Jim Harris: New Razorback Hire Bielema Comes Out Of Left Field

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Arkansas ran up against Bret Bielema in just his first season as a head football coach, when he had replaced a Wisconsin Badger legend in Barry Alvarez. The Hogs and Badgers squared off in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1, 2007, after Arkansas had lost the 2006 SEC Championship Game in early December to Florida, the eventual national champion.

Statistically, Arkansas dominated the Badgers, holding their vaunted running game to minus-5 yards. The Razorbacks spent the entire third quarter seemingly camped on the Badgers’ 32-yard line but could never put points on the board in what setting up to be the deciding part of the game.

Wisconsin survived the Hogs and Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and crew 17-14 in what may have been the most frustrating bowl game Arkansas has ever played and not won.

Maybe Bret Bielema knew then and believes now that Arkansas has the potential to surpass that performance and that season, which was the program’s last SEC West Division Championship.

Bielema is set to become Arkansas’ newest head football coach. Nobody other than Jeff Long and his closest advisers in Fayetteville saw this coming.

A Stephens Inc. jet was flying from Teterboro, N.J. to Madison, Wis., and then to Fayetteville on Tuesday to deliver the new coach.

The 42-year-old Bielema was making a reported $2.6 million a year in his seventh season as the Badgers’ head coach. It’s figured that Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long waved considerably more than that, a reported $3.2 million over the next five years, to get the Badgers coach to give up a successful position to take on the Arkansas job. The head coaching role came open in April when Bobby Petrino was fired after it was revealed he had an affair with a woman that he subsequently hired for his staff. John L. Smith filled in as head coach this fall and the Hogs went 4-8 after reaching as high as No. 8 in the polls after the first week of the season.

Bielema and Wisconsin won the Big Ten championship on Saturday night with a 70-31 thrashing of Nebraska in Indianapolis. That win avenged a 30-27 loss to the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, Neb., in September. Wisconsin completed the season 8-5, with three of those losses in overtime, and is headed to its third-straight Rose Bowl.

Bielema has a 68-24 career coaching mark, all with the Badgers. He was defensive coordinator for Alvarez for two seasons before being promoted to the top spot. He played collegiately as a walk-on defensive end at Iowa under Hayden Fry. Beilema also coached at Kansas State under Bill Snyder, who is part of the Fry family tree of coaches that also includes the Stoops brothers and current Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.

Obviously, he’s a Big Ten guy. It remains to be seen how that will translate to the Southeastern Conference.

One is reminded that Nick Saban was viewed as solely a Big Ten and northern guy before LSU hired him in 2000. Saban led the Tigers to a national championship, left college football for two years to coach the Miami Dolphins, then returned to the SEC to coach Alabama, where he has won two national championships and has a chance this season for a third.

Long said he was hoping to find a coach with ties to Texas high schools to improve the Hogs’ recruiting in the Lone Star state.

However, that never materialized when Long’s apparent No. 1 Texas target, TCU head coach Gary Patterson, expressed no interest in the Arkansas job.

On its current roster, Wisconsin has 16 players from Texas or Florida. Recruiting Texas for blue-chip prepsters seems to run counter to Bielema and his Wisconsin assistants’ background, but the one assistant that Bielema indicated Tuesday would be following him, Charlie Partridge, has deep Florida ties. Expect Bielema to look to fill his Arkansas staff with at least a few assistants with connections into Texas and Louisiana. Part of the reason he agreed to $3.2 million a year instead of much more is to have more money to allocate to assistants than what Wisconsin made available. Bielema saw six assistants leave his staff after last season, including Broyles Award finalist Paul Chryst, now the head coach at Pittsburgh. Two years ago, his defensive coordinator, Dave Doeren, became head coach at Northern Illinois, and Doeren last week was hired by N.C. State.

Arkansas reportedly had preliminary talks with LSU head coach Les Miles, discussions that led to LSU’s athletic administration boosting the dollar amount and length of Miles’ current deal.

Long also met with Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy in the past 48 hours but the Razorbacks did not offer Gundy the post, according to sources close to the situation.

Meanwhile, Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn found a new job Tuesday afternoon as well. He’ll be the new coach at Auburn, where he spent three years as offensive coordinator for Gene Chizik and then this past year in Jonesboro, leading the Red Wolves to their second straight Sun Belt Conference Championship and a 9-3 record.

Malzahn was Arkansas’ offensive coordinator that day in Orlando seven seasons ago when the Hogs bumbled and stumbled their way to just 14 points while the team’s defense put on an overpowering display. That season was the only one Malzahn spent in Fayetteville after a lengthy high school coaching career, and then he moved on to bigger and better offensive numbers as a coordinator at Tulsa and Auburn. He was not in the mix for the Arkansas job, we’re told.

Bielema likely has more of a memory from that Jan. 1, 2007 day of the way Arkansas’ defense completely swamped his offense and yet couldn’t win the game. He’s a defensive-first guy. Arkansas hasn’t had a defense of any note since that Jan. 1 day in Orlando, in fact.

Email: jim.harris@sportinglifearkansas.com. Also follow Jim on Twitter @jimharris360

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