Players Describe New Coach As ‘Great Fit’

FAYETTEVILLE — Aside from Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long, no group of people were more pleased with the end of the search for a new football coach than the Razorbacks themselves.

Before Bret Bielema was introduced to the state at a news conference Wednesday, the new Arkansas coach met with his new team. Before he walked in the door, there was an air of apprehension hanging in the air. But it didn’t last long.

“When we first got in the meeting room he didn’t know us and we didn’t know him, it was tense,” fullback Kiero Small said. “But as soon as he got in the room, he told us his background and some things about himself and it just all went away.”

Offensive lineman Travis Swanson said Bielema made a great first impression with the team.

“It was great. We had a lot of tension built up, didn’t really know who he was at the time when he came in and talked to us,” Swanson said. “As far as first impressions go, I think it’s going to be a great fit. He’s going to have to adapt to us and we need to adapt to him and whatever philosophy that he does bring in.”

Kicker Zach Hocker said Bielema quickly won the room.

“We all love him. The excitement around the room — especially coming off a four-win season — you don’t expect too much energy in the room,” Hocker said. “Today was something special. We’re all ready to go.”

Since Bobby Petrino was fired in April after a motorcycle wreck exposed an improper relationship with a female athletic department staff member, Long’s search for a replacement has been a main topic with Razorbacks fans. While some were nervously tracking every rumor with the search for a new football coach, the Razorbacks themselves tried to ignore the rumors — which exploded in intensity in the past week.

“I walk in McDonald’s and there are guys telling me who the coach is,” Small, who suffered a season-ending broken right foot in September, said. “I just stayed away from it. I couldn’t control it and played no role in it, so I focused on getting my foot back to 100 percent. … I knew I wasn’t going to pay him, I don’t have the money to pay him so I didn’t follow it. I heard names from here to there, so I just tried to focus on getting back 100 percent.”

Hocker said the rumor mill — which churned out names from “Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden to Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy — gave the players a chance to play jokes on each other.

“We’d text each other and mess around with each other when we’d hear all those crazy names going around,” Hocker said. “What’s funny is that coach ‘B’ wasn’t a name that was ever mentioned. It’s funny to me that the entire state thought they had it figured out and that was the last guy on their list.”

On Monday, the players began getting word Bielema was the next coach. Defensive end Chris Smith was in the weight room, lifting for next season, when he heard. Cornerback Tevin Mitchell got a phone call from his father. Hocker got a text message from a teammate – who had read it on Twitter.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” Hocker said. “Then (the media) started reporting it and I called some of the guys on the team and they said it was true.”

As word spread, a lot of players began searching the Internet for info on Bielema and trying to learn as much as they could about Wisconsin’s style of football. But some — including Small — already knew a little about their new coach.

“When they finally confirmed this was the coach, I was pretty happy. I’ve watched Wisconsin play and liked it,” Small said. “I like teams that are physical. I always watch Wisconsin because they seem to play a physical brand of ball. So I was pretty familiar with him and what he likes to do.”

Smith also watched “a lot of Wisconsin football” and is excited about Bielema because of it.

“It’s about time we talked about the defense around here. You can’t win SEC championships without a great defense, you see that in Alabama,” Smith said. “That’s one thing we’ve got to build on. I know he’s going to get us better.”

While Bielema said no decisions have been made on assistant coaches, quarterback Brandon Allen — who is considered the successor to Tyler Wilson next season — has more at stake than other players. His father is Bobby Allen, who just finished his 15th season on the Arkansas staff. Regardless of what happens with his father, however, Brandon Allen said he’s not leaving Fayetteville.

“Either way, I’m going to be here. I’ve always wanted to be a Hog and I am now. Whether he decides to keep my dad or not I’m still going to be here and work just as hard as I always do,” Allen said. “It’d be cool to have my dad around, but if comes down to he’s not going to stay around it’s not going to bother me. I’m still going to be here.”