Bielema signed a six-year, $3.2 million annual contract with the Razorbacks. The deal culminated a decade-long flirtation with joining the SEC for the 43-year-old, who was once offered the defensive coordinator job by then-Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. He sought plenty of outside advice before turning down the Tigers then, and he did the same due diligence about the Arkansas job.
The former Michigan State and Louisville coach was recently named the new head coach at Division II Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., beginning March 1. However, he’s stayed in Fayetteville while serving out the consultant portion of his contract, telling Bielema he was “available at any given time.”
The two, who knew each other from their coaching days in the Big Ten, have talked in detail about the returning players for the Razorbacks.
Smith also gave Bielema “the lay of the land” about Arkansas’ administration and fan base, both of which Smith praised _ even after he was often ridiculed online and on the airwaves as the Razorbacks fell from the preseason top 10 and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2008. Smith infamously told reporters to “Smile!” following a 52-0 loss to Alabama, and he said it’s difficult for any coach to keep fans happy over the long term in today’s coaching profession.
“It’s hard,” Smith said. “When you’re on top and then you leave, it doesn’t end well then. If it’s the other case, where it ends because they have to fire you, it doesn’t end well then, either. So, you’re kind of caught as a coach anymore.”
Arkansas has seen its share of less-than-graceful exits during its last three coaching tenures _ from Houston Nutt’s paid departure for Mississippi to Petrino’s firing and Smith’s temporary hold on the job. All of it has thrown an aura of instability over a program that had seemed on the rise with the likes of Ryan Mallett, Knile Davis and Tyler Wilson leading the way on the field.
Bielema isn’t concerned about the tide of public support turning on him at Arkansas, saying he doesn’t believe that has to happen. The closest he’s come to a losing season as a head coach was a 7-6 campaign in 2008, his third season at Wisconsin.
The Badgers followed that with three straight years of double-digit wins, and Bielema said the key for him during the struggles was self-analysis and how he handled himself.
It’s a lesson he plans to carry over to the SEC.
“It can turn for other people; it doesn’t have to turn for me,” Bielema said. “I don’t care where you are at in life. Everything is about how you react to what happens. It’s not what happens; it’s how you react to it. I think that’s the part that I know I control.”