Jim Harris: Bret Bielema Riding Wave of Arkansas’ Newest ‘Rock Star’

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By this point in his Arkansas career a year ago, Bobby Petrino was a rock star. Hence, his entrance for the “Signing Day in the Rock” event at Verizon Arena the day after National Signing Day was treated as such: Petrino entered the arena to a rousing ovation from more than 1,000 Hog fans, smoke machines billowing.

It was quite the spectacle.

So, too, was the image of Petrino two months later in a neck brace, explaining his motorcycle accident. We know what all transpired in the next few days.

Bret Bielema hasn’t coached a game for the Razorbacks yet, but the way he’s taken the fanbase by storm beginning wth his introductory appearance in Fayetteville on Dec. 5, we’re certain “Signing Day in the Rock” will have the same kind of rock-star flavor for the Hogs’ new head man.

Of course, Bielema and his staff are busy bees these days, from Hawaii to Florida, trying to make sure they have something to talk about at the Little Rock Razorback Club’s next “Signing Day in the Rock” which is set for Thursday, Feb. 7, at Verizon Arena. (We suggest getting the $65 tickets NOW at any First Security Bank location; Verizon’s doors open Feb. 7 at 5:30 for the cocktails, auction and dinner buffet, and the show starts at 6:45 p.m. Fan tickets to sit in the stands without the dinner are $25.)

Fans have probably noticed the Arkansas commitment list rises and dips by the hour. The previous staff handed out a few scholarships simply to prove they were doing something, it appears. Six players who were at one time committed to Arkansas and the previous coaches are exploring other options.

FREE Razorback & Red Wolves Recruiting GuidesThat’s natural. In some cases, the players were signing on to an expected style of play — though everyone also knew the staff in place this past season was unlikely to be around. And while this may not necessarily be the case with Arkansas (you be the judge), it’s common knowledge around the coaching profession that staffs knowingly headed out the door aren’t gung-ho to make it easy for their successors (for example, look to what Hugh Freeze inherited at Ole Miss when he took that job a year ago).

In December, Bielema couldn’t do anything wrong in fans’ eyes in putting together most of his coaching staff. Some commentators went as far to declare this a “perfect” staff of top-name assistants who also had strong recruiting cred to go with great coaching acumen. It drew comparisons to some of Frank Broyles’ staffs and was likened somewhat to Lou Holtz’ great first staff in 1977 (which Broyles had a big hand in hiring).

Lately, the news on the hiring front has concerned various groups of Hog fans — as we knew eventually had to happen.

Tim Horton turned down a raise — which still would have left him the lowest paid of all the full-time assistants — to take a comparable position job, coaching tight ends, for Gus Malzahn at Auburn.

Some observers were ready for the Arkansas native and former Hog player to spread his wings, citing anything from Arkansas’ losing top in-state players to out-of-state rivals to a recent spate of fumbling by Horton’s running backs. Others, however, felt Horton was the last link to the old Hog tradition, was the most connected to the in-state high school coaches, and needed to be retained by Bielema. Truth be told, Horton needed to set out for new pastures if nothing less than to avoid becoming a “lifer” on the Hog staff under three head coaches and two interims, particularly if he held any ambition to being a head coach somewhere down the line.

It was a good move for both parties in that Bielema has a fresh staff — of course with the exception of Taver Johnson, who moves from linebackers to cornerbacks, the position he oversaw at Ohio State and where we’re certain he’ll excel. Johnson got as much out of his players, most of them freshmen, as any coach on last year’s staff.

It took Bielema a while to finally settle on Barry Lunney Jr., the Bentonville High offensive coordinator and former Razorback star quarterback, as the tight ends coach. Lunney has a certain confidence about him when he speaks to groups, and he seems to have that “it” factor as a coach who could and should be going places. Before he joined his father in the high school ranks, he tried the college route a few years back as an assistant at Tulsa and San Jose State when neither of those programs were going anywhere. This is a great opportunity for growth within the college game.

As Lunney was coming in Tuesday, George McDonald was headed out. One of Bielema’s first hires, the former University of Miami receivers coach was visiting with Hog recruits as late as the weekend when an opportunity came as offensive coordinator at Syracuse. He formerly worked with new Syracuse coach Scott Shafer at Western Michigan and saw it as a good fit, plus there simply is no turning down a coordinator’s job over a position job at a BCS school, even if you’ve only been on the job a month.

Sure, it concerns Hog fans, many on message boards and Twitter who seem to think this only happens to Arkansas and its staff.

Nick Saban lost his defensive coordinator at LSU after a month back in 2000. That happened to be Arkansas native John Thompson, who quickly joined Houston Nutt’s Hog staff. Saban obviously survived; he’s had a reported 68 coaching changes among his assistants during his head coaching career and always finds another able hand.

Bielema showed early on in Fayetteville that he could land quality assistants who can coach the current players up — offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and line coach Sam Pittman were simply a huge coup after they left Tennessee; Joel Thomas had record-setting, turnover-avoiding backs at Washington; Randy Shannon came from TCU for a position job here and has the name and recruiting rep, while D-line coach Charlie Partridge and defensive coordinator Chris Ash showed with Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl against Stanford what they can build at Arkansas, given time. For familiarity, the current players have Johnson, who served Petrino as assistant head coach and filled in during the tumultuous last April.

The key now is filling those 10-12 spots for the incoming recruiting class while also getting started on the 2014 and 2015 classes — that’s the way all the other SEC schools are doing it now. Check out the number of spring enrollees of high school seniors around the conference of late, such as the 13 at LSU and Georgia. That’s a trend Bielema and his staff will have to embrace in coming seasons once they’ve established recruiting contacts and gotten a full handle on the prospects for the next two years.

For now, it’s honeymoon time for Bielema and the Razorback staff, and a fun ride for the fans to enjoy before it truly gets serious on the SEC gridiron. So, let the fog machines smoke up the room and crank up the music. It’s the time for rockin’.

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