FAYETTEVILLE — Not long after the first meeting with his new team, newly named Arkansas coach Bret Bielema called together his seniors.
He wanted to know who they were. He needed to gauge their psyche after a long 2012. More important, Bielema had to let them see where he stood.
“He told us he’s not trying to get good three years from now, he’s trying to be good right now,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said as he remembered Bielema’s message. “He got a lot of respect from the seniors when he said that.”
Arkansas will kick off the Bielema era when it opens the 2013 season against Louisiana-Lafayette in Razorback Stadium on Aug. 31. By the time the 12-game schedule ends with a road trip to LSU the day after Thanksgiving, the Razorbacks will find out if they’ve put 2012 behind them and accomplished Bielema’s goal.
No one outside the program is expecting it with a group that lost talented veterans like Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis, Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg, who formed the nucleus of a team that finished as one of the biggest disappointments in school history. In fact, the Razorbacks have been projected to finish last in the SEC West a year after entering a season ranked in the top five.
But none of that matters to Bielema, who has spent nine months breathing new life into a program that needed a fresh start after the Bobby Petrino debacle.
He has openly welcomed harsh feedback the past several weeks, believing it will do nothing but fan the flame for a team ready to bury last year’s frustrations.
“I went through the same thing my first year when I took over (at Wisconsin) from a great coach in Barry Alvarez,” Bielema said. “We beat Auburn in the bowl game the year before, lost a couple of really good players. Everybody had us ranked 60th to 70th in the country, bottom half of the Big Ten.
“We went out and went 12-1.”
Bielema isn’t suggesting his first Arkansas team will match the same record in his first run through the SEC. Even Nick Saban went 7-6 in his first season at Alabama.
But Bielema’s guidance has meant plenty to the Hogs as the season begins.
“We really appreciate what Coach B tells us,” said linebacker Otha Peters, who will be sidelined for two months because of a broken arm. “He trusts us and he believes in us, which outside the state of Arkansas I don’t think a lot of people do.”
To be fair, there are plenty of reasons the Razorbacks are projected so low.
Arkansas has questions at key positions like the offensive line (Can they control the line of scrimmage?), linebackers (Will the new group produce?) and wide receiver (Is there enough depth after a rash of injuries?). They’re playing a brutal schedule that includes four straight games against SEC teams ranked in the top 10 of preseason polls (Texas A&M, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina). There’s youth everywhere, including sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen.
But Bielema — who has become well-known for his bravado on social media and at speaking engagements since his arrival — is convinced about a few other things.
“This team has all the ingredients that can make teams win,” Bielema said at SEC Media Days in July. “I haven’t been through an SEC schedule, through the stadiums, I haven’t been through an away game schedule quite like the one we face. But I do know this: We have a team that’s very hungry, a group of coaches that are very gifted. We have a staff that is very talented and a lot of years to back that up.”
Those beliefs have meant wonders for the Razorbacks, who refer to Bielema as a “player’s coach.” It has taken no time for him to earn their admiration. Some even referring to Bielema as a father figure after just a few months on campus.
“It gives us more confidence that he cares about us,” Arkansas senior safety Eric Bennett said. “He doesn’t have to wait until his recruits are here to win. Because with the talent we have now, he expects us to win a lot of games. That makes us feel comfortable to have a coach come in and say we want to win now.”
And, in turn, the confidence has worn off on players.
Many of whom enjoyed success earlier in their careers.
Arkansas’ roster is dotted with juniors and seniors who were part of teams that went 21-5 under Petrino. They played in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2010 season, then won the Cotton Bowl and finished 11-2 in 2011.
Center Travis Swanson, who will enter his fourth season as a starter, said there’s no reason to believe it’s impossible to accomplish again as Bielema’s tenure begins.
“That’s exactly what he said,” Swanson said about Bielema’s message to the seniors and the team since his arrival. “We’re not looking to be good three years from now. We’re looking to be good now. I think we’re going to shock a lot of people.”