How long does a new coach need his own type of football players in the system before being able to have success?
Bret Bielema is faced with that dilemma at Arkansas after replacing Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith before last season. Bielema ripped apart the playbook and installed new schemes on offense and defense.
Unlike Auburn, Arkansas was not an overnight success with its first-year coach. Bielema won three straight games to open last season, but closed with nine consecutive losses. The coach candidly reflected on the situation in an interview with the AJC.
“I think a lot of it depends on what‘s there,” Bielema said. “I don’t think there’s a magic number.
“Obviously, this is my first transition as a head coach. It’s something I wanted to do free willingly. I wanted to do it. I wanted to experience it. But I knew coming in, what I was going to ask our players was dramatically different from what they were used to.
“If you get a team with a new coach coming in that was very similar to what they’ve done in the past, you could have an Auburn situation. You know, Gus (Malzahn) was part of three out of those five recruiting classes (at Auburn as an assistant and head coach). Know what I mean? There were huge transitional benefits there.
“But if I had transferred into a Stanford or a program that had a pro-type offense background and the type of defense we like to run, the transition probably would’ve been a little bit smoother – not just from a record standpoint, but from a personnel standpoint. I think that’s the part, you as coaches, have to be aware of.
“I’m excited about this year’s recruiting class because unlike a year ago when we had a recruiting class ranked a little higher, this year’s recruiting class was catered to the needs we knew and projected as coaches. Case in point, we had four guys that we went after hard and were able to get them into school in January. All four are now in our two-deep and going to play effective football for us in the SEC. Even though maybe they didn’t have all the stars that everybody wanted next to them, they’re the stars that we wanted.
“One of the great things I really believe in as a head coach is that nobody knows your program better than you. I’ve had a lot of no-stars come in and be Freshman of the Year in the conference, and Big Ten Player of the Year (award) for a guy that never had star. That was Chris Borland, who has the chance to be a first-round NFL draft pick. He came in and took the conference by storm, and we were the only school in the country that offered him. That’s the stuff I love doing as a head coach, taking players that fit your program and make them have success.”
Arkansas, which signed two players out of Atlanta last February, is stepping up its recruiting efforts in the state. This year, Arkansas will increase the number of assistants in Georgia from one to three.
“Why can’t we have recruiting success in Georgia?” Bielema said. “We have direct flights to Atlanta. In addition, we have alumni base that is very, very proud, and very, very excited to help the Hogs in any way.
“I think the biggest thing we have going for us at Arkansas is that we’re a program on the rise. We’re a program that can talk about what you can do to help build, instead of just being another part of the past (elsewhere). Here at Arkansas, you can be part of the identity that helps change the course of history. ‘Come and be a part of the Hogs.’”
Here’s the rest of the Q&A with Brett Bielema:
You’re spending part of spring practice preparing for your season-opener against Auburn? “As a point of reference, we’ve always done things like that during the spring. And it’s not so much Auburn, it’s just what Auburn does offensively is so different than what we do. It’s more of the quarterback-run game, what that means, how that plays into it, and the fact that Auburn is our opener. The things that we’re working on are more dedicated to the no-huddle offense, and the quarterback-run game.”
How much can you really do to prepare for Auburn this early? “Our offense is a quarterback under center and two-back run game. It’s some traditional pro-style offense. When our defense is getting ready to play Auburn, Texas Tech and Northern Illinois – games we play early in the season next year – it’s a completely different offense. So in my previous years as a head coach, I’ve learned that if you don’t allow your defense to get reps against an offense that they’re going to see almost 75-percent of the season, you are doing disservice to your whole team.”
What do you think about public perception that you and Alabama coach Nick Saban are secret allies against the hurry-up no-huddle offenses? “I think that opinion is from the outside only. But I appreciate what you’re saying and obviously Nick has some philosophy things that join with what we believe in here at Arkansas. Obviously, his success is second to none and what he believes in, he believes in strongly. I really do think that the only thing I regret about that whole conversation and things that were said … the only thing at the top of my priority list in player safety. Nothing will ever derail from that. Nothing will ever take me away from that. It’s something I believe in strongly. Our one solid and unwavering commitment to parents when we recruit young men is that we will look out for the safety and well-being of their child, no matter what. And I think that’s something that can never be lost in in translation.”
So about that perception of you and Saban being secret allies? “I have never had any secret meetings with Nick. We talk on the phone occasionally but nothing secretive or ways to manipulate the system or anything.”
Why are you increasing your emphasis on recruiting Georgia? “One of the things that jumped out at me right away last year was that I did a comparative study. And for signing day for (2013), the state that produced the most SEC signings, not Division I, was Georgia. That’s Atlanta, and that jumped out to me. If you look at Division I signees across the country, the top states are traditionally Florida, California, Texas, and Ohio. But when you’re talking about the SEC, the state of Georgia was the No. 1 producer.”
What’s your game plan on recruiting Georgia? What’s your philosophy on talent evaluation? “I believe no way, shape or form in recruiting services, other than they can usually give you the name and the high schools and where to find them (the recruits). We don’t follow their rankings. We don’t follow their thoughts on what type of player they are. What we do is follow through on our own services, on our own rating system. It has been very, very good. This past year, we got (Lassiter High School defensive back) Chris Murphy. He ended up having a lot of offers, but there wasn’t a lot of interest when we got on him early on. (South Paulding High School defensive back) Khalia Hackett was along the same lines. We really believed strongly that they would fit into our system. They like football, they’re good athletes, they want to be able to run, and they can take care of their academic business – and usually things like that are great indicators of what kind of football player you’re getting your hands on.”
You play UGA this season in Little Rock. Arkansas. How do you think that will impact your recruiting efforts in Georgia? “We’re excited. Any time you recruit a kid out of Georgia, and you can tell them ‘Hey, you get a chance to play Georgia,’ it’s good. I think we’re playing them in Little Rock this year. I think that’s a tremendous environment to get to play them in. It’s a big deal for them and for us. It’s something that is a little bit of a new niche in history, and anytime you can do that, I think it creates something very special.”
Do you wish the NCAA allowed you and other head coaches to recruit on the road during the spring evaluation period? “I do. It’s something that I’ve enjoyed since day one. I remember to this day, the very time I was on the road recruiting and how much I enjoyed it. When I was first was a head coach, we could still do it. I was on the road for a whole month. I thoroughly enjoyed it because you could make a difference. You could go into those high schools and visit with the high school coach and the principal. You can’t talk to the kid, so it doesn’t really matter. But you could make a difference with selling your program to the community. And there was movement from a lot of head coaches maybe in the twilight of their career who just didn’t have the desire to get out on the road. They got the rule switched and we haven’t been able to get back out since. I really wish we could because I would think for me, especially here at Arkansas, I could make a difference in being out there and shaking hands. But we’ve just got to play by the rules that we’ve been given.”
If you were in charge of the NCAA, what’s one rule you would change for recruiting? “There’s one, without a doubt. The in-state recruiting is a different deal. When we recruit kids from Arkansas, we get can those kids on campus, even though it might be a four- or five-hour drive. We can usually get them here. But when you’re dealing with out-of-state kids, it’s a little different. We’ve been strong in Florida, and we’ve been strong in some areas that require a plane flight … but when you fly the kids, you can’t fly the parents. I would suggest, and I’ve put in motion now for about four or five years in a row now, the ability to bring in a parent on an official visit by plane. I don’t know if we get to bring in both parents but just the ability to bring in one would work. I think you will make the recruiting process a more efficient one, and make it more informed. I think a lot of times when a young man is on campus by himself and without parental guidance, some bad things can happen such as misinformation and misleading. I think would be a great asset for everyone involved. It just makes so make sense. I’ve been a recruiter in South Florida my entire career, even as an assistant. There are so many times a young man visits and sees something he knows and believes is right but his parents can’t afford to see it with him. To see that parent’s anxiety is something we could erase with just a simple little rule. I think in the long run it would end up saving money (for both colleges and recruits) because the kids wouldn’t make bad decisions. They wouldn’t make decisions for schools they’ve got to transfer out of in a couple of years. Overall, it would help everybody in the decision-making process.”
Some people are saying Arkansas might have the nation’s toughest schedule this season? “I’m excited and our guys are excited. We couldn’t be more excited about opening up the season in an environment like Auburn. We played a good game against them a year ago and fell short. I think the fact we saw them go on to win an SEC championship and play for a national championship, we realized how good a football team they were. And to have that opportunity to have that first game in our hands, it’s really special. I think the great thing about our guys is that they know 3-9 is not an ending point. It’s a launching point. To have the opportunity to come back the next year and have the schedule we have, it’s certainly a blessing in disguise.”