Hog fans’ confidence slow to return

New Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema speaks after being introduced during a news conference inside the Broyles Athletic Complex in December.

Photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

Anxious. That may be the best word to describe the pulse of Razorbacks fans as Saturday’s 3p.m. season opener creeps ever closer.

When I write anxious, I don’t mean eager, either. A lot of folks use “anxious” when they actually mean “eager” or “excited.” In this instance, I’m not one of them.

No, there truly is an uneasiness in the force of the Razorback Nation going into the contest with the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, which kicks off what should be a very interesting 120th season of Razorback football.

Not only is this the 75th anniversary of Reynolds Razorback Stadium, but it is also the inaugural season of Bret Bielema’s regime as the Arkansas head football coach, or should I say “normal American” football coach as Bielema described his brand of play at this year’s SEC Football Media Days.

Anytime there is change there is uneasiness. It’s natural, particularly after last year when the expectations of a top-10 finish crashed into the reality of a rudderless 4-8 season.

While most Hog fans realize the necessity of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long’s decision to fire Bobby Petrino in April of 2011, it remains difficult for them to divorce themselves from the notoriety Petrino brought to the program.

In Petrino’s final two seasons as the Hogs’ coach, the Razorbacks finished 12th and fifth in the final Associated Press Polls. Arkansas had not had back-to-back final rankings of that nature since the Lou Holtz era in 1978 and 1979. That’s so long ago, some latter day Hog fans probably don’t even realize Coach Lou ever stalked the sidelines of Razorback Stadium. Some might not even know who Holtz is.

Some Hog fans remain convinced the Razorbacks need an offensive genius to be pulling the strings from the sidelines for Arkansas to emerge from the middle of the SEC pack and challenge college football’s elite for the league title and the national title spoils that have routinely followed the last seven years.

While Petrino had not advanced his program to the point of actually challenging for the SEC or national title, he did have the Razorbacks in the conversation deep into the 2011 season, and that’s a place where Hog fans long to be on a regular basis.

And that’s where this uneasiness comes from despite Bielema’s sterling credentials. Bielema’s resume as a head coach is the better than any coach Arkansas has ever hired. As great of coaches as Bowden Wyatt, Frank Broyles, Holtz, Ken Hatfield, Danny Ford and Petrino were in their respective careers, Bielema has accomplished more with fewer blemishes than any of them.

Wyatt made his name at Tennessee after departing Arkansas. Broyles had only been a head coach one season at Missouri before venturing to Fayetteville. Holtz and Petrino were talented coaches for sure but NFL washouts. Hatfield was a rising young coach like Broyles. Ford had won a national title at Clemson in 1981, but after running afoul with his president at Clemson over fund raising and being conveniently fired when NCAA investigators alighted on campus, he was damaged goods by the time he arrived at Arkansas, even though when all was said and done, he was not implicated in the investigation.

Bielema, a proven winner in seven years at Wisconsin, is the eighth winningest active coach in the BCS with a 73.9 winning percentage. He was the home run hire of the postseason last December, one few if any saw coming. After the initial jolt, Hog fans have warmed to him, but proof is in the pudding.

While Petrino, who is now coaching Western Kentucky, could retreat to “become a better man” as he told ESPN, Arkansas fans were left to deal with the sins of the Hog Father, and that curse was one that kept Hog fans cursing. No fan base or more importantly no team of young men should have to face a season like Arkansas did last year. It was the season from hell, and the pork kept burning all season long.

If it had not already become apparent with the loss to Louisiana-Monroe the week before, the wheels had clearly flown off the vehicle when quarterback Tyler Wilson stepped forward to basically apologize for the team’s performance against Alabama, even though he was too concussed to even suit up for the game.

Consequently, Hog fans who had become loud and proud with the success under Petrino are still ducking for cover after last season. The fan base’s psyche has been damaged, and skepticism is the prime defense mechanism.

Good thing the Hogs themselves aren’t as cynical. Bielema went about course-correcting the Razorback players’ confidence the moment he first met with them by embracing his 20 seniors and bravely not using the term rebuilding as a crutch. He and his assistants wiped the slate clean for the players not only in word but also in action, and as a result the players have bought into his system, according to Bielema.

Players rearranged and improved their bodies for the more physical nature of Bielema’s style of football under strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert, who stresses nutrition and lower body and back strength more so than the Razorbacks’ previous taskmaster.

As a result of the change in emphasis and open minds of the coaching staff players who had been written off or never even been given a chance under the old regime have risen to the fore like linebackers Jarrett Lake (6-3, 235), Austin Jones (6-2, 237) and Braylon Mitchell (6-3, 230). Kicker/punter Zach Hocker, who struggled and lost confidence last fall, has not only returned to form but improved in preseason camp.

There is also an air of confidence and even swagger among the players that was not present even during the best days under Petrino. Such genuine confidence flows from leadership, which Bielema and his assistants have injected into the program from Day 1.

In the spring, the general consensus out in the public was four or five wins this season. Over the summer and in preseason, those expectations have risen to six maybe even seven wins. After tumbling off the top-10 mountaintop last fall, that’s about as far Hog fans can travel at this point.

Collectively, they can’t make that leap to seven or eight wins because the thought of hoping for more and receiving less is too painful to contemplate. Hog fans haven’t recovered enough to dare to dream, to truly give themselves over to the fanaticism apparent on most SEC campuses. They want to feel some solid ground under their feet before taking a leap of faith in this football team. That’s a stand tempered by wisdom and crushed expectations in the past.

However, given the chance to believe, Razorbacks fans will, and no matter the circumstances they will support the players – and at this early juncture in Bielema’s tenure – even the coach.

Should the Razorbacks navigate their first four games without a loss — which is a big if — Sept. 28’s date with Texas A&M and Heisman winner Johnny Trouble, excuse me, Johnny Manziel at Razorback Stadium will be a raucous affair and likely the party of the year in Fayetteville, at least prior to the kickoff.

Hog fans want to believe in this football team. They just haven’t made it that far out of the ditch, yet. Given reason to climb on board that bandwagon, they will hop on board.

A new twist on an old tradition

The Arkansas Sports Information Department announced a new use of the Hog Call on Thursday that hopefully will grow into another grand Razorback tradition.

“Coach Bret Bielema is also encouraging Razorback fans to help out the defense when the opposing team faces third down,” the UA press release said. “By utilizing the abbreviated Hog Call Razorback fans have traditionally used on kickoffs, the third-down cheer will help raise the noise level in the stadium in a way unique to the Razorbacks. As the opposing team’s center stands over the football, fans should start the ‘Woo’ of the Hog Call and hold until the snap of the ball. At the snap of the football, fans should finish the Hog Call with ‘Pig Sooie.’”

To me, this is an outstanding new idea that only reinforces Arkansas’ signature tradition, helps fans be more involved and creates an on-field advantage for the Hogs.