Jim Harris: Will Razorback Fans Buy In the Way Bielema’s Players Have?


The beleaguered first-year Arkansas coach, having suffered through a long losing streak the season prior and with just three wins total with a defense that set all kinds of wrong records, brought on a new defensive coordinator with a penchant for aggressiveness, and the result was a doubling of wins and even a surprise bowl game appearance to end year two.

Will the previous paragraph be how we recap Bret Bielema’s first two years as Razorback coach? If so, it will mirror what happened for the Arkansas football program in 1990-91 when Jack Crowe guided the Razorbacks. Crowe had his first defensive coordinator, Joe Pate, somewhat handcuffed to run the defense the way Crowe thought it should go (again, a similar parallel with Bielema and last year’s coordinator, Chris Ash) in 1990, which was a wreck of a season. Enter Joe Kines, from, get this, Tampa Bay and the NFL, to rebuild a defense with limited talent into a feisty unit that had Arkansas battling, thwarting opposing offenses, and putting the Hogs in contention for the Southwest Conference title in early November.

When starting quarterback Jason Allen tore up his knee against Baylor, however, the best Arkansas could manage was one more win with a walk-on, Wade Hill, at the controls, but the Razorbacks still qualified for the Independence Bowl with a regular-season finale victory.

Now, we know the comparisons between Bielema and Crowe should probable end with “they were both Razorback head coaches,” but to hear many Razorback fans and a few pundits say it, Bielema appears to them as in over his head with these Hogs in the Southeastern Conference as Crowe did in leading the Razorbacks in the old SWC.

Well, horse-hooey on all that.

Bielema can coach, he proved it at Wisconsin over seven years, and given time to reload (if not better) the talent pool at Fayetteville, he’ll do so again at Arkansas. When Crowe got the job, Arkansas seemed to go to great lengths just to hide the fact that he’d won only 25 percent of his games at some place called Livingston University (ol’ AIC folks would know it), which now goes by the name of West Alabama. Crowe’s real claim to fame was serving as Pat Dye’s offensive coordinator and helping recruit Bo Jackson. He’d matriculated to Clemson to call option plays for Danny Ford before he was summoned by Ken Hatfield as offensive coordinator for the Hogs in 1989. When Hatfield left the UA in mid-January with signing day fast approaching for Clemson to replace Ford — oh, the irony — Crowe was the only assistant left for Frank Broyles to tap as head coach. It wasn’t a John L. Smith hiring — where in April no established head coach would be leaving his spot for the uncertainty of Arkansas and replacing Bobby Petrino — but it was close.

No, to hear some of the impatient Razorback fans state it, Bielema falls right in line with such Hog coaching failures as Crowe or OtisDanny Ford Douglas, the one-time Philadelphia Eagles defensive assistant and reportedly overall nice gentleman who took over for John Barnhill and went 2-8, 5-5, 2-8 before being excused. Some will liken Bielema to Danny Ford, who at least went 5-5-1 his first year but had three 4-7 seasons around an 8-5 SEC West title year, but wasn’t given that sixth year to reap the reward of his strong recruiting off that division title.

It seems some fans fail to see the wreckage that’s been inflicted on a program and expect instant turnaround, even in the toughest football conference in the land and even when everyone who has paid close attention will tell you the talent isn’t there.

It’s funny, too, that nobody ever brings up Frank Broyles or Bowden Wyatt for first year flops. We’d love to know, since it was before our time, if fans wondered had Broyles (4-6) or Wyatt (3-7) stepped up too high in class to succeed after struggling in year one. However, in an age when the SWC was actually fairly stout nationally from top to bottom, where even Paul “Bear” Bryant managed a 1-9 mark his first year (1954) at Texas A&M, Wyatt (7-4) and Broyles (9-2) managed to completely right their respective ships in year two. Wyatt was the beneficiary of some decent recruiting by the aforementioned Douglas, and apparently Jack Mitchell didn’t leave the cupboard completely bare for Broyles, either. And, it should go without saying in an era when freshmen couldn’t play, both successful coaches came in recruiting hard and had some talented sophomores to work with in their second years.

Crowe, to refresh everyone’s memory, was a great guy with a good offensive football mind who simply was outmatched for the Arkansas head coaching job. Nevertheless, until it was obvious his hiring was a mistake (The Citadel, 1992, 10-3 loss to start the season), Broyles sold Crowe as an offensive innovator like he was, re-upped his contract each year for five years, and kept saying all was well, even if it wasn’t.

Nobody is trying to say all is well with Bielema if it’s not. Unlike under Crowe, it’s obvious to anyone who has been around the program lately that the players are buying in to what Bielema’s selling. He runs a disciplined ship that still makes it fun for the players; that was obvious to us at media day in early August and throughout this month’s drills. Hey, he can yell with the best of them, we’re assured, but you don’t see that when the public is invited into practice. He can also put an arm around the shoulders of the guy he yelled at and assure him that all will be good.

Keep messing up and he’ll punt you, we’ve come to see, though Bielema will still help the player find another home. Say what you want, and plenty of coaches are fake as can be about caring about their players, but it’s become obvious to us in 18 months that, when it comes to player welfare and well-being and improvement, Bielema’s the real deal.

Does that convert to wins in the SEC? Not if the talent isn’t there, or isn’t spread evenly throughout all the classes. With recruiting failures throughout his predecessor’s classes, Bielema  hasn’t been fighting with same sized stick so far, and as far as Arkansas is concerned, he may never be on equal footing with the powerhouse SEC programs in terms of talent. That’s been true for Arkansas football since Wyatt and Broyles, but the Razorbacks managed to outcoach and overachieve. Sometimes, even a 10-win season was possible. Petrino, for all the criticism he’s gotten with what his departure did to the program, did manage to get everything and then some out of his last team, the 2011 bunch, to win 11 games.

Bielema’s best players are freshmen and sophomores, with the occasional junior and senior scattered here and there. Since he arrived, 32 players on the roster have gone (some ran out of eligibility last year, others departed). It’s a full rebuild into the type of program Bielema and athletic director Jeff Long believe can last a while and not with just a flash of greatness here and there.

Tell that, however, to the average fan who will forecast the Hogs to lose more than they win this year, and yet be frustrated and disappointed as that actually plays out. We saw it all last year from much of the fan base and shook our head.

Don’t allow whatever result comes from Saturday’s trip to Auburn change what you should know and accept about this program: It is still a work in progress. We hate to already talk about “next year,” an Arkansas fan’s hated phrase, before game one of 2014 has even been played, but this team is being built with an eye toward doing something a bit more special next year, and in the years to follow. If you allow it, this bunch will frustrate, though we’d be shocked if there were any more 52-7 or 52-0 days like we saw last year, before Bielema’s way took hold. You saw the competitiveness of the last four games. You saw Brandon Allen, shoulder injury and all, operate at a 60-percent passing clip the last three games, after he and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney understood each other and Chaney found the plays that Allen could best operate.

You’ll see a defense under Robb Smith (last job, like Kines, linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs) that will give Arkansas a better understanding of defensing the read option, of playing the pass, and a better chance to win in 2014 than it did last year, when it had the biggest hand in Arkansas losing those last three games and set forgettable statistical records not seen since 1990.

If this season plays out like we expect, that will be the one other thing, besides both being coaches and generally nice guys who you could sit down and have a steak and a beer with, that Crowe and Bielema have in common. That’s why I’ve never wavered from saying this team should win six games in year two of Bret Bielema. And, see you in Shreveport during the holidays.

Bret Bielema Razorback fans sla

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