Thursday, December 6, 2012
Q&A: Arkansas coach Bret Bielema
By Edward Aschoff
Arkansas pulled a shocker when it hired Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin to be its new head coach.
He was officially introduced to the Arkansas faithful on Wednesday and just after his introductory news conference (featuring an awkward "Call the Hogs" for Bielema), he took a few minutes to talk with ESPN.com about his new job and leaving a place he'd been so successful at:
Now that you've had a little time to process this whole thing, has it really hit you that you're now the head coach at Arkansas?
Bret Bielema: Bits and pieces. It's still a little overwhelming with all the things that are on the agenda, on the radar with recruiting and staffing and getting the feel for a new place. My wife can handle all the little things and details on living and all that jazz. I'm just kind of full speed ahead, put your nose down and go to work.
With as much success as you had at Wisconsin, why the SEC, why Arkansas and why now?
BB: Arkansas is very intriguing to me because it is the only show in the state. Obviously, without a professional team and to have the only Division I football team playing at the level that it's at, it kind of draws unified support throughout the whole state. When you've got that, it's something special. Obviously, there are a lot of good schools across the country, but there aren't very many of them that have the one show. The second thing is, at the age of 42 I felt I was at a point in my life where I'd had some success, obviously with the three straight Big Ten championships, but I wanted to see if there were some bigger things out there for my coaching career. It's something I could really see myself building a future around and a family around.
How did all this even start and did it catch you off guard when Arkansas reached out to you?
BB: It did a little bit. Obviously, I went about my season and the things that it brought. As a head coach, you're obviously aware of different opportunities that are out there and you don't know if people are going to have an interest. Then, when our game was done (the Big Ten championship game) -- I didn't even check my phone until the following day on Sunday -- received a phone call from Arkansas, set up a time to meet with them on Monday night. I was going to be in New York City for the Hall of Fame inductions, as it was. I got a chance to visit Monday and Tuesday, and Tuesday afternoon we were flying to Madison to pick up my wife and flying to Fayetteville to have this press conference today.
From left, new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, his wife Jen and athletic director Jeff Long "call the hogs" during a news conference on Thursday.
What was your wife's response when you said that Arkansas was calling?
BB: You know, my wife is a south Florida girl. She was born and raised in Tampa so she's traditionally lived in the South. I think she's just as excited as I am to try a new part of the country and a new opportunity to start together and a new life together with a whole different set of surroundings with a lot of good people. Maybe we'll have a chance to win a few ball games.
I know you said you have some family ties to Arkansas in your news conference, but what was your knowledge of the program before you got that phone call?
BB: Well, to come full circle, we actually played Arkansas in my first tenure as a head coach. We were an 11-1 team before we played them and we beat them in the Capital One Bowl. I had a tremendous amount of respect for them from that point forward and you'd have to be living in a cave not to know all the things they've gone through last year. I respected the way that [athletic director] Jeff [Long] stood up there in front of a group of people and talked to them very passionately and it was very, very clear to me. To have the season unfold the way it did; I know people weren't happy with it, but we're not behind us, we're only looking forward.
While you were at Wisconsin, did you get to the point where you're thinking that it was going to get harder to win a national championship there and in the Big Ten?
BB: When the playoff system came to truth for 2014 where we're changing the rules, it became very, very evident to me and it couldn't be more clear. The SEC had a road to that game, as it should. They play very, very good football and I want to be able to get into a race and see where it goes.
When it came to recruiting, you had some pretty controversial words about the SEC earlier this year. Looking back on it, is it kind of funny to see yourself now having to compete even more with the SEC in recruiting and having to adapt to it?
BB: I don't know if it's funny. It was out of respect and I was the head coach at the University of Wisconsin and in the Big Ten Conference. Someone posed a question and I answered it. I don't know what the exact context of it was, but it definitely wasn't a slam on the SEC. It wasn't anything more than me being a head coach at a Big Ten university and someone posed a question that obviously made me respond that way. But it's very important for me to understand [how tough recruiting in the SEC is] and no one is a bigger fan of the SEC than myself.
Recruiting in the SEC is a different animal, as you know, so how ready and how excited are you to get into the middle of it?
BB: I couldn't be more excited to know that we're going to have a chance to get everybody on board as a staff and then we'll get our players on board and bring in some new recruits and it's going to be an exciting couple of years. I can't wait to get running.
When you're at a place like Arkansas, how important is it for you to hit the southeast and hit Texas? I feel like it has to be more of a challenge there and how to be more of an emphasis for you now.
BB: One hundred percent, especially this year's recruiting class. We're going to work ourselves through with the staffing and all that goes into that, but it's very, very important for us to establish a class right now. It's been said to me on several occasions that the classes that we have here are strong, but they're just a little bit low on numbers. We have to supplement it through high school recruiting and junior college recruiting. It's very, very important.
I know it's still early, but have you talked to anyone at Wisconsin about coming with you and are you considering any of Arkansas' current staff members?
BB: Absolutely, I have tried to meet with the staff (Wednesday), but a couple of coaches were on the road. We're meeting early (Thursday) morning and we'll have a chance to sit down and visit with the entire staff and then visit with them individually and see exactly where they are right now and what they need to know and give us a chance to decide if we are going to move together or go through a second interview or go in different directions. As far as Wisconsin, I haven't hired anybody at all.
Your style is a little different than what Arkansas has been doing. It can be hard to make a smooth transition in your first year, so what would you like to accomplish in your first year?
BB: Offensively, we're going to get a staff in here that believes in a certain methodology,whether it's fast-paced or slow-paced; two backs, one back; two wide receivers, four wide receivers. We're going to buy in, we're going to execute, we're going to coach it and we're going to find out what our players can do at a championship level and we're going to go out and perform every Saturday and try to get better each week. [On defense] it's important that we find the right players to play the right positions. We have to be strong personnel-wise and be able to execute the Xs and Os. The big thing is for everyone to get on the same page and execute the same plan.
You obviously ran the ball very well at Wisconsin, and running is the bread and butter of the SEC. How important is it to have that sort of SEC-style run attack back at Arkansas?
BB: It's very important to me that I let our people know that we're going to run the football. We've also been very good at the quarterback position and the wide receiver position. We have more players in the NFL at the tight end position than anyone else in the NFL. We've been good on offense. We've had more offensive linemen selected in the first round than anybody in the world. It's going to be a fun time to get the ball rolling in many different directions.
Everyone wants to win championships, but you talked about in your news conference wanting to do something different at Arkansas, like you did at Wisconsin. How important is it to you to take Arkansas to the next level?
BB: It's important to build this with a strong foundation. You can't skip a step and assume you're going to get to where you want to be. You want to build it in a way that you can sustain it and hold it while you're there. It's priorities. You don't have much time to sleep. My three biggest priorities are meet with the seniors, get to know them, get to know the current staff and make decisions there, and the third thing is to be involved in recruiting of next year's class -- a class that's going to come in and change the faces of what we do for years to come.