Jim Harris: An Open, Honest Bret Bielema Has To Be Guarded Now

Bret Bielema Wants To Beat Alabama

In this silly season for college football news, which is sure to kick up in earnest after the NCAA basketball championship is decided on Monday, it doesn’t take much for the blogosphere to generate controversy even when there’s none present.

New Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema learned that the hard way this week.

Before the internet-fueled sports media world was finished Monday, before moving onto more important things like decrying the Bob Knight-on-steroids actions of the now deposed Rutgers head basketball coach, Bielema had been painted as firing a shot of Kim Jong-un proportions across the bow of the U.S.S. Alabama and supposedly had called out Nick Saban.

From reading the reports emanating outside Arkansas, it’s as if the former Wisconsin head coach had called a press conference to remind everyone that he had much better record coaching in the Big Ten than Saban managed during his tenure at Michigan State (never mind that their Big Ten years didn’t coincide, nor has Bielema ever coached opposite Saban). Why, Bielema didn’t just take the Arkansas job to play Saban’s Crimson Tide, he planned to actually attempt to beat them.

My gosh, the audacity of the man to utter such nonsense.

One Southeastern Conference blogger likened Bielema’s brashness to that of Lane Kiffin’s — the type of bravado that forced SEC Commissioner Mike Slive to intervene to calm the coaching broadsides coming via Knoxville for one ugly year before Kiffin high-tailed it to Southern Cal.

Why sure, Bielema’s pointing out Nick Saban’s Big Ten coaching record is exactly the same as Lane Kiffin accusing an SEC coaching rival of illegal recruiting. Right.

Well, sorry, Coach Bielema, it’s the penalty box for you, they seem to say. And don’t think this won’t be rehashed ad nauseum in the run-up to the Oct. 19 Arkansas-Alabama game in Tuscaloosa. Those Tide boys and the coaching staff might be so infuriated that an opponent would dare dream of beating them, they might lay a 52-point whooping on those pretenders from Fayetteville. That’ll show ’em.

Only, Bret Bielema’s bold talk was part of a fan question-and-answer portion of a Razorback Club meeting in Saline County last week, not some wild proclamation before the assembled state sports media. As these things go, some fan might have wondered out loud — in light of Arkansas having lost the last six games to Alabama — if Bielema expected ever to compete with the Crimson Tide.

We’ll never know, because that portion of what was said at the Razorback Club meeting wasn’t included in the now infamous report, only that Bielema had dared take on the grand behemoth of the SEC with crazy talk that Arkansas might try to outscore the Tide one Saturday.

The news report quoted all through the SEC blogosphere in the following days was gleaned from Hootens.com, a publication producing mostly a pigskin summer annual with an excellent and significant focus on the state’s high school football teams. It should be added, however, in terms of a news organization, the amount of magazine coverage by Hootens.com is determined by that school’s advertising buy. (We call that advertorial.) And as far as news reporting, the last time we recall Hooten’s.com quoted as a source nationally was when the site said Houston Nutt was headed from Arkansas to be Baylor’s next head coach back in 2007. Nutt instead went eastward.

What was unfair with the report was not putting Bielema’s answer in its full context. We’re left wondering: What prompted the remark? Was it a joke, as Bielema later claimed Monday via Twitter? Did the crowd take it as a joke, as he told us Monday night in Heber Springs?

By Monday night, after he’d flown in to Heber Springs to address yet another club, the Greers Ferry Lake Area Razorback Club, Bielema was on guard and asking the crowd for “easy” questions.

Before the shindig, he agreed that perhaps it was a bit unfair for rah-rah comments with red-clad Hog fans to become national news.

“It’s just also a reminder on a daily basis that everything is public,” he said. “It’s just, you can’t interpret tones. When I made a comment last week, it was kind of a rebuttal to a question and everybody was laughing and joking around and obviously it was taken out of context. Guys who don’t handle their business or do it well professionally, it shows up more now.

“But we’ll definitely be guarded as we move forward.”

We’ll also add that local and national bloggers have noted Bielema’s propensity for tackling Twitter and taking on the animus of Wisconsin fans, who saw their seven-year coach shockingly bolt for an SEC school after three straight Big Ten titles.

It’s also not the first time Bielema has taken on a college football icon and seen it splashed throughout the media, then ended up being roasted outside his home state.

When Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State, Meyer immediate began targeting recruits committed to other Big Ten schools, including some at Wisconsin. That led Bielema to utter his “We do things differently in the Big Ten” comment about Meyer’s recruiting strategy. He said at the time that his comments were also misunderstood, but it resurfaced again when Bielema suddenly found himself coaching in the SEC last December.

The most disappointing aspect of getting a now-guarded Bielema is that before last week, his approach was fresh and not the general coach-speak. Now, he’ll be careful not to offend any SEC rival with even the most casual, humor-intended line.

At fun events such as Razorback Club gatherings, Hog fans and a fair media all lose a little because of it, too.

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