One of the big questions Arkansas fans have been mulling since the regular football season ended with a 28-24 loss to Missouri was whether or not Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema was on the hot seat or not.
When the Hogs frittered away a 24-point halftime lead with turnovers, penalties, missed assignments, and assorted other mistakes, to lose the Belk Bowl 31-24 to Virginia Tech, the questions intensified.
So is Bielema on the hot season or not?
Bielema’s seat might not exactly be hot, but it is uncomfortably warm.
However every collegiate coach is on the hot seat from the minute he takes a new job. The reality of the situation is that most coaches will be fired at some point. It’s more of a matter of when than if.
Some bank enough clout over the years to make a “mutual decision” to resign or retire, but few head coaches at a schools like Arkansas make a move totally on their own volition.
The money is too good, and now, Fayetteville is too nice of a place to live for coaches to make a jump, just to make a jump. Northwest Arkansas has grown and advanced exponentially since Lou Holtz quipped Fayetteville isn’t the end of the Earth, but that you can see it from there.
Heck, even Bobby Petrino liked Northwest Arkansas, and he didn’t seem to like anything.
Yes, Frank Broyles called his shot to retire as head football coach but remain as athletics director after the 1976 season. Hoops coach Eddie Sutton did “crawl” to Kentucky back in 1985, and yes, Ken Hatfield leaped to Clemson just days before national signing day in 1990.
However, there were extenuating circumstances with each move. Coaches weren’t paid as handsomely in 1976 as they are today, and Broyles knew his future was as A.D., a position he occupied until the Houston Nutt/Gus Malzahn/Springdale Five feud blew up in his, Nutt, and Chancellor John White’s faces in 2007. He also looked forward to working as ABC primary college football color man (analyst) from 1977-84.
As for Sutton and Hatfield, both had gotten crosswise with Broyles for various issues. Sutton had an alcohol problem and other personal issues that began to affect his coaching. Hatfield dug his feet into the dirt when he wouldn’t make changes to his coaching staff to appease Broyles and some boosters after what appeared to be a very promising 1987 season swirled into mediocrity.
Both knew they were on a short leash. The first less than satisfactory season and Broyles would have fired them. Sutton almost took the Auburn coaching position but backed out at the last minute. However a week or so later, he couldn’t turn down Kentucky.
Hatfield won back-to-back Southwest Conference titles in 1988 and 1989, but he flirted with several big-time SEC jobs — Florida, Alabama and Georgia — each season during the preparation for the Cotton Bowls. He likely would have taken one if he had been able to take his entire coaching staff with him. That opportunity didn’t arise until Clemson fired Danny Ford in January of 1990, and the Tigers were seeking a squeaky-clean successor.
Incidentally, Sutton and Hatfield were both eventually fired at Kentucky and Clemson.
Coaches are generally the most popular the day after their introductory press conference. Most of them know how to win the press conferences. If not they are coached on what to say and maybe even more importantly what not to say by their school’s media relations department.
But from that point onward, fans begin to chip away at their perception of a head coach. Eventually those chips become cracks that are difficult to mend.
I’m not sure the overall perception of Bielema is cracked among the majority of Hogs fans, but there is no doubt his long honeymoon with the Razorbacks is over. Fans are irritated and grumbling, but it’s not to the point of a dismissal. It’s pretty evident defensive coordinator Robb Smith was encourage to move on, and he reportedly has secured a position at Minnesota. There could be more movement on the staff, too.
The multi-million dollar buyout clause on Bielema’s contract gives him a measure of security for two more years, but he is going to have to produce at a high level before any of those chips can be mended. Some of the damage is permanent. He can expect to hear about the losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech for the rest of his career at Arkansas.
So, again, from my perspective, Bielema’s seat is not exactly hot, but the heat and the pressure has been turned up.
The question is how will he, his staff, and ultimately the team respond to that pressure?
Unfortunately, the SEC is built of sterner stuff than the old Southwest Conference was when Hatfield’s final two teams won back-to-back league titles. Not even the most optimistic Hog fan would predict Arkansas winning an SEC title coming off the 2016 season.
At this juncture it’s hard to even think of a realistic victory total that would appease fans for next season. Seven won’t be enough, and I don’t think eight would do the trick either.
Nine wins might get some Razorbacks fans off the ledge. However would nine wins even be remotely realistic for next season?
That’s something we have no way of telling at this point.
So Bielema’s not on the hot seat, but his seat is so warm, he might as well consider it hot.