Razorback Fans See A New Side Of Bret Bielema At SEC Media Days
But what we’ve mostly seen from Bielema since he was hired in December has been a man enjoying a honeymoon period with an adoring throng of new fans. We’ve read stories about his love of reggae music and flip flops. He made the rounds on the booster club circuit, firing up fans with his lines such as how he didn’t come here to play in the SEC, he came here to win the SEC. He frequently interacts with fans on Twitter, sometimes offering words of praise regarding things going on with the team or recruiting, sometimes showing us pictures of him with his little dogs, sometimes retweeting pictures from fans loving their Razorbacks around the world.
Even when he fends off the haters on Twitter, it’s done in a dismissive, brushing dirt off his shoulder manner. He doesn’t engage them in some sort of drawn out fight. He’s smacking flies.
When he moved to the SEC, the obvious thing to question him about was his infamous “We don’t want to be like the SEC” line when he was still at Wisconsin. He’s been prepared to answer that with a fairly standard that-was-then-this-is-now response, and the topic usually dies there.
Criticism of his comments comparing his Big Ten record to Nick Saban’s, or criticism of the rankings of his recruiting classes were all brushed off on Twitter. Even when Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee said, potentially slanderously, that Barry Alvarez had called Bielema a “thug” we saw nothing but a couple of tweets and a harsh press release from Jeff Long defending Bielema.
Yet, at SEC Media Days, when a reporter told Bielema that Gus Malzahn first thought Bielema’s notion regarding the safety of up-tempo football was a joke, we saw a new side of Bret Bielema that we haven’t seen since he became head coach at Arkansas.
His entire demeanor changed in an instant. He replied, “He thought it was a joke?” and a new side of Bret Bielema emerged. One that we haven’t see until now.
Gone was the usual stream-of-consciousness press conference. No more was the press conference a bland recitation of the Arkansas depth chart and how hard everybody worked in spring practice and offseason conditioning. Bielema launched into an impassioned monologue about just how serious he actually was. He didn’t become dismissive. He didn’t make a joke. He engaged fully and forcefully.
This was Bielema being challenged. He recognized that his credibility and integrity were being called into question by a fellow coach and he would need to stand firm. He didn’t respond with cheap jabs back at Malzahn, he never even brought him up. Bielema essentially drew a line in the sand and said “This is who I am. This is what I believe. This is what I stand for, and I’ll fight for it.”
Whether Bielema is actually correct or not in his thoughts on up-tempo offenses is irrelevant. What matters is that Bielema took the criticism and challenged it head-on. Arguably, the closest we’ve seen to that type of fire from Bielema is from the Grantland article that documented how fired up Bielema can get in practice. That’s wonderful, but this was Bielema getting energized from a different perspective. This is how we can see Bielema reacting to news he didn’t necessarily want to hear. If a player admits to him he didn’t go to class or slacked off in practice, we can envision Bielema focusing the power of his entire being on that challenge and forcefully asking “you thought it was a joke?”
In short, he took a punch and punched back.
That’s very important because arguably the most important factor for the Razorbacks this fall will be how they respond when faced with adversity.
The team has said all the right things since last year ended. They talk about this year being a fresh start and deleting 2012 from their minds. Bielema said he didn’t watch last year’s film when he started coaching here because he wanted a clean slate. That’s all well and good, but we won’t really know how much they’ve actually been able to establish a new mindset until they face challenges on the field.
By this point in the summer, we’ve all analyzed the upcoming schedule to death. We know about the brutal middle third of the season and that Arkansas is a double-digit underdog against four teams in a row. Most likely, how we remember this season will be defined by how well the Razorbacks come out of October and, if they lose those games, how they respond in November. If they begin to fold after a tough loss or two, the season could end very poorly. If they keep fighting with the understanding that they can win a few games in November, then the season can end with a bowl game.
We know how vital this is because we saw last year what happens without leadership. Arkansas was actually pretty successful in the 1st quarter throughout the season last year, but everything would fell apart when the opponents would begin to strike back. John L. Smith all but officially ceded leadership of the team to the players, and it led to disaster.
That’s why installing that sense of fight is just as important for Bielema as installing plays and schemes. There will be times this year when the Hogs will get knocked down, and the issue then will be how they respond to it.
An old saying is that teams are reflections of their coaches. If this new side of Bret Bielema is any indication, we can look forward to the team standing up and fighting back, and that should be refreshing, and a lot of fun to watch this fall.