One-on-one with Bielema

Bret Bielema

Bret Bielema got to know some members of the local media with a series of one-on-one interviews. Here's some of what the new Arkansas coach thinks about his new digs with an excitement towards the future.

Brett Bielema didn't make a trip to Arkansas before accepting the head coach job. His interview was in a hotel room in New York City with Jeff Long.

After the initial contact that Monday afternoon, Bielema went to the Internet to take a look at Arkansas facilities. The website with the facility pictures probably helped close the deal.

"I thought it looked pretty good," he said. "I stayed up until 1 a.m. that Monday night in New York City looking on the Internet. I was with my wife in the room. I was looking at web pages and she was looking at the lights.

"Unfortunately, it wasn't exactly what I thought it might be when I got here. I was a little taken back. I was expecting a little more for an SEC school. You need some of that flash to help in recruiting. Some of that was missing, but it's coming. I think we are going to have that soon and I knew that.

"The new academic facility will have that. The new operations facility will have that. And there were some things here already that I liked."

Yes, there was some good news. The up-close and personal tour of the weight facility and Walker Pavilion was better than anticipated.

"That's the one area that was really good," he said. "I thought they did the weight room right."

The office space where Bielema and his new staff is working now is only temporary quarters. They'll move from the Broyles Center into a new football operations center sometime this summer. The facility will house coaches, training staff and locker rooms. It's estimated to cost $40.3 million.

Bielema had been in a new similar facility at Wisconsin for one week that cost $80 million. Like that one, Bielema will have his new digs at Arkansas configured to match his staff. That's one of the things he was able to tweak in his first week on the job in Fayetteville.

"The first week, I met with the designers five to 10 times," he said. "We were able to redefine some things. From Coach (Bobby) Petrino's staff to mine, it's a different configuration. We were able to flip some space from offense to defense.

"Our staff has one more coach on offense," he said. "We've got a tight end coach and the office space for the offensive line and tight end needed to be more together. And on defense, we needed to have the cornerback and safeties more together and all of the defensive line is in one room. So all of that was different. It was easy to fix that.

"I couldn't be happier with how all of that has been fixed. It's going to be great. It keeps getting pushed back as to when we are in it. At first it was mid-June. Now it's late June. But that's fine. We'll get in it when we come back from vacation. Should be perfect timing."

Bielema said there were no surprises as he began to work with players, partly because he had no expectations.

"I wanted to just let it happen when we began to work together," he said. "I didn't want any false expectations. I do see very good athletes. It's a very good group to work with and they've done a nice job of buying in what we are selling."

Bielema said he hasn't had to do a lot of selling. He talked of the "street cred" that he brought with him from a winning program at Wisconsin. The same goes for Ben Herbert, his strength and conditioning coach, with the players. Players did their research and hit the ground running in the offseason program. Fans bought in, too.

"The big thing that I've found here is the passion everyone has for Arkansas football," he said. "We saw it in recruiting when we went around the state. The high school coaches, whether they had played here or not, wanted their players to come to Arkansas. Then, when we went out of state, no matter where we went, it was about the SEC brand.

"When we went to Egg Harbor City, N.J., it was about the SEC. They might not have known everything about the Razorbacks, but they knew about the SEC.

"I've met fans all over the state. I've been going to (Razorback Club meetings) each night and there will be one tonight with 600. They'll probably call the Hogs a dozen times and it will be great."

The Arkansas situation appealed to him for that very reason.

"Arkansas is all that I thought it was," he said. "I really like the fact that there is no pro team. That unifies the support, both in the state and also in the administration. That drew me here. I also wanted the resources that come with it from being a one-school state. I had $1.7 million to hire a staff. That almost doubled (to $3 million) by coming here."

Bielema spent Monday doing one-on-ones with different members of the in-state media. His reputation is that he's accessible to everyone, including students. He's spent some time around campus. Some head coaches big-time it and hold everyone at a distance.

"I don't think I'll ever be that guy," he said. "Things can get time sensitive from late July until recruiting and I'm a different guy then. But I love people. I didn't get in this business to make a lot of money. I did it to be around people.

"I think our staff is like that, too. They all have big, bright personalities. I think we all want to be good Joes."

The reputation of the staff is strong on the recruiting side. How does Bielema feel about this staff compared to others he's built or worked on.

"Jeff Long gave me the ability to hire top coaches," he said. "They are great recruiters. We'll find out in the fall if they can coach, but I think they can."

Spring begins Sunday, March 10. Bielema is a long way from making final judgments on personnel, but he has some ideas.

"We lost some really good players," he said. "Tyler Wilson was a very good quarterback and we lost a couple of good offensive linemen. But I think competition brings out the best. I'm impressed with Johnathan Williams at running back. I'm impressed with the defensive line. They have presence and demeanor that I like.

"I think the back end will get better in a hurry with some junior college defensive backs. I think the linebackers will get better with Randy Shannon there (as coach).

"We have a lot of wide receivers. We have to make sure that they are all wide receivers and some of them should have been a tight end or a defensive back. But I like that group."

There are plenty of goals for the spring, but a big one is to identify "decision makers" on both sides of the ball.

"There are decisions that have to be made on every play," he said. "Every play has a guy doing that. On offense, it's usually the quarterback. On defense, it's usually at linebacker.

"I want to find out what we are good at and what we are bad at. Most coaches talk about playing to their strengths, but it's just as important to stay away from weaknesses. We have to find that out."

Bielema learned to do that from a great collection of mentors in a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks to take charge of the Wisconsin program seven years ago at 35. He played and coached with Hayden Fry at Iowa, then assisted Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Bill Snyder (Kansas State) and Barry Alvarez (Wiconsin). There is a little bit of all of them in his style, with a heavy emphasis from Fry.

"Coach Fry was unique of all the head coaches I worked for, in him what I first saw in his techniques on him as a player," Bielema said. "You were absorbed in his methods, his techniques and motivation as a player. Then, I saw it as a GA. I'd see how he was using those same techniques on our current players.

"It made me stop and think, now I know why he did this or why he did that or made us do this. Then to come into his office and listen as an assistant coach, then you could see the compassion he had for his coaches and the balance he had for his players.

"What I remember the most, he told me there were two things that concerned him. His biggest concern was that I had never been in a class room and never had to teach. I'd never put together a lesson plan to teach the players how to learn and be graded on a test. The second thing that concerned him was my age, I was relatively young to the market. There were kids that I was going to be coaching that I had played with. He told me to start wearing glasses and never wear blue jeans.

"I tried to act a little older than I was. I think I made him proud."

Ferentz, who replaced Fry at Iowa, taught him to listen.

"He was a tremendous listener," Bielema said. "What I learned is that you might hear some great things if you listen. Very few people listen. Kirk listens to everything. I learned how much more you can become if you just sit back and let people tell you things. People want to talk."

Snyder, the magic man at Kansas State, taught Bielema "the details of winning. I had never won at the level we did at Kansas State. The two years I worked with him, we were the number one defense in the country."

The players were good, but Bielema said it was more "done by teaching fanatical preparation. It became apparent early that Coach Snyder was going to be the detail to winning that I learned a lot from."

Bielema said he's always been on staffs that worked long days.

"I don't think Coach Snyder's days were any longer than anyone else's days, but they were maybe longer more often," he said. "Some staffs the coaches get four weeks of vacation. Coach Snyder would take two. That was an extra two weeks of preparation and detail work. It's just how he operates. He forces the coaches to work that way."

Bob Stoops, former Iowa assistant, convinced Bielema to work with Snyder.

"I hadn't been an assistant at Iowa long, but Bob Stoops told me I'd be a better coach for having worked with Coach Snyder," he said. "I think that was right, too."

There was plenty Bielema learned from Alvarez at Wisconsin, including the walk-on program that he will implement at Arkansas.

"Coach Alvarez brought that with him from Nebraska," Bielema said. "There are some things that we will do here that I got from him. There are limits to your roster. It will be 120 here like it was at Wisconsin, but we'll do some things in the eating plans and other areas to make it easier with walk-ons.

"We have the border state rule that gives in-state tutition for students with certain grade points and test scores. We can build our walk-on program. We had seven former walk-ons playing for us at Wisconsin in the last Rose Bowl that I coached in there.

"One of the things our players will say, no one could tell who was a walk-on and who wasn't by going into our locker room. We'll make it that way here."

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