Bret Bielema guided Wisconsin to Big Ten championships and Rose Bowl appearances each of his last three seasons in Madison.
But when Arkansas called, he was immediately interested and admits that there was a burning desire to see how he would fare in college football’s toughest conference.
Bielema takes over an Arkansas program that fell flat on its face in 2012 following the Bobby Petrino scandal last spring and Petrino’s subsequent firing. The Hogs dipped to 4-8 last season under interim coach John L. Smith after winning 10 or more games each of the previous two seasons under Petrino and playing in the Sugar Bowl following the 2010 season.
The Hogs are still searching for their first SEC championship, and Bielema said that’s the goal.
Here’s Part II of our Q&A with Bielema:
Was it even more crucial, moving over to the SEC, to make sure you brought in proven recruiters?
Bret Bielema: It was extremely important to hire a group of coaches who were relentless recruiters. I think this is the first time I can say that all nine of my assistants are detail guys and they love to recruit. That’s going to pay dividends, and they all have a vast amount of experience. We’ve got NFL. We’ve got SEC. We’ve got every type of conference known to man. It’s going to be fun to watch this group grow. If you talked to every one of my assistants, no one is enjoying this more than we are. I’ve got a group that’s engaged with a lot of different chemistry and a lot of different personalities coming through, and they’ve all been great.
You went down to South Florida and got a couple of coveted prospects in your first signing class (running back Alex Collins and offensive tackle Denver Kirkland). What recruiting territories will be critical for you at Arkansas?
BB: With Randy (Shannon) and Charlie (Partridge) and my success in South Florida, we expected to have success there and thankfully had it. A big push for us is that we’re putting six recruiters in the state of Texas. We have to be more than competitive in North Texas and East Texas for us to have a chance here at Arkansas. We play Texas A&M for the next 10 years in Dallas. That has to be a big, big area of emphasis for us.
What will be your biggest adjustment as a head coach in the SEC?
BB: Without a doubt, the recruiting landscape. It’s not an adjustment, just different from what I’ve done. Great recruiters can recruit anywhere. That’s the philosophy I took into this year, and we’ll carry it forward.
What about the league? How long will it take you to get up to speed on the league?
BB: My summer project is to watch seven to 10 complete games of everybody on our schedule. I’ll watch the TV copy and football copy and get a feel for what’s happening during the course of the game. It will be great teaching. I also have to get to know the personality of my team, if I can go for it on fourth-and-2 or do I kick a field goal. Those are all things in progress for me.
Have you gotten a feel for the leadership on this team yet?
BB: The most pleasant surprise when I came here was the group of 22 seniors who walked into my office who have tremendous respect for Arkansas and what it can be. They’re extremely eager to jump in and change gears. The last 18 months haven't been something that was very special to them. There’s been a lot of disappointment and a lot of heartache, and they’re hungry. I really don’t care how many of those guys are going to be All-Americans or NFL draft picks. But it’s been very apparent to me that it’s very important to them to be at Arkansas and to be a Hog.
Even with all your success at Wisconsin, did you find yourself wondering about the SEC and whether or not you could win big in this league?
BB: As the SEC began to build its superiority in college football, that naturally appealed to any competitor. As we had success at Wisconsin, I had more and more opportunities. I’m not one of those coaches that likes to have my name out there. Other coaches throughout the world of college football love to see their name being mentioned for different jobs. I’m just not one of those guys. That’s why we took the world by storm when I came here. Nobody really knew about it. I made sure it was done that way.
What about the Arkansas job appealed to you?
BB: A lot of it was finding the right fit in the SEC. I’m not saying Arkansas and Wisconsin are identical twins, but I think they’re from the same family. They’re proud states, have great fan support and have a handful of good players every year. You’re going to have to go out of state every year to complement your whole team to win a championship, and that’s some of the challenges we have here at Arkansas.
Does your philosophy change any now that you’re in the SEC?
BB: In today’s world of up-tempo offenses and all the things that go into it, you need to have depth in the defensive line. And offensively, you’ve got to be able to knock somebody off the line of scrimmage. You can’t rely on tricking somebody. If your offensive game plan is built around tricking someone, you don’t have a chance. You’ve got to be able to put a hat on a hat and play big-boy football and be able to play in a world where you’re tougher than the guy in front of you.