lewis getting their “revenge” for Mayfield’s flag-planting at Ohio Stadium last season.

3. Former Michigan starting quarterback Wilton Speight has decided to give himself until June to decide his next move. Speight, who has graduated from Michigan, announced in December that he planned to transfer somewhere else for his final season of eligibility. Now Speight, who is training in Los Angeles, plans to wait before making a decision. And one possible option, according to Nick Baumgardner of the Detroit Free Press, is a return to Michigan.

Speight coming back to Michigan probably would be prompted by an NCAA decision that forces Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson to sit out the 2018 season. The Wolverines also have Brandon Peters, who finished last season as the starter after injuries to Speight and John O’Korn, and Dylan McCaffrey, who redshirted last season.

What’s Eating Andy?

They handed out Grammys on Sunday and this masterpiece got shut out. 

What’s Andy Eating?

I rarely write about Tex-Mex in this space because I struggle to find the difference between average and great in that category. Any combination of meat, beans and melted cheese in a carbohydrate wrapper is going to taste reasonably good. Our own biology makes it nearly impossible for such a mixture to taste bad. Ditto for that other staple of the Tex-Mex space, the fajita platter. Grill some chicken, steak, pork and/or shrimp. Serve on a sizzling plate. Mix with grilled vegetables, cheese and sour cream. Wrap in a flour or corn tortilla. Who could possibly complain*?

The problem with a dish that is almost universally tasty is that it makes it more difficult to identify a truly excellent version. Or at least I thought it did.

*Here is a line from the otherwise forgettable film Threesome: “Sex is kind of like pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.” This is inaccurate. Bad pizza can be truly awful. This line should have been about Tex-Mex instead.

Perhaps the places I’ve been ordering fajitas simply weren’t creative enough. Because the mixed fajita plate from Atlanta’s Superica makes it easy to distinguish phenomenal from simply above average. This dish makes it quite clear that a lot of other places are taking your money and not trying very hard.

At $28, the three-meat combo at Superica costs more than a comparable fajita platter elsewhere, but this is absolutely a case where “you get what you pay for” applies. Chili’s charges $17.69 for a steak, chicken and shrimp platter. Cantina Laredo, one of the largest chains in the upscale Tex-Mex space Superica also occupies, charges $23.29 for steak, chicken and bacon-wrapped shrimp. Superica’s trio includes steak and chicken, and both are grilled perfectly. Unlike at a cheaper place, you won’t need to douse your creation in salsa to moisturize the meat. And just like at the more upscale place, the steak is a better cut. Mine was skirt steak grilled to a glorious medium rare.


What sets Superica’s trio apart is the third meat. It skips the shrimp in favor of pork. But instead of shredded pork or chunks of tenderloin, Superica opts for grilled pork belly. Lots of places are using proto-bacon these days, but this feels like one of the best uses. The smoky, rich belly makes each bite feel decadent. I tried the belly mixed in a fajita with steak and chicken, and it tasted wonderful. As the only meat in the tortilla, it might have been even better. So perhaps next time I should opt for the $25 pork belly fajita platter. Or perhaps not, because that steak and that chicken would be difficult to turn down.

Two people could easily split the trio. The staff at Superica will bring as many tortillas as you need, and you’re going to get somewhat full dunking chips into Superica’s house-made salsa. I tried to stop, but every time our server refilled the salsa dishes, I dove in again. Sharing the fajitas will free up more cash for The O.G., a strong, less sweet take on the classic margarita that will make you crave those chips and that pork belly even more.

I worry that Superica may have spoiled me. Now, when I visit America’s less ambitious Tex-Mex places, I’ll realize that while they’ve properly exploited their near-perfect mix of flavor/texture combinations, they aren’t reaching their full potential. Fortunately, one place in Atlanta is.