FAYETTEVILLE — Bret Bielema was raised on a farm.
And not just any farm.
He was raised on a farm with 2,500 pigs.
Bielema said it was a great childhood. It was comfortable. So when it was time for him to head off to college at Iowa, the young pig farmer broke down.
“I really thought all I would do was stay on the farm and help my dad carry on the traditions that he taught me,” Bielema said. “When I left the farm I cried like crazy because it was all I knew.”
Bielema wasn’t crying Wednesday, when he was introduced as Arkansas’ next head coach. He was smiling as he joined his wife, Jen, and Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long in his first full-fledged Hog Call as the Razorbacks’ football coach.
The Big Ten veteran was officially out of his comfort zone in his profession, though, stepping away from all he knew in the Big Ten and into the pressure cooker of the Southeastern Conference. Arkansas’ 32nd head coach doesn’t have many ties to the region besides an aunt and uncle in Little Rock, but made it clear he isn’t intimidated about stepping into a conference taking aim at its seventh straight national title when No. 2 Alabama plays top-ranked Notre Dame next month.
In fact, Bielema said he’s eager to take on the SEC with the Razorbacks.
“I came here to chase a dream,” Bielema said. “I’ve never been to a place where I can give them something they’ve never had, you know?”
Arkansas hired Bielema on Tuesday, signing the 42-year-old to a six-year contract that will pay him $3.2 million annually. It was widely considered a surprising move on both sides. Arkansas’ close-to-the-vest search — which officially began when John L. Smith was removed from his position on Nov. 24 — produced a Big Ten guy.
Born in Illinois on the pig farm, Bielema played defensive tackle at Iowa and has spent almost every year of his coaching in the Big Ten. Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry and former Wisconsin coach-turned athletic director Barry Alvarez are two of his most important mentors. Bielema, reportedly, even has an Iowa tattoo.
Bielema was successful, too. He replaced Alvarez as Wisconsin’s coach as a 35-year-old and continued a winning tradition. Bielema was 68-24 with the Badgers, had four seasons of 10 or more wins and just led Wisconsin to its third straight Rose Bowl after a 70-31 win against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game.
So why leave the comfort zone?
One reason: Bielema pointed to the successful transition other coaches with similar backgrounds have made in the NCAA’s best conference. SEC West rivals Alabama and LSU have coaches (Nick Saban and Les Miles) who grew up in the Big Ten (at Michigan State and Michigan). Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is a Midwest guy, too, using his early experiences to eventually lead Florida to two national titles.
“The thing I think probably intrigued me more than anything as I’ve watched over the years the SEC, there’s a lot of coaches that have my type of background that have had success,” Bielema said. “Not just growing up and being a part of it, but coming in from a Big Ten coaching background earlier in their career. Some of the principles and things they have done. I’m excited to work with the caliber of athlete the SEC can bring and what we can bring here to the University of Arkansas is very exciting.”
Arkansas is hoping the same successful migration is mimicked by Bielema, whose fundamental philosophies will bring a style change to a program used to slinging the ball around the field with an assortment of offensive weapons.
Bielema isn’t anti-pass by any means. Wisconsin had plenty of success through the air with current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson under center in 2011. But a run-stopping defense, and a powerful run game have been staples of his Wisconsin teams the past seven seasons.
Long, who said he met face-to-face with four different candidates in the past two weeks, is confident it’s a winning formula in the SEC.
“I do think to win a championship we’re going to have to be stronger on defense,” Long said. “And I think that to be stronger on defense, there is some kind of offensive strategy you employ to help make your defense better and vice versa.”
Bielema also alluded to steady turnover with his staff at Wisconsin as another reason for his decision to leave for the SEC, where well-paid staffs have become the norm. Arkansas — which paid its offensive coordinators $475,000 each last season — isn’t at the top of the conference. But Bielema said it’s better than Wisconsin.
He hadn’t started assembling a staff as of Wednesday night, but plans to meet with Arkansas’ current assistants first this morning. Long said the pool for assistants is “more than what we had in the past” and Bielema is confident his group will be “second to none” because of the funds that will be available for dispersal.
It was all sorted out when Bielema agreed to meet with Long and Arkansas senior associate athletic director Jon Fagg in New York City during the College Football Hall of Fame festivities earlier this week. After agreeing to a deal, he flew back to Wisconsin and told players of his decision. He arrived in Fayetteville on Tuesday night and spent Wednesday familiarizing himself with his new school.
Bielema met with Arkansas’ returning players during a team meeting held before Wednesday’s press conference. It’s clear Bielema — whose ability to work a room was evident in the Broyles Center on Wednesday — made an impression on them.
“You can see he has a lot of confidence,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “He really relieved a lot of tension in that team meeting about 30 seconds into speaking. I know there was a lot of tension for all of us not knowing who he is as a person, but as soon as he came in there he made every one feel comfortable.”
Said defensive end Chris Smith: “We’re excited. We’re ready to practice today. After being through all the adversity and all the ups and downs, we’re ready for a fresh, clean start and ready to move forward.”
Bielema didn’t put a timetable on success, but it won’t happen overnight. Arkansas was 4-8 last season, after all, and will undergo changes with new coaches.
Veterans like Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg are gone. It’s not clear whether others like running back Knile Davis and guard Alvin Bailey will return, either. Bielema will have to hit the recruiting trail, too, to pull in players to fill positions of need on the offensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
But Bielema said his Razorbacks will embrace the underdog role immediately.
“I truly believe that truly successful men are more defined during their times of adversity than during their times of success,” Bielema said. “I know they wanted to have more success and go to a bowl game, and I know they wanted to achieve all the things they felt were in front of them at the end of the year. But they persevered.”
He could’ve remained at Wisconsin, where Bielema said enough talent will return for a run at a fourth straight Big Ten crown. But the Big Ten guy left his comfort zone for Arkansas and wants to lead the Razorbacks to their first SEC title.
“It was time to try and spread my wings and fly a little bit further,” Bielema said.