FAYETTEVILLE, ARK. (AP) - Bret Bielema wasted little time in playing to the eager crowd.
The new Arkansas football coach picked up the microphone at halftime of the Razorbacks‘ basketball game against Tennessee, said some kind words about his first few months in Fayetteville and then laid down the gauntlet _ for himself and his coaching staff _ to a state hanging on his every word.
The roar of approval was deafening inside Bud Walton Arena. It was exactly the kind of moment, and bravado, that a program still smarting from a season gone south was craving. So far, it appears the masses couldn’t be happier with a coach who prides himself on directness, one who feels like he has plenty left to prove even after leading the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowl appearances.
For Bielema, his new job represents an opportunity to step out of his comfort zone for the first time in his career. The former Iowa walk-on who cut his coaching teeth under the likes of Hayden Fry, Kirk Ferentz, Bill Snyder and Barry Alvarez finally has a program all his own.
Arkansas has yet to win a conference championship since leaving the former Southwest Conference for the SEC in 1992, falling three times (1995, 2002 and `06) in the championship game. The Razorbacks appeared on the cusp of joining the SEC’s elite under former coach Bobby Petrino, finishing No. 5 in the country following the 2011 season, but that was before Petrino’s infamous motorcycle accident with his mistress aboard that led to his downfall.
Enter Bielema, who was hired on Dec. 4 to pick up the pieces of a 4-8 season under interim coach John L. Smith.
What Arkansas has discovered in the first two months under its new leader is a coach seemingly unafraid of just about anything or anyone. That includes the rugged SEC, home of the last seven national championships, and critics of his departure from Wisconsin. Bielema has simultaneously engaged his fans and dismissed his critics on Twitter, one keystroke at a time.
“Enjoy life alone,” Bielema responded to one online heckler.
“Hope your children don’t follow you on Twitter,” he wrote to another.
“Why hate? Life is too short,” was still another tweet.
“If someone says something to me, I’m not going to hold back,” Bielema explains. “That’s just how I am in person. If someone comes up to me one-on-one in an airport or a restaurant and says something to me, I’m not going to … I’m not going to shy away from that.”
Bielema insists that his departure from Wisconsin and the Big Ten was never intended to put either in a negative light.
“But when you brag about the situation you’re in, people become sensitive,” he said.