FAYETTEVILLE — Sean Rochelle was impressed with Bret Bielema’s persistence.
Rochelle, the executive director of the Razorback Foundation, wasn’t expecting the new Arkansas coach to make so many stops around the state at Razorback Club functions last spring. But Bielema volunteered. So week-by-week, trip-by-trip, he traveled to every cover of Arkansas to introduce himself to Razorback fans.
“We’re out there trying to build relationships and build private support, it makes our job incredibly easy,” Rochelle said in July after the coach made more than 20 stops, which was more than recommended. “He’s so engaging. He’s so comfortable in his own skin. But the best part for me, personally, is just how excited he was to actually get out there and find out what Arkansas was about and what the fans were. And not just Northwest Arkansas. Every single part of our state.”
It proved to be just a small segment of appearances Bielema made in an offseason dominated by his words. He spoke to Razorback Clubs and went on numerous national radio and television shows. There was Bielema’s first SEC Media Days experience in July, two in-state Touchdown Club appearances the past two weeks, the annual football kickoff luncheon and the start of his weekly radio shows.
In all, Arkansas tallied 70 appearances in all for the head coach since his arrival last December. That doesn’t even cover for seemingly constant conversation on social media, where Bielema engaged Arkansas fans and fired back at critics with plenty of zeal before stepping away to concentrate on the season earlier this week.
So as Bielema sat down Thursday for his final media opportunity before today’s season opener, his relief was evident. All the talking was over. Finally.
“I was going to cancel on you guys, but (Arkansas assistant athletic director Zack Higbee) said it wasn’t in our best interest,” Bielema said told an assembled group of local media members. “I’m excited for Saturday to get here.”
Bielema will get the first opportunity to show what his program is about on the field when Arkansas kicks off a new era against Louisiana-Lafayette at 3 p.m. today. It’s the long-awaited start of his tenure with the Razorbacks and the first chance for Bielema’s team to put its brand of “normal American football” on display.
Few outside the program are expecting much from a group that lost the nucleus of a 2012 team that will be remembered as one of the biggest disappointments in the program’s history. The Razorbacks are projected to finish last in the SEC West a year after being mentioned as a sleeper in the national title conversation.
None of that matters to Bielema, who has spent nine months breathing new life into a program that needed the fresh start after Bobby Petrino’s ill-fact motorcycle ride and John L. Smith’s disastrous one-year tenure in charge of the program.
He has made it abundantly clear — and many times with bravado that generated its share of offseason headlines — the goal is to build the Razorbacks into a championship program. Bielema also said the success begins this year.
“With all due respect, and I mean it, I didn’t come here to be great in three years,” Bielema said. “ When I walked in, I saw the talent level of those seniors, and to know I’ve got a group of almost 18 seniors that have been through a lot, they’ve persevered, they’ve championed some very, very tough moments.
“There’s a lot of really good players. I know we’ve lost good players. Believe me, I know how good some of those players are that left and the voids that they leave. But there’s some other guys that are waiting to make a name for themselves.”
Bielema could sense it when he walked into his first team meeting last December, seeing a group he later described as “hungry” to put 2012 in the past.
He has applauded their perseverance publically several times since, saying the hardships they endured over the past year-and-a-half weren’t talked about in their recruitments. No one could’ve prepared for a scandalous coaching change. Or the fallout last fall, when nothing went right on or off the field.
But Bielema likes scars and has gone about rebuilding their confidence since his arrival. There’s stability now in an impressive staff, which has welcomed players with open arms. Take one day last spring, when several players were chatting with assistant coach Randy Shannon in his office.
The kicker: None of the players were among Shannon’s linebackers.
“That’s the kind of thing that happens around here, now,” Arkansas fullback Kiero Small said at the time. “I think it’s an open door policy. You can go in any of the offices and all the coaches are going to say hi to you. I think that’s one thing you can’t fake. It’s real. As a coaching staff, they all have our best interests at heart.”
It has been evident to players on the field, too.
By all accounts, the closed practices have been physical and demanding. They took a toll on many who are adjusting to the rugged style. But players who rarely got opportunities or underachieved the past few years also discovered there was a fresh start in the hard work. So many attacked the new chance with purpose.
The best example is at linebacker, where Jarrett Lake, Braylon Mitchell and Austin Jones will start today. All three were with the team last season, but barely played.
“He said when he first came in that he didn’t watch any film of last year,” Lake said earlier in preseason camp. “He didn’t worry about last year. Our resume for the new upcoming season has started. At first he looked at us performing in the class room and then he looked at us performing in the weight room and when spring football came, he looked at us performing on the field.”
The spring was followed by a productive summer. Then the summer bled into preseason camp. While the Razorbacks are confident they’ve taken strides, the progress hasn’t eliminated questions entering their first season under Bielema.
There are plenty. No one knows how well that linebacking corps is going to perform in its first extended action. There are depth questions at receiver, too, after a rash of injuries. Arkansas also is breaking in a new starting quarterback in Brandon Allen and will rely on roughly 10 true freshmen to help throughout the season.
Then there’s the bigger picture. Can a group making a radical shift in offensive philosophy have success in a physical, run-oriented attack? Is it possible for a defense that struggled so much in 2012 to make a big jump? How can anyone survive a schedule that includes a four-week run against top 10 opponents?
Bielema wants his team to embrace it, believing Arkansas has the ingredients to be successful beginning with its strong leadership. It’s no shock the four elected team captains — center Travis Swanson, fullback Kiero Small, defensive end Chris Smith and defensive tackle Robert Thomas —personify the toughness and grit Bielema been trying to spread throughout the program since his arrival.
“He’s not going to beat around the bush,” Smith said. “That’s one thing Hog fans really like. What you see is what you get. That’s what we need — we need somebody that’s going to give hope to the team and the fans, and that’s what he’s done.”
Everyone is expecting a big first test this afternoon.
Louisiana-Lafayette is coming off consecutive nine-win seasons and nearly pulled off a stunning win at Florida last November, losing the game only after a fourth quarter collapse. The Ragin’ Cajuns are ranked higher than the Razorbacks in a few preseason publications, too, leaving them as a popular upset pick.
Arkansas is determined to show it’s not as down as prognosticators think.
“Hell yeah it bothers us,” Jones said of the projections. “But that’s nothing we can control. That just gives us a chip on our shoulder and just makes us want to come out and bust our (expletive). Prove them wrong.”
Said tight end Hunter Henry: “All of us inside, we believe. We’re embracing it and we’re ready for this year. We’re not backing down from anyone.”
Bielema — who oozes the same sort of confidence and bravado — believes success will come if that type of determination persists with players a daily basis.
It’s the premise behind his “1-0” mantra, which has been Bielema’s calling card since December. Concentrate on winning every play, every series, every quarter and every moment and good things will happen. So far, Bielema said his team has adopted it.
“Everybody wants to jump to the end of the rainbow and grab that pot of gold,” Bielema said earlier this month. “Of course, it’s never there. My philosophy is, if you take one step at a time and you keep tracking that rainbow, probably at the end you find it. But you can’t do it by jumping to the end.”
There’s good news for Bielema. The next step has arrived.
Nine months of talking about his expectations for the Razorbacks is over.
Now it’s time to turn them into a reality on the field.
“Obviously, the proof will be pudding,” Bielema said. “There is a certain level of anxiety, but pressure comes within. … I think we have a great chance (today) of going out and showing people what they’ve been waiting to see.”