Published August 01, 2013
| Associated Press
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Leave it to an Arkansas football coach to make headlines.
Thankfully for Bret Bielema, his short time with the Razorbacks — while marked by a series of often-humorous dustups with opposing coaches and fans alike — hasn't approached the infamy of his predecessor.
What the former Wisconsin coach has done since being hired by Arkansas in December is embrace the public spotlight in a way Bobby Petrino never could have dreamed of, or would have wanted.
Bielema has made waves across the Southeastern Conference, from Alabama to Auburn — with an occasional stop on Twitter in between — and his outspoken ways have quickly endeared him to his new home.
"I love it. He's hilarious," Razorbacks center Travis Swanson said. "Every time I get on Twitter and I see one of his (tweets), I know I've got to read it because I don't know if he's going to be backlashing at some fan.
"The things he says, I think are funny. Other people don't like it, but it's good that he stands up for what he believes in."
The 43-year-old coach has become a public fixture during his brief time with the Razorbacks, thanks in large part to more than 20 speaking engagements at fan clubs across the state. It was during one such meeting in the spring that the first sign of his shoot-from-the-hip ways came to light.
While talking to Saline County Razorback Club, Bielema expressed the usual first-year coaching bravado, saying: "I didn't come here to play Alabama. I came here to beat Alabama."
Setting his sights on the defending national champion Crimson Tide wasn't what riled up message boards from Arkansas to Tuscaloosa. It was Bielema's follow-up, when he said Alabama coach Nick Saban's record while at Michigan State "can't compare" to what he did while also in the Big 10 at Wisconsin.
On the surface, Bielema was correct. Saban was 34-24-1 with the Spartans from 1995-99, while Bielema was 68-24 in seven seasons with the Badgers.
What Bielema didn't mention were the four national championships (three with Alabama and one with LSU) Saban has won since leaving Michigan State — hardware that trumps even the three Rose Bowl appearances Bielema guided Wisconsin to during his tenure.
For his part, Saban took the high road when asked about Bielema's comments. The trend, however, for Bielema speaking his mind was set — and fully embraced by his players and staff.
"Isn't that kind of cool, man," new Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman asked. "The thing I like about (Bielema) is that he's just him. You get what you get, and you either like it or you don't. Most people like honest people that will speak their mind."
Bielema continued to be every bit himself at SEC Media Days last month, taking issue with new Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's assertion that his concerns for player safety in a no-huddle, hurry-up system were "a joke."
"I'm not a comedian," Bielema responded before following up with passionate defense of his thoughts on the subject.
"I don't think I'm outspoken," Bielema deadpanned last week, only to be greeted by laughter before a media golf event. "I really don't, but I guess I get it.
"... I do speak the truth. I don't really care how it's perceived. Great advice I learned was if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said."
Bielema's barbs with Saban and Malzahn have made for some fun water cooler talk, but they pale in comparison to his Twitter habits.
Oh, how he has enjoyed Twitter.
It's true that many of his posts are harmless retweets from fans showing off their Arkansas apparel from vacation spots across the world. Those, however, aren't the memorable ones Swanson was referring to.
Since his hiring at Arkansas, Bielema has made a regular habit of responding to former Wisconsin fans who were upset at his departure. Take, for instance, this classic exchange last week:
"Have you lost weight," one poster asked Bielema.
"Have you lost those glasses and hair cut," the coach responded, adding a #pleaseunfollow hashtag.
Bielema's nature has had its share of benefits, particularly in the recruiting world. Pittman said many recruits know of the Razorbacks well before he tries to sell his head coach and program — thanks in large part to the national identity Bielema has created for himself through his vocal ways.
"You've got to love confidence," Arkansas fullback Kiero Small said. "Why wouldn't you? He's a winning coach. He's going to defend himself.
"But at the same time, you respect him. He's got our back. Even though he wasn't here for any of the things that happened before, he defends the people who are here."
Speaking of what happened before Bielema's arrival at Arkansas, Petrino was well known for guarding his privacy during his time in Fayetteville — for a reason, it turns out. The current Western Kentucky coach never appeared more uncomfortable than when being greeted by a chant of "Woo Pig Sooie" in a local restaurant or other public setting.
Of course, the curtain was pulled back on Petrino's private life in a very public way following last year's motorcycle accident that led to revelations of his mistress and his eventual firing.
Bielema has shown no such reservations about enjoying a night out in Fayetteville with his wife, Jen, since his arrival. Wherever he goes, the party — and spotlight — has followed, and he's OK with that.
He learned long ago that a major college football coach is always on the job, in both public and private.
"I don't mind it, but when you're about to bite that piece of dinner and someone says, 'I hate to do this' ... Well, don't do it.
"Other than that, it's fine."
Bielema's also learned to just be himself, whether he's liked or not.