Razorback fans meet the "Head Hog" at Manila event
New Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema is the first to acknowledge that he hasn't won a game yet for the Razorbacks -- of course, he hasn't lost one, either.
But that fact doesn't detract at all from the realization the new Head Hog is very popular with fans in the early going of his career on The Hill.
That was evident Wednesday night at the Airport Center in Manila as Bielema spoke to some 500 highly-enthusiastic Hog fans at the annual event hosted by the Mississippi County Razorback Club.
"I think it was maybe the best banquet we've ever had," said club president Ray Benson. He pointed out the banquet had to be canceled on Monday night because the weather prevented flying from Fayetteville, but it was rescheduled and still drew a sellout crowd.
Bielema has accepted a huge challenge in his first year at Arkansas, attempting turn around a dismal 4-8 season that followed the dismissal of Coach Bobby Petrino following his admission of an inappropriate relationship with an athletic department staffer. Among the tasks facing the new coach are Southeastern Conference road trips to Alabama, LSU, Florida and Ole Miss.
The new coach is approaching the job with a "1-and-0" philosophy, which he explained as "during each week you try to get to 1-and-0," a variation of the take one-step-at-a-time plan.
Bielema does not appear to be lacking in confidence that he ultimately will get the job done. He has a track record to indicate it will happen, including just completing a three-year stretch in which his Wisconsin Badgers earned Rose Bowl berths every season. The coach has explained he is making the move because he wants to compete at the highest level of college football -- the Southeastern Conference.
He also feels his arsenal is loaded in the assistant coach department, having assembled what observers believe to be an outstanding supporting cast. That was in evidence during the recruiting campaign which saw Bielema and his team make great strides late in the game to attract several quality players to Arkansas.
The coach said Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long has provided the financial support to make it possible to hire and retain top-quality assistants to Razorback program. He said the current assistant coaching staff is the "best group I've ever been a part of."
Bielema opened his remarks by praising a Mississippi County product, Korliss Marshall of the Osceola Seminoles. The highly-athletic freshman will be counted on in the defensive backfield, the coach said.
"If a kid is from Arkansas and can help us win an SEC championship, he doesn't need to play anywhere else," Bielema said of his goal to lock up statewide talent in the future.
Bielema reviewed some of his recruiting success by noting players coming from a wide area, including Australia (a punter), Hawaii, California, Colorado, South Florida and New Jersey. He has signed several junior college players that he believes will contribute right away to help turn things around for the Hogs.
He is looking forward to the upcoming spring practice sessions, saying his approach with the players will be "we're not going to do something that will waste your time," but will make the players see they are getting better and have a chance to compete for championships.
"I know one thing already," the coach said, "we have a team that's hungry."
Bielema said he knows how to prepare players for professional football, a key to recruiting and overall success. He noted that over a two-year period at Wisconsin, he had 12 players drafted into the NFL one year and 13 the next. The closest teams to him were Alabama with nine and Oklahoma with eight. He credits new strength coach Ben Herbert with playing a key role in that process.
The coach has a reputation for developing outstanding front lines on both sides of the ball, a factor he believes will help make the Razorbacks successful in the rugged SEC.
He wants to be sure a "balance is struck" in his offensive philosophy. "You cannot succeed by being one-dimensional," he said.
The Razorbacks will be run-oriented, Bielema said, but must be able to pass the ball, as well.
He said the Hogs are "not going to be un-American," explaining they will not be gimmicky on offense. "We will be playing smash-mouth football," he said, drawing a large positive response from the crowd.
The coach also received the anticipated question from the crowd when one of the attendees asked (in reference to the Petrino situation) if the new coach has a motorcycle.
"No, I don't," Bielema said, "but I do have a pretty blonde wife." That drew huge laughter from the crowd. After a pause, the coach added, "but please let me know if you see her on a motorcycle."
Benson said final numbers are not in, but it will be a record contribution by the club to the Razorback Foundation, approximately $15,000.
"I think it was pretty much off the charts," Benson said of the crowd reaction to Bielema. "We've had some great banquets, but this was ratcheted up to a whole different level. I've never seen anything like it."
Benson praised the approachability of the new coach and noted how much "at ease" he was with those in attendance.
Benson received word that coach Bielema commented to a foundation board member how much he enjoyed the Manila banquet and the reception he received.
"Very seldom is an event like this canceled because of the weather but there was nothing that could be done about it," Benson said. "But it is highly unusual to be able to reschedule it and I think it was a tribute of how much our club has done for the program that they were willing and able to do that."
Benson thanked all the sponsors who helped make the event possible, especially Armorel Planting Company, which donated $2,000 toward the catered meal by Big Butts BBQ of Leachville.