FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas wrapped up its preseason camp with a mock game closed to the public inside Razorback Stadium on Friday night.
It also ended a three-week stretch spent largely behind closed doors.
Arkansas’ preseason camp proved to be the most secluded in recent memory. The public was allowed inside on Aug. 5 for a 107-play scrimmage in Razorback Stadium, but practices were closed the rest of the three-week stretch.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema believed it was imperative as the Razorbacks prepared for their first season under his watch.
“As I get more and more comfortable with our guys, I would let more and more people see what we’re doing,” Bielema said. “But I firmly believe that as coaches and players, we needed this time to ourselves. Just kind of grow and experience it.”
A poll of SEC beat writers shows Bielema’s philosophy did make Arkansas one of the least accessible preseason camps across the conference the past month.
A few other examples of limited access: Kentucky — which has a first-year coach as well in Mark Stoops — limited the public to its Fan Day practice before allowing the media inside for a 40-minute viewing period on Saturday afternoon. Florida opened three practices to the media and fans, then held an additional workout open to students. Auburn — led by another first-year coach in Gus Malzahn — held 20 minutes of its first five practices open to the media. The Tigers then allowed donors, former players and staff to observe a light scrimmage during camp.
Others have been more open: The first two weeks of Vanderbilt’s preseason camp was open to the media with the public allowed to attend one of the workouts. Two weeks of Ole Miss’ practices were wide open as well. Every scrimmage and the early portions of practices have been open to the media at Missouri.
Bielema’s former team — Wisconsin — went a step further with a wide-open approach under new coach Gary Anderson. Nearly every practice and scrimmage was open to the public. There was a consequence: Someone in attendance recorded an entire Wisconsin scrimmage and posted it online.
“I don’t like it, but that’s his deal,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told the Wisconsin State Journal about Anderson’s open practice policies.
Alvarez also told the newspaper Bielema was much more cautious with the Badgers.
“Bret was overly paranoid — just like (former Iowa coach) Hayden (Fry),” Alvarez told the Wisconsin State Journal. “Bret, he’s worried about who’s up there (in the stands) painting and all that stuff.”
Bielema’s closed approach to preseason camp this fall was much different than his predecessors at Arkansas. Former coach Bobby Petrino opened practices for roughly two weeks to start preseason camp. It was a policy that continued last fall, when John L. Smith was in charge of the program.
Zack Higbee, who is Arkansas’ assistant athletic director for media relations, said practice policies largely depend on the coach. But shrinking access has become more common in the new media age, where videos, photos or news from practices can make their way online in seconds.
Bielema made it clear early he wanted practices as controlled as possible while Arkansas coaches and players settled into their new environment together. Most of the Razorbacks’ spring practices were closed as well last April.
“He’s not trying to make anybody’s job difficult,” Higbee said of Bielema. “He understands the role of the media more than any coach I’ve ever worked with.”
Bielema also said he had an objective in opening one scrimmage, then closing the next. He wanted to expose players to different scenarios they might face this fall with fans cheering for them at home and getting very little applause on the road.
“I wanted to simulate us being on the road,” Bielema said. “I didn’t want anybody in the stadium but us. I had no music going. It was just dead quiet. And I wanted them to understand when you’re on the road it’s all about how well you respond.”
Bielema originally scheduled a third scrimmage that would’ve been open to the public, but canceled plans because of key injuries that occurred in camp. The coach indicated the possibility of opening more practices in the future, too.
It wouldn’t be the first time. Florida’s Will Muschamp closed practices his first season with the Gators. There were a few open practices this month.
Still, having one open practice only adds to the curiosity surrounding the Razorbacks as they prepare for Saturday’s opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.
Bielema acknowledged it during his team’s kickoff luncheon on Friday.
“You’re going to see some people come out of nowhere,” Bielema said. “You’re going to see some people playing for us next Saturday that you may have never heard of until they make a tackle, until they make a catch or until a big play on special teams.”
Ultimately, Bielema said the thing that mattered most is the fact Arkansas accomplished everything it needed to behind those closed doors.
“There wasn’t anything on my checklist we didn’t get to,” Bielema said.