LITTLE ROCK — Assured by Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long that Bret Bielema has a sense of humor, Rex Nelson shared a so-called apology letter from former Ohio State University President Gordon Gee with an overflow crowd at the first Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting of the 2013 season.
If Gee had blasted Bobby Petrino like he did Bret Bielema, Nelson would never have considered the prop with the Razorback coach two seats away. Bielema was nonplussed when Nelson revisited a couple of Gee’s remarks, including the notation that Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas "ahead of the sheriff" last December.
At that point, Nelson introduced Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay — no joke — who presented the new Arkansas coach with a large, orange shirt that said "INMATE" on one side.
When it was Bielema’s turn, he demonstrated that he can give as well as receive, countering club president David Bazzel’s remark about the Arkansas coach being a fast talker by noting that if Bazzel was not a fast talker, the program would already be an hour old.
He started telling a story about some very large Razorback players piling into his new Jeep for a trip to the movies on Tuesday night — "It’s amazing how much a bag of popcorn and a Slushy" will do for kids who were prepared for a two-hour team meeting" — when he circled back to his vehicle.
In Wisconsin, he had a deal with a Chevrolet dealer and drove a Corvette convertible.
He said he decided that Fayetteville is not a "Corvette town."
"This is a Jeep town," he said, prefacing his assessment with his newly learned lesson that being married means clearing such a purchase with the wife.
On the trip to the theater, there was not one word about football, he said. There were lots of laughs, he said, and questions about what was on his radio. Clearly, he has a relationship with the players that is far different from the one between Petrino and his players.
An incident in a recent scrimmage underlines that relationship. Freshman tight end Hunter Henry of Little Rock dug down for a low throw and came up holding the ball aloft, proclaiming a catch. His offensive teammates agreed; the defenders were on the other side.
On the way to the huddle, Bielema stopped Henry. "Hunter, your father is a preacher," Bielema said. "Did you catch that ball?"
"No, coach, I didn’t," Henry said.
"I know how to ask the question," Bielema said.
He also knows how to preface them. "It’s good to see there’s no bar in the back, which means the questions will be reasonable," he said, before taking the first one.
Bielema said he had made so many speeches that his jokes had grown old, but he is good with the improv.
When he announced that the Razorbacks would wear red jerseys, white pants, and red helmets at home and all-white on the road, the crowd applauded. "Clap now," he said, "let’s see what happens when we lose a game or two."
Speaking without notes, he said he wished he could inject the DNA of linebacker Jarrett Lake in all his players; that Kiero Small’s injury in 2012 was a blessing because now "he’s in an offense that believes in a fullback;" touted the expected contributions of some very large freshmen offensive lineman; and shared that the players had decided ball carriers leveled by junior college transfer Martrell Spaight had been "Spaighted."
In a brief news conference prior to the TD Club meeting, Bielema also referenced the term. Seconds later, there was a crash behind a wall over his right shoulder. "Somebody got Spaighted," he said. "I didn’t know we took him on the plane today."
Asked about the 2014 schedule, one of the first things he mentioned is that Arkansas has a bye week prior to Alabama and LSU. That’s serious stuff. The Touchdown Club was for fun.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.