FAYETTEVILLE — New Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema is among the NCAA’s 10 highest paid coaches after signing a six-year contract worth $3.2 million annually.
The 42-year-old probably could’ve asked for more as the Razorbacks searched for the right fit for their program. But he had his assistant coaches in mind.
“When I began to have more and more success at Wisconsin, I stayed, but a lot of my coaches left,” Bielema said Wednesday, when he was introduced as Arkansas’ 32nd coach. “I just wasn’t able to compensate them in the way that other coaches were.
“I lost three coaches last year, and all of them went from making about $225,000 to making over $400,000 each.”
Bielema is confident that won’t be a problem now, as he moves from his seven-year run with the Badgers to a new challenge at Arkansas. The Southeastern Conference is known for its cash, plenty of which is devoted to coaches and staffs.
While Arkansas has never been at the top of the list, athletic director Jeff Long said the Razorbacks have worked to make the program competitive in terms of salaries for assistants. Arkansas’ two coordinators in 2012 — Paul Petrino and Paul Haynes — were both working under deals that paid them $475,000.
So Bielema wants to be able to recruit coaches — and retain them – as he tries to help the Razorbacks win an SEC championship. Even if it required him to accept a salary below market value for a coach with his accomplishments, according to Long.
“He expressed early on that it was much about his assistants, and being able to attract quality assistants and not lose assistants,” Long said.
“When we talked — I wouldn’t even call it a negotiation — we just talked about what was important, how we could reach both of our goals. … We decided what we thought was the best way to go about it. That just says volumes about Bret and who he is as a person and a coach. That really impressed me.”
Bielema began to work on assembling that staff Thursday morning, meeting with Arkansas’ eight remaining coaches. He planned to meet with each individually as well to decide if any of them will remain on his staff with the Razorbacks.
It’s a fundamental philosophy Bielema learned as a young assistant, when he sweated his way through potential unemployment when Hayden Fry retired at Iowa. Bielema was eventually retained by new coach Kirk Ferentz, but said plenty of anxious waiting was involved. So Bielema said it won’t happen under his watch.
“I made a promise that if I ever was in this situation, I was going to interview every coach on the current staff and decide things on my own before I hired any coach from anywhere else,” Bielema said. “I have not hired another person to come to the University of Arkansas as of (Wednesday).”
Bielema, who has a defensive background, also acknowledged his most important hire would be his offensive coordinator. Arkansas’ 2012 offensive coordinator, Paul Petrino, is now the head coach at Idaho. So Bielema said he has put together a short list of six offensive coordinators he plans to consider for the position.
One candidate could be Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who was one of six first-year assistants on Bielema’s staff this season.
Associate head coach and co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge is another Wisconsin assistant who could join Bielema at Arkansas. His work with defensive linemen has been impressive and Partridge also is known as a strong recruiter, particularly in Florida, where handfuls of natives are on the Wisconsin roster.
Another potentially important connection: Long knows Partridge from his time as Pittsburgh’s athletic director. Partridge was an assistant there from 2003-07.
But Bielema stressed no one had been hired Wednesday.
“I can’t tell you if I’m going to bring somebody from Wisconsin,” Bielema said. “I can’t tell you if I’m going to take somebody from anywhere else in the United States.
“I can tell you this: The staff I’m going to assemble is going to be second to none. It’s going to be that way because of the support I’ve gotten from the administration.”
Arkansas’ pool for assistant coaches salaries increased slightly throughout former coach Bobby Petrino’s tenure. Long said more will be available now, too, but said he and Bielema are in agreement about one thing. They’re not simply going to throw stacks of cash at coaches just because they can.
“He doesn’t just want to go pay somebody because he has the money to pay him, which means a lot to me, because I am protective of our resources,” Long said.
“We’ve agreed that we’re going to sit down and as he gets coaches he wants to identify, we’re going to look at the market, we’re going to look at what they’re currently making, and we’re going to put together a package that hopefully we can attract them here to the University of Arkansas.”
Bielema said that’s his goal after fighting what proved to be a losing battle at Wisconsin throughout most of his career. Bielema had no doubt he was hiring the right assistants because other programs were snatching them away.
There was potential for more turnover at Wisconsin this winter if Bielema hadn’t taken the Arkansas job. Before he left the Badgers, Bielema said there were three more assistants that were being sought by other programs for more money.
“They were talking money that I can’t bring them at Wisconsin,” Bielema said. “Wisconsin isn’t wired to do that at this point. I just felt for me and for my future and my life and what I want to accomplish in the world of college football, I needed to have that ability to do that, and thankfully I’ve found that here at Arkansas.”
Arkansas linebackers A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, and safety Rohan Gaines were named to the Southeastern Conference’s All-Freshman team Wednesday. Gaines finished second on the team in tackles (75), while Turner ranked fifth with 53 stops. Peters earned two starts late in the season and finished with 32 tackles. Arkansas has had at least three All-Freshman team members in each of the past three years. … Punter Dylan Breeding was named a first-team Capital One Academic All-American on Thursday. Breeding has a 3.80 GPA and is pursuing a degree in marketing management. He is in his last 10 hours and plans to graduate later this month.