HOOVER, Ala. — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema cracked plenty of jokes during his three-hour tour of Southeastern Conference Media Days on Wednesday.
But Bielema wasn’t kidding when the topic of player safety came up.
Bielema offered a passionate response in the ongoing debate surrounding player safety in the main interview room at the Wynfrey Hotel. The coach’s most memorable moment during his first appearance at SEC Media Days came after he was informed Auburn coach Gus Malzahn first thought the criticisms of up-tempo offenses were a joke. Bielema offered a lengthy and fiery rebuttal.
“I’m not a comedian,” Bielema said. “Everything I say is the things I truly believe in. … All I know is this: there are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break. You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15.”
The debate has become one of the themes of SEC Media Days with teams like Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M running up-tempo offenses. Bielema has not been shy about joining Alabama coach Nick Saban in speaking out about dangers, believing players are more susceptible to injuries with little time between snaps.
It’s no surprise the pace is a stark contrast to the style he’s trying to install at Arkansas. Bielema even called his system “normal American football” Wednesday.
“We wanted to line up with a tight end and a couple wideouts, a tailback and a fullback, see what we can do,” Bielema said. “If we have to put five wideouts on the field, that makes us have the best chance of winning, that’s what we’ll do.
“I don’t think that is.”
Meanwhile, the fast pace remains Malzahn’s bread and butter and the coach — much like Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze on Tuesday — also spent time defending it.
Malzahn, who was inducted into the Arkansas High School Hall of Fame last week for his success at Shiloh Christian and Springdale High, said the Tigers intend to run their offense “at a two-minute pace the entire game.”
“As far as health and safety issues, that’s like saying the defense shouldn’t blitz after a first down because there’s a little fatigue and there’s liable to be a big collision in the backfield,” Malzahn said. “If you’re going to look at rule changes, officials, we need to look at the guys on defense that are faking injuries to slow down these pace teams. That’s where college football is going.”
Malzahn never referred to Bielema specifically, but the clash in philosophies should provide plenty of fodder for the Arkansas-Auburn game on Nov. 2.
Bielema’s fiery response was no surprise to Arkansas’ players, who said they’ve seen it during the seven months they’ve spent with Bielema.
“Coach B is a passionate guy,” fullback Kiero Small said. “Even on Twitter. He means what he says. We learned that. Some guys learned that the hard way. When he says something he means it. He’s a guy that can joke, but he also has a side that you probably saw, his passionate side. He means what he says. He believes in what he says.”
Bielema said plenty more during his introduction to SEC Media Days, which included 14 scheduled stops with various media outlets.
He answered questions about his foray into SEC football, social media and recruiting efforts in the state of Florida. He joked about the type of player new Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was at Iowa (“short, red-haired and angry”), poked fun at a media member that appeared to be sleeping at the front of the room, revealed the fact he bumped into Florida coach Will Muschamp at a Kenny Chesney concert earlier this summer, and uncovered the recruiting edge coaches can get thanks to Twitter.
“The NCAA hasn’t figured out that a direct message is a text,” Bielema said during his final stop in a television interview room. “But we’ll all keep that to ourselves.”
More important, Bielema spoke about how he won over his new team by insisting his plan isn’t based solely on future success. He wants to win in 2013, challenging prognosticators to vote Arkansas to finish low and “sit back and watch.”
Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said the Razorbacks revel in the bravado.
“He's a very outspoken guy,” Smith said. “He's not going to beat around the bush. That's one thing Hog fans really like, is what you see is what you get. That's what we need — we need somebody that's going to give hope to the team and the fans, and that's what he's done.”
Bielema also accomplished what seemed like an impossible task when the second day of the three-day event began.
Wednesday was supposed to be dominated by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel’s appearance. And while Manziel’s early-morning appearance was nothing short of a circus, Bielema still managed made his own mark several hours later with an issue he described was “paramount.”
“It’s not a joke to me,” Bielema said. “It’s something that I really feel strongly about. It’s not rhetoric. … If you want to play hurry-up offense, play it. I’ll play you. I don’t care. But it doesn’t mean that I cannot try to protect my players.”