What to make of coach Bret Bielema's Ole Miss-Florida comments
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is always good for a controversial sound bite and on National Signing Day, he said this about Florida and Ole Miss.
“Florida is kind of the new Ole Miss,” Bielema said. “They’re doing some things in recruiting that just kind of shocks you a little bit.”
Pundits, fans, social media — really you name it — latched onto this and immediately felt that Bielema was accusing the Gators of being a bit shady on the recruiting trail, likely because of the NCAA’s notice of allegations that Ole Miss received just days before signing day.
Florida head coach Jim McElwain’s response to Bielema’s comments also seemed to take them that way as McElwain was emphatic that the Gators operate above board on the recruiting trail.
“Coach Mac does things the right way,” he said.
That prompted this clarification from Bielema:
“I said something earlier that came across in the wrong way, I guess. I was paying a compliment to Florida. We’ve seen them kind of pop up everywhere. Before my last couple years here, really had only competed against Florida in Georgia and Florida itself a lot, because I love to recruit Florida. Well, this last week we were competing against them on a wide receiver in Texas, a running back, a player in Louisiana and a player in North Dakota. And I’ve never seen that before; that’s all I was making reference to.
“It’s kind of like last week, we stumbled across an offensive lineman in Illinois and I really liked him and started to proceed with him and found out he — before I got anything going — had committed to Ole Miss. And I told my staff, ‘Ole Miss, they’re everywhere.’ That’s kind of the comment we make. It wasn’t in reference to anything other than that. I mean that wholeheartedly and honestly, and when I said that earlier, I was paying a compliment to Florida.
“I’ve called (Florida coach Jim McElwain) and told him that as well as Hugh, and that was received well. So, I’ll put that little nugget to bed.”
In this case, I believe Bielema’s clarification. He’s right that the Rebels cast a wide net and at this stage of their program build, head coach Hugh Freeze can go all over the country and legitimately have a shot to land a prospect. It used to be that Ole Miss could do well in Mississippi, parts of Tennessee, Louisiana and then Georgia and Florida. It’s unprecedented that the Rebels now are factors across the country.
Likewise, the Gators haven’t been as active all over for at least a couple of cycles and don’t typically go head-to-head with Arkansas on recruits, given that they usually are battling it out for talent within their own talent-rich state and then reach north into Georgia and up the Atlantic Coast. It’s just rare and probably a bit shocking for the staff at Arkansas.
College football recruiting still is very much geographically-oriented and it does upset the apple cart a little bit when you see a different shark in the waters gobbling up fish, to use a metaphor.
Ole Miss’ notice of allegations, which reportedly includes nothing with the current Rebels coaching staff, also needs to be considered here. It was mostly concerning other sports. In fact, because of the minor nature of it, one has to question why the NCAA elected to release that news just before signing day. Would having some sensitivity toward a program trying to close a recruiting class not play a factor in the timing of a release like that?
As we saw from the reaction to the Bielema comments, folks don’t read beyond the headlines these days and the only thing that did was propagate a narrative that Ole Miss is cheating in football recruiting right now under Freeze and his staff, something that was not indicated in the NOA. The Rebels still finished the cycle strong, but one has to wonder how much damage it did inflict on prospects that headed elsewhere who had Ole Miss in their top group.
Bielema’s original comments were not very well thought out. The reaction was the result of a false narrative stemming from a notice of allegations that did not include any current members of the Rebels football staff, which have been the ones doing the shocking. Because of that, his clarification is to be believed and it would be prudent for all to look below the surface of things like this rather than rushing to judgement based on subtext of an interview in the future.