(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)
By KURT VOIGT
AP Sports Writer
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Bret Bielema estimates he has slept in Fayetteville only 15 nights since being hired at Arkansas two months ago.
The former Wisconsin coach has spent the majority of his time on the road, looking to put the finishing touches on his first recruiting class with the Razorbacks. It's a journey that's taken Bielema and his staff across the country in search of talent.
Bielema's whirlwind recruiting efforts will come to a close Wednesday when Arkansas joins the rest of college football in welcoming its next wave of players on national signing day.
"It's going to be the foundation," Bielema told the Associated Press. "It's very important for me to start with a foundation of what I believe in, academically, athletically and socially."
That foundation starts within the borders of Arkansas for Bielema, who was hired in the wake of a disastrous season for the Razorbacks following the sudden firing of coach Bobby Petrino last spring.
The team that opened with a top-10 ranking finished with a 4-8 record under interim coach John L. Smith, whose staff did its best to recruit throughout the tumultuous season and coaching uncertainty. The head start was a welcome piece of news for Bielema, who has enjoyed his first taste of just how rugged competition can be in the Southeastern Conference.
It's also shown Bielema, who was 68-24 in seven seasons with the Badgers, the SEC's prominence after winning seven straight national championships.
"I think what jumped out to me right away was the desire for kids to play in the SEC," Bielema said. "Coast to coast, north, south, east, west there is a national interest in playing in the SEC. That is very evident and kind of overwhelmed me.
"Seven straight championships from the SEC, that's unqualified."
Arkansas already had its share of verbal commitments from high school recruits when Bielema was hired, including a handful of players within the state. They included a trio of standouts from nearby Fayetteville High School, which recently won its second straight state championship in the state's largest classification.
Quarterback Austin Allen, linebacker Brooks Ellis and safety Alex Brignoni each committed to the Razorbacks last spring. They did so following Petrino's firing, knowing there was no guarantee they'd like who the school hired as its long-term head coach.
Despite the uncertainty, Allen - the younger brother of Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen and son of the program's director of high school relations, Bobby Allen - never wavered in his desire to see the program through the transition. A combined 21-5 record in 2010-11 under Petrino, along with a new football operations facility that is under construction, was security enough.
"We kind of just bought into the program, really," Austin Allen said. "The whole state, the fan base, how much money the athletic department is putting into football, we just kind of put our trust in (athletic director) Jeff Long to make the right decision."
That trust paid off in the form of Bielema, who endeared himself to Allen with his "laid-back" attitude and reputation for developing players. And when Bielema announced the hiring of former Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to the same position with the Razorbacks, Allen's mind was made up once and for all.
He, Ellis and Brignoni then turned their attention to helping recruit other players to Arkansas - an effort that paid off early with the commitment of Little Rock tight end Hunter Henry, among others.
"We all felt like we were always going to be at Arkansas, so we stayed together," Allen said. "We just worked on the guys all across the state. We all hung out and got along, so it was all fun."
Arkansas received a much-needed recruiting boost late Monday when Florida running back Alex Collins verbally committed to sign with the Razorbacks. Another running back, North Little Rock's Altee Tenpenny, is expected to sign with two-time defending national champion Alabama - though Bielema hasn't given up hope quite yet of keeping all of the state's best at home.
"I really want if anybody can play Division I, SEC-championship level football, we need to keep them in state," Bielema said. "I've done everything in my powers to make sure that happens."