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Bielema hits the right notes


Arkansas Razorbacks football coach Bret Bielema image

Bret Bielema's goodwill tour through the state of Arkansas has been a customarily fleet and spectacularly engaging one, and even though Pearls doesn't want to harp on the distinctions between the new lead Hog and his predecessors, it's an impossible one to simply ignore.

There's a certain measure of platitudes and throwaway cliches to every coach's delivery. Bielema's hitting locales throughout the state, the Capitol included, and dispensing what on the surface seems to be standard-issue coachspeak, the prototypical "we're gonna get this train back on the tracks" pablum that we generally bristle upon hearing.

Perspective changes over time, of course. Houston Nutt practically stole the job back in December 1997 by taking a then-novel approach to salesmanship, and it took anywhere from a few minutes to a few years for the fan base to grow weary of the huckstering. There wasn't any such veneer to Bobby Petrino: he gave us no misapprehensions that he would be a media darling, and so for four years, when he showed those occasional flashes of wit or genuine substance it was pretty jarring. If coaching PR can be paralleled to a hairdo, Nutt's approach was a wild and anachronistic mullet, and Petrino's was so closely cropped to the skull as to be painful.

A few years ago, a Razorback message board did a pictorial comparison that was even more telling. On National Signing Day, in maybe Nutt's second or third year in Oxford, he stood before a crowd of reporters with some sort of half-assed concoction of balloons and dry-erase boards trying to upsell one of those classes where he signed basically five classes worth of completely nondescript players. That same day, Petrino was employing professional-quality placards with recruits' names neatly emblazoned on them. The dichotomy of detail was astounding, laughable, and yet also demonstrative of the fact that maybe Arkansas's pendulum swung too far.

All snark aside, the zeitgeist of Bielema is something comfortably in between. There's still a place for Nutt's methodology in today's stuffed-shirt coaching world, and Bielema captures a little bit of that flavor with that swagger that we've seen at the introduction in December and then on Twitter. He's pretty cocky, and bordering on boastful. Nutt's downfall was built upon a new online epoch of rearview dissection: He said a lot in those early days, and the Internet didn't afford him the luxury of a pardon. Whereas Nutt talked boldly but seemed disbelieving of his own promises, Bielema's got the inverse approach locked down: He's talking about championships in earnest, and he frankly seems unconcerned with whether you believe him or not.

Petrino ironically would mind his tongue when it was being used for the purpose of publicity, even if he was salty as hell on the sideline. He didn't completely adopt the Holtz Doctrine, but his ruthless perfectionism made him far less inclined to blather at length about his grandiose objectives from year to year. There's a finite degree of that angle to Bielema's discourse as well: He's often reflected on his upbringing in a folksy but genuine fashion, relating to various Razorback Club chapters that he was reared on a farm. It tempers his bravado — some might say not quite enough — and bolsters his work ethic. For all the inane criticisms that may have been heaped on Bielema during his accomplished run in Madison, nobody ever dared say that the guy's few failures were attributable to laziness.

The period after signing day and prior to spring practice has perennially been an awkward lull and the only time it seems to be interrupted is when a new coach is being welcomed, as is the case here in 2013. Historically, we get whipped up into an excitable froth anytime there's a changing of the guard, and Bielema's seizing the opportunity in grand fashion. It's equal parts barnstorming and expectation-setting, which is gaining further notice because Mike Anderson's basketball squad isn't quite able to sate us, and it simply works.

What it produces in the fall is hard to gauge given the roster's general overhaul. Arkansas could be one of the SEC's pleasant surprises or a marginalized bottom-dweller, but Bielema is pitching the forthcoming season as the first step of a program's reclamation, and doing it in a way that is neither brazen nor boring.

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