Kane Webb: Bret Bielema & Bobby Petrino


Nine Thoughts on Two Totally Different Dudes

(1) Bret Bielema, the Razorbacks’ second-year head football coach, surprised me at the Southeastern Conference Media Days, dutifully covered via television from my kitchen table. Ain’t technology grand? I liked him more than I thought I would. Having been based out of state when all this Bobby-John L.-Bret business went down, I can’t say as I recall having ever heard Bielema speak. At least not at length. Before the big fella landed the Arkansas job, he fell into that category of coaches that (a) I couldn’t pick out of a lineup and (b) I couldn’t name. Like, say, the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. I know they’ve got one, right?

At Wisconsin, on those exceedingly rare occasions when a Badgers game stayed on my television screen for whole seconds before I could reach the remote, Bielema looked like what he was: a former defensive lineman now coaching in the Big 10. Basic. Reliable. About as interesting from afar as paste. And from my states-removed distance last year, safely out of earshot of local talk radio and over-covered Razorback press conferences, during his first season at Arkansas, Bielema still looked like a former defensive lineman who should be coaching in the Big 10. As to what he sounded like, I assumed it was paste.

But then I saw him on television at the SEC Media Days, covered gavel-to-gavel by ESPN, and I realized something: I really should be too old to make assumptions based on appearance and stereotype.

(2) What may have impressed most about Bret Bielema was that he didn’t always sound like a coach but a human being. Holden Caulfield would approve. He doesn’t come across as a phony. Consider an answer he gave to ESPN Talking Head No. 1 before his press conference. The question was off-the-rack expected but still: What surprised him about last year, his first in the SEC? “I didn’t expect to go 3-9,” he said, not needing to include that oh-fer SEC mark. That surprised him. Losing surprised him. “I knew it wasn’t going to be a bed of roses,” he added. “But that’s what I wanted, a new challenge. Even the losses are opportunities to grow and learn.”

Actually, the losses, the failures in life, are the best opportunities to grow and learn. The Hogs head coach seems to get that. The good ones do. Have you noticed that Nick Saban, Alabama demi-god and public grump, almost seems happy this preseason? For him. He knows he’s sitting on a two-game losing streak, and he knows those failures will serve him this year more than if his team were coming off a(nother) national championship.

(3) Bielema also said he learned last year that the SEC has lots more speed and depth than he expected. That surprised him. It shouldn’t have.

(4) He told two recruiting stories and I stayed awake during both of them. To paraphrase the best one, about the hiring of Rory Segrest, who’ll coach the Hogs’ defensive linemen, Bielema said he was watching some tape on Samford, one of those trivia-question teams (quick: name where Samford is located!), and liked the play of its defensive line. So he Googled the name of Samford’s defensive line coach. Voila. Rory Segrest. His pedigree also includes a stint in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, back when the Eagles still played defense. A sexy hire? Nope. You’re not going to win over the chat boards by luring coaches from — where was it again? Samford. But there’s more to like here besides a quirky story. It speaks to the philosophy of a guy who’s willing to think differently, if not on the field then off of it.

(5) The man was smart enough to leave SEC World and head to the beach with his wife for vacation. Seriously. This is a big deal. For one thing, we are a grossly under-vacationed society, preferring to run on caffeine and stress, taking pride in our work-a-holism as if time on the job always equates to a job well done. For another thing, these are football coaches, not schoolteachers or someone of real import. Yeah, I get the whole off-field film-watching, weightlifting, recruiting-teenagers business, but, please, if I hear one more story about a football coach who sleeps in his office and hits game tape at 4 a.m. every morning, I’m switching to soccer for good.

(6) This was before the big motorcycle “reveal,” when it still looked as if Bobby Petrino might make a career of it in Fayetteville as the Hogs’ head football coach. I had arrived in Louisville in the spring of 2011 and, when people found out I was from Arkansas, they wanted to know about Bobby, not Bill. They love-hated him with a passion that would bubble up again when Petrino circled back to the Louisville job three years later. At a press conference before Charlie Strong’s second season as the Cardinals’ head coach, I pulled up in front of Papa John Cardinal Stadium, still shiny from a recent remodeling and expansion, and a long-time photographer for the local paper said, “There’s the house that Bobby built.” I don’t think he was kidding. Much.

Point is, two coaches and four years after Petrino bailed on Louisville, the fans there still obsessed over him.

(7) This was the winter of 2012 or so, just after Petrino was hired by Western Kentucky after his year in exile. Louisville had received an invitation to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, a necessary life preserver to flee the sinking Big East, and I was doing a story about how the Cardinals’ athletic director, Tom Jurich, pulled it off. Jurich gave Petrino his first head-coaching job at Louisville, or U of L as it’s known in those parts. Then Jurich became, um, royally pissed at the way Petrino job-shopped before agreeing to a long-term contract to stay put preparatory to hightailing it to Atlanta and the NFL. You know the rest of the story. So you would imagine that Jurich, for my money the sharpest A.D. in the country, holds a grudge against Petrino. You would imagine he’d be done with the guy. So I teasingly asked Jurich if he’d heard from Petrino before his return to the Bluegrass State. Oh, yeah, Jurich said. They talked. All the time.

Come time for Charlie Strong to move on, as we knew he would, I thought about that admission by Jurich. Had Petrino reached out for forgiveness, to salvage a friendship, or was he thinking ahead? Who knows? But he’s back at Louisville, isn’t he? (And if it was just a political move by Petrino, don’t think for a second that Jurich didn’t know it.)

(8) This was Derby Day 2014. Among the many able folks helping out in the media center at Churchill Downs was Kenny Klein, sports information director at the U of L and all-around good guy. I put in for a Petrino interview whenever, wherever, before the season would start. Klein politely shook his head No, explaining that the coach wouldn’t be giving one-on-one sit-downs until after this season was over. OK. So how’s he doing? I knew Klein had worked at U of L during Petrino’s first run there. I had heard plenty of stories about Petrino I. It was the usual: tyrant, offensive genius, made Attila the Hun look like a softie. Klein said the prodigal had been great, seemed like a changed man, and I didn’t detect a hint of PR spin in his answer. Maybe the most interesting story in college football will be the one written about Bobby Petrino in 10 years. Possible headline: “Even a football coach can change.”

(9) To judge by an offseason in which Bielema took care of business — retooling his staff, continuing to emphasize the talent and play of his offensive and defensive lines, seeing that his quarterback returned healthier and more confident — look for the Hogs to be better, maybe significantly so. But the schedule is a doozy. A trip to the Afterthought Bowl at 6-6 would be a triumph. Petrino’s Cardinals? He’ll win. He’ll polarize. We’ll watch from afar, our obsession with him relative to Bret Bielema’s ultimate success here.

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