Nobody saw Bret Bielema coming, and if you nibble at the robust trough of social media these days, you got the distinct impression that not many wanted to see him coming.
And why, pray tell? Because a 68-24 record in seven years in a BCS conference wasn't good enough?
Bielema wasn't even in the periphery of Hog fans' vision the past 10 days. Nobody thought the next Razorback football coach would come via dairy country. It looked illogical to the fan base, if not reckless. Words like "desperate" were getting chucked around.
Jeff Long has now gone against the grain both times he has had to fill the head coaching vacancy. Bobby Petrino was an NFL coach in his first year, with three games left, and Long willingly embraced Petrino's overtures to leave Atlanta. This time, Bielema's name had never been so much as whispered when likely candidates were being bandied about. This was especially true given that Bielema's brand of football sets those of other would-be candidates in stark relief: the Malzahns, Petersens, Gundys of the college football world are seen as offensive innovators whereas Bielema is commonly known as a guy who has never met a trap or draw play he didn't like.
Arkansas fans took to the Petrino pro-style offense like a raccoon to a dumpster, and appropriately enough, seemed to be okay with it even when things didn't exactly click. Petrino's 21-5 record over 2010-11 on the surface was outstanding and it remains commendable to this day, but there were deficiencies along the way, namely the fact that the defense was often bewilderingly helpless. Bielema's Wisconsin teams have been not only prolific on that side of the ball over the years, but in many instances, have bailed the offense out.
And that's where the concern comes in. Bielema was Barry Alvarez's hand-picked successor in Madison, where Alvarez sculpted that program almost entirely from scratch and made it, at varying times, the class of the Big Ten. Bielema could have been the ill-suited greenhorn who frittered the chance away; instead, he won 10 or more games four times in his seven seasons and never had a losing season. His bowl missteps notwithstanding, Bielema kept Wisconsin pecking around the sport's upper crust even when excessively modest recruiting rankings should have set the Badgers up to falter.
Those recruiting rankings, incidentally, are what give Hog fans most pause. Bielema didn't amass anything special from the pundits' standpoint, but that scarcely makes him unfit to try his hand in a new territory. Trying to build and sustain a program in Wisconsin cannot be a simple chore, but Arkansas by no means liberates Bielema of the challenge. That said, as Petrino did, Bielema instilled enough on- and off-field discipline in his charges to make them competitive in any game, if not outright imposing in those games where they were favored.
The test of Bielema's acumen may have truly come this fall, when his team got sideswiped constantly. The Badgers' feature back, Montee Ball, was attacked without apparent provocation in an offseason incident and never truly got right until midseason, and Russell Wilson's graduation and ascendancy to NFL stardom in Seattle left the Badgers without a quarterback. Wunderkind offensive coordinator Paul Chryst moved on, too, taking the head post at Pittsburgh. So Bielema pieced together a Big Ten championship team that on paper looked unimpressive (five losses) but on closer inspection was remarkably resilient. The Badgers lost three games in overtime and the other two defeats were by three points each. One of the losses was a nailbiter against Nebraska, so when the opportunity to avenge that defeat presented itself last weekend in the Big Ten championship game, Bielema's squad simply steamrolled the Huskers, 70-31.
Without question, the hire lacks panache. Bielema's not all that effusive of a personality, mirroring the workmanlike character of his teams. Given the sharp division of the Razorback fan base over this hire, he will probably need to summon some public relations skills while he barnstorms through this state on a reinvigoration tour. Petrino was ill fit to do that, but he grew into the role and sadly his self-destruction came at a time that he seemed most approachable and energetic.
Hog fans would be wise to recall the circumstances of past coaching decisions and note how incredibly out of character it is for the team to poach someone of Bielema's caliber. Houston Nutt came on board in 1997 as a cheap and ultimately flimsy Band-Aid for a wounded team, and the results were frustratingly mixed. Danny Ford was out of coaching altogether and Jack Crowe was just a routine, in-house promotion. Long knew this time he had money to spend, and he did present that bounty to what we believe to be a number of candidates. But what's the man to do when the consensus top-shelf options simply decline?
Bielema represents another paradigm for a program that had just gotten comfy with pass-oriented offenses. It isn't likely to be an all-out return to smashmouth, but it will doubtless be a more physical brand and that will begin right in the trenches, where Petrino tried frantically to address long-standing problems. The fans may balk, but it was obvious from recent meetings with LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M and even South Carolina that Arkansas was no match for those teams in a man-on-man war. And those proving grounds are where Bielema, with a history of success in that regard, will go boom or bust in this conference.