Is our love for Bret Bielema the guy clouding our view of Bret Bielema the coach?
Between his jolly stature, his charismatic personality, his lovely wife and his blue-collar work ethic, Bret Bielema is a very likable guy.
He handles his press conferences with class and comedic timing, has a positive influence in the community and arrived at Arkansas with glowing reviews after seven seasons at Wisconsin.
The fact that many Razorbacks fans can relate to Bielema, who definitively seems like he’s a normal guy — somebody that every group of friends has in their crew — has overshadowed what the Hogs have accomplished since he arrived in Fayetteville.
Perhaps the fact that his Wisconsin teams thrived gives Arkansas fans hope. The Badgers posted 10 wins or more in four of his seven seasons, and they only finished below the 8-win threshold once (a 7-6 campaign in 2008).
While Wisconsin was consistently good during Bielema’s tenure, the Razorbacks have been consistently mediocre since he has arrived.
After going 3-9 his debut season in 2013, the Hogs have finished with seven, eight, and seven wins in the three years since. In fact, the Razorbacks are 25-26 in Bielema’s first four seasons at the helm.
What’s going on? How could a guy who was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2006 be so average a decade later?
Well, for starters, the SEC West is typically the toughest division in college football. Having to go against the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Ole Miss each season is no picnic.
The most alarming thing is the fact that Bielema has had talented players. Maybe Arkansas isn’t loaded like Bama or LSU every year, but if you look at this season alone, the Hogs had one of the best running backs in the country in Rawleigh Williams.
Most coaches probably would take Austin Allen at quarterback and the crop of wide receivers the Razorbacks fielded this season, too.
Arkansas will likely never pull in 4-star recruits across the board, but still, Bielema has been at the wheel of the program for the past four seasons. These are his players, so there should be no excuses.
And, yet, Arkansas’ 2016 season was as puzzling as possible, a 10-week roller-coaster ride in which the Hogs alternated winning and losing. The break in that pattern, an unexplainable second-half meltdown in the Belk Bowl, meant they closed the season with a two-game losing streak to finish 7-6.
Maybe Razorbacks fans have accepted it’s tough to compete for SEC West titles. Maybe they are satisfied with seven or eight-win seasons every year.
The much more likely scenario, though, is that they love Bielema the guy, and not necessarily Bielema the coach. Did you see the show “Being Bret Bielema,” which aired on ESPNU last summer? What’s not to love about the guy?
He hangs out with country musicians, drinks beers and tells it like it is. He compares top recruits to Farrah Fawcett. He seems to bleed cardinal and white, and he never passes up an opportunity to let a “Woo Pig!” out.
Some Arkansas fans may worry about what type of coach the program could hire if they let Bielema go, a classic case of the grass isn’t always greener. However, that shouldn’t be a concern. Coaching the Razorbacks — or any SEC West team, for that matter — is an opportunity many coaches would jump for.
The general consensus among Hogs fans is 2017 will be Bielema’s last chance to prove himself as a coach that can regularly win in the SEC. Still, the fact that his seat isn’t already steaming hot signifies one thing: Arkansas fans are in love with the guy.
Although it might be easier to stomach losses with a coach like Bielema, who is genuine, honest, and accountable during press conferences, there has to be a faction within the fan base that would prefer a no-nonsense head coach like Nick Saban. Especially if not having a lovable coach meant more wins every year.
As much as Razorbacks fans love Bielema the guy, that love may fade away if Bielema the coach can’t produce better results in 2017.