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Grading the Coaching Hires: Bret Bielema and Arkansas

In terms of sheer shock value, it’s hard to argue that anyone did a better job in the process of hiring a new coach than Arkansas. Combine a brilliant athletic director, a mid-level SEC job and a wish upon a star, and who knew that a three-time Big Ten Championship winning coach would show up at your door?

Well apparently Jeff Long knew.

Of course after the surprise of Bielema’s arrival at Arkansas wore off, the reality of the situation set in: As great as the coach was in Madison, it doesn’t guarantee a damn thing now that he’s in Fayetteville. It especially doesn’t guarantee anything for a man with no ties to the area, little reputation as an elite recruiter, and someone who, in the past has seemed much more critical of the SEC’s culture than to embrace it.

So how will Bret Bielema fit in at Arkansas?

It’s a fun question to look at.

Why We Like the Hire:

Well, to paraphrase the show How I Met Your Mother… “Haaaaaave ya met Bret Bielema?” If you haven’t, the man’s resume speaks for itself.

In seven years at Wisconsin, Bielema won at least nine games five times, won 10 games four times and has an overall record of 68-24, which is the most wins of any new hire this off-season anywhere in college football with the exception of Tommy Tuberville and ironically, Bobby Petrino. And it’s safe to say that Bielema comes with significantly less baggage than either of those two. Not to mention that regardless of how his team’s got there, Bielema is now coming off his third straight Big Ten title, and had he stayed in Madison another month, his third straight Rose Bowl trip.

Beyond that, Bielema also needs to be credited for doing something that isn’t easy in college football, and that’s taking an already good situation at Wisconsin and making it even better. Remember, Bielema took over a ready-to-win now team at Wisconsin and did just that, leading the Badgers to 12 victories in his inaugural season as head coach. And after a few good, but not great years went on to win from 2009-2011, a number which nobody outside of Nick Saban, Les Miles and maybe Bob Stoops came close to matching.

On paper, Bret Bielema is undoubtedly the best hire of the 2012 off-season.

Why We Don’t Like the Hire:

Of course while Bielema is undoubtedly the best hire on paper of the off-season, let’s also remember that games aren’t in fact played on paper. And with it, there are still plenty of questions surrounding the marriage between Bielema and the Razorbacks.  

For starters… well, umm, what exactly does Bielema know about the SEC? The man played at Iowa, has been head coach at Wisconsin for seven years and spent the rest of his coaching career in the Midwest, meaning that I’m not all that sure he can recruit the area or put together a staff that is capable of it either.

Beyond that, what might be even more concerning is not just whether he’ll win games, but how he plans on going about it. After all, we all know that Bielema wants to control the line of scrimmage and win games by running the ball and playing defense, except, well… so does pretty much everyone else in the SEC. Which makes us wonder: How the heck does Bret Bielema plan on beating Nick Saban and Les Miles (not to mention Will Muschamp, Steve Spurrier and Mark Richt), when he’s playing the same game with worse players? There is a reason you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight after all.

While we’re on the subject of those players…  

What Kind of Talent Does He Inherit?:

Unfortunately, the short answer is “not much.”

For one, even in his salad days, Bobby Petrino was never known as an elite recruiter, meaning that unlike Butch Jones at Tennessee, Bielema isn’t walking into a ready-made, win-now situation with a bunch of underclassmen ready to step up and perform. It also doesn’t help that of the talented players that Arkansas did have in 2012, virtually all of them have either graduated or are leaving early for the NFL. Yeah, we’re looking at you Tyler Wilson, Dennis Johnson, Knile Davis, Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg.

Meaning that when Bielema does finally sit down to evaluate his 2013 roster, what he’ll see is a group of mismatched parts, inexperienced role players and under-recruited diamonds in the rough. But hey, it’s not like everyone expects him to win right away or anything, right?

At the very least, Bielema does at least inherit a few interesting pieces. Brandon Mitchell is a multi-skilled athlete, who spent time at quarterback, running back and wide receiver in 2012. Javontee Herndon showed flashes of an eventual All-SEC type skill player, and Brandon Allen wasn’t terrible in his time replacing Tyler Wilson under center.

But other than that? Well hey, good luck Coach Bielema. You’re going to need it.

Yeah, But Can He Recruit?:

It’s the question everyone wants to know, and one which could ultimately define Bielema’s tenure at Arkansas. And the short answer to that question is: Frankly, we’re not sure.  

For one, Bielema has never been known as an elite, or even good recruiter, but to his credit was always able to take raw under-developed athletes and eventually turn them into finished NFL products. After all, how highly ranked were Montee Ball, Gabe Carimi and Scott Tolzein coming out of high school? And how did they turn out?

(Then again, there aren’t nearly as many easy wins on the schedule in the SEC to help mold guys like that either. But that’s another story for another day.)

More importantly, what the heck does Bret Bielema know about recruiting the Southeast?

It’s a whole different ball-game in the South than it is in the Midwest (heck, Bielema learned that the hard way after dealing with Urban Meyer for ONE YEAR!) and it’s not like there’s a ton of high school talent in Arkansas to help make the process easier on him either. To win in Fayetteville, you’ve got to be able to recruit Texas, Florida and pick and choose your sports in Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana and other places as well. Will Bielema be able to do that? Heck, will he even know where to look?

Now his credit, Bielema took the correct first step when he announced on Wednesday that he’d hired former Tennessee assistant Jim Chaney as his offensive coordinator.

Again, it’s a good first step. But it is still just one step. With many more to come.

Final Thoughts:

Reflecting back on everything, it seems like the best way to view Bielema to Arkansas is through two separate prisms: The actual hiring itself and then the expectations once Bielema starts coaching games.

Viewed through the first prism, this hiring was a grand slam, home run, no doubt about it winner. Bret Bielema is a guy who has won in a lot of ways, with a lot of different players and done it without a hint of personal scandal or trouble with the NCAA. Credit Jeff Long for making what amounted to the “smartest” hire this off-season.  

At the same time just because Bielema won big at Wisconsin doesn’t guarantee anything at Arkansas. And until Bielema puts up his first eight, nine or 10 win season (then follows it up with another one) the questions about his style of play and ability to recruit will always linger.

Right now, the best way to grade this hire is an incomplete, and there’s a real possibility that four, five or six years down the road we might look back, laugh and wonder “What the heck was Bielema thinking?”

But right now, well, we can only grade on what we know.

And based on what we know about Bret Bielema, this was a fantastic hire.

Coaching Grade: A-

For all his insight, analysis and articles on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. College Football Hall of Fame voter. Also managing Bloguin's NittanyLionsDen.com and Macho-Row.com.

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