SB Nation

Steven Godfrey | August 25, 2014

The Natural State

Bret Bielema's power offense and fearless mouth are out to save a team haunted by coaches past

Bret Bielema is explaining how the newest Bret Bielema controversy was created.

"I had no idea," he says. "What happened is, it’s totally just timing, which in today's world means everything."

It's the Monday following Bielema's vacation to Florida, in between media obligations for the second-year Razorbacks coach. The self-described "Head Hog" leans back on a couch at the University of Arkansas, wearing shorts and a fisherman’s sunburn as he pleads obliviousness.

For the last three weeks, the chatter surrounding Oklahoma transfer wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham has been the freshest atop a stack of uproars stemming from Bielema quotes.

"Honestly, I could care less about anybody else's roster. I mean, I really don't. It doesn't bother me one way or another," he says in his office.

Green-Beckham was the top overall recruit in the nation in 2012. He chose to sign with Missouri over Bobby Petrino’s Arkansas. After multiple arrests for marijuana possession and an April incident allegedly involving the assault of a woman, Mizzou dismissed DGB. July 3, he joined Oklahoma.

hogs "I'm not afraid of [media]. I'm not scared. I mean, what is there to get nervous about?"

None of this had anything to do with Bret Bielema until that afternoon, when he was asked about a recent offensive lineman transfer to Arkansas during a regular segment on "Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly," a statewide radio program.

"I think I played golf in the morning and had an event later, and I didn't even know if I could make it back by 1 p.m. for the radio interview," Bielema says now. "I raced to my car to make the call [to the radio show]; never checked Twitter, never checked anything. I was on the golf course all morning."

At 1:06 p.m., Oklahoma's official Twitter account announced Green-Beckham's signing, which had been rumored as far back as May. Almost simultaneously, Bielema said:

I just want, especially the people of Arkansas to know when we go after a transfer, we’re going after the highest quality of people ... I’m not trying to get a rebound of any law enforcement or drug issues or anything else. We look for high quality.

And thus the headlines: "Bret Bielema takes shot at Oklahoma."

"That day kind of jumped at me, because that night I was sitting there and I was like ... that question isn't even about that," he says. "I think it was ... it was an ESPN college football show and it was Matt Millen and Andre Ware, and Andre's like, 'I love Bret, but Bret shouldn't say anything until he wins a SEC game.' And I wanted to call him and say, 'Listen, you're using a quote that wasn't even about that question.'

"At that moment [on the radio], I kind of just took that privilege to say, 'Listen, when we're adding people, we're adding people because they fit.' I don't want them to think I'm just out there grabbing people. I made a comment a year ago, and we lived through to it this year, that we would not sign a junior college player that did not qualify fully out of high school."

That's a reasonable explanation. And Bielema has the APR scores, team GPAs, three Big Ten titles, and a 71-33 career record to back his philosophies. Maybe the quote itself was just too coincidental with Green-Beckham's signing and too confidently delivered to be ignored. Or maybe Bielema's history of attention-grabbing quotes means the media will rarely presume his innocence.

"I'm not afraid of [media]. I'm not scared. Everybody around me asks, 'Are you nervous?' and I say like, 'No, why?' I mean, what is there to get nervous about?"

The rational answer is where he's about to go. In less than 12 hours, he'll take a predawn flight to Bristol, Connecticut for a day at the ESPN "car wash." It's a schedule that moves coaches through as many ESPN platforms as possible in a single day, ensuring condensed sound bites centered on each coach's résumé. For Bielema, that means suffering bullet points of opprobrium 10 minutes at a time for 10 hours in a row.

  • Bret Bielema, the Big Ten coach who decried the SEC's moral deficits only to show up a year later for a six-year contract that pays $3.2 million annually.
  • Bret Bielema, the man who rhetorically linked the dangers of up-tempo offenses to Cal player Ted Agu, a sickle cell carrier who died during an offseason workout.
  • Bret Bielema, the man who was charged with reuniting the Arkansas fan base, then picked a public fight with local hero and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn.
  • Bret Bielema, now the mascot for the anti-tempo safety crusade, sitting in a state of proud high school coaches running those dangerous schemes.
  • And most importantly for his status, Bret Bielema, the man who is 0-8 in the SEC, just as 0-8 as he was eight months and several controversies ago.

"Not gonna be hard," he says.

He keeps himself from laughing.

"It's gonna be about as easy as easy gets. You know what would be hard? A minute and 48 on the clock out there, no timeouts, and you're tryin' to figure out what the scenarios are that are in front of ya. That's what makes me nervous."

Were it not for Bielema's back catalogue of hot takes, it's likely a quote coinciding with a minor event like the Green-Beckham signing wouldn't have become a headline. And were it not for Arkansas football's incomparable decade of telenovela fodder, Arkansas fans would embrace the head coach's contrarian PR.

"Bret Bielema is very real," says Jeff Long, Arkansas' athletic director, the man who hired the former Wisconsin coach. "He’s very ... who he is. He speaks his opinion and his heart, and he’s not speaking an agenda or trying to get you to think he’s something people want him to be. I think that’s refreshing."

"There's a simple thing we always say: if you always tell the truth, you will never have to remember what you said," Bielema says.

"All I know is this: if I say the exact same way every time, I'm never going to have remember what I said. I'm never going to be sitting here five years from now in an interview and say, 'Wait a minute, what did I say that time?' Because that, to me, is how you expose yourself. I'm going to be the same guy every day. Consistency is a beautiful word."

His conduct is nothing if not consistent, even if his truth is sometimes specious. The real task is understanding why he's the man to bring that truth to the Ozarks.

***

It is difficult to explain the last 10 years of drama inside the state of Arkansas and its flagship team. The shaky dichotomy between the state's two power centers -- the Southern old-money capital of Little Rock and the boom country suburbs of the Northwest region, where the university sits -- is a graduate seminar on economics and cultural anthropology. But the drama surrounding the last four football coaches -- betrayal, sex, cell phones, and motorcycles -- is 2 a.m. Cinemax fare.

"It's all Houston Nutt's fault, dammit."

Wait, what?

"It is," says Lanny Beavers. "No matter what."

Beavers, 51, is the founder of Hogville.net, a web site that, since its current incarnation around 2004, has become the exposed nerve of Razorback fandom. Hogville's Monday Morning Quarterback message board is at all times a yawp of frustration, suspicion, and anxiety.

"You can put Nutt-Sack and Hitler side by side right out there and see what happens." hogs

As the proprietor, Beavers floats above most of the scrum, except for the topic of one Houston Dale Nutt, Little Rock native and Razorback coach from 1998 to 2007.

"The Nutt-Sack? Oh hell yeah, people still hate him," he says. "He’s despised. The ill-informed in this state are still Nutt-Huggers. But you can put Nutt-Sack and Hitler side by side right out there and see what happens."

He points to the parking lot of a suburban Little Rock shopping center where he's gathered a group of Hogville members to discuss the state of the Razorbacks. Lunch is a buffet, where the counter girls pass with a fresh baked potato pizza every 10 minutes.

The restaurant is virtually empty, save for the Hogville summit. There's Pork Belly, Sardis Hog, Aporkalypse Now, Hawg Engineer, Pigonometry, and Full Metal Piglet, whose real name is Robert Shields, a local newspaper reporter. Beavers outed Shields on Hogville after he caught Full Metal Piglet consistently posting the columns of a certain local newspaper reporter. Save for Beavers, a Hot Springs resident, the entire table claims Central Arkansas. Once they're assured I'll cite them only by their cyber noms de plume, they’re a relaxed bunch.

Hawg Engineer: "At the end of the day I think people just felt really let down by Houston. He was a local guy and ..."

Full Metal Piglet: "... You can certainly blame him for Gus Malzahn not being hired."

Nutt guided the Hogs to three division titles, but couldn't deliver the fever dream of Arkansas national dominance. Malzahn joined Nutt's staff as offensive coordinator in December of 2005 as part of a deal that included the Hogs' signing five blue-chip players from Springdale High School, where Malzahn was the championship-winning head coach. But instead of running Malzahn's up-tempo offense, a stubborn Nutt benched the Springdale freshmen and forced Malzahn out of play-calling. The Hogs still won 10 games that year.

That's the short version. The longer version, debated to this day at places like Hogville, involves leaked emails from friends and families of coaches and players, all trading insults between the Springdale loyalists and Nutt's camp.

Malzahn left following the 2006 season to become the offensive coordinator at Tulsa. Under Nutt, the Hogs fell from a SEC title contender to a pedestrian 7-5, and the head coach's phone records were made public after an angry Arkansas fan filed a freedom of information request to the university in hopes of exposing an affair with a local TV reporter. Nutt resigned and fled to Ole Miss, where he was fired after almost four seasons. Arkansas swapped its athletic director, Hall of Fame coach Frank Broyles, for Jeff Long, a Michigan Man with no local ties.

Lanny: "The board was split with the Nutt Wars. You had the Nutt-Huggers and those who could see the light, and eventually we told them to go leave and be Ole Miss fans."

Enter Bobby Petrino, the moral mercenary and passing wizard who escaped a 3-10 Atlanta Falcons team for Fayetteville in the dead of a December night. After a 5-7 season, Petrino delivered three winning runs, culminating in 2011 with only the third 11-win season in Arkansas history. The new coach was a cold bully to fans, players, and media, but boasted a 34-17 record and a one-back offense that favored a deep passing game.

Petrino was loathed everywhere but the state of Arkansas, where he and Long were championed for returning the Hogs to what most assumed would be a top-10 team in 2012. Then in April, he wrecked his motorcycle, exposing an affair with a university employee he had hired, all while lying to Long about the whole thing. He was fired, but not without much debate among fans. Petrino is now the head coach at Louisville, again.

Full Metal Piglet: "It tells you a lot that Louisville knows he’s a son of a bitch and they took him back anyway. He’d bad-mouthed them before, but he was available, and they grabbed him back in a heartbeat. I'd take him back in a heartbeat."

"It tells you a lot that Louisville knows he’s a son of a bitch and they took him back anyway." hogs

Lanny: "Well I would, too, but it’s not happening, so that’s why I’m a Bielema guy."

Full Metal Piglet: "You expect to win and Petrino wins. Louisville will be back in the top 20."

Porkbelly, with a mouthful of pizza: "WHO?"

Full Metal Piglet: "Louisville."

Porkbelly: "WHO? WHAT'S THAT?"

Lanny: "Louisville. Because Petrino’s there."

Porkbelly starts laughing.

Porkbelly: "Who? Isn't he a basketball coach? Don't know any Petrino now."

Sardis Hog: "I’m probably one of the few, but you’ve got to have some moral standards. I think I’m one of the few, but people think if you win you can do any damn thing you want to. I had given him the benefit of the doubt when the news came out, but he needed to go."

At last, the discussion turns to Bielema. Except, wait a second, here comes Malzahn again. After helping Auburn win a national title as offensive coordinator in 2010, Malzahn became head coach at Arkansas State in 2012. As the Hogs slogged through a 4-8 season under interim coach John L. Smith and lost to tiny ULM in Little Rock, Malzahn became the favorite.

On the same day in December 2012 that the Hogs hired Bielema, Malzahn returned to Auburn as head coach. Bielema went on to out Malzahn's up-tempo offense as physically dangerous, and Malzahn fired back, starting a year-long war in the media. Absent any actual science regarding player safety, game results seemed to weigh heaviest among public opinion. Malzahn led his old Tigers offense to a SEC title and almost a BCS Championship in his first year. Bielema went 3-9 with a depleted roster.

Porkbelly: "At first, I wanted Malzahn."

Full Metal Piglet: "I would’ve been okay with that."

Lanny: "I'm telling you, it was the whole Houston Nutt debacle. You’ve still got Nutt-Huggers hanging around. The Nutt-Huggers don’t like him. They think he’s bad."

Hawg Engineer: "It’s still in the back of everybody’s mind what he was associated with at that time. Gus being an Arkansas guy isn’t enough to get some people past what happened. And yeah, it’s been a while. Whether or not they knew all the facts, they knew he was associated with something that went wrong, and that’s all it took for some people."

Porkbelly: "The thing about Petrino is, how can you go your whole coaching career and not coach defense? Has he ever had a defense?"

Sardis Hog: "Sooner or later, it would've had to happen. Like when Spurrier got his butt whooped by Nebraska and got religion about defense."

To help kick off the launch of the SEC Network, league officials had announced that the Hogs would open their 2014 season at Auburn on August 30. Of all the potential conference games to build a stage around, the network chose Malzahn vs. Bielema, heightening interior rifts between Malzahn-sympathetic Hogs fans, primarily from the Northwest area, and anti-Gus, anti-NWA region Hogs, primarily in greater Little Rock. This move was met with some indignation.

Lanny: "I thought, 'oh, shit.'"

Full Metal Piglet: "0-9."

Porkbelly: "Ain’t much different than starting off the season with Alabama. We’d always get them to start off the conference season and start 0-1. Not much difference ... nobody cares ‘bout Gus. Well, Northwest Arkansas people do. I don’t think it’s that big a deal down here."

Pigonometry: "I have a friend who wants to go, and I told him, 'I’m not driving to South Alabama to watch us get beat. Too damn hot.'"

A pause as more pizza arrives.

Lanny: "So yeah, when people say that think Arkansas fans are crazy, I tell people, 'Wouldn't you be?'"

hogs

***

Since Jeff Long arrived in Fayetteville he's been unable to shake being described as a businessman.

"I’ve never worked a day in business in my life," Long says. "I’ve worked in higher education my entire life. Now, do I certainly understand that we are in a business, and yes, we have to make business decisions? Yes, certainly we’re sports and entertainment business in the confines of higher education. Absolutely that’s true. We have to walk many gray lines between higher education and business."

That "businessman" tag should be a compliment, especially when the business in question reported just under $100 million in revenue in 2013, the 14th-most among Division I public schools, per USA Today. Maybe it's that Long, not a native Arkansan, succeeded the legendary Broyles. Maybe it's that he's also overseeing the College Football Playoff committee, a major elevation in his profile, and possibly for the negative once its first Top 25 appears in October.

"It really is hard to go into the SEC and turn bad issues upside down and fix them. It's easier to say 'fuck it.'"

"You hear the word 'carpetbagger' a lot, which is stupid," one Central Arkansas area booster said. "Broyles had built himself a protective layer of ex-players who wouldn't disagree with him, and Long's had to come in and reevaluate almost everything. Now you've got people using 'carpetbagger' to describe Long when their ticket prices go up because he's finding every way possible to bring in money and sustain the kind of national program people here expect."

"The coaching tree at Arkansas is so crazy when you get into the trickle-down from Broyles and his assistants or guys like Jerry Jones having his way with so many things. Bielema was a way for [Long] to bring his guy in, a guy with no connection to anything other than Jeff. A guy who can ride or die with Long. And when you fire Bobby Petrino, you have to start the 'integrity' chant. And what Bret's doing behind the scenes is impressive to us. He's said some things he probably wish he'd phrased better, but it really is hard to go into the SEC and turn bad issues upside down and fix them. It's easier to say 'fuck it,' bring guys in to win immediately, and then move on."

Long is far too accomplished a tactician to address the implosion of Petrino, a man he courted, defended, and was eventually cuckolded by. He's still willing to stump for Bielema ("I don’t think he’s said anything inappropriate."), but if you ask him the same question, the answer is in the context.

Why is Bret the right fit?

"He’s building a program the appropriate way, and we know people don’t like to hear that. But I brought him here to build a program a certain way, and he’s doing that."

What "certain way" is that?

"He's a great leader of young men. I think you’ll find that they think of him as a player’s coach, but he’s a player’s coach with discipline and accountability and a no-nonsense way."

But when you're looking to make this move in the wake of everything that's gone on, wouldn't you look for someone a little ... calmer in the public spotlight?

"Well, let me go back and repeat myself. It’s about his ability to lead young men. He has an ability to get players to believe in themselves. You look at Bret's track record and not only has he won, but he’s won with quality young people."

Did the events of the past in this program inform your decision at all?

"I think it informed me to make sure that I got a leader of young men. And that’s clearly what I was focused on. So yes, I think that leadership is the key word, and Bret is able to deliver that for us."

"I think that leadership is the key word, and Bret is able to deliver that for us."hogs

No matter how many boorish media flops, Bielema is not Petrino. For one, he immediately quadrupled the number of appointments on the public speaking calendar, according to one staffer.

"The first year he got here, from December to August I counted something like 70-plus speaking engagements," Mattingly says. "Houston was great with people, but it’s not even close to what Bret has done from a get-out-and-meet-people standpoint."

Boosters who -- in the same breath dread the thought of a slow offense and no bowl games -- describe Bielema as "loud and great and fun," and unlike "any other head coach I've met when they're out in public."

"He gives you someone that everyone can get behind," Mattingly says. "People feel like there’s a cult-like following of Mazlahn, and I think that may give trepidation to people like Jeff Long. That kind of thing makes it a little scary, because you don’t want to get to that place where boosters are too close to program, which was one of the problems under Nutt."

He's navigating the alumni dinner circuit and pushing state pride, routinely citing the fact that all three of Arkansas' SEC West-champion squads had at least 13 starters from in-state. He's also capable of creating blurbs that are the comedic inverse of his controversies, like when he praised the "big ass" of defensive lineman signee Bijhon Jackson at SEC Media Days.

"I guess I probably shouldn’t have said 'ass' in Hoover," he says.

"I just know this. The first time I saw Bijhon, he's got a ... bigger rump, and he moves so well. I think in today's world, like, you know ... Hey, I'm married, but I don’t like it when people tell me I've got a big butt. I mean, in today's society, it's not a good thing to have a big butt. But in D-line play, it's totally acceptable. It's a desire that you want and look to have. So that was meant as a compliment."

***

Arkansas fans, current coaches, and even Hogville all want you to know that Nutt vs. Malzahn is history.

But the story encapsulates the difference between Little Rock, where a born politician like Nutt once enjoyed strong native support, and Northwest Arkansas, where companies like Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt turned a handful of ignored Ozark towns into one of the strongest local economies in the United States almost overnight.

"Basically, Little Rock's as Southern as Birmingham or Memphis, with all that comes with it," says one Little Rock booster, who asked to remain anonymous. "And now if you drive one exit north of Razorback Stadium, you might as well be in Ohio."

"I think if they would’ve hired Malzahn, it would’ve been fine by now," Mattingly says. "We've come full circle as a state since Gus left, but when he came up as a name for the job, there were all those leftover feelings. Do you like Gus? Did you get over Gus? The state is still divided over him. It's fueled by Gus being from Northwest Arkansas and Houston being from Little Rock. That's when things began to really divide. I think it got to a point where people felt like they had to choose sides."

Bielema offered a restart free of regional agendas and a decade of Hogville conspiracy theories, like the one suggesting Malzahn was sent to overthrow Nutt from the beginning and usurp control of the program to the Northwest, or that Malzahn was barred from considering the open Arkansas job in 2012 because of Governor Mike Beebe, an Arkansas State fan angry that the state's flagship university refuses to schedule the Red Wolves in football or basketball.

Bielema offered a restart free of regional agendas and a decade of Hogville conspiracy theories.

hogs

There's no reason for Iowa-bred Bielema to support or denounce Little Rock's ongoing battle to keep as many home games as possible in War Memorial Stadium, three hours southeast of campus, or to vouch one way or the other on Arkansas' long-term contract with Texas A&M to meet annually in Arlington, Texas. Those obligations mean that every other year, Arkansas could have as few as four games on campus.

"Well, some of it, I don't really have a say in," Bielema says. "I just have to live with it. When you're the coach of the Hogs, you just have to wrap your arms around it, kiss it and make it great, you know? I mean, it is what it is and you can't make it any other way. As soon as you start catering to something you really don't believe in, now you've got problems. Because then you're faking it."

Bielema might not get to play dumb, but he can't be pinned down by one faction. In this regard, Long's move feels like a masterstroke. And it was, until Bret went and made hurry-up offenses a debate, bringing Malzahn back to the conversation.

"I do think that people are overly sensitive to me if I comment on anything about pace of play, or if I comment on certain aspects of the SEC or certain teams we play with it," Bielema says.

The unforeseen fallout of Bielema's attack on tempo came locally. Malzahn helped pioneer his offense in Northwest Arkansas, and a flourishing legion of coaches created variations statewide. Today the majority of Arkansas' top high school programs are using a version of Malzhan's no-huddle mashed with spread option or the latest air raid incarnation.

But no matter the formation, the impetus in Arkansas high school ball is to go as fast as possible. According to Bielema's repeated comments, that's risking lives and increasing injuries.

"When I see that, I just say, 'Hey, Coach is entitled to his opinion,'" said Kevin Kelley, coach of Pulaski Academy in Central Arkansas. "And more people are going to listen to that than will listen to me, but I want to see some stats that back that stuff up."

Kelley has become a national name for refusing to punt. His offense employs metrics for any fourth down situation, no matter how far back into its own territory. It's a system, along with consistent onside kickoffs and an aggressive offense, that's won Pulaski three state titles.

"Everybody’s entitled to their opinion. And everybody, including myself, has an agenda," Kelley says. "Bret's a good guy, but I’m a numbers person. I want to see statistics when someone makes a statement that backs it up. Because I believe that more times than not, people are wrong."

"Our fan base and the people who follow us enjoy this offense," says Chris Wood, head coach of Har-Ber High School in Springdale and a former offensive coordinator under Malzahn. "It's a continual cycle, and it's entertaining. If you look at the pace of this country, it's fast-paced. When you get people in the bleachers, you have to keep 'em entertained."

"I think if you polled fans and said, 'Hey, you’re not going to win the national championship. Only one team can, and your team is gonna lose at least one ball game. You’re sitting in the stands. Do you want them to lose 14-6 or do you want them to lose 50-42?' I think they’re going to pick the 50-42," Kelley says.

"I don't think one thing or the other when a coach speaks out about this system," Wood says. "You've got to sell your product and who you are to your people, and you want your people to believe in it 100 percent. Coaching is about making believe that what you're doing is the greatest thing ever created. [Arkansas] has a great coaching staff. They've never done anything to slander high school football, and they know we're trying to do good things with our kids."

Both Wood and Kelley have multiple players on the Arkansas roster and express their full support for the administration and staff. But some of the state's top coaches still go to clinics at college programs outside the state that run hurry-up offenses. Like Auburn.

"This past season we went down to Auburn. For us, when it comes time to pick a clinic, we're going to go to Auburn because that system applies to what we do and how we do it," Wood says. "But we still get open doors at Arkansas. We come down and see how they work strength and conditioning, how they install, how they manage personnel. We get the best of both worlds in that sense."

"If they had a clinic [at Arkansas], I might go up there just to network and show support. Plus I’ve got a couple players up there playing for them," Kelley says. "But I’m certainly not going to that clinic to learn how to run our offense, because that’s not our philosophy. I don’t think we could win doing that. And the guys that are choosing to go to Gus’ thing, it’s because they’re choosing to run his style of offense or picking up things from him."

One head coach of a consistently successful Arkansas high school attributed Bielema's attack on the up-tempo as politics at the collegiate level and that the consensus of prep coaches in the state was that Bielema meant no criticism to high school programs.

"He probably wasn't thinking about that at the time," the coach said. "No one's pissed off. I don't think anyone I know thought he was taking a shot at high schools. But if you're Bielema back when he said all that, you have to know that Gus is still well-respected by a lot of coaches working in the state, and you're about to start rebuilding slowly. So why take that shot and make it about comparing the two of you?"

"People here are always going to be proud of Gus Malzahn, because when he succeeds, that's a little piece of Arkansas," Wood said.

Bielema describes his relationship with high school coaches in the state as "absolutely great."

"I can tell you this. I just did a luncheon and had 30 guys come up to me and say, 'Coach, I love what you're doing. I can't wait to see you do it again.' I think there are so many people out there that will love what we are doing and how we are going about it and what we do," Bielema says.

"I don’t care who’s on the back of his motorcycle. I care about how often he wins and by how much."

Back at the pizza buffet, the hurry-up debate is all a moot point.

Lanny: "We don’t care. It’s the wins and losses. We don’t care what he says, who he’s married to."

Full Metal Piglet: "Or what he wrecks?"

Lanny: "I don’t care who’s on the back of his motorcycle. I care about how often he wins and by how much."

Porkbelly: "It went by pretty fast in the state. It was here and gone, nobody cared."

Lanny: "Nobody cares. There’s nothing he’s really said that ... it’s his opinion. It doesn’t affect my life. Doesn’t affect my income. He’s not doing anything to make Arkansas look bad."

Sardis Hog: "He’s still coaching the game as is. He hasn’t decided to walk away because he’s on some high horse and willing to give that up. I let my kid play high school football. We didn't worry about concussions."

Pigonmetry: "Mine’s playing in eighth grade, and I don’t worry about concussions. And he had a skull fracture, but that was from baseball."

Sardis Hog: "My son got a concussion playing baseball, too."

Porkbelly: "See? There you go. Injuries from baseball, not football."

***

Arkansas' offensive linemen, the unit Bielema prided himself on at Wisconsin, will be in first-class seating for all flights to away games. Under Petrino, linemen were three-wide in the back of the plane.

"We love him for it. I mean, God bless [quarterback] Brandon Allen, but I'm a little bit bigger than he is," 322-pound tackle Brey Cook says.

"My feeling is, they're usually the guys with the most bravado, the most willing to work and willing to buy in without question," Bielema says. "So when they speak, people should listen. And when it comes time to fly, it's a simple reward. Instead of jamming them into a three-seat exit row or anything else, put them up on first class and let them enjoy the benefit of being big."

Linemen typify the everyman rhetoric Bielema wants to sell, especially when faced with any kind of talk about recruiting rankings. By outside metrics, Wisconsin was pedestrian on Signing Day, but successful in placing big men in the NFL. When I explain the Football Outsiders stat Adjusted Line Yards, which attempts to qualify rushing yards created by the work of linemen, Bielema perks up -- "Sounds interesting," he says --  especially when he finds out his Wisconsin lines were usually in the top 20 nationally.

"One of the most successful patterns we saw for us was taking undersized linemen, the 250-pound guy that was looking to get to the 320, rather than the 340, 320 that's already made who gets a lot of hype because of the size. With every one of those guys, there was a ranking next to their name, but you couldn't measure their heart or their head. That's what I get excited about. Right now we just keep recruiting more and more guys who think right, act right, and can play right once you get their name."

The least appealing part selling Bielema is the offense, at least to this fan base in this moment. Compounding matters were the attrition and non-existent recruiting in Smith's interim season (not to mention Petrino's career-long reputation of leaving paltry depth charts upon his exits). There's little uglier than a power offense without the power.

"If they're successful at running the ball in an Alabama-type system or a Bret Bielema-type system, if they’re winning, everybody’s gonna be happy," says Kelley. "But if you’re not, obviously that’s when everybody is going to start questioning you."

"People heard him talk about smash-mouth, and suddenly there's this anxiety again," Mattingly says. "That fear becomes magnified that they're going back to never throwing the ball. People know that Petrino's offense made Arkansas successful; he just ran his motorcycle into a ditch."

"From an offensive point of view we should want to tell [our opponent], 'Here's our five runs.' We are going to run and give it to them and say, 'This is why we are going to do it and this is how we are going to do it. What can you do about it?'" Bielema says.

Under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, once a spread coordinator, any fear of Arkansas being a Maryland-I regime is far from founded. Arkansas ran 775 plays from scrimmage last season, favoring 61 percent run to pass. There's an argument to be made that recent history is coloring Bielema's brand of football long before it has a reasonable chance to present its best self. Had Allen remained healthy at quarterback or if Arkansas had been able to hang on in close, late losses to Mississippi State, or even Rutgers ...

"I'm not searching for answers. I know the answers." hogs

"Yeah, and I'm not concerned with that," Bielema says. "You don't have to believe me, but I just don't [care]. I know what I'm doing, I know that it will bring success, and I know how to go about it. I'm not searching for answers. I mean, I know the answers, but we just have to be able to do the right math. [Arkansas] will give me time. I really believe that, because every semester we're here our GPA goes up. Our APR is higher. And we're on the threshold. All of these things are short-term gains towards the big goal."

"Right now I think you sell [Bielema's] leadership and what he’s doing behind the scenes in his program," Long says. "You sell the academic progress, because you believe that is ultimately going to play out on the football field itself. There’s parts of fan bases that only focus on winning, and we understand that, but we understand there’s more to it than just winning."

As conversation wanes Bielema’s eyes drift towards the TV hanging on his wall, where "SportsCenter" is muted. Somewhere on the screen a mention of the New York Jets crawls by.

"Man, I love what he said the other day, talking about the Patriots. What’s his name ..."

Rex Ryan?

"Yeah, Ryan. Rex Ryan. Someone asked him if he was worried about New England this year, and he told them, ‘they better be worried about us.’"

"They better be worried about us. Man, I love that."

***

Four weeks from now, Bielema will address a crowd of Razorback fans at an open practice as Arkansas begins to install its Week 1 game plan.

"If you see someone videotaping, tell them that ain’t right. Especially if they’re wearing an Auburn shirt, knock the shit out of them."

The crowd cheers.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Jason Kirk | Illustrations: Dylan Lathrop | Photos: Getty Images


About the Author

Steven Godfrey is a senior reporter for SB Nation based in Nashville, Tennessee. A graduate of the University of Mississippi and a long suffering Atlanta sports fan, he can be reached on Twitter @38Godfrey.

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