HOOVER, Ala. — Save us Bret Bielema. You’re our only hope.
Prayers were answered for the hundreds of media members on July 13 at the 2016 Southeastern Conference Media Days. When Bielema took the stage that morning, following an ordinary appearance from Nick Saban, the hope was the Arkansas coach would lighten the mood. It had been a less-than-exciting first couple days when the most significant quotable were peculiar and out-of-touch remarks by Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen.
Bielema delivered in the first year since Steve Spurrier retired, the new king of the week. Per usual, Bielema delivered one-liners, outright jokes and a soupcon of self-deprecation. Long a media darling thanks to his bluntness, Bielema capitalized on the day again, even if he didn’t provide the halfway-expected assault on certain topics.
It was the first time even local media had an opportunity to speak with Bielema since Arkansas announced Michigan was cancelling a home-and-home series for 2018 and 2019. Bielema and Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh are alike fellows in some ways, both unafraid to speak their minds. But it was never clear what exactly Bielema felt about the Michigan coach. Until Wednesday.
“I got tremendous respect for Jim. I know there’s a lot of people like to throw darts at Michigan, all that’s going on right now. I love a guy that speaks his mind, as you can tell from knowing me,” Bielema said. “I love the way he coaches the game. I know several people that know him. I know his father and his brother are halfway decent. I understand they have to do what they have to do, but it was one of those — it was tough to go away.”
Bielema was in Europe on vacation with his wife, Jen, when the news broke. He wasn’t aware of it, he said, until she showed him while they were on a train to Paris.
“My wife said, ‘Hey, there’s something about — on the internet about a Big Ten team canceling with an SEC team,’” Bielema said. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about it.’ She said, ‘Really? Your picture’s right here.’ She’s real quick.”
Personal story with that dash of modesty, a favorite for winning over a crowd.
There was however, no love lost between Bielema and his former colleagues who are now at Georgia. Arkansas had to replace offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who left this offseason to join the Bulldogs under coach Kirby Smart. Georgia’s offensive coordinator is Jim Chaney, who was Bielema’s at Arkansas their first two years. Pittman and Chaney are close friends and Pittman was the only coach on Bielema’s roster who didn’t have a non-compete in his contract - that means, unlike his other coaches on the staff, Pittman was free to go to another SEC school. The others aren’t.
Bielema was asked about Pittman and Chaney and what the two will bring to Georgia. His answer was short.
“As far as what Georgia is getting, you got to try to figure that out on your own.”
After that, it was back to warm and funny Bret. He was asked about satellite camps. He was asked about the cleanliness of the program (only 11 arrest in four seasons, lowest in the SEC). He was asked about memories of the Ole Miss game last year. With every answer came a grin. And it was the same upstairs, even when delivering news he would have preferred not to.
Defensive back Willie Sykes and wide receiver Eric Hawkins won’t be with the team this fall. Hawkins, who had already graduated, was buried on the depth chart, about the ninth option at wide receiver. He will take advantage of the graduate transfer rule and hope to crack a lineup elsewhere. Sykes, who is from Houston, played sparingly last year, his freshman season, at cornerback and safety. Bielema said he is seeking a school closer to home.
There was good news, too. Brooks Ellis was named to the Butkus Award watch list earlier in the week and Drew Morgan was named to the Biletnikoff watch list Wednesday. Those awards are given to the best linebacker and wide receiver in the country. They were the seventh and eighth award watch lists Arkansas players had been named to this summer.
As for Bielema, with the day over and camp starting soon, he zipped out of Hoover quickly, headed to Miami for a final break before real football things begin in earnest.
“I’m very excited to have that kind of caliber in the nonconference before we jump in the SEC West to have a chance to play a schedule that is pretty awesome,” Bielema said. “We’re the only team that I believe also faces both SEC East and West champion from a year ago. So it’s going to be a tremendous challenge, tremendous opportunity, but one I know our kids will be ready for.”