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Post-Bielema

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BIELEMA (file photo) - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • BIELEMA (file photo)

The mercurial 2017 season and Bret Bielema's five-year run at the top of the Hill are now over. At the outset, let's declare Friday, Nov. 24, to be a day for Arkansas athletics as a whole to forget: The men's basketball team got plowed through by the North Carolina Tar Heels and their friendly officials in the PK80 extravaganza out in Portland, and the football team played for, oh, about 19 hours with another Missouri bunch that was largely inept, but had the benefit of a front-loaded schedule to make the Tigers' eventual six-game winning streak after a 1-5 start look downright magical.

The Hogs were on the way to burying Missouri early with a couple of huge fumble recoveries turned into touchdowns. But from there, you guessed it, Arkansas's reconceived 3-4 defense was completely torched by Tiger quarterback Drew Lock. The Tigers also pounded away at the Razorback front by way of two tailbacks, Ish Witter and Larry Rountree, and by the time it was all said and done, the Hogs had never yielded quite like this, as Mizzou's won with a short field goal with 5 seconds left. It left Missouri ahead 48-45, and to the tune of nearly 700 yards of offense allowed, Bret Bielema's last walk off the Reynolds Razorback Stadium turf was a disheartening one to watch.

Never fear, though, Arkansas administrators drew unwanted attention for the artless and crass manner in which they gave Bielema his walking papers. Bielema clarified in his press conference that he was advised of the decision off the field in his office; some of the social media banter indicated he knew he was toast two weeks ago. Regardless, on the heels of firing Jeff Long, who was quite effusive of praise for his former employer in the aftermath, it seemed like the manner of dispatching Bielema by press release circulated before the field had cleared was a little on the unprofessional side.

Bielema was predictably emotional, but also as honest and direct as he could be. He acknowledged the lack of wins and the pervasive second-half bugaboo was on him and his staff, said that the spate of injuries to key players this fall was no excuse for the team's atrocious performance, and duly and appropriately credited his players for continuing to soldier through a season that started to lose its luster the minute TCU steamrolled the Hogs for the first of eight defeats way back in September.

The entire Thanksgiving weekend felt very odd. Long wasn't around, but an interim athletic director, Julie Cromer Peoples, boldly asserted that she had been vested with the task of hiring Bielema's successor. Bielema and his staff, or at least presumably most of them, will be packing away their things and searching for gainful employment elsewhere. There's no bowl game to discuss anymore, so a lot of the talk-radio and message-board fodder circulated around the fever dream that Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn would routinely cast aside a better job with better resources just for the sake of coming back to a state where the quarterback's trucks get set on fire and where he was mockingly derided as "High School" by the Hogs' then-defensive coordinator, Vic Tayback or something like that.

Not everyone is enamored with the idea of a Malzahn-coached Razorback team, this columnist squarely included, but at least the rumor mill creates interest around a program that attracted roughly four or five busloads of fans to each of its last two home games. Some rube dropped into the stadium on a cool, crisp Friday morning after Turkey Day to see this Battle Line Rivalry go down likely scratches his head at the empty seats all around him, sees the "COMING 2018" expansion banners in the imploded north end zone, and probably muses to himself, "Why build more seats? Plenty of space available!"

It's an aggravating time for a Hog fan, which is of course a chronic illness anyway, but it's more frustrating when you consider that Long and Bielema were both scuttled without an apparent semblance of a plan to replace them. The optics, as they say, are terrible: As other universities try to plug their coaching vacancies with varying degrees of fallout, Arkansas is sort of meandering around like Grandpa Joe after Charlie Bucket coaxed him out of bed to go to the chocolate factory. The whole thing looks aimless and slapdash, and while no one expected the Hogs to have a head coach before November was finished, per se, the whole Malzahn fever dream seems to have colored the decision-makers' view of this process.

It was believed (concocted) by many that if Auburn would just lose this little game against Alabama in front of all those psychotic fans at Jordan-Hare on Saturday, the lame-duck AD status of Jay Jacobs and all the pressures of being second to the Tide in that state would naturally coax Malzahn back northwesterly. Trouble is, Malzahn has the hottest team in the country right now, and they steamrolled Bama in a dominant fourth quarter where the Tigers did everything right and the Tide rarely even snapped the ball correctly. Auburn has an eye on a national championship right now, and coaches in that position do not simply snap the briefcase clasps, say farewell, and turn over the reins to a coordinator when there's hardware at stake.

We'll know more next week, in theory, but at this point, assume nothing you hear is accurate. The furor that surrounds these searches and hires gets progressively more panicked each time the occasion arises, and over the last 20 years, the Arkansas brass has never hired the football coach that the majority of the fan base has expected.


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