In December 2007, Jeff Long stood beside his new head coach, Bobby Petrino, and called the Hogs. It was cause for celebration. Petrino had won 41 games in four years at Louisville, building a reputation as one of college football's best offensive tacticians. He bolted for the NFL, but he ran back to college 13 games into his regrettable stop in the pros. It was a home-run hire that caught everyone by surprise.
Five years later, Long did it again, dropping college football's collective jaw by luring Bret Bielema to Fayetteville after an unprecedented run to three consecutive Rose Bowls at Wisconsin. The hire was hailed as evidence for the decay of the Big Ten and the irresistible lure of the SEC. Once again, Long was held up as a hero.
Petrino took Arkansas to the BCS bowl that long eluded the program under Houston Nutt, but his tenure ended in an embarrassing scandal. Bielema's tenure has lacked the scandal of Petrino, but it has also lacked the wins. And in the middle of Year 5 in Long's latest home-run hire's run, Arkansas football feels stuck at yet another crossroads.
After a semi-acceptable run of 22 wins in three seasons, Arkansas is 2-5 and riding a streak of three consecutive losses by at least 26 points into this week's road matchup against Ole Miss. The Razorbacks are 0-4 in the SEC, and their best win so far has come against New Mexico State.
Fan grumbling is at an all-time high. One could grab a ticket to last week's 52-20 loss to Auburn for $6 on StubHub the day of the game. It's one thing to ask fans to endure embarrassing losses. It's another to do it with a team that's boring to watch.
Worst P5 league records since 2013: Bielema 10-26, Stoops 10-26, MacIntyre 11-30, Addazio 12-25, Doeren 13-23, Jones 14-22, Kingsbury 14-26- Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) October 23, 2017
On Wednesday, I asked Bielema why he hasn't enjoyed the kind of success he'd have liked through his run on The Hill so far.
"Well, I think part of it has been we did have success," Bielema said. "We were 3-9 the first season, we couldn't stay in that ballpark. We won seven games the next year, made a bowl game and won it. Next year, climbed to eight wins, got to a bowl game and won it. Last year we were in a position at the end of the year to get to nine, possibly 10 wins and experienced some second-half failures."
The statewide grumbling would indicate Bielema and Arkansas fans have differing opinions on the definition of success. Bielema's teams haven't finished in the AP top 25 or higher than third in the SEC West in four seasons, and that trend looks likely to continue in 2017.
Arkansas won 21 games and finished in the AP top 12 in Petrino's last two seasons, including a Cotton Bowl win and a Sugar Bowl berth. It won three SEC West titles in 1995, 2002 and 2006.
However, Arkansas is also the flagship program of a state that produces only a handful of SEC-caliber players in any given recruiting class, and the Hogs have struggled to recruit Texas consistently. Realistically, with Texas A&M, LSU, Auburn and Alabama sharing the division, asking Arkansas to be better than the fifth-most successful program in the SEC West is asking a lot.
But when Blake Anderson, the coach of an Arkansas State team that is mostly irrelevant to much of the state, can lob bombs at the big boy within state lines and be met with, "Well, yeah, he's right," it only serves to highlights the program's biggest issue: There's little reason for hope or excitement.
Blake Anderson got jokes pic.twitter.com/Bzz405qE3I- Jay Bir (@TheJayBir) October 23, 2017
Bielema's credentials when he came to Fayetteville were impeccable, but he made the move amid whispers and concerns he wouldn't be able to recruit the kind of maulers on the offensive line that are integral to his offense and the reason why Wisconsin spent most of his tenure as one of the Big Ten's preeminent powers.
Though the Razorbacks have had standouts like Dan Skipper and Frank Ragnow, who will miss the rest of the season after suffering a high ankle sprain, those concerns have been validated. They're the only offensive linemen named to any All-SEC teams during Bielema's tenure.
In Bielema's last three years at Wisconsin, the Badgers were ranked an average of 11th nationally in rushing yards per carry. The past three seasons at Arkansas, they've finished an average of 65th, to say nothing of the weekly beatings that quarterback Austin Allen has taken throughout his career.
The good news for Bielema is he still has the support of his boss, and his boss is the same man who hired him. Last month, Long reiterated he still supports Bielema "100 percent," though he hasn't commented on his coach's status since then. And while you can't get far around Northwest Arkansas without hearing complaints about Bielema, none of them ever coalesce into much more than that. There's no obvious replacement candidate fans will all be pining for if the losing streak continues.
When that's the case, it's easier for decision-makers to stand pat. Though Long has initially worked magic on his previous two hires, there's no guarantee he could do it a third time, and finding a coach with a better pedigree is a tough ask. However, finding one who is a better fit and has more keen sense of how to counter the limitations and weaknesses of the program is more reasonable.
Thus far, the latter hasn't applied to Bielema, who's mostly been unsuccessful in trying to force-feed his square-peg philosophy into a hexagon hole. Liberty Bowl wins and Belk Bowl losses (especially those that turn 24-0 leads into 35-24 losses) won't satisfy a fan base hungry to return to the glory days of Petrino and his productive passing attack. It was a welcome departure from the lack of offensive creativity that often marked Houston Nutt's tenure and enraged fans, even though he won at least eight games six times in 10 seasons.
Early this season, Bielema's reported buyout ($11.7 million on Jan. 1) was believed to be a major hurdle to change, but multiple reports have since corrected the faulty figure. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reviewed the contract and found it would cost Arkansas under $5.9 million to fire Bielema at season's end. USA Today reported a similar number, $5.874 million, on Wednesday.
It's still a large price tag, and one Arkansas would have to pay without a clear path to a successor sure to say yes. Paying it means having faith in Long to take another big swing, but neither of his first two home runs worked out in the long run. If Long lets Bielema stick around, it looks like he'd have to sit through another year with a fan base on the verge of mutiny.
Arkansas is at a crossroads, yes, but neither path looks alluring.