FAYETTEVILLE — Bret Bielema said his first few weeks as Arkansas’ coach has included more time in the air than any other point in his life.
But after signing five junior college players last week, making other in-roads on the recruiting trail and assembling several key pieces of his coaching staff, Bielema also believes the “whirlwind” stretch has been a productive one.
“I’m very excited about what has happened here over the last two-and-a-half weeks,” Bielema said. “I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Bielema stopped to catch his breath for a few minutes Saturday, meeting with the media via teleconference to update his progress. It was his first press conference since the night he was introduced as Arkansas’ coach on Dec. 5 and the bulk of his time has been making hires, visiting prospects and getting a feel for the program.
The most notable work has been the formulation of his staff, which now includes five of nine on-field assistants. Former Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who have assumed the same duties with the Razorbacks, highlight a group Bielema said during his introductory press conference would be “second to none” because of the resources available.
Getting the coordinators in place was one of Bielema’s top priorities after arriving at Arkansas. Both Chaney and Ash have had input in assembling the rest of the staff, which currently includes defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, offensive line coach Sam Pittman and wide receivers coach George McDonald.
“Because of my experience in the league, I hope I can bring something to the table that maybe some of the guys that haven’t been around the SEC can’t do,” Chaney said when he was hired. “But I do not believe that the only good coaches in the world are in the SEC. I believe there’s wonderful coaches everywhere, and I’m sure Coach is going to put together a staff that’s indicative of that.”
Chaney and Pittman have joined the program. Ash and Partridge will remain at Wisconsin through the Rose Bowl. McDonald will begin work in January.
All five bring reputations as solid coaches and strong recruiters to Arkansas.
“Obviously the SEC has grown to be one of the top conferences in the country or the best conference in the country,” said McDonald, a former Illinois player who coached receivers at Miami last season. “I’m excited about the competition. I know it’s tough but that’s why I got into coaching because I wasn’t a very good player, but I love to compete and I want to compete against the best.”
Bielema also has the bulk of his support staff in place, too, after announcing that former Arkansas defensive assistant Bobby Allen would remain as the program’s director of high school relations. He joins former Wisconsin staff members Chris Hauser (director of on-campus recruiting) and Mark Taurisani (director of football operations) in administrative roles with the Razorbacks.
The reassignment does end Allen’s 15-year tenure as an assistant coach Arkansas, which also made him the SEC’s longest-tenured assistant. He was an assistant coach for three head coaches (Houston Nutt, Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith).
But Bielema said retaining Allen in any capacity was important for the program and believes the Arkansas veteran will be great in his new role.
“He has been outstanding and has been live on the recruiting road for us because we are under numbers wise,” Bielema said. “Bobby was out recruiting through the month of December. He has been tremendous for me. He will be in our staff in a non-coaching position but as someone who has great relationships within the staff.”
Bielema does have four positions to fill in the next few weeks. The vacancies include running backs, tight ends, linebackers and secondary coaches.
Two of Arkansas’ 2012 assistants — running backs coach Tim Horton and linebackers coach Taver Johnson — remain in consideration for staff positions, according to Bielema. Horton has coached running backs since the 2007 season and has served as recruiting coordinator since 2008. Johnson was named assistant head coach/linebackers coach last December and completed his first year at Arkansas.
Exactly where remains unknown because Bielema also indicated he already has running backs and linebackers coaches in line to accept jobs.
He said those hires won’t become official until after the coaches — who Bielema didn’t name — finished bowl games with their current programs.
“I know right now I have a running backs coach that’s hired that as soon as he’s done competing in a bowl game I expect everything to happen and move pretty quickly,” Bielema said. “I have a linebacker coach in place that I think will probably amaze a lot of people, but someone I’m very, very excited to have join our program. Once he is completed with his bowl game he’ll be aboard.”
The NCAA is currently in a recruiting dead period, so being short-handed isn’t costing the Razorbacks recruiting trail. Arkansas’ full staff is expected to be assembled and in Fayetteville shortly after New Year’s Day.
Until then, Bielema said he plans to lay low. He welcomed strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert and director of football operations Mark Taurisani to campus for a visit earlier this week. Ash and Partridge will be on campus for a quick visit today after Wisconsin wrapped up their on-campus preparation for the Rose Bowl.
Bielema, his wife Jen, Ash and Partridge are then scheduled to fly back to Madison Monday to begin a holiday break. Bielema said he’ll spend time with his parents in Illinois before returning to finish laying the foundation of his Arkansas program.
“I’m going to lay low until (Jan. 2) and kind of turn into a college football fan,” Bielema said. “Just watch football and spend time with my wife and celebrate the holidays with some close family and get ready to run Jan. 3.”