If you’ve been paying attention to Arkansas Razorback football over the past week you know that coach Bret Bielema plans for his program to be the sort that plays real football. His team, Bielema wants everyone to know, is the ideal place for recruits who want to emulate what they see in the NFL.
Just, you know, without any of that no-huddle, up-tempo stuff that seems poised to revolutionize the pro game.
Bielema made no secret last week at SEC Media Days that he favors “normal American football.” Essentially, he prefers what most folks would consider to be a pro-style approach.
During one ESPN stop this week Bielema joked that there are coaches in the SEC whose “pretty boy hair” he would love to “muss up.” What do you want to bet those pretty boys run some version of the offense that Bielema would love to see mussed up via rule changes?
This fight against football communism is not Bielema’s alone, of course. Bielema has an ally in Alabama Coach Nick Saban, who also has wondered aloud if no-huddle offenses put players at further risk of injury in an already violent sport. “Is this what we want football to be,” Saban dramatically asked last fall.
Naturally, the response from the up-tempo crowd in the SEC (and the ACC) (and the Big 12) has ranged from “Are you joking?” to “Quit whining and figure out how to stop it.”
For the record, and in the interest of full disclosure, I like pretty much everything about Bielema so far. I think he comes across as the proper mix of casual and controlled with his players. I delight in his willingness to go at it with people on Twitter. I view him as a coach who has a chance to win in Fayetteville. But count me — until I see indisputable evidence that the no-huddle is creating a significantly more dangerous game — firmly in the “if you don’t like it, figure out how to stop it” crowd.
Listen, I love that Bielema has helped put the spotlight on a debate that has been bubbling up behind the scenes for a number of years. Former Razorback running back Michael Smith and I used to frequently discuss the idea of what makes “real” football. If college football fans are lucky, then the contrasting styles remain relevant, the game stays entertaining and the argument rages on for seasons to come.
In 2013 (and probably 2014, 2015, etc.) the debate comes neatly packaged as Auburn vs. Arkansas and Bret Bielema vs Gus Malzahn.
What was once just a Nov. 2 game between first-year coaches facing rebuilding jobs is now one of the most highly anticipated games of the 2013 season.
Credit Bielema for knowing what he wants to be. During 16 seasons of covering sports and in these last nine months as an editor with Arkansas Business I’ve been reminded over and over that successful people have a clear vision of who they are, and they have a specific plan to follow.
Still, I can’t help but wonder how this line in the sand will play with some recruits and coaches.
It will be particularly interesting to see how this dismissal of no-huddle, up-tempo football is viewed by high school players and coaches in the Natural State, an early adopter of spread, no-huddle offensive philosophies.
Malzahn, you might recall, penned “The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy” when he was coaching at Shiloh Christian. It’s the blueprint for what he does today at Auburn, and teams across the state — not to mention teams throughout the country at every level of football — have taken inspiration from his work.
Many of the coaches running a similar style in the state’s prep ranks still revere Malzahn, who loves to sell himself as “just a one of the guys, a high school coach who hit it big.” Malzahn is well past that, but loves to perpetuate that perception.
This state doesn’t produce a lot of college football prospects, but has seemed to churn out quarterbacks, receivers and linemen who initially developed in fast-paced offenses. Could the high-profile poo-pooing of no-huddle football backfire in any way?
Many of y’all likely think this isn’t an appropriate question during a new coach’s honeymoon phase. I get that. I do. But it’s a question worth asking and a conversation worth having.
Bielema’s tenure at Arkansas begins at a time when the game seems to be shifting away from — or at least redefining — what is done in the NFL. Bill Belichick incorporated no-huddle elements with the New England Patriots several years ago. Philadelphia hired Chip Kelly to replicate his success with no-huddle at the pro level. Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin reportedly drew NFL interest in the offseason.
Certainly, the approach favored by Bielema has been successful for Saban and Alabama. It’s a style that has been responsible for the Tide winning three of the last four national titles. So we know all about what this approach has done in the past.
But the future of pro-style football? How that develops will be interesting to watch right along with this budding Bret Bielema vs Gus Malzahn rivalry.