Jim Harris: Ego Turned Way Down As Bielema Entertains Central Arkansas Fans

It was bound to happen. Someone had to crack wise, as someone always does at these large banquet events when the microphone is passed around for questions and answers. The query tossed at new Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema at the Little Rock Razorback Club’s “Signing Day in the Rock” event Thursday night went something like, “Coach, does your new contract contain a clause that forbids you owning a motorcycle?”

When the giggles, cackles and murmurs had dissipated, Bielema was ready with his retort.

“Once you get to know me, you’ll know I don’t need a motorcycle.”

Cue even more laughter throughout Verizon Arena.

Bret Bielema won the night, as the political pundits say about campaign debates, and he did it without the rock show that his predecessor required after winning 21 games in two years. He and his staff were easily accessible as they worked the room before the show, and then the head coach took it over on stage after “Voice of the Razorbacks” Chuck Barrett introduced the entire football staff, including the folks behind the scenes.

Lacking robe and scepter, Bobby Petrino entered the arena at this event last year to rock music and smoke machine. The more prescient observers might have thought even then, “Uh-oh, this isn’t going to end well.”

Months later, an embarrassed Petrino would admit on ESPN he was already out of control, in more ways than one, especially when he got on his motorcycle one too many times — this particular instance with a young blonde female who wasn’t his wife but was his new in-office staff hire.

As we know, that’s why Bielema is here, after Arkansas’ football program took a seven-month plunge into post-Petrino murkiness.

There is hope again, and it was evident on the faces of more than 1,700 Hog fans that attended to get the rundown of Bielema’s first Arkansas recruiting class.

Already, south Florida prep sensation Alex Collins, whose dramatic signing story captivated even ESPN and other national sports channels for two days, has excited the Hog masses that were hooting his nickname, “Buddha,” when the three video screens projected his image.

And so it was, to only a slightly lesser degree, with the likes of 4-star offensive lineman Denver Kirkland, another south Florida prospect’s whose signing announcement was carried on ESPNU early Wednesday, National Signing Day. It wasn’t just Hog fans whose jaws dropped when they heard and watched Kirkland say he had chosen “the University … of Arkansas.”

Like signing classes throughout all of college football this week, every one of Arkansas’ 18 high school catches, plus five junior college players who are already enrolled, were possibly destined for greatness.

That’s what makes National Signing Day and the 48 or so hours that follow so important not only to the Alabamas and Ohio States of college football, but for those teams that didn’t crack 70 in the team recruiting rankings. Fans everywhere have newfound hope; they start thinking about buying tickets to next season, which is a mere seven months away.

Hog fans at the arena on Thursday were hyped by the Bielema finish, in which the Razorbacks jumped somewhere around 30 or so places on every national recruiting board to land somewhere between Nos. 22 and 32, depending on which website the faithful trust more (the better ranked one, right?).

The new UA coaching staff, Bielema said, will get a week free to reacquaint themselves with their loved ones, who they’ve barely seen during a whirlwind month — Arkansas’ recruiting since early January spanned Hawaii to New Jersey, with much of the staff obviously traveling in and out of Florida for two highly regarded offensive studs and two athletic steals for the defense.

Bielema, trying to nail down the highlights of his first Razorback recruiting experience, singled out the time he spent with junior college recruit Martrell Spaight’s grandfather in North Little Rock early in the process, as well as sitting in the home of a former all-conference Hog star, Mark Henry, whose son, four-star tight end Hunter Henry of Pulaski Academy, chose to stay in state despite overtures from Alabama and others.

Throughout the hectic chase for talent, Bielema keep Twitter followers entertained with photos and messages from his travels, when he wasn’t mixing it up with Wisconsin fans still bitter about his departure after guiding the Badgers to a third straight Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance. Chagrined now about some of those exchanges, he nevertheless said with a slight scowl, “Sometimes I just get fed up dealing with stupid people.”

Mostly, though, Bielema was all smiles and relaxed.

Brenda Scisson, a die-hard Hog fan and War Memorial Stadium commissioner, was among the crowd to commandeer a mic for a question and asked if the Hogs would be ditching the exotic non-traditional uniforms of last year — white helmets for some games, charcoal-gray jerseys and pants in others, and so forth.

Bielema assured her and the crowd that he’s “a traditionalist.” But Arkansas, he said, also has a contract with Nike — he’s a big fan of that brand, by the way — that calls for using some of those non-basic Razorback combinations sometimes. He said it would only happen occasionally while noting “kids like variety.”

And that’s something the older Hog fans have to grasp. Sure, they are key to paying good money to attend these events, not to mention funding the program through major donations and ticket purchases so the UA can build a new football facility and much-needed student center. But it’s not ALL about them. Watching Alex Collins’ official signing as he was decked out in all camo (including tie) should tell the “traditional” fans that times keep changing, especially for the players Arkansas needs to compete with Alabama, LSU and Florida.

Bielema, though, respects the past, and he plans to make former Razorbacks a major part of the program again. That’s been one of the whispered gripes in recent years from the old guard. When former Hog defensive star C.J. McClain brought it up Thursday night, Bielema outlined that plan as well.

“There are no better ambassadors, nor better resources, than you who have walked the walk,” he said about the former UA players.

Meanwhile, the current players will continue their off-season program in the run-up to the start of spring practice March 7. The spring game is April 20. Then for the staff it’s back to building on this newest recruiting class with a much better start on the next one. Bettering last year’s 4-8 mark will go a long way to bolstering the chances for a highly ranked recruiting class, just as Ole Miss managed after a surprising 7-6 year, including a bowl win under its first-year coach Hugh Freeze.

“I told our 21 seniors, I didn’t come here to be great in three years,” Bielema told the crowd. “I came here to be great now.”


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