2012 STORIES OF THE YEAR: THE BEST OF THE REST:
Bret Bielema was hired to fill Arkansas' head coaching vacancy on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012.
LITTLE ROCK You already know the answer to that.
It doesn’t rank with Bobby Petrino’s stunning demise as Arkansas’ football coach, the 10-day saga in April that was acknowledged in Thursday’s editions by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette sports staff as the state’s top sports story of 2012.
But the seismic coaching shift that rocked the state during a two-hour span Dec. 4 is a solid No. 2 on the list of the top sports stories.
Call it Best of the Rest if you must, but word of Bret Bielema becoming Arkansas’ new football coach and the news that Gus Malzahn was bolting from Arkansas State to Auburn after one season in Jonesboro deserves much more than also-ran status.
Any Arkansas sports fan with a smartphone in hand floated between reports on Twitter, Facebook, ESPN and any other outlet - reputable or not - to affirm whispers that the Razorbacks’ eight-month search for a football coach had ended with the hiring of a man whose name had never been mentioned with the Jon Grudens and Gary Pattersons of the rumor mill.
Around 1:30 p.m., reports surfaced that Arkansas had swiped Bielema, 42, from Wisconsin for a modest pay raise to $3.2 million but more money to retain assistant coaches.
Bielema left the Badgers after compiling a 68-24 record in seven seasons, including three consecutive Rose Bowl berths, but the decision was stunning to Arkansas fans after speculation centered on Jeff Long’s search focusing on Boise State’s Chris Petersen, TCU’s Gary Patterson, LSU’s Les Miles and, throughout that Tuesday morning, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy.
Not to mention the babble about Gruden, the former Super Bowl-winning coach who is the star of ESPN’s Monday Night Football.
And just as the Bielema news broke, word emerged from the northeast corner of the state where Arkansas’ other FBS program watched Malzahn, its second coach in as many years, bolt to an SEC job after a lone season in Jonesboro.
News of Malzahn’s departure to Auburn blindsided supporters of the Red Wolves, who finished 9-3 and won their second consecutive outright Sun Belt Conference title. That shock stemmed from two weeks of public statements by Malzahn that his focus remained on building a program at ASU and not on speculation he would replace Gene Chizik, who was fired after a 3-9 season at Auburn.
ASU officials did a fair bit of lobbying, too.
“I’ve been speaking with him almost every day since last Saturday,” ASU Athletic Director Terry Mohajir said. “I’ve been telling him that we’ve got a great plan and a great vision unfolding here.” It wasn’t enough.
Malzahn boarded a private jet out of Walnut Ridge on Tuesday and was introduced later that night at Auburn’s practice facility.
“I get extremely close to my players, and anytime that you do that it’s tough to leave,” Malzahn said “Arkansas State was very good to me and my family. The players were unbelievable, and it was tough to say bye.” A day later, Bielema said he took the Arkansas job “tochase a dream” that included an SEC championship and, by logical extension, “a byproduct of winning a national championship.”
“At Arkansas it’s never been done,” Bielema said. “We’ve never won an SEC title. We’ve been in the [SEC title] game three times, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out if you win the SEC title, you might be playing for the big one.”
Dec. 4 was a big one in the annals of Arkansas sports, just not the biggest one in 2012.
Petrino locked that honor up seven months earlier.
The next 10, please
The sports staff of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette didn’t stop with Bobby Petrino’s demise. They also voted for the next top 10 Arkansas stories in 2012: 2. SUPER TUESDAY Bielema hired, Malzahn bolts 3. JOHN L. SMITH guides Hogs to 4-8 season 4. ASU FOOTBALL’S encore performance 5. STACY LEWIS, LPGA Player of the Year 6. ARKANSAS BASEBALL plays small ball to Omaha 7. UCA, UAPB, HENDERSON STATE hoist crowns 8. UALR, UA make NCAA Women’s Tournament 9. HIGH SCHOOL football finals 10. MIKE ANDERSON delivers 18 victories in return 11. MICHAEL TINSLEY earns Olympic silver
Sports, Pages 21 on 12/30/2012