FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is uncomfortable with this routine.
After all, he was part of programs that spent December preparing for bowl games for 11 straight seasons from 2001-11. That streak was snapped last year because Bielema left Wisconsin – which reached the Rose Bowl – to take the Arkansas job. But it wasn’t supposed to continue during his first season with the Razorbacks.
"It is what it is," Bielema said when asked how he felt as the college bowl bonanza was about to begin without the Razorbacks. "I don’t want to get wrapped up in it."
The frustrations and disappointments that came with Arkansas’ 3-9 season haven’t dampened Bielema’s optimism, though. He’s confident the Razorbacks bowl drought won’t last long as he works to build Arkansas into a championship-caliber program.
Bielema — who spent much of December recruiting and preparing for next season — sat down with the Arkansas News Bureau last week to look back at the lessons learned in 2013, his staff’s work on the road the past few weeks, and what he expects throughout the offseason as the Razorbacks plan for 2014. Below are some highlights of the 20-minute interview:
Q: You’ve spent a good deal of time on the road recruiting. What has the reception been like since you’re coming off of a 3-9 season?
A: "I think it’s been one of the greatest things I’ve been able to witness. It just reaffirms, in my mind, if you treat people the right way, handle your players the right way, coaches are going to want to give you players. They’re going to want to give you players because they know you’re going to treat them right. They know you’re going to have success. A lot of times coaches can see what’s coming a lot easier than players, so I think they’ll know what we’re going to be. They know we’re going to win games. It’s been unbelievable to have a kid that’s got teams that are undefeated or one loss, two losses that are visiting us and we’re in their top two or their top three. And a lot of it, behind a lot of it is a coach or someone in that decision circle that knows what we’re all about – where we’re going and what we’re going to be able to accomplish. That helps us a lot."
Q: In the end, you need them to sign. So what needs must be filled in this class?
A: "All of them. All of them. I don’t think there’s a position on our field where you can say, ‘Hey, we’re set there. We don’t need anybody that can come in and help us.’ Whether it be as a starter or a backup, it’s really universal."
Q: You can’t go back out on the road until Jan. 16. Is it hard to wait that long with signing day coming in early February?
A: "Yeah, but I tell you, we hit it pretty hard. We had a good plan. We knew we weren’t playing in the (SEC) championship game so we really started planning weeks in advance. We were able to put together a good plan during that two-week window there that got us around a lot of really good players. Filter out the ones that we wanted to. Now, we got an assessment. I wanted to get somewhere between 15 to 20 (verbal commitments). Right now we’re at that 16, 17 range. I wanted to get to that before we started the New Year. That’s going to be right about where we’re going to be at."
Q: Development is important for your returning players. They started the offseason conditioning program (before Christmas break). What kind of feedback have you gotten from (strength coach) Ben Herbert about their attitude and work?
A: "I’ve seen Herbs excited quite a few times in my life, but he’s like at a whole new level right now. He just sees the way these kids have extended themselves. How excited they are. How engaged they were in the workouts. We’ve just got to get everybody doing it every day. Can’t be one out of three or two out of three. It’s got to be three out of three. Hopefully our guys understand that."
Q: What will another offseason in the program do for returning players as they continue to develop?
A: "Well, I think it speaks volumes. All we need is another year to get that much better. We saw the development and the gains out of certain guys and if we have that same type of commitment level, which I know we will, you’re going to see that much more gains and produce that much more wins."
Q: Do you think there will be much change for with what you believe will be your team’s strengths next year?
A: "I hope so. You’re going to get a year of strength, size and power to you. I think offensively, defense, special teams, one of the things you’ve really got to do is assess what your strengths and weaknesses are. It’s going to change from year to year. Last year, center was going to be a point of strength for us. Obviously, it will be very difficult for that to be that way. That doesn’t mean that we want to lessen certain plays or anything. It’s just … it is what it is. I’m excited because the kids in general just do what we ask them to do. They work very hard and they’re extremely competitive and good things happen."
Q: You had some deficiencies on offense, particularly in the passing game. Did you feel there was growth late in the year and what does it mean for next season?
A: "Well, they got better when the quarterback got better. The quarterback got better when he got healthier. The offense grew when they began to understand what the coaches wanted. We literally took a 180-degree change, offense, defense, special teams, from what they had been doing. There just weren’t any – especially offensive – there weren’t any downhill run plays. There weren’t some of the things we really talk about on a daily basis. So kids were essentially learning a new language. You want them to learn it quickly, but on the same account it doesn’t always work that way. It is what it is."
Q: What about the defensive side of the ball? What do you need to improve?
A: "I think we need more skill. There’s no doubt we need more skill. We need more linebackers that can come in and play on an SEC type level. I think that the attitude was great. The intensity. Their preparation was good. But they just need to have better skill."
Q: What did you learn going through this for the first time at Arkansas?
A: "I think two-fold: I think I learned our players. And once you’ve learned your players, everything else tends to make a little more sense. You learn your players’ strengths and weaknesses, how they approach a game, how they handle a game. Reactions. Do they flinch during a moment of adversity? Or do they strike? Those things are invaluable to being able to get the right answers. Can this kid be a tough kid that stands up in the moment of truth or is he a kid that’s going to back down? That’s going to help you overall in so many ways.
Q: So how will you remember your first season at Arkansas?
A: "Well, you’ll always remember your first rodeo. You’re going to remember the ups and the downs. You’re going to remember the coaches. You’re going to remember the moments of adversity. You’re going to remember the positive responses from a number of guys and what they did to have a positive result. But on the same account, you’ll remember some of those negatives. Some of the negative Nellies that stand in your head. I think that’s just part of any memory. I remember it all. Some of it a little more clear than others. It definitely is part of your history."
Q: So how much motivation — not that there wasn’t any to start with — is there throughout the program after going 3-9?
A: "Well, I think the longer you go without the more you’re going to want it. I am excited just because I think as a head coach that went through a 3-9 season, the part that you have to strive and kind of get across to them is how you’ve got to get past that hump. Losing is not acceptable. So different things we do in the training room, different things we do every day to establish a winner, to understand that you need to push yourself through the adversity. It’s a building process that, hopefully, will be easy to see in the fall."
Q: Auburn and Missouri struggled in 2012. The situations differ, but both played for the SEC Championship this year and the Tigers are in the national title game. What kind of impact does that have on your program as you look ahead?
A: "Huge. Huge. It’s something we talked about as a team. Saw two teams play in the SEC championship game that had (two wins) combined in the SEC (in 2012). To look where they were and then obviously to see Auburn play in a national championship game and realize they didn’t win any, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist very long to figure out that everything is possible."