Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Early life lessons have served Bielema well
New Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema, shown arguing with an official during last season’s Rose Bowl while the coach at Wisconsin, showed a feisty streak during his high school playing days that has carried over into his coaching career.
FAYETTEVILLE Bret Bielema’s third-grade teacher provided this insight to Marilyn Bielema about her young son: The kid has a huge future. Don’t do anything to inhibit him from aiming high and chasing after his dreams.
“I went in for a teacher’s conference and he said the buzzword was ‘overachiever,’ and don’t ever doubt what he set out to do,” Marilyn Bielema recalled.
“I don’t like that word, overachiever, but that was what he used,” said Arnie Bielema, Bret’s father. “Then he said, ‘[Bret] tells me he wants to play big-time football and be the middle linebacker for the [Chicago] Bears, and you don’t ever doubt him.’ ”
Bret Bielema never followed in the footsteps of Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary as the Bears’ middle linebacker, but the teacher had tapped into a truism about him, and the Bielemas didn’t doubt their boy.
Overachieving has defined Bret Bielema’s rise through college football to his newest gig, head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
A head coach at 35, Bielema led Wisconsin to seven consecutive bowl games, including a current streak of three Rose Bowls in a row, and a 68-24 record in his first head coaching stint.
Bielema related a story to Arkansas fans on the day he was introduced as coach about tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during spring practice of his second year while he was a walk-on at the University of Iowa.
The trainer, Bielema said, told him there were two options: “You can either fix it and you’ll be out six months to a year, or you can try to play with it.”
Bielema chose to play through the injury by training his hamstring to carry the ligament’s load, even after the medical staff warned him he would fail a physical if he ever tried out for the NFL.
Bielema knew the importance of earning a scholarship, and he did just that by playing in a scrimmage seven days after the injury and continuing to impress Coach Hayden Fry and the Hawkeyes’ staff.
“If I hadn’t earned that scholarship, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stay there, just because of surroundings that I was in with the family and everything,” said Bielema, who became an 11-game starter at nose guard and a team co-captain as a senior in 1992.
Bielema went on to sign a free-agent deal with the Seattle Seahawks, where he was released after one week because he failed his physical.
“He tells the story that he flew back from that deal out in Seattle and he stopped in a Chinese restaurant in Iowa City that he loved to go to,” Arnie Bielema said. “He got one of those fortune cookies and it said, ‘If you find a job that you like, you’ll never work another day in your life.’
“And within a day or two Coach Fry had made his proposal to make him a grad assistant, and from there it’s history.”
Bret Bielema’s hiring by Arkansas caught the college football world by surprise.
His name had never been mentioned as a candidate during Athletic Director Jeff Long’s search. Bielema had called to tell his parents early last week they might be hearing his name connected to some college job openings, but he gave them no details until the day it went down.
He called that Tuesday to say he had accepted an offer from Long.
“I was surprised because I didn’t know about it until quarter of 1 on Tuesday when he called me and told me he was getting on a plane to go back to Wisconsin to meet with his team and was headed to Arkansas, and that’s the way he told it to me,” Arnie Bielema said. “I said, ‘Holy smokes! Unbelievable!’ ”
Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez expressed surprise that his handpicked successor would leave after seven seasons, given his success and a platform to operate at or near the top of the Big Ten.
Bielema has reiterated in media interviews since his introductory news conference Dec. 5 that he had the urge to compete in the SEC and compensate his assistant coaches at a higher level.
“It was kind of one of those opportunities where I didn’t think Arkansas was a better spot or a better place, but it was an opportunity that as a 42-year-old head coach, I wanted to jump at,” Bielema said on the nationally syndicated Jim Rome Show last Friday. “I wanted to coach in the SEC.
"I’ve been in the Big 12, Big Ten. Kind of one of those things where been there, done that, let’s go see what we can do.”
Bret Bielema’s work ethic was established early. His father Arnie, a sporting goods salesman of Dutch descent, moved the family to a pig farm outside Prophetstown, Ill., before Bret, the fourth of five children, began grade school.
The farm had 2,500 pigs.
“Whatever came up in the line of duties, we worked together,” the elder Bielema said.
“Anything that made the pigs survive,” Bret Bielema said on the Big Ten Network show Step Into My Office to describe his daily chores. “So feeding them, cleaning them, scraping lots every day.
“My brothers and I, a lot of times, got up early in the morning and had to do chores. Sometimes before school and definitely after school.”
The reward came at the end of a week when he spent Sunday afternoon playing golf with his dad and his two brothers.
The family was close, which made a lasting impact on Bielema’s career, and his circle of friends helped propel the whole group ahead.
“They were a group of kids that, all of them, were very competitive, whether it was athletics, academics, social or what,” Arnie Bielema said. “His friends, they’re scattered all over the country in various professions and were just a group of kids that had a lot going for them and worked hard at it.”
Bret Bielema was involved in practically every sport in Prophetstown. He was good enough as a wrestler to become a team captain and two-time team MVP with a 31-2 mark as a senior.
He also attended camps at Iowa, where his father had a connection through his sporting goods sales.
Grappling seemed to suit the younger Bielema.
He got a shot at playing quarterback as a high school sophomore because of his big arm, but all the while he longed to be doing the hitting.
“I tossed the ball on a sweep play and I turned around, and I couldn’t stand this defensive end we were going against, and I gave him a harelip and I got a 15-yard penalty,” Bielema told the Big Ten Network. “And the coach says, ‘So you want to play defense?’ ”
Bielema went on to become a two-time all conference pick in high school as a linebacker and tight end.
He carried his feisty streak into his coaching career, once getting a critical penalty against Michigan State for intervening with the officials after a Badgers safety was flagged for obstructing an official.
Bielema also didn’t hesitate to question a recruiting tactic by Urban Meyer, the two time BCS championship coach at Florida who contacted a player who had given a nonbinding oral commitment to Wisconsin last year.
“I can tell you this,” Bielema told The Sporting News, “we at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC - in any way, shape or form.”
Now, Bielema is in the SEC.
“The comments I made in regard to the SEC a year ago, understand this,” Bielema said last week, “a year ago I was the head coach at the University of Wisconsin. I was the two time defending Big Ten champion.
“The issues that arose, or came about because of that comment, really had nothing to do with what was really going on. Unfortunately it got spun into that. ... I have a great amount of respect for the SEC. That’s why I’m standing here in front of you today.
“And the part that I think you guys have to appreciate is where you’re at and where you need to protect and stand up for what you believe in. Nobody will be a stronger supporter of the SEC moving forward than myself.”
Mary Lou Huitink of Little Rock, sister of Arnie Bielema, and her husband Gary would drive their family up to Illinois for holiday visits, and they would come packing Razorbacks apparel, like a Hogs hat they gave Bret.
“I couldn’t tell you where Arkansas was when I was 8, but I was wearing that hat,” Bielema said.
“He had a [Razorbacks] cap that he treasured for quite a while,” Arnie Bielema said. “I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I harassed him about that. He didn’t want to wear that in too many places up here.
“Of course any cap with any identification, why, it was a big deal to him.”
The Bielemas drove to Fayetteville for the wedding of their niece in the mid-1990s.
“I just remember it was very pretty,” Mariyln Bielema said. “The weather was a little bit warm because it was summer. We both commented on how beautiful we thought the land was there.”
Bret Bielema surprised many with his decision to leave a highly successful Big Ten program for one that must regroup in the ultra competitive SEC West.
Tennessee also expressed interest in him, but Bielema was attracted to Arkansas.
“There’s probably only two or three schools that I would’ve thought about this opportunity,” he said last week. “And after I got involved with it, there’s only one school I would have done it for and that’s Arkansas.”
Bret Bielema encourages his players to perform community service and perform selfless acts to help them weave into the fabric of their town. He also takes his own advice.
At Wisconsin, he started a Football 101 class to help raise money to fight cancer in honor of his mother, a 22-year cancer survivor.
“Up in Madison, he’d do everything he could to support it,” Marilyn said.
“I think it was about three years ago he started Football 101, and it was the most fun thing.
“By the second year, they doubled the attendance, and the third year they got to where they had to limit it.”
Arnie and Marilyn Bielema watched online the entire news conference that introduced their kid to Razorbacks fans far and wide. Arnie said he thought the whole experience was “awesome,” and Marilyn said that’s only the surface of her son.
“You’ll find he’s very caring of people,” she said. “He’s very conscious of feelings and acknowledgments and he appreciates things.”
Maybe that third grade teacher was on to something.
Bret Bielema at a glance
POSITION Head football coach
SCHOOL University of Arkansas
AGE 42 (born Jan. 13, 1970)
CAREER RECORD 68-24
HOMETOWN Prophetstown, Ill.
FAMILY Wife Jen
COLLEGE University of Iowa
PLAYING CAREER Walk-on in 1989, earned a scholarship the following year and played on 1990 Big Ten championship team. Became a starter in 1991 and was a team co-captain as a senior in 1992.
COACHING CAREER Graduate assistant, Iowa (1994-1995), linebackers coach, Iowa (1996-2001), co-defensive coordinator/linebackers, Kansas State (2002-2003), defensive coordinator/linebackers, Wisconsin (2004-2005), head coach, Wisconsin (2006-2012) ACCOMPLISHMENTS First Big Ten coach to lead team to three consecutive Rose Bowl games since Michigan’s Bo Schembechler (1977-1979). ... Won 17 of his first 18 games, the second-best start in Big Ten history behind Michigan’s Fielding Yost (55-0-1, 1901-1905). ... Had 21
Sports, Pages 19 on 12/14/2012