FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is seven months away from his first Southeastern Conference game with the Razorbacks.
But the coach can’t help himself. Bielema already feels as if he has grabbed an important conference victory in some regards this month.
“To be honest, I’ve had a couple of SEC brethren try to take a couple of our guys and (athletic director) Jeff Long has stepped up to the plate,” Bielema said during his first radio show last Wednesday. “We’re actually undefeated right now against other SEC competition in the coaching department. That’s a good feeling.”
Bielema didn’t delve into specific coaches or programs on the radio show. But one of the potential targets for defection was obvious when offensive line coach Sam Pittman’s amended letter of agreement later was obtained through a Freedom of Information request Monday.
Pittman received a hefty raise that will bump his annual salary from $275,000 to $500,000. The agreement was extended two years, running through June 30, 2016.
The raise came after Pittman was pursued by Alabama, which was looking for an assistant when Jeff Stoutland left for an NFL position with the Philadelphia Eagles on Feb. 8. The Crimson Tide has since hired former Florida International coach Mario Cristobal as Stoutland’s replacement.
It’s not known if other Arkansas assistants have received pay raises after being pursued by other schools. The Freedom of Information request seeking all amended letters of agreement for assistant coaches did not turn up other changes.
Either way, Bielema’s staff appears to be intact with spring practice scheduled to begin in less than two weeks. Bielema said during an interview in his office Monday it “feels good.”
“I know this: My coaches think we have a great situation here,” Bielema said when asked if he was concerned some would leave for other SEC rivals. “I think they like being here. I think they’re very intrigued and excited about the environment, the culture. Jeff Long and the administration have given me the financial support to make us in play with other situation.
“So then it really gets down to, what do you want? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be a team that plays a school or a team that beats a school? If I couldn’t beat them in this phone call, I’d have a hard time beating them on the field.”
Bielema has often said the constant departure of assistant coaches for similar positions at other schools was one reason he left Wisconsin. The Badgers were not often able to put together competitive financial packages to fight off other programs.
Bielema has lost one coach since joining the Razorbacks. But wide receivers coach George McDonald left for a promotion, becoming the offensive coordinator at Syracuse roughly a month after being hired away from Miami.
Bielema replaced McDonald with Michael Smith, who was the wide receivers coach at Kansas State. His current nine-man staff was set to earn $3 million collectively, which nearly doubled the amount of pay available at Wisconsin.
The number has gone up with Pittman’s $225,000 raise. He is now the third-highest paid assistant behind coordinators Jim Chaney and Chris Ash ($550,000).
“The assistant coaches, they all have families, they all have dreams, desires and aspirations,” Bielema said. “It’s been good to keep some guys, especially when you get in some in-conference battles.”
Recruiting was the immediate priority for the group through national signing day. But Bielema and his staff have started to shift their focus to spring practice, which will begin on March 10 and run through the Red-White Game on April 20.
Bielema said the 15 practices will be “huge” for the staff as it begins to find strengths and weaknesses of players. He said the plan will be to “mold together the best answers” around their spring evaluations of the returning group.
Bielema said it all begins with familiarity and continuity on his staff, something the Hogs have been able to ensure to date despite other openings in the SEC.
“One of the things I’ve always kind of just prided myself on as a head coach, but also before I became a head coach, I realized how much of an effect assistant coaches have on a program,” Bielema said. “It’s one thing for a head coach to deliver a message and say certain things. But the assistant coaches have to be in tune with that message, believe in that message and will relay that message when they’re in their position meetings and they’re dealing with those players.
“It takes a long time to cultivate that and it’s good when you’re able to retain it.”