Another “woo pig” Saturday afternoon has rolled around. This time a lot of hopeful, yet understandably frustrated and uncertain, Razorback fans get to watch their beloved Hogs mix it up at home with New Mexico State.
It’s bound to have been a soul-searching past week for the Hog coaches and Athletic Director Jeff Long, who with much fanfare and bravado in 2013 brought head coach Bret Bielema to the University of Arkansas as head coach.
Not that long afterwards, and despite an overall losing record, Long awarded Bielema a contract extension with a whopping $15.5 million buyout. That gift came well before the former celebrated Big Ten head coach at Wisconsin could live up to his promise.
You think the congenial coach has shown himself to be worth that kind of buyout? You believe his decisions on the field and overall performance warrant that kind of incredible contract? I sure can’t see it.
Look, I’m sure Long had his reasons or handing Bielema this premature prize. But for the life of this Ozark boy, I can’t imagine why he and others in charge apparently felt the need to lay the Hogs’ program in a vise, especially when in his fifth season, Bielema’s Arkansas record is a shockingly subpar 10-23 against SEC schools. And it feels like the Hogs are languishing in mediocrity, despite more preseason hype again this season.
Since its single victory over an NCAA Division 1, Conference USA team to start this season, many seriously disappointed fans have watched their beloved Razorbacks quickly sink to 1-2, with the bulk of a beastly schedule awaiting.
I’d say hooray, they are playing New Mexico State at home today with Coastal Carolina to come. Yet I’ve learned in recent years not to take any team for granted, especially those possessing our game films, speed and smarts.
I’m sure Bielema and Long, neither with roots in our state, are as deeply disappointed as every fan who buys the Hogs’ expensive tickets and merchandise. I also recall Bielema upon arrival announcing boldly how he’d come to win the SEC, and not to play Alabama, but to beat Alabama. A desperately supportive state responded: “Yay! You go, Bret!”
But ah, those danged words in thin air, they are so much easier to utter than the demanding actions necessary to back them.
In light of the coach setting expectations soaring across our state hungry for success immediately following that miserable 4-8 season with substitute coach John L. Smith, it’s little wonder there are so many unhappy devoted fans with the team’s losing SEC record under Bielema.
Some who’ve watched Bielema and his assistants recruit and prepare for games say the majority of devoted athletes he brings to the program today just aren’t fast enough to effectively compete. That extra first step matters enormously. His former athletic director at Wisconsin, Barry Alvarez, even said as much in a speech in Little Rock this week when he talked about Arkansas’ obvious need for speed.
The SEC hasn’t become the nation’s powerhouse conference because its players weigh 320 pounds, but I believe because across the board its teams are big enough, smart, well-coached and very fast in their various positions. In other words, they too often run around, past and through the Razorbacks.
One who understands this approach (despite admitted personal shortcomings) is Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino. He was (and is) a harsh taskmaster who proved phenomenally successful at Arkansas between 2008 and 2011 before he unwisely took up motorcycling with a young female employee.
Petrino’s Woody Hayes/Bear Bryant-tough method, along with creative and inspired coaching that was fun to watch, quickly had the Hogs in top-tier SEC and even cracking the national rankings during his stay as head Hog. His teams were fast, unpredictable, strong and clever. And they found ways to win many games against strong teams.
While Bielema certainly is a nice guy and embraced by his players, the win-loss record his teams have created here have left many wondering if he and Long know what they are doing in the SEC. And the university’s hierarchy has got to be wondering what lies ahead when it comes to filling all those new and improved seats in Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The Razorbacks’ current record and the disappointing way this season has started with losses to TCU and Texas A&M (for the sixth consecutive time) could become both serious and very expensive mighty fast if the Razorbacks can’t compete effectively in the SEC West, much less win the conference or become nationally ranked again.
Long’s been quoted saying Bielema’s graduation rate is impressive and the coach isn’t on the hot seat when it comes to his job. Probably not soon, since the buyout package stands at $15.5 million through 2018. But I’m sure Long also fully realizes how unhappy Razorback fans are with so many losses that are likely to increase through this season. We all want them to win, but speaking rationally, this losing start doesn’t bode well for a stellar season (or even an average 6-6), does it?
That being the case (and I do sincerely hope it is not), it’s not difficult for me to imagine side-by-side hot seats and probably not anywhere near the stadium’s expensive new section.
There’s too much fan-based money involved here. Repeating the succession of mediocre seasons, regardless of how well our Razorbacks excel academically, won’t fill even the seats that existed beforehand.
So go Hogs! Beat New Mexico State and everyone else this season! Please.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at email@example.com.