One-on-One With Bruce James: The Rub Between Bielema & Malzahn


Former Arkansas All-America defensive end Bruce James and our featured columnist Jim Harris return with a one-on-one. Someday these guys are going to figure out how to do an audio podcast so you can just listen to their priceless back-and-forth, but since they both still have cassette recorders and vinyl records, you’ll have to read their conversation. And this week, it’s all about the Auburn game, Gus Malzahn’s work to turn the Tigers into winners again, and what’s going on with Bret Bielema and Malzahn.

Get to it, boys.

JIM HARRIS: OK, Bruce. You were telling me in preseason that you felt like Auburn would be much better than the preseason prognosticators were forecasting. Sure enough, a team that went 0-8 in the SEC last year is 7-1 overall and 3-1 in the league under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. What gave you the idea this would come to pass? I’d be rich now if I’d gone to Vegas with your info.

BRUCE JAMES: Number 1, they had recruited so well the last four or five years. When Malzahn left there, he left because [head coach Gene] Chizik wanted to change the offense, he wanted to go to basically to an I-formation. He also brought in a new defensive coordinator and a new defensive style. When you bring in a professional defensive coordinator and a pro offensive coordinator, they are not used to having to teach players. They are expecting the players to already know how to play and execute. It’s often difficult to go that route. They also had all kinds of disciplinary problems under Chizik.

Chizik exits, and Malzahn comes in and makes some of the best hires I’ve seen, hiring [defensive line coach] Rodney Garner away from Georgia where he’d been 15 years. Certainly bringing in Ellis Johnson, who Malzahn said he had the greatest respect for as a defensive coordinator, and bringing in Dameyune Craig from Florida State. Being that two of those [Craig, Garner] played at Auburn and knew the culture of the program, Malzahn started in the spring rehabilitating that team emotionally. I would hear from the Alabama people, from the Ole Miss people, hear from the LSU people, who would have their contacts, that this team was going to surprise people and was a team to be feared.

So, saying that Auburn would be much improved was a combination on seeing the hiring of the new coaches but also talking to these contacts. It wasn’t anything brilliant on my part for sure.

That was a rambling answer. Now let me ask you something …

BRUCE: What has been the biggest surprise with the Arkansas Razorbacks this season. It’s easy to say the defense, easy to say the offense. You’ve seen a lot of Arkansas teams, good and bad, over the years in your position. What do you see as the biggest surprise about this team?

JIM: To me it’s the performance of this team when disaster strikes them early. It seems this team gives up its want to fight very early, and frankly I haven’t seen it happen quite like this with Arkansas other than last year with the interim staff and in Jack Crowe’s first season as head coach, in 1990. I know the talent is down and Arkansas doesn’t match up well against most of this schedule, and we expected a difficult four-game run to start league play. But the way this team played the past two games, just seemingly giving up or barely putting up much of a fight, after what Bret Bielema promised in the preseason and what you expected from a new coaching staff with new energy, has surprised me. And, hey, I can sort of see getting blasted by Alabama, but you really have to be an awful team that has quit to play defense on 10 possessions and give up eight scores against South Carolina and Alabama. Teams on the FCS level would give those teams more fight.

BRUCE: So, are you saying these players are quitting because of coaching or quitting because of attitude as players?

JIM: Watching and knowing of these coaches, particularly the ones who came from Wisconsin that coach the defense, Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge, and what they were able to accomplish with the Badgers, the way they played Stanford tough in the Rose Bowl defensively, I don’t think these guys came down here and just forgot how to coach or motivate. I just won’t buy that. It has to be more the attitude with the current players, the older players, who were so easy to quit last year on that rudderless ship and on those coaches.

When I say quit, that’s such a tough thing to say about any athlete on this level, and most would probably be offended to be accused of quitting, but I don’t necessarily mean they have physically quit at all. It’s more of a mental check out. They mentally check out really quick in a game.

For example, Alabama’s offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeyer, is a great schemer and just bamboozled them a few times, running basic plays or basic underneath passes, then all of a sudden giving them a Petrino-like pass route with a shallow cross against the flow of the deeper receivers and direction of the play, and no linebacker gave it a thought to cover the tight end crossing. He was standing all alone with nobody within 15 yards of him. That had to be embarrassing. It was just being mentally out of it. And that’s where quitting, mentally, just kills a team, I think. You usually see this when a head coach is on the way out, the way Mississippi State checked out on Jackie Sherrill a few years back, not with an incoming staff.

BRUCE: Certainly they are not mentally tough. If you are mentally tough you don’t accept being driven and ground into the field like they’ve been the past two games. I certainly don’t think coaches forget how to coach. I was never pleased with the performances of the defense even under Petrino in the early days he was here. They were playing better then but not now. They are not playing very well.

I feel we have a lot of players who are very content to say they are on scholarship and they have a number and a jersey. There is not a lot of fire in their belly to succeed as players, and before you can succeed as a player, every player has to have accountability. Each player has to know he can’t make a mistake. On this level, one mental mistake can be seven points against a good football team —the tight end running wide open, a running back hitting a crease because the linebacker takes the wrong gap. I see mentally they are not picking up what they are supposed to be doing on assignments and also there just doesn’t seem to be enough pride in wanting to make a tackle. Playing defense is a want to, you have to really, really want to do it and you’re the one who wants to make the tackle. You should have 11 players fighting over the stat of who makes the tackle. A coach can’t put that in them. Either you have it or you haven’t got it.

Coach Ash is very, very much an up-tempo guy and I know his passion is there, he says he’s embarrassed. He’s just fighting to hang on till he gets players.

JIM: So how do you see this Auburn game playing out?

BRUCE: Sure enough, I’ve found out this week I’m the most optimistic of the group of guys I talk with who tell me I’m Mr. Negative. I’m expecting Arkansas to play well. I have to believe that on Senior Day somebody is going to take some pride enough and know that we have to get first downs, we have to get points on the board to help our defense. The offense is going to feed off the defense’s performance and vice versa. We have to, against a very average Auburn defense that is still very good in the red zone, and we’ve got to move the football and get points on the board and help the defense.

We have to keep the ball and move the ball. That sounds easy to do and it isn’t, but I expect our running backs to break a big run, a really do expect our tight end to catch a big pass for yardage. Auburn’s defense flies around a lot and is young and makes mistakes that let an offense make the big plays. I look for a very, very good effort from us.

JIM: That’s encouraging. Are you expecting the Hogs to win?

BRUCE: No, I have to be honest with you. But I do think we’ll play within 10 points of them or I will be very disappointed. The reason is, we’ve had a week off to put a game plan in defensively and offensively. That’s very important when you’re preparing for a spread offense. They have had a chance to work on form tackling and working on getting down playing fundamentally sound. I hope they’ve taken these two weeks for soul searching. If I’m going to practice like this and play in these games, then I’m tired of losing and I’m going to do something about it. You can turn a lot of this around just by effort. But we are limited. Truthfully, they actually act like high school players as far as tackling ability. I’m talking predominantly the safeties and the linebackers.

BRUCE: So let me ask you, what with the controversy since last summer at the SEC press meeting and this week with the video, what is it, in your opinion, behind this apparent friction between Bielema and Malzahn?

JIM: I’m not totally sure what to make of all of it. Sometimes I wonder whether it all began when Gus hired Tim Horton away last year during the recruiting season after Horton had been helping this staff up to that point. Then you had the Twitter controversy during August when Horton tweeted about the injury to Austin Tate before any information had come out from Arkansas. But also Bielema seemed to be directing all that no-huddle nonsense at Media Days toward Gus, though maybe it was just coincidentally because they spoke on the same day. I just didn’t get this week why Bielema had to needle Auburn and Malzahn about the game video. Nobody would have known a thing or asked a thing if not for him bringing it up, and it shouldn’t have been brought up, just worked out with the SEC office.

My guess, considering Bielema mentioned in his press conference that he didn’t know him but that he knew Gus’ “history,” is that he’s heard somebody’s version, Jeff Long’s perhaps, or from some of the powerful boosters’, or some of the Northwest Arkansas people’s, about Gus’ role at Arkansas in 2006. And yeah, he’s from Arkansas, he’s having this success, they’re recruiting well down there, and now they’re winning. Maybe he sees Gus as the guy that one day might get his job if he doesn’t succeed, which is silly because Gus isn’t coming back here. He isn’t leaving the riches and resources he has at Auburn to take the Arkansas job. Maybe it’s just Bielema being paranoid about the guy. I know one thing, I don’t understand the criticism of the no-huddle and that issue about more injuries because of it, when there is no evidence to show that. Gus’ offense is leading the league in rushing and that has to be galling to Bielema too, since his rushing offense was supposed to be up there.

BRUCE: Jim, basically, I think you’re correct that there is some sort of issue that seems to be coming from the Arkansas side. It seems Beliema seems to instigate these things when it doesn’t need to be. In traveling in the SEC with my friends at different schools and talking to former players at different schools who I use that I call “sources,” their question to me is, is this guy naïve or stupid? You don’t come into the league and call out Nick Saban or the other coaches and not expect to have it become bulletin board material. You’re firing up these other football programs and not making yourself look intelligent. I think he’s finding out this may have worked in Wisconsin, but in the South this is only going to fire up Steve Spurrier or the coach at Ole Miss or whoever. It’s not protocol to do this in this conference. I thought he’d already stopped it after he called Saban out, saying he’d won more games in the Big Ten than Saban did and he came to Arkansas to beat Saban. It appears that it’s still continuing.

JIM: Does Arkansas win any of these last four games?

BRUCE: I think they do and if you say “which one?”, the most likely to win is the Mississippi State game. But you never know with each situation, injuries could occur, you don’t know with the quarterback at Ole Miss or LSU. I don’t know if it would matter if the LSU quarterback missed the game or not, though. It all starts with Auburn. If they don’t show a respect for the opponent and the game and a respect for themselves and they aren’t playing competitive and lose in the manner in which they lost the past two games, then I’m not sure they’re going to come back and win another ball game.

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