Less than four days removed from winning a third-straight Big Ten title with Wisconsin, Bret Bielema sported a tie with a slightly darker shade of red as the University of Arkansas officially introduced him as its new head coach Wednesday afternoon.
Standing in front of a podium emblazoned with the Razorbacks logo, Bielema said he had wanted to coach in the SEC for several years and reflected on his seven-year tenure as Wisconsin’s head coach.
“We’d done some really good things, I’d gone to two-straight Rose bowls, knew we went into that Nebraska game with a chance to go to a third,” Bielema said. “The way our team played, it really just gave me a great satisfaction that they’ve got a pretty good team going back there.
“Just felt like it was time for me to try and spread my wings and fly a little bit further.”
The former UW head coach thanked Athletic Director and mentor Barry Alvarez for offering him his first big break in coaching before letting a critical detail slide: that Alvarez — who has come away victorious in all three of his trips to Pasadena — will coach the team in the Rose Bowl.
“Whoever Coach Alvarez picks [as the next coach] is going to be phenomenal, I think he’s actually coaching their bowl game,” he said. “I just heard that before I came here which would be awesome. They might finally win one, everyone always tells me he won three and I lost two.”
The Razorbacks’ new coach said he has not hired any assistants yet and will individually sit down with anyone from the previous staff to give them an opportunity to hold onto their job. He added that he has a “short list” of about six candidates to take over for former Arkansas’ former offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who recently departed to take the head coaching job at Idaho.
One of the biggest questions surrounding Bielema’s move was his ability to recruit the fertile but highly competitive recruiting grounds of the Southeast. He noted that he signed more than 50 recruits from Florida in charge of a Big Ten program and will utilize his connections in that state and Texas as he moves into the conference.
“We will recruit uncommon men here that are held to higher standards,” he said. “I don’t want people to be normal, I want them to be uncommon. I want them to be the standard that’s been set in the world of college football on and off the field.”
News broke that Bielema was headed for Fayetteville around 2 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, but he said he starting talking to Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long about the vacant job Sunday morning after the Big Ten title game. He then met with Long and Smith Monday in New York City before thinking over the opportunity and returning to Madison.
The 32nd coach in Arkansas history signed a six-year deal that will pay him $3.2 million per year — with another potential $700,000 in performance and academic-based bonuses, according to a report from the Arkansas News. His new contract is a significant boost from his $2.6 million base salary at UW.
In addition to the salary bump, Bielema noted the extra funds for assistant coaches and newer, state-of-the-art facilities at Arkansas played a role in what he called a “very difficult decision” to bolt from Madison.
“As soon as we won [the Big Ten championship], I had three coaches come to me the day after the game, they had been contacted by other schools and were talking money that I can’t bring them at Wisconsin,” he said. “Wisconsin isn’t wired to do that at this point, and I just felt for me and for my future and my wife and what I wanted to accomplish in the world of college football, I needed to have that ability to do that.”
Bielema takes over a Razorbacks program coming off a 4-8 season following a season marred by a scandal involving former head coach Bobby Petrino. Before an ill-fated motorcycle accident that revealed an inappropriate relationship between Petrino and an Arkansas football assistant, he led the team to a 10-2 record that concluded with a Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State in 2011.
Despite a No. 10 preseason ranking, things quickly turned sour after John L. Smith stepped in as interim head coach, as Arkansas suffered a shocking 34-31 week two overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
The new coach admitted that there is plenty of work to do in Fayetteville.
“Right now we’re going to embrace being the underdog,” Bielema said. “We’re going to throw our arms around it, we’re going to kiss it and make it feel good. We can’t accept it, but we’re going to move forward and understand where we’re at.”
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