Bielema speaks to record crowd
Arkansas Razorback football coach Bret Bielema makes it very clear that one of the highlights of the "banquet circuit" for him is a visit to Northeast Arkansas, most notably the Mississippi County Razorback Club event at Manila.
The venue is ideal for flying in from Fayetteville, holding a press conference at the terminal building and then walking across the street to the community center, where this year some 600 rabid Hog fans made their presence felt.
During his comments, Bielema noted that he grew up on a hog farm in a small community in Illinois and understands the atmosphere at a place like Manila. He said small towns foster an "environment full of love" which he can appreciate.
Bielema reviewed his 7-6 second season at Arkansas, saying it was "by no means a destination spot. I call it a launching spot."
It was a marked improvement over his 3-9 first campaign and he, and the fans, clearly believe the best is yet to come.
The Razorbacks continued to improve as the year went along. "After we flipped the switch, there weren't a lot of people who wanted to play us. That really showed up down in Texas." That was a reference to the Hogs' 31-7 pounding of the Texas Longhorns in the Texas Bowl. That, of course, drew a resounding cheer from the packed house.
During his banquet comments and in the earlier press conference, Bielema praised the quality of players in his third recruiting class and said the program is continuing in a positive direction and in the right manner -- "I didn't want to cut any corners," he said.
"This recruiting class complements the roster better than ever," he said, adding it is a huge plus that he now knows his players so much better than he did when coming in from a highly-successful stint at Wisconsin.
During the press conference, Bielema said he has no problem with high expectations from the fans. "I would never want to temper any fan," he said.
The coach is enthusiastic concerning his three new assistant coaches -- offensive coordinator Dan Enos, linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves and running backs coach Jemal Singleton. Asked if he ever calls plays as the head coach, Bielema joked that he "only calls the ones that are successful."
"I believe in hiring good coaches and letting them coach," he said.
Bielema said Enos steps into a good situation with four returning offensive line starters, the only school in America with two returning 1,000 rushers, a fifth-year veteran quarterback, a highly-decorated tight end and several outside threats in the receiving corps.
The defense made huge strides under first-year coordinator Robb Smith and Bielema anticipates more good play on that side of the ball in 2015.
In looking to what it will take to reach the top levels in SEC play, Bielema listed three goals -- depth in the offensive and defensive lines, strong quarterback play and a "stingy" defense. Those who follow the Hogs can see clear improvement in those areas, with further steps anticipated in the coming season.
Bielema is known as a great developer of players, such as J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, a former walk-on at Wisconsin who is now regarded the outstanding defensive player in the NFL.
Beliema wants to sign five-star recruits, as does any other coach. "I like blue-chip players, but I tend to gravitate to the kid with a chip on his shoulder," one who wants to work hard and continue to develop through his college career.
He said recruiting can be "very personal" at times as coaches have successes and disappointments. "I love to meet people," the coach said, adding that he enjoys working with young people in helping to "try to shape and change their lives."
He "may be biased" about the value of coming to Arkansas and playing for him and his staff, but he is confident it is a good decision for a young athlete. "If you truly want to be great, why settle for something less?"
Bielema mentioned one area high school player in his press conference remarks -- Highland wide receiver Deon Stewart, calling him "as skilled as anyone in our class," adding that he also is a "beautiful young man."
He said coach Enos already has focused on Stewart and his potential at Arkansas. The coaches envision him in a "slot position" and see his abilities in the kick return area. Bielema said Stewart is "a little slight" and will indeed get stronger through his work at Fayetteville.
The coach also had strong praise for incoming freshman quarterback Ty Storey, noting that he has great physical ability and leadership skills. It also is a plus that his father is a former successful football coach, so the son "grew up in the profession."
As an early graduate at Charleston High School, Storey was able to participate in four practices with the Hogs prior to their Texas Bowl game.
Bielema said his basic philosophy is to "get better every day" and rest will take care of itself.
The size and enthusiasm of the crowd at Manila indicates Northeast Arkansas Razorback fans believe their team is doing exactly that under the leadership of a coach who draws great support and passion wherever he goes in the state.
Dr. Sean Rochelle, executive director of the Razorback Foundation, accepted a check for $10,000 from Mississippi County Razorback Club president Ray Benson, who also served as master of ceremonies for the record-setting event.
The introduction of coach Bielema was made by Marvin Caston, associate director of the Razorback Foundation. Also attending the event was Foundation assistant director Terry Prentice.
Several thousand dollars in additional funds were raised in auctions, including $3,700 that was bid on four tickets to a Razorback football game and private air travel from Mississippi County to Fayetteville and back.