Three of the state’s leading sportswriters lay into Bielema following the Coastal Carolina debacle
For years, Bret Bielema and the Arkansas sports media enjoyed a prolonged honeymoon. On the whole, columnists, reporters and broadcasters enjoyed covering him and he seemed to enjoy riffing with them. In the times I interviewed him his first couple years, his enthusiasm and swagger always made for a fun, interesting conversation.
Bielema, after all, is a likable guy. And it helped that in his first three seasons at Arkansas, his teams clearly improved. Perhaps the culmination of the good times with local media came near the end of 2015 season, when sports radio host Bo Mattingly began producing a feel-good, behind-the-scenes mini series on Bielema and his program. No doubt, Bielema knew such a project could only help market his personality and the Razorback brand to potential recruits and fans.
Public image, after all, is so important in the entertainment industry. That’s one reason Jeff Long signed on to be the chairman of the College Football Playoff Selection Commitee, a position that for two years gave him and Arkansas much national exposure.
This year, though, as the 4-5 Hogs have seemingly regressed in every phase of the game, the local media has begun to turn on Bret Bielema. And things are getting more heated in the aftermath of Arkansas’s worst win of the modern era, a 39-38 unthinkable catastrophe-aversion against Coastal Carolina, a 1-8 Sun Belt team.
The local media doesn’t turn on coaches on a whim, like so many fans are apt to do. Media members understand that their access to covering games and interviewing players and coaches depends on maintaining a standard of professionalism and accuracy. Calling for a coach’s head after one bad game, or two or even three, is the kind of quick-trigger reaction-ism most professionals avoid.
But when enough bad efforts and worse executions happen over a long enough stretch, as they have in Arkansas football since last fall, then it becomes obvious that the issue is something systematic. And now, some big names in the Arkansas sports media landscape are calling this out. To wit:
1. Wally Hall, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist
Today, in his game recap column, Hall writers earlier this season Coastal Carolina team had lost to Arkansas State—traditionally only the second-best program in state—by 34 points and 10 of the Chanticleers’ points came against A-State subs. After lamenting the Hogs’ woeful defense, Wall also delivered this indictment:
Perhaps the biggest concern should be the leadership at the UA, and that means at the top. Who allowed a program that was in the Sugar Bowl after the 2010 season to slip to the point it has to charge back to slip by a visiting team that hasn’t won a Sun Belt game?
It should be noted that Bret Bielema wasn’t even hired until 2012. Regardless of whether “leadership” here means Bielema, or athletic director Jeff Long, or both, Hall is no longer holding back on the public criticism. That’s a bad sign for Bielema’s future at Arkansas.
2. Kurt Voigt, Associated Press Arkansas sports reporter
Speaking of Bret Bielema’s future at Arkansas, that’s a topic which in late October Voigt wanted to interview Long about. Most AP reporters strive to stay objective and report “just the facts.” But since that request Voigt hasn’t been afraid to chime in with observations and details that cause a buzz.
Voigt’s request prompted Long to ask for advice from Chris Freet, one of this lieutenants within the Razorback athletic department, according to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Worth sharing again. ⤵️
— Tyler Thomason (@TyThomason) November 4, 2017
In a reply to that Tweet, Voigt added he was told by Razorbacks staff that “it was ‘arrogant’ to expect him to talk to me.”
Then, yesterday, Voigt asked Bielema about what Voigt (and hundreds of thousands of fans) perceived to be a “glazed-over look” from Bielema on the sidelines when the Hogs fell down by two touchdowns to Coastal Carolina in the second half. Bielema responded that was Voigt’s interpretation, and interjected “Hell no” when begun to be asked if he thought the Hogs would lose. He then added “If you’re good at interpreting my facial reactions, then I’m all for ya. Maybe we can set up a clinic.”
— Kurt Voigt (@Kurt_Voigt_AP) November 5, 2017
Ironically, that’s the kind of chippiness and energy many Hog fans want to see more of from Bielema while coaching on the sidelines. In short, where’s his fire?
3. Eric Bolin, SECCountry.com
Bolin, a former AP writer, penned what might have been his most critical column of Hog football to date. You sort of know what you’re getting into when you read the headline: “Shame on Arkansas athletic department for letting it get to this point.”
Bolin essentially calls for not only the firing of Bret Bielema, but the entire athletic department. This, obviously, isn’t going to happen. He’s using hyperbole to get across a point that the root issue isn’t Bielema, it’s something higher in the pecking order. “The culture is the problem,” he writes.
He then points to Long’s apparent reaction to Voigt’s interview request as evidence. I respect Bolin—he’s a sharp guy who churns out strong, usually well-reasoned opinions—but I disagree here.
Jeff Long asking for advice when dealing with a hot-button issue isn’t evidence of paranoia, as Bolin writes elsewhere. It doesn’t indicate an administration out of touch with reality. Instead, it’s perfectly in line with Long’s circumspect nature. In 2012 this man, after all, took his time to deliberate and mull over the options with Bobby Petrino before ultimately deciding to fire him. He knew that decision had lasting significance and didn’t barge into it without first consulting others.
Long asking for advice isn’t conceit. It’s cautious.
I want Long to eventually address the issue head-on, but doing so in the middle of the season before the critical stretch run (which until 2016 Bielema specialized in) plays out doesn’t make much sense.
Bret Bielema, meanwhile, addresses the media multiple times a week. He has to address questions about his future, whenever they are asked. If, as Boiln writes, the department feared “any outside questioning… to the point of delusion,” then they should try to make all questions about Bielema’s future off limits to the coaches and players. As far as I now, that hasn’t been attempted.
The bigger picture here is that media members like Hall, Voigt and Bolin, in total, have major influence on how the masses perceive the Razorback program. Their darkening tones spell major trouble for a head coach who very well understands the importance of public image.