By Lars Anderson
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- The professor is walking to class. He's dressed in an oversized red golf shirt, navy-blue shorts and dark blue loafers with no socks, looking like he just left the backyard pool at his new house outside of town. That pool is his sanctuary, a personal oasis he never enjoyed in the chill of the northern climates where he'd always lived. He enjoys it so much that he spent his summer vacation not in sun-kissed Florida -- where he used to go -- but poolside with his wife, Jen, and their teacup Yorkies, Lucy and Ricky. He left only to run errands, such as a trip to the DMV to hand in his Wisconsin driver's license for one from Arkansas.
He strolls down a flight of stairs in the sparkling new, $40 million Fred W. Smith Football Center, followed by 120 students, all female. A blue-haired grandmother race-walks to hug him. "We just love you," she says. "We believe in you." Then a blonde-haired 40-something kisses him on the cheek, leaving a smudge of bright red lipstick. She pulls him close like a family member, resting her head on his chest as if he were a giant red teddy bear. "I can't tell you how long we've been waiting you," she says, not wanting to let go. He takes a few more steps and a local television reporter grabs his arm, pleading for a picture. "We've never met and I probably shouldn't say this," she gushes," but I'm a HUGE fan." She flips her blond tresses back just so and the camera flashes. She is literally weak in the knees.
Bret Bielema leads the women -- who are at the football complex on a warm midsummer night to take a Football 101 class from the Arkansas head coach and his staff of assistants -- to the basement and into the Razorbacks' main auditorium, where team meetings are held. Watching it all is athletic director Jeff Long, who is leaning against a concrete wall and marveling at the sight of this lumbering 6-foot-3' coach being followed by these giddy, giggling, thunderstruck women, ages 18 to 82, all devout in their love of their head hog.
Long's words are flavored with emotion. "I enjoy being around football again, that's what Bret has done for me," Long says softly. "In the past few years I had stopped coming by the football offices very often. He's made it fun. He's brought the joy back. He really has. He's brought the joy back … " His voice trails off.
And yet this coach, who has been welcomed like Caesar, who has triggered a great revival of football faith here in Fayetteville, hasn't brought one very significant thing to the Arkansas program: victories. Last fall the Razorbacks went 3-9 -- the school's 25 winning percentage was its worst in 61 years -- and failed to win a conference game for the first time since 1942. Over an eight-day stretch last October, South Carolina and Alabama combined to out-score Arkansas 104-7. So the Razorbacks weren't just bad last season; they were historically atrocious.
It begs the question: Why is Bret Bielema -- age 44 and entering his second year at Arkansas -- so beloved in Fayetteville, like he's the second coming of Frank Broyles, who 50 autumns ago became the only coach to lead the Razorbacks to a national title? It doesn't hurt that Bielema was raised on a hog farm in Illinois and can speak the language of the workingman when he travels around the Razorback State, from the Ozarks to the Arkansas plains, and speaks to groups in places like Pine Bluff and Texarkana and interacts with famers and mechanics and other blue-collar folks -- the core of Arkansas' fan base. But the reason for the affection runs deeper than that. It's the belief that, finally, someone is in charge who holds his chin up high, looks you dead in eye and shoots it straight when he tells you what his plan is. The Bobby Petrino scandal in April 2012 and the abject ineptitude displayed by John L. Smith during the woebegone 2012 season -- a campaign that many close to the program believed would end in a BCS bowl, not a 4-8 implosion -- still are fresh wounds in Fayetteville. This has provided Bielema with two rare things in college football: time and patience from the fan base.
"I've got a plan and it's working,' Bielema says. "I knew last year was going to be tough, because we brought in new philosophies. But I have a proven formula for success. Man, the formula won three Big Ten titles. It's working here. It is. You'll see. People outside the program can't see it yet. But they will. There is zero doubt in my mind."
The framed front page of the Iowa City Press Citizen hangs on a wall in Bielema's office. It's from Nov. 23, 1998 and it features a picture of Iowa coach Hayden Fry under the headline: Adios! That was one of Fry's pet words and the photo is from Fry's retirement press conference. Bielema likes to see his old coach's face every day as he sits down behind his massive desk because it reminds of him of where he came from and -- more important -- where he believes he's going.
At age 18 Bielema, who weighed 190 pounds, left his family's 2,500-hog farm in Prophetstown, Ill. and drove to Iowa City to walk on at the University of Iowa. On the 80-acre farm Bielema was up every morning at 4:30, bailing hay in the predawn darkness, feeding the hogs, clipping their needle teeth, giving them shots and -- yes --castrating them. He learned the value of hard work, an ethic that made him a coach's dream. Five years after arriving on the Iowa campus, he was a 260-pound starting defensive tackle and a team co-captain -- the definition of a self-made player. Fry, who guided the Hawkeyes to 14 bowl games after inheriting a program that had endured nine straight losing seasons, eventually hired Bielema as an assistant. He spent nine years by Fry's side, closely studying his hard-nosed, run-first offense and aggressive, take-your-chances style of defense.
In 2004 Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez tapped Bielema to be his defensive coordinator. The two quickly developed a closeness that was rare in coaching, as Alvarez saw a younger version of himself in Bielema. During the '05 season Alvarez and Bielema went for three-mile walks every Thursday afternoon around the shores of picturesque Lake Mendota. Alvarez dispensed his coaching philosophy, telling Bielema what it took to build a successful program in Madison. The young coach listened intently. Before Alvarez handed the team over to Bielema prior to the '06 season, Bielema assured Alvarez that he would continue to play the 1950s kind of offense that relied on a big, corn-fed offensive linemen and a powerful running game that was a throwback from the Eisenhower era. "That's our winning formula," Alvarez told Bielema. "You're not going to find many five-star running backs in Wisconsin, but you can find big offensive lineman."
And Bielema did. In his last three seasons as Wisconsin's head coach -- 2010 to '12 -- the Badgers and their devastating running attack won three straight Big Ten championships and became the first school in the league to play in three straight Rose Bowls since Michigan following the 1976-78 seasons. Bielema's final conference game may have been his finest, a 70-31 drubbing of Nebraska in the Big Ten title game in which the Badgers had two 200-yard rushers in the same game for the first time in school history. At the time it looked like Bielema might coach another quarter-century in Madison and live happily ever after in the Big Ten. From the outside it all looked so perfect for him.
But his eyes were wandering. The man who had never had a wife or kids to distract him as he worked his way up the coaching ladder had recently become married. The love story between Bielema and Jen Hielsberg began in 2008; he was in Las Vegas at The Wynn casino when he spotted a traffic-stopping, sweet-smiling blonde from Tampa Bay. His heart jackhammering, Bielema approached, introduced himself, and asked if he could teach how to play blackjack. She said yes and the two spent the next four hours at a table. She won $600 and Bielema walked away with her phone number.
What happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas: In the spring of 2011 Bielema got down on one knee and proposed on a cruise ship that was bound to St. Thomas. "He won't ever admit it, but he cried like a baby when I said yes," Jen says. "It was the sweetest thing." They were married in Madison on March 11, 2012.
For the first time in his life, Bielema began to view his own experiences through the eyes of another person. Jen uprooted her life in Florida and moved to Madison, but she was always in her famous husband's shadow. "I started to feel like I needed to do something with my wife that was for both of us, not just me," Bielema says. "When I was at Wisconsin everything was kind of my show. She was always introduced as, 'Bret's wife.'"
In Madison Bielema frequently waxed on about how Wisconsin was the only major university in the state, how this bound the fans in the state together in a special way. He wanted this dynamic again if he ever were to leave. Then, in late November 2012, Jeff Long contacted his agent to see if Bielema would be interested in the Arkansas job. Yes, Bielema was.
Long had met Bielema in Miami in 2005 when both were in town for an end-of-season-awards banquet. They were on the beach and Bielema, then an assistant and wearing flip flops, spoke to Long about why he loved coaching and how he relished transforming unheralded recruits into five-star performers. Long was so impressed by Bielema that he began keeping a file on the young coach, closely tracking his career. "He just had something special about him, a presence that was powerful," Long recalls. "It was in my interest to pay attention to him because you never know what the future will hold."
Big Ten country has been a breeding ground for successful SEC coaches. Nick Saban and Les Miles spent their formative football years in the Midwest. Kevin Sumlin played at Purdue. Mark Richt was born in Nebraska. Bielema began wondering if he could be the next in line from the Midwest who could flourish in college football's premier conference, if his 4-3 defense and his run-based offense could succeed in the SEC. The question he had to answer was: Did he have a better shot at winning a national championship at an elite Big Ten school like Wisconsin, or at traditionally middle-of-the pack SEC school like Arkansas? The answer, to Bielema, became obvious, especially with the creation of the new four-team playoff system, which Bielema believes -- as does the majority in the college football world -- will usually feature two SEC schools.
"At the end of that third year of winning three straight Big Ten titles, I kind of said to myself, 'Ok, we've been there, done that,'" says Bielema, sitting in his office as the music of Bob Marley softly beats out of overhead speakers. "And this isn't the way everybody thinks, but I was looking for something bigger. I needed a bigger challenge on a bigger stage. That's what Arkansas presented. That was the driving force first just to listen to somebody else. And that year at Wisconsin I was frustrated with assistant coaches pay" -- he'd lost 12 assistants in the previous three years to higher paying jobs -- "and a few other things and so I started looking at the outside world. Arkansas intrigued me the most because they've never won an SEC championship. And then when I got here and began understand the dynamics of what had existed before me with coach Petrino, I quickly realized I was going to be the polar opposite of what he was, both personality-wise and philosophy-wise when it comes to football. They needed something new and fresh and I needed something new and fresh. "
The decision to leave stunned Wisconsin fans and hurt Alvarez deeply. For nine years Bielema and Alvarez rarely went more than a few days without talking; now the two haven't spoken since that December morning in 2013 when Bielema told the man who handpicked him to be his successor that he was walking away from Wisconsin. There was nothing Alvarez could say to change his mind.
"I just hope time heals that wound," Jen says. "I really do."
The story of how quarterback Russell Wilson ended up playing his senior season at Wisconsin is instructive when trying to understand the Bielema Plan at Arkansas, because it illustrates its seductive allure. In June 2011 Wilson, who had been the runner-up ACC Player of the Year in '10 at NC State and was looking to transfer, appeared headed to Auburn, where he would follow the one-year path blazed by Cam Newton. Then he took a visit to Madison. As he was given a tour of the weight room, several of the offensive linemen were working out. Gazing at the Paul Bunyan-like figures grunting and yelling as they lifted weights and exhorted each other on, Wilson went bug-eyed, amazed at the size and strength and sheer mass of humanity before him. "Never seen anything like that before in my life," Wilson said. "I couldn't believe how much weight they were pushing. That pretty much made up my mind right there."
Bielema believes -- as Alvarez and Fry believed before him -- that you begin building a team with the offensive line. Once the pipeline of talented O-linemen has been laid and is pumping out All-Americans, the skill players will come to you faster than you can find and recruit them. And here is the No. 1 reason for optimism in Fayetteville: Sophomore offensive linemen Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper were named to various freshmen All-American teams last December, as was tight end Hunter Henry. The foundation is being set.
"We're not to the level we were at Wisconsin yet with our offensive line, but we're getting there," Bielema says. "I go back to the philosophy that the group that can be recruited the fastest and make a difference in your program in the shortest amount of time is offensive linemen. Usually they are the kids that have been kind of ignored, usually a little heavy, usually a momma's boy because no one else loved him. Now all the sudden you recruit him and you treat him like a princess. And you put him on a pedestal, which no one has ever done to him. And you build his confidence. That's what we're doing with our guys. And then when you put them together in the same room, they realize they aren't alone, that there are other guys in the world who are just like them. Then they bond and play like hell for each other.
"There is no position on the football field that has been better affected by recruiting since I arrived than our offensive line. We had two freshmen come in and make a big impact last year and I suspect we'll have two more this year, if not three or four. We've got a kid who was a three-year starter at UNLV who transferred in [senior Cameron Jefferson] who knew our history in developing linemen and wanted to be a part of it. We're not just getting kids off the street. We're getting high quality players. This is the core of how we're building the program. I don't care if it doesn't sound sexy. This is what works."
Of all the recruits he signed in February, Bielema seems most proud of landing 6-foot-6', 290-pound offensive lineman Frank Ragnow from Chanhassen, Minn. Ragnow had 17 offers -- including ones from Wisconsin and Florida State -- but ultimately chose Arkansas. Why? Bielema's astounding track record of producing NFL players -- there were 17 of his former offensive linemen, tight ends and running backs alone who were on NFL rosters last season -- and a shot to play in the SEC. "It's the best competition and that's where I wanted to go," Ragnow told reporters in January.
When asked about stealing a recruit from the Badgers' backyard, Bielema simply flashes a canary-swallowing grin. Of course it felt good.
Jeff Long has had a few heart-to-heart talks with his coach. At this stage of the relationship Long admires everything about Bielema save for this: his loose lips. Over the last 12 months no figure in college football -- not Steve Spurrier, not Bo Pelini, not Les Miles -- has thrown more verbal jabs than Bielema.
He's gotten in the most trouble for his unabashed support of the proposed rule (which has since been tabled) that would have prevented an offense from snapping the ball for ten seconds after it was spotted. The impetus behind the 10-second rule was player safety, but many coaches -- namely, Auburn's Gus Malzahn -- believed it was a backhanded attempt at slowing down up-temp offenses. When asked by reporters covering a Razorbacks booster function in February about what evidence he has that fast play leads to injuries, Bielema said, "Death certificates," referencing the death of Cal defensive end Ted Agu, who earlier that month had collapsed during a condition run and passed away. Within hours of making that insensitive (and inaccurate) comment, Bielema was hammered far and wide.
In his brief time at Arkansas, Bielema also has taken a swing at Nick Saban and his mediocre Big Ten record (Saban went 23-16-1 in Big Ten play at Michigan State while Bielema was 37-19 with the Badgers) and last October he suggested that Auburn doctored the game film it sent his staff (it turned out the Tigers didn't). These missteps have led some national columnists to cast Bielema as college football's newest villain, but in the cocoon of Fayetteville, he's still very much the white knight. "Sometimes we all need to take a deep breath before we speak," Long says. "Hopefully our actions on the field this year will be our loudest statements."
Can Arkansas be this year's version of the 2013 Auburn Tigers? Last January, a year after failing to win a conference game for the first time since 1980 and finishing last in the conference, Auburn came within 14 seconds of winning the national championship in the BCS title game against Florida State. This is the road map for Bielema, but it won't be easy to follow. Auburn had signed four straight top-10 recruiting classes before Malzahn returned to the Plains last year while the Razorbacks, according to Rivals.com, have had just one top-25 class in the last five years (No. 24 in 2011).
Bielema never has placed much faith or importance on recruiting rankings or how many stars are attached to a high school player. At Wisconsin he specialized in finding under-the-radar guys -- former All-American defensive end J.J. Watt was a walk on -- and turning them into future NFL draft picks. The starting offensive line in 2010, for instance, featured one four-star recruit (center Peter Konz), one unranked player (tackle Ricky Wagner), and three three-stars (tackle Gabe Carimi, guard John Moffitt and guard Kevin Zeitler). Every player wound up being selected in the draft: Carimi and Zeitler went in the first round (Carimi to the Bears in 2011 Bears; Zeitler in '12 to the Bengals), Konz in the second ('12 Falcons), Moffitt in the third ('11 Seahawks) and Wagner in the fifth ('13 Ravens).
"For what it's worth we've already had higher ranked recruiting classes here than we had at Wisconsin," Bielema says. (Rivals ranked Arkansas 29th this year and 27th in 2013.) "I'm not saying that this will correlate to wins, but I will tell you that we're able to get in and beat schools of great caliber I couldn't do in the past at Wisconsin. I really like the idea of undersized, under-recruited, under-developed, because those are words that can be changed."
Bielema also points to the final game of the 2013 season against 15th-ranked LSU as a tangible sign of his program's growth. The day after Thanksgiving, with a little more than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Arkansas held a 27-24 lead and faced a fourth-and-one at its own 34-yard-line. Bielema's gut told him to go for it -- a first down likely would have sealed the win -- but he didn't trust his offensive line. "I won't have that problem this year," he says. "My big guys have earned my faith." Instead the Razorbacks punted and the Tigers' quarterback Anthony Jennings threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural with 75 seconds to play to steal the victory.
"I'm numb," Bielema told reporters after the 31-27 loss. "I grew up on a farm. You didn't want certain animals to taste blood because once they taste blood you have got to kill them, because they will keep coming back for it. I think our players will do the same once they grasp it and truly get the feeling of what beating somebody's will out of them can do to a person. It'll come, but unfortunately it won't come until next year."
But Bielema saw a silver lining in the loss: It filled the players with confidence, which can be a powerful X-factor in college football. The player workouts this spring and summer were as intense as the coach has ever seen and the team's cumulative grade point average is up -- a broader indictor, to Bielema, that his players believe in him and are willing to work hard. "Nobody else in our league was 3-9 and nobody else went '0-fer' the SEC," he says. "We're damn hungry and the good thing is, we're acting like it."
The Razorbacks have few breaks in their schedule; Georgia and Missouri replace South Carolina and Florida in conference play. It took Bielema five years to win his first Big Ten title in Madison -- his first full recruiting class was seniors then in 2009 -- and believes he's now on a similar five-year path to a conference title in Fayetteville. But in 2014 a 6-6 record and a trip to a mid-tier bowl game would be considered a successful season for Bielema and Co.
The professor is standing at the lectern. His students are seated in front of him, on the edge of their seats, hanging on his words like they're flowing from the pulpit. "I'm going to talk to you about field position," he says. He points to a chart on the large pull-down screen that lists the 2013 scoring average by starting field position.
"Now, in our season opener, when Auburn fumbles on the opening kickoff and they start at their own three-yard-line, you can turn to your husband and say, 'Auburn only has a 15 percent chance of scoring when starting from inside of their five-yard line,'" Bielema tells the women. "And when we move the ball into the Red Zone against Auburn -- that's the 20-yard line and in -- we need to score. If you don't score points in the Red Zone, it usually means defeat. And if you don't do it twice, man, you can just kiss it goodbye. Points are everything. Everything. Understand? Wow, I can't wait to play some football. Man, this is going to be fun."
Everyone nods, even Jen Bielema, smiling in the back row. She's looking at her husband like he's the most important man on earth -- and so are the other ladies. The professor has won the room. Kickoff against the defending SEC champions, he reminds everyone, is only a few weeks away.
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Lars Anderson is a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and the author of six books, including The Storm and the Tide, which will be published in August. He's currently an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama.