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.
A new day
Arkansas' burly new coach gives team a fresh outlook
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema sensed the players' bruised pride following a 4-8 record, so the new coaching staff made it a point not to browbeat players with reminders of it. "There's definitely a new feeling around here," sophomore tailback Jonathan Williams says.
FAYETTEVILLE — If not for a chance meeting on a Florida beach and a scribbled note of support last September, there is a strong chance Arkansas football would be trekking off in another direction for Saturday’s season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.
But Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long did bump into then-Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema in Miami at a postseason awards gathering in 2005, and Bielema jotted down that impactful note to Long in the first month of the football season last year.
Now the Razorbacks have embarked on the Bielema Project — symbolized by his 1-0 philosophy — with an abounding sense of newness.
All at once, Arkansas has a new coach, a splashy new $35 million-plus football operations center, a fresh set of players in the skill positions, a modified jersey and a fresh outlook on its future.
“I don’t feel like it’s a fresh start. I know it’s a fresh start, man,” senior linebacker Braylon Mitchell said. “Just to start the season off in the building and with the new coaching staff, it’s a new day in Razorback football.
“It feels great because it’s a new day. We’ve got a fresh start. Leave all the baggage in the past and just try to come out and get better each day. It feels great.”
Bielema, a bear of a man with an oversized personality and a gregarious demeanor, established the tone with his coaching staff to take a compassionate approach to the Razorbacks’ grand disappointment of 2012. They haven’t rubbed a 4-8 record in the players’ faces, and the Razorbacks have taken to that style.
“It’s fun playing for them,” senior receiver Julian Horton said. “It’s not a hassle playing for them. That’s the whole coaching staff. They make the game fun.”
Horton said there was a totally different vibe to the coach and player dynamic at Arkansas compared to Bobby Petrino’s former staff.
“It’s not just in your face, do this, do that,” he said. “They let you be you, let you play freely. They have control of things you do, but they don’t just force it down your throat.”
Sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen, who won the starting job in spring and has solidified it with a good showing in camp, is part of the vast change of personnel at the skill positions, which includes an inexperienced crop of tailbacks and receivers who have not been in the limelight.
He sees all the changes in a positive light.
“It’s a good change of pace for us, having the new coaches and obviously this great facility we have now. It’s good for us,” Allen said. “It’s a new team we’re expecting to come out with this year. We’re all in it for the same reason, and that’s to win ball games.”
Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said he sensed the bruised pride from players as the new staff hit the field in the spring.
“You had to be really, really smart about the way you communicated,” Partridge said. “If things weren’t going well, you had to, as a coach, you had to think before you responded. Otherwise you knew that if you just went right at them and started to scream they were going to tune you out. You could feel that coming in the door.
“Still coached them, still taught them, still explained what they did wrong and why and what we have to do to move on. But there’s some very calculated responses by us when we came here, so we did not have to rekindle the trust that we had worked so hard to earn when we first got here.”
Senior linebacker Jarrett Lake said the football program not only feels fresh, it also seems stable, unlike the temporary feel of last year’s 10-month experiment under John L. Smith following Petrino’s ouster.
“We’ve got a head coach, and it’s not like he’s here for just a year and if he does good he’s going to stay here and if he does bad he’s going to leave,” Lake said. “He’s going to be here for a while. I feel like that’s the best part of having stability.”
Another new facet is the players’ bodies.
OVERSET FOLLOWS:New strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert and his staff went to work adding pounds and strength to players across the board, but most notably the offensive and defensive linemen and linebackers.
“First of all, it’s the weight room, changing your body,” senior center Travis Swanson said. “It’s a whole different style than what we were used to in the previous years.”
Bielema said a couple of visitors to the Hogs first practice of camp were awed by the comparison of players to how they looked in the spring.
“They feel it,” Bielema said. “Maybe not all of us in the room remember our younger days, when maybe we felt better, how we looked or carried ourselves and … the kids just have a confidence to them that’s off the charts, the swagger.
“Obviously it’s got to carry over to the game field, but I couldn’t be happier with the way they’ve looked overall.”
The Razorbacks know not much is expected of them in 2013, given the massive changeover in coaching staff, key players and philosophy, but they seem energized to be approaching the challenge with a sense of unity.
“There’s definitely a new feeling around here,” sophomore tailback Jonathan Williams said.
“Everyone enjoys coming here every day and being in this facility and having this locker room and lounge,” senior linebacker Austin Jones said. “I feel like it’s bringing us closer together and bringing team unity and camaraderie.”
Some of the team’s veterans, who were part of Arkansas’ rise to No. 3 in the next-to-last BCS rankings of 2011, Petrino’s fall from grace and the team’s stunning collapse last year, were noticeably moved when touring the massive locker room in the Fred Smith Football Center last month.
“It was outstanding to see that,” said cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson, the only coaching connection to the 2012 team. “Those guys saw the process and the making of the new facility, so now with it being finished, it’s not so much a flush of last year because that was gone, especially once Coach Beliema was hired, but this is just something new that’s definitely helping us out.”
Defensive end Trey Flowers, normally a low-key personality in team settings, stood up and delivered an impassioned talk during the first week of camp.
“I just wanted someone to feel me and understand the new approach we’ve got to take to be victorious,” Flowers said. “We’ve got to take a winning attitude and just win by any means necessary.”
Bielema, who has stressed the Razorbacks will establish an identity by trying to be great at a few things instead of good at a lot of things, has preached his 1-0 philosophy since taking over last Dec. 4. The simplicity of 1-0 stands for winning the day, winning the play, winning one moment at a time.
“I’ve discussed it briefly with our players … and I’ve seen it popping up more and more with them, so I think it’s something they buy into,” Bielema said. “It allows you to focus.
“Everybody wants to jump to the end of the rainbow and grab that pot of gold. Of course, it’s never there. My philosophy is, if you take one step at a time and you keep tracking that rainbow, probably at the end you find it. But you can’t do it by jumping to the end.”
In an offseason in which Arkansas might have gotten buried in other SEC story lines, like the exploits of Johnny Manziel or Alabama’s bid for a third consecutive national championship, Bielema’s outspoken comments about the no-huddle offense and other issues have kept the Razorbacks in the collective SEC consciousness.
“One thing about Coach, he’s like that because he works,” Johnson said. “When you work and you understand the effort you’re putting in, there are certain things you can feel and say.
“We embrace that as a team, as a staff, because he’s going to roll his sleeves up and work just like us. He’s not just talking.”
Linebacker Austin Jones said a tighter team camaraderie is noticeable.
“When everyone trusts one another, you tend to play harder for each other,” Jones said. “Once everyone’s accountable, then really we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”
YR. REC. BIG TEN BOWL FINAL RK
2006 12-1 7-1 (T2nd) Capital One, def. No. 12 Arkansas 17-14 No. 7
2007 9-4 5-3 (4th) Outback, lost to No. 16 Tennessee 21-17 No. 24
2008 7-6 3-5 (T6th) Champs Sports, lost to Florida State 42-13 —
2009 10-3 5-3 (T4th) Champs Sports, def. No. 14 Miami 20-14 No. 16
2010 11-2 7-1 (T1st) Rose, lost to No. 3 TCU 21-19 No. 7
2011 11-3 6-2 (1st) Rose, lost to No. 6 Oregon 45-38 No. 10
2012 8-5 4-4 (1st) Rose, lost to No. 8 Stanford 20-14* —
*Did not coach in bowl