FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long first met Bret Bielema while in Miami attending an end-of-season awards ceremony surrounding the 2005 national championship game.
Bielema was a 34-year-old up-and-coming assistant coach at Wisconsin, and Long was the athletic director at Pittsburgh, still a few years away from leaving to take over the Razorbacks program for the retiring Frank Broyles.
Always one to network and keep his emergency file of potential coaches ready, Long followed the career of that assistant he met on the beach. Little did he know that he would one day hire Bielema to coach Arkansas, helping end what had been a spiraling eight months for the Razorbacks following the scandal-ridden exit of Bobby Petrino.
The end of a secretive search came to an end Tuesday when the former Wisconsin coach agreed to take over the Razorbacks. The 43-year-old was introduced at a news conference the next day, giving Arkansas hope it can return to the upper echelon of the Southeastern Conference.
"I'm very relieved," Long said. "You know, coaching searches are stressful searches. There's a lot depending on it. ... It's always good to have a search completed. But I really feel good about the coach we have to lead these student-athletes."
Bielema, who left the Badgers after seven seasons, won't coach Wisconsin in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl game against Stanford. Instead, he'll immediately step in the hyper-competitive world of recruiting in the SEC — home to the winners of the last six national championships.
The former Iowa and Kansas State assistant could have a difficult time initially selling an Arkansas program that was 4-8 this season and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2008. However, he won't have to go back far to remind recruits of success at the school, which was 21-5 in 2010-11 under Petrino and finished as high as No. 5 in the final rankings.
Given Bielema's background as a defensive coach, the rugged SEC seemed to him like the perfect fit. He said he had no apprehension about joining an SEC West already loaded with Alabama and LSU, among others.
"The thing I think probably intrigued me more than anything as I've watched over the years the SEC, there's a lot of coaches that have my type of background that have had success," Bielema said. "I'm excited to work with the caliber of athlete the SEC can bring and what we can bring here to the University of Arkansas is very exciting."
The Razorbacks had an equal amount of confidence in their new coach after meeting with him Wednesday afternoon, and they expressed little doubt Bielema could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles.
"I don't think, I know he can," Arkansas cornerback Tevin Mitchel said. "You can see how confident he is. That's a good feeling for us as players."
Bielema said he would interview each of the current members of the Razorbacks staff, though he'll he have to hire a new offensive coordinator since Paul Petrino left to become the head coach at Idaho. The Illinois native said he had six candidates in mind for the position, a critical selling point to recruits for a school that was among the country's best under Bobby Petrino.
Led by current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Wisconsin was sixth in the country in scoring in 2011. Bielema, who was 68-24 with the Badgers, preached a balanced attack and said he'll tailor the offense to fit the players. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy last season, and he's second in the Big Ten this season with 1,730 yards rushing.
"I'm going to recruit a certain way and you'll get more and more specific what you want as the years go forward," Bielema said. "But if you don't have the right dogs in the race, you're not going to win it.
"So whatever race we get into with our philosophy, we have to make sure we have the right people to run it."
Bielema knew of Arkansas' fall from preseason top 10 this season, sending a letter of support to Long about how he handled Petrino's firing and the hiring of interim coach John L. Smith in April. He knows now that the challenge is to rebuild.
"I'm never going to lie," Bielema said. "I'm never going to make something look better than it is. We're a 4-8 football team that a lot of people thought were going to be great in the beginning of the year and we weren't.
"... But right now we're going to embrace being the underdog. We're going to throw two arms around it. We're going to kiss it and make it feel good."