A coaching search that lasted almost eight months turned on a dime.
Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long (left) introduced Bret Bielema to Arkansas fans and media Wednesday.
Here’s basically how it went down:
Arkansas Athletic Jeff Long met Bret Bielema at the beach in 2005. Was very impressed. Followed his career. Heard good things from a mutual friend. And received a much-appreciated letter from Bielema in September.
When the Big Ten Championship Game ended Saturday night, someone from Arkansas reached out to Wisconsin’s 42-year-old head coach. And when Bielema got the message on his cell phone Sunday morning to call UA senior associate athletic director Jon Fagg, he did just that.
A couple of days later, after two meetings in New York City, Long and Fagg landed their man.
That was the picture Long and Bielema painted Wednesday after the press conference in which Bielema was introduced as the Razorbacks’ 32nd head football coach.
“It was long in eight months of preparation, but the final sequence moved extremely quickly,” Long said Wednesday.
Long described his new head coach – the man who’s won three straight Big Ten championships – as a strong, passionate leader.
He got his first glimpse of that seven years ago when Long was the athletic director at Pittsburgh and Bielema was Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator. They were in Miami for the national championship game, and there was an award presentation on the beach for the play of the year.
Long says he's kept up with Bielema's career since they met in January 2005.
It sounded like Long was immediately impressed.
“And then I went back and kind of, ‘Hey, who is this guy?’” Long said. “I think he was 33 years old and a coordinator at Wisconsin and very impressive. I think it was the next year or two years later he was named the head coach at 35.
"In this business, you get impressed by people, you follow their career. So I’ve followed his career. We weren’t close friends, but I followed him. I felt like I knew who he was and what he stood for. And I knew the kind of program that Coach (Barry) Alvarez expected at Wisconsin. For Coach Alvarez to name a 35-year-old his head coach at Wisconsin really impressed me.”
Two years later, Long took the Arkansas job, and the year after that, his special teams coordinator at Pittsburgh, Charlie Partridge, went to work for Bielema at Wisconsin. Partridge and Long stayed in touch.
“I didn’t talk to Charlie directly (during Bielema’s interview and hiring process) but I’ve talked to him off and on, and I knew how much he enjoyed working for Coach Bielema,” Long said.
“I knew how passionate he was, how good a coach he was, how the players responded to him. Charlie’s that kind of coach, too. He’s a passionate guy. To hear him talk over the years … he shared things about his experience there at Wisconsin and it just reinforced what I thought I knew from looking over the fences.”
Then in September, Long said he received a letter from Bielema. The subject of the letter: the events that transpired in April that led to Bobby Petrino’s termination and everything that took place at Arkansas after that.
In the letter, Bielema “shared with me how impressed he was with how we handled that and our leadership,” said Long, who still has the letter.
“That impacted me, cause I only got a few from coaches around the country. Very few. Less than three or four. It meant a lot to me. And he sent along with it a couple of things he believed in in coaching. It had an impact on me.”
Wisconsin’s domination of Nebraska on Saturday in the Big Ten title game – a 71-30 win – definitely didn’t hurt anything.
The game ran late into the night, and Bielema said he didn’t get back to his hotel room until 1:30 a.m.
“I didn’t touch my phone that night. Left it alone,” he said. “Sunday, checked my messages. I had over 60 messages. I had a message to reach out to Jon first. Had a conversation with him. Agreed to meet in New York City on Monday. I was already going to New York City for the Hall of Fame."
Having Bielema just agree to meet was an exciting development in itself for Long.
“We were prepared when that championship game was over to contact him and meet with him as soon as possible,” Long said. “I didn’t know that he was going to be in New York. That turned out to be fortuitous and allowed us to move more quickly.”
Late Monday night, Long, Fagg and Bielema met in New York at what sounded like a makeshift war room, and their conversation went into the early morning hours Tuesday.
“He can get fired up and passionate about talking. And we just talked,” Long said. “Jon Fagg was with us. We really went over a lot of things about programs, but what he believed in, what we were looking for.”
The job offer was extended.
“He wanted to sleep on it, of course,” Long said. “So he slept on it, and we agreed we were going to get back together the next morning so he could let it sink in, he could talk to his wife. And so we met again on Tuesday morning.”
“I believed I talked to Coach Alvarez at 11:30, 11:45,” Bielema said. “It was probably 2:30 when we were in the air flying to Madison, so it happened very, very quickly.”
Count Long among those who are very grateful it’s over and very grateful about the way it concluded.
“I’m very relieved. Coaching searches are stressful searches,” Long said. “There’s a lot depending on it. You put a lot of time and effort in it, and there’s many, many unknowns. And unknowns, as any of us know, unknowns are stressful so you have a lot of people that you’re looking at. But you don’t know if they have an interest in you. So it’s always good to have a search completed, but I really feel good about the coach we have to lead these student-athletes.”
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