LITTLE ROCK — All that examination and regurgitation of Bret Bielema quotes, I don’t get it.
Let’s set the stage.
Arkansas’ first-year coach spoke the words at a pep rally thinly disguised as a Razorback club fish fry. His audience — a fan base fractured and embarrassed by what happened on and off the field during the past year — was eager for a fresh start and Bielema’s enthusiasm and confidence are palatable, a mix that gets the juices flowing on both sides.
Clearly, he has been impressed by fan turnout around the state, citing 650 people in Manila, 500 in Mountain Home, and 2,000 in Little Rock the first time he met with the media after three days of spring practice.
"I stop at a gas station and five people come up and welcome me," he said that day.
Exuberant, with a sense of humor, it would be against the grain for Bielema to respond to such open-arms acceptance by retreating into a shell and simply providing a straight-laced look at the two-deep to Razorback Club members. For him, a throw-away line comes natural.
With that background, cover the ears of the innocent. Drum roll, please.
"The reason the SEC is talked about all the time is one team, because of their dominance," he said. "But I didn’t come here to play Alabama, I came here to beat Alabama."
Shocking. Downright disrespectful. Uppity newcomer.
Get a life.
An Arkansas fan should appreciate his bring-it-on attitude and an Alabama fan shouldn’t give his comments a second thought. Doesn’t every coach new to the job proclaim that the goal is to win a conference championship and a national championship? In the Western Division of the SEC, that entails beating Alabama.
People who are around Bielema regularly will tell you that he never says anything mean-spirited or hateful. The No. 1 target of Bielema’s humor is himself. And, even though he is meticulous about preparation, he is the sort who might pop out of his office to join a conversation if he hears somebody talking with his secretary.
Tongue-in-cheek, I suggest that Bielema tone it down with something like, "I just hope we can split with the Mississippi schools and finish fourth in the division." The lack of specificity would avoid ruffling feathers in Oxford or Starkville.
The few Arkansas fans who reacted negatively to Bielema’s statement were worried about him producing bulletin board material for Nick Saban. The Alabama coach couldn’t care less what Bielema has to say — When asked, his response was, "I really don’t have any reaction to it," — and even more certain Alabama can handle Arkansas on sheer talent.
That day in Saline County, Bielema also said: "You can take Saban’s record when he was at Michigan State and when he was a coach in the Big Ten and put it against mine, and he can’t compare."
For the record, Saban’s Spartans were 6-4-1, 6-5, 7-4, 6-6, and 9-2 during the regular season and Bielema’s Wisconsin Badgers were 11-1, 9-3, 7-5, 10-2, 11-1, 11-2, and 8-5. You can argue about extenuating circumstances; you cannot argue about the numbers.
What a shame that Bielema had to resort to Twitter to explain that "Alabama quotes were a joke to a question from a fan at pep rally." He was asked about it again at another Razorback Club meeting and, more or less, said he understood why the remarks received so much media attention. Now he knows that anything remotely funny or controversial will appear on a message board somewhere because, in Arkansas, the Razorbacks are No. 1 and Razorback football is 1A. In Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers come first.
Hopefully, the attention given Bielema’s remarks does not reduce access to the coach or reign in his spontaneity.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.