FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long didn’t meet with new coach Bret Bielema until Monday night, when the two were in New York City.
But the process of bringing Bielema to the Razorbacks may have begun in September in the form of a letter. Bielema wrote to Long, complimenting the athletic director for the way he worked through the Bobby Petrino scandal.
“He wrote me a note and shared with me how impressed he was with how we handled that and our leadership,” Long said. “I think I got that in September. I still have it. That impacted me. I only got a few from coaches around the country.”
Long and Bielema helped piece together the timeline of what proved to be a surprise ending to Arkansas’ eight-month search for a new coach Tuesday. The 42-year-old Bielema — whose name was barely mentioned among the mountains of speculation — was introduced as the program’s 32nd head coach during a press conference in the Broyles Center on Wednesday, capping the whirlwind last leg in the search.
Long said he met face-to-face with four coaches during the past two weeks. Three of the meetings came after last Saturday. The reason: He maintained throughout the process he wouldn’t speak with coaches until after their seasons had ended.
So Arkansas didn’t contact Bielema until after the coach led Wisconsin to its third straight Rose Bowl by beating Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten Championship Game last Saturday night. Bielema said because of the game’s late finish, he didn’t get a chance to check his messages until early Sunday morning. Bielema returned the call and told Arkansas he was heading to New York City where they could meet Monday.
“I didn’t know that he was going to be in New York, but that turned out to be fortuitous and allowed us to move even more quickly,” Long said.
Both parties met Monday night at a location Long didn’t reveal and Bielema asked to think about the offer from the Razorbacks overnight. He accepted the position when they met again Tuesday morning. Then Bielema met with Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, telling him he had accepted the Arkansas position.
Then it was off to Madison so Bielema could tell his players he was leaving.
“I believe I saw coach Alvarez about 11:30, 11:45,” Bielema said. “And it was, I believe, 2:30 when we were in the air and flying to Madison.
“It happened very, very quickly.”
Long said he and Bielema signed the letter of agreement while in the air. Arkansas announced the hire at 6:15 p.m. and, after spending time in Madison, the contingent returned to Fayetteville and landed at roughly 9:15 on Tuesday night.
“It was long in eight months of preparation, but the final sequence moved extremely quickly,” Long said.
It wasn’t the first time Long and Bielema had met. Long said his first encounter with the coach was in 2005, when both were in Miami as part of Pontiac’s Game Changing Play of the Year Award in conjunction with the national championship.
Long was Pittsburgh’s athletic director at the time and Bielema was a 33-year-old assistant on Barry Alvarez’s Wisconsin staff. He said Bielema impressed him.
“I think it was the next year or two years later he was named head coach at 35,” Long said. “In this business, if you get impressed by people and you follow their career. So I followed his career and I felt like while we weren’t close friends, I followed him. I felt like knew who he was and what he stood for.”
It eventually paid off when Long had to fire Petrino last April.
Long described Bielema’s letter as “positive,” and it included some of his coaching philosophies. While he said it didn’t necessarily give him a clear indication Bielema was interested in the job, he was “very excited about the possibility.”
“In this process you can be excited about a lot of coaches who have no interest in you,” Long said. “We were hopeful.”
The hope turned into reality early this week, when Bielema agreed to meet with the Razorbacks in New York City and eventually accepted the position.
“He wasn’t the only person we were prepared to reach out to,” Long said. “But when he responded that he would have an interest, that set our wheels into motion.”