Senior College Football Columnist

Hog wild: Bielema's first Arkansas Signing Day packed with drama


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- All the drama, all the speculation, all the food for thought and Bret Bielema's first signing day at Arkansas ended with a wry joke about salad dressing.

And unless you recognized the obvious 200-pound running back not in the room, you didn't get it. On Wednesday night, before 500 or so people at a Razorback Foundation reception, the man who had charmed the pork out of Hog Nation was momentarily flustered.

But he got the joke.

"He got it, definitely," said Michael Dodd, an alum in the audience from Kansas City.

During a question-and-answer session, Dodd had asked Arkansas' new leader about his favorite salad dressing. Only recruitniks and perhaps the Arkansas coaches who had huddled inside the walls of the Frank Broyles Athletic Center knew the reference.

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Five-star tailback Alex Collins had been tweeting about his "fetish" -- Dodd's word -- regarding ranch dressing. That's the same five-star Alex Collins from South Florida who was projected to be the foundation of Bielema's first Arkansas class. The same Collins who didn't show up for his signing ceremony at South Plantation High in Florida on Wednesday morning. The same player whose mother reportedly "confiscated" his letter-of-intent.

The kid whose noncommittal by early Thursday morning had become one of the national headlines from National Signing Day.

"Everybody knew that ranch dressing was his favorite dressing," Dodd said. "Basically there have been a lot of fans tweeting at him about ranch dressing."

It's times like these when the recruiting process runs off the rails. It is filled with the whims, nuances, emotions and the raging hormones of teenagers. When those chemicals mix, lives and programs can combust.

Bielema and Arkansas came out fine on Wednesday. Minus Collins, who, as expected, did finally sign with the Hogs Thursday, the coach's first class had settled in at No. 22 nationally according to 247 Sports. The Razorbacks were one of 10 SEC schools in the top 25.

A culture is changing for the better here just as the SEC West threatened to leave not only Arkansas but the entire country behind. (Four consecutive national championships, hel-lo!)

An Iowa product who grew up on a hog farm in Illinois was going to where the action is when he left Wisconsin. That was a referendum on both the SEC and the Big Ten.

But the waiting on the first Wednesday in February continues to be the hardest part.

"Drama," said an assistant Wednesday morning as Collins' no-show became apparent.

"You're going to get surprises good and bad," Bielema said at his afternoon press conference. "You're going to get curve balls thrown at you. It's a day where you have to adjust and adapt."

Friggin' salad dressing, do you believe it? That's how the day ended. Here is how it progressed.

9:30 a.m.: 'It's like everybody is breathing again'

Clarinda Carr's eyes were watering. They weren't tears of joy after all. It just seemed like it.

"I've got allergies," said the Arkansas football administrative assistant.

Carr did seem like she was ready to break into some kind of sack dance, though. She has been at Arkansas for 34 years, worked in football since 1981. Yeah, she's seen everything including Bobby Petrino's exit last April.

Let's just say the mood has lightened considerably inside the Broyles Center. Around the office Carr feels a certain permission to speak freely. Before she couldn't, neither could anyone during Petrino's code of Signing Day silence.

"It was total quiet, no noise," she said. "One time he texted his football ops person at the other end of the hall to come tell me to be quiet because I was on the phone."

How dare an administrative assistant answer the phone? OK, so Petrino wasn't the most personable guy in the world. Turns out that wasn't the worst of his qualities. Carr sees a new day dawning. One with sunlight, to begin with. Bielema's first day on the job, wearing his usual flip flops, he opened the door to his ground floor office to let some fresh air in and cranked up the reggae tunes.

"It's like everybody is breathing again," Carr said.

Wait, what is a 43-year old former walk-on linebacker from the Rust Belt doing jamming to Bob Marley? Turns out Bielema was converted decades ago as a young assistant at Iowa. The school used to treat the staff to a Carribean cruise in the offseason. Bielema would sneak off on island expeditions to authentic local watering holes to listen to music with former Iowa teammate Paul Burmeister.

"We'd ... say give us the best local music and best vibe," Bielema said.

That seems much more refreshing than the former coach doing his best white-glove treatment.

"If there was a piece of fuzz on the floor, he'd bend over and pick it up," Carr said of Petrino. "He changed a lot of things in that way. He cleaned up the place. He dressed us up."

While dressing them down on Signing Day.

10:40 a.m.: 'I believe in building from the ground up.'

Bielema has a few minutes, but only a few. Tim Brando is about to call for a radio interview. There's a makeshift studio set up in the hall for the school's online recruiting show. The new coach is going to open and close it with the latest news on the Hogs' class.

This seems to be the proper moment: The coach has been asked more than once about the quote that followed him all the way from Madison to Fayetteville.

During a recruiting spat with Urban Meyer last year he famously uttered: "I can tell you this," Bielema told The Sporting News, "we at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC in any way shape or form."

If you're scoring at home, those were combined shots at perceived SEC sleaziness, Big Ten haughtiness and Urban's, um, aggressiveness in recruiting.

Things got out of hand fairly quickly between the two when a purported Big Ten "gentleman's agreement" complicated matters. Turns out there was no such thing as Big Ten coaches agreeing to lay off recruits once they were committed elsewhere. Even if there was, Meyer pretty much filleted that concept.

"There was a concern I had," Bielema said.

Now that they have swapped conferences, perhaps Bielema has a taste of the cutthroat SEC. Right now, it tastes pretty good. Collins committed to Miami and Wisconsin before promising his services this week to Arkansas. The last two switches obviously were because of Bielema.

The coach couldn't talk about his hoped-for prize directly until Collins signed. But Bielema did reminisce about Collins' high school coach, Doug Gatewood. The two coaches became friends a while ago. Lineman Fabian Dodd was one of Bielema's first big-time recruits at Iowa. That was back in 2001 when Gatewood was at Piper High in Sunrise, Fla.

"Doug and I built a special relationship," Bielema said.

Collins was reportedly "devastated" when Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas. Any school would have taken the five-star prospect with 4.45-second 40 speed. But under Bielema, tailbacks thrive. Wisconsin has produced eight consecutive years of 1,000-yard rushers, seven of them under Bielema.

"I like to build from the ground up," he said.

That would explain 6-foot-5, 320-pound guard Denver Kirkland, a signee from Miami and 6-10 offensive tackle Dan Skipper from Colorado. It doesn't explain that without Collins, Arkansas would be down to three scholarship running backs. Knile Davis left after his junior year following an injury-filled 2012.

Yo, Alex, this is all yours.

"I walk outside yesterday," Bielema said. "I've got the phone to my ear. I haven't had a haircut in six weeks. A guy goes, 'Hey Bret,' and he says, 'How about that running back?'"

Welcome to the SEC, Bret. Even chancellor Dave Gearhart cares.

Lunchtime: The Fayetteville 3

Bielema knew he had to recruit the state.

That's why he hired Barry Lunney Jr. to be tight ends coach. The native son played quarterback, starting 40 games for the Hogs and helping win the 1995 SEC West title. His dad, Barry Sr., is head coach at nearby state power Bentonville High. Through last season, Barry Jr. was Bentonville's offensive coordinator.

"These kids, their roots ran deep at the university," Lunney Jr. said.

There are seven Arkansans among the Wednesday signees. Three of them are across the street. That's how close Fayetteville High is to Razorback Stadium. At a lunchtime ceremony quarterback Austin Allen, linebacker Brooks Ellis and safety Alex Brignoni signed their letters.

Down the road in Little Rock tight end Hunter Henry has been committed since July. That would be before John L. Smith ever coached a game. That Hunter and the others have stayed loyal is somewhat of a surprise.

"I know what it's like to grow up here and be a Razorback," Lunney said.

Frequently, it means coaching changes. Jack Crowe lasted one game into his third season before being fired after losing to The Citadel in the 1992 season opener. Houston Nutt lasted a decade before a bitter departure. Bielema is Arkansas' third coach since 2008, representing a masterstroke for AD Jeff Long.

They met on a South Florida beach seven years ago, believe it or not. Both were in town for the USC-Oklahoma BCS title game.

"He was in shorts and flip flops," Long said. "I'm in a coat and tie being an AD. I was impressed by him."

Out of the blue, Bielema decided to write a letter to Long last fall congratulating him on handling the Petrino situation. Long won't go as far to say that Bielema was laying the groundwork for expressing his interest in the job.

"It [the letter] didn't say to me, 'I want the job.' But I did say, 'Hmmm, I wonder if he might look at this,' " Long said.

Bielema's arrival was a soaring triumph for Long, the biggest upset of the silly season.

"He gets it," Long said, "on all levels. C'mon he was a pig farmer."

Well, there's that. Again.

Through that transition the Fayetteville 3 stayed strong. Allen's brother Brandon already plays quarterback for the Hogs. Allen's father Bobby coached at Arkansas for 15 years before being reassigned as director of high school relations.

His first week on the job, Bielema invited the Fayetteville 3 over to the office because he could. Unofficial visits are easy when they involve crossing the street. The baby Hogs are figuring out their roles. They already know the roster.

"We know we need another running back," Ellis said.

3 p.m.: The press conference

Bielema announces that 22-player class with one glaring omission.

"Just as a reminder," sports information director Zack Higbee says to the media, "coach can only talk about players that have signed."

OK, then let's celebrate a cohesive staff that has been thrown together like a boy band. They've gotten this far. So far, it seems to have worked. Linebacker coach Randy Shannon has only his third job outside the Miami program since playing for the Hurricanes. Jim Chaney, he's the jolly one, most famous as Drew Brees' offensive coordinator at Purdue. Chaney has also worked in the NFL with the Rams and at Tennessee.

Receivers coach Michael Smith left Kansas State after two stays totaling 15 years. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge was at Bielema's side for three straight Rose Bowl berths at Wisconsin. Partridge recruits Florida and it's part of his job to figure out what's up with Collins.

For the moment, he is distracted by questions about his recruitment of Sam Irwin-Hill, an ambidextrous punter from Australia. For the record, he remembers fondly Jabaal Sheard. Before there was Alex Collins, there was Sheard, a former Pittsburgh defensive lineman.

"He went up on stage at his school to sign his letter and just ran away," Partridge said.

Pitt fright, stage fright, whatever. Did he eventually sign?

"Oh yeah," Partridge said.

6 p.m.: The big finish

The cheerleaders and mascots enter the Razorback Foundation gathering and I turn to Higbee.

"We're going to call the hogs aren't we?" I say.

"We're going to call the hogs," Higbee confirms.

I sort of blend in by standing up and shooting video with my phone. Wooo, pig, sooie is avoided. At least for this outsider looking in.

I'm here because Bielema is at his best in a crowd. The anti-Petrino, if you will. So when he trots out a tradition for the Razorback Foundation, he has them from "Hello." Every year, Bielema has highlights assembled of the recruiting class. With his clicker he can rewind plays back and forth. That three-star guard can look like an All-Pro pancaking a guy four times in a row.

Anyway, the crowd eats it up. Bielema already has acquiesced to quarterback Damon Mitchell's desired nickname.

"He likes to be called 'Doo-wop,'" Bielema said.

Juco linebacker Martrell Spaight is at least the second prospect flipped from the coach's old boss, Kansas State's Bill Snyder.

"Maybe I should have someone start my car for me tonight," Bielema said.

The coach is asked if he can build an "Alabama-type program?"

"Who are they?" he shoots back.

Then it's time for the salad dressing reference. While brows furrow around the room, Dodd and Bielema share a moment. The coach is big on Twitter, even combative to critics. He'd have bet the ranch (dressing) a day ago that Collins was coming. Now?

"Keep your eyes and ears open," Bielema said. "There might be a few things up our sleeves."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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