Bret Bielema wants 'respected' voice and SEC title -- will two intersect?
Arkansas' Bret Bielema sat down with CBSSports.com to discuss his controversial stance on player safety and rebounding from a winless SEC debut.
DESTIN, Fla. -- Bret Bielema has more thoughts about player safety and the 10-second rule. Do you want to hear them?
Of course you don’t. You’d rather drown out those thoughts with #BERT or #KARMA hashtags or jokes about a once-successful Big Ten coach who clumsily handled a national storyline.
But the easiest target in the SEC isn’t done taking shots, speaking out on his issues -- primarily, the issue that got him in trouble when he cited “death certificates” as a reason to slow the game, prompting a scathing response from Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour.
Bielema says he’s “strongly, firmly standing 100 percent behind player safety," so with the 10-second rule tabled until next year, his latest compromise is this: The offense waiting at least 10 seconds to snap only on first downs. Officials are moving the chains then anyway, he says.
These are thoughts Bielema can scribble on notepads, but to become a respected voice in the SEC, which he very much wants, he knows only winning will cultivate an audience for broader discussions.
“I came here to win an SEC championship,” Bielema told CBSSports.com from the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla. “When that happens, I think everybody will concentrate on that.”
How long that process will take is debatable.
Bielema’s stealth move from Madison to Fayetteville came with the harsh reality that he basically inherited a Brazilian-model-thin roster.
This isn’t an apologist’s view. A former Bielema assistant at both Arkansas and Wisconsin said Bielema took over SEC players that wouldn’t have made the Badgers’ roster.
Bielema did pretty well with those Badgers, finishing 68-24 with three Big Ten titles. Seventeen months since taking the Arkansas job, however, there’s little question which team will occupy the seventh spot in the preseason SEC West rankings -- the one that lost conference games by an average of 18 points last year. Arkansas went winless in conference play for the first time since 1942.
Rail on Bielema if you must, but the awkward handoff from Bobby Petrino to interim coach John L. Smith eroded the roster. Recruiting has ranked ninth or worst in the conference the last four years. Bielema’s ‘Never Yield’ mantra means many things, such as manufacturing a vertical passing game and bolstering recruiting.
Bielema doesn’t use the rebuilding card as a crutch, but this quote perfectly summarizes the overhaul he saw coming -- “I was emphatic about a six-year contract,” he said.
That won’t stop him from envisioning his Razorbacks in three-to-five years, with a reshaped perception.
“I haven’t won a game, so it’s hard to say you know what you’re talking about,” said Bielema about lack of wins undermining his outspoken nature. “I’m tired of Wisconsin statistics. I’d like to have some Arkansas statistics to brag about.”
Bielema was never more eager to self-evaluate than after last season. He scanned everything from effective practice habits to recruiting, prompting what he calls a “heated staff meeting” about identifying the right players instead of star power.
Bielema’s cachet grew at Wisconsin by coaching under-recruited players that made star turns. All-American linebacker Chris Borland and NFL star J.J. Watt were not heavily recruited. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis was a walk-on.
But no doubt his biggest concern at Arkansas is complementing a proven running game with quarterback Brandon Allen’s arm. Keeping more than seven defenders out of the box could be the difference between 4-8 and bowl eligibility. Arkansas’ power running game needs balance.
After Arkansas’ four straight seasons of at least 3,000 yards passing, Arkansas quarterbacks didn’t eclipse 1,800 in 2013.
Allen emerged from spring ball as the clear No. 1 and the passing game is “closer than it’s ever been” to flourishing, Bielema said.
From the quarterbacks to much-needed depth brewing in the defensive back seven, the roster has no choice but to improve.
“There’s no other team that went through what we went through,” Bielema said. “Some teams had success, some teams had moderate success, but nobody went 0-8. For a head coach to have a motivating factor like that, and to have a team behind you like that, that’s huge.”
Meanwhile, Bielema has reveled in the smaller on-the-job victories. His team’s spring GPA was Arkansas’ highest in years, Bielema said.
Others might boast five-star recruiting stables and trips to Atlanta. But Bielema didn’t take the Arkansas job for comfort.
“I made this move for a lot of different reasons -- obviously assistant coaches salaries and all that jazz, but I just wanted to reboot the battery,” Bielema said. “I’d been at one place for 9 years. I thoroughly enjoyed it, loved every minute of it, I have great memories, great friends and great players. I just needed something to shake up my personal inventory a little bit to get where I needed to be.”
That place is agenda-free, Bielema says, despite his push for slow football. He’s playing slow regardless of the rules, he says.
Actually, Bielema said he appreciates no-huddle offenses and loves when a traditional set faces a sped-up attack because “there’s nothing like the dramatic difference.”
If there’s anything else you want to know about Bielema, just ask. He’s not hiding. He’s exposed, losses and all.
“I am who I am every day,” Bielema said. “I don’t vary much. I don’t have an agenda…I want the people of Arkansas to be proud of what kind of program we’re running.”
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