FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas fullback Keiro Small stopped in to talk to Bret Bielema last week. The senior wanted the coach to know about his concerns.
Small only had two games left in his college career, but wasn’t saddened about the way things were ending. He had more apprehension about Bielema because of the growing frustrations from the mounting losses in his first season.
“Since he got here he’s given us nothing but his word,” Small said. “He’s a stand-up guy. … I just wanted to check on him and see how is spirits were.”
Bielema was touched by his captain’s compassion. But he actually felt bad for Small and the seniors because the coaching staff couldn’t help them achieve their goal of reaching a bowl game during their final season. So he stressed that Small didn’t have to worry about him before the final two-game stretch began.
“I’m OK,” Bielema said, revealing the conversation last week. “I get frustrated and I’m very mad and very upset, but I get a chance to come back and do this again.”
Bielema is hoping the rest of his coaching staff will join him.
The Arkansas staff is preparing players for the final game in a season that has produced plenty of disappointment. Arkansas (3-8, 0-7 in Southeastern Conference) has lost a school-record eight straight and is one step away from its first winless conference season since 1942 as it prepares for No. 15 LSU (8-3, 4-3 in SEC).
The players will continue to be the primary concern for the coaches, but the losses have tested everyone. How could they not? But Bielema indicated Monday he was proud of the way his nine-man staff has held together.
“I thought our guys grew,” Bielema said. “I thought our staff overall did a really nice job of adapting to player strengths and weaknesses. There’s some things I think we can do better. We’ll bring that up, but I hope we don’t have any staff changes because I really like this group. I really like what they bring to the table.”
The group entered the season labeled as one of the best assembled in the program’s history. It certainly was the best paid, earning $3.225 million in 2013.
The game day results haven’t matched the money as Arkansas moved from a system that relied on quarterbacks and receivers under Bobby Petrino to one trying to win games with physical play on both sides of the ball. But cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said it’s in no way an indication of the amount of work that has been put in by the staff as it tries to dig Arkansas out of its ugly slide.
“One thing about this staff is we’ve drawn closer together,” Johnson said of the group, which has coaches who came to Arkansas last winter from five different college programs. “We’ve gone back-to-back. We know we’re fighting against the world, and that’s fine. Win, lose or draw, I know for sure that this staff and this team, we’re going to fight until the end. That’s what you want.”
Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen said it has been evident in their continued persistence over the past several weeks. The Razorbacks have clearly fallen short of their goals on the field this season, but the staff hasn’t turned the page on them.
Allen said the players respect the coaches for their efforts.
“They’re the kind of coaches that we as players have come every day to want to work for them, to want to do good for them and go out and practice,” Allen said. “We want to show them that we can do what they ask of us.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said it’s what each coach was brought here to do even though they knew picking up the pieces from 2012 would be challenging.
“I think what Bret did was put together a pretty mature staff that’s been around,” Chaney said. “We understand that camaraderie and chemistry within those existing, very close-knit walls is important. So when you get frustrated with somebody else, we don’t vent it. We know. The sun will come up tomorrow and you’ll just go back to work.”
It doesn’t make the mounting disappointments any easier.
Offensive line coach Sam Pittman said “losing is hard.” The eight-game slide is more than any of them even imagined and has made every member of the Arkansas staff look in the mirror and try to come up with ways to end the frustrations.
Pittman has been through similar struggles at other stops in his career. In fact, he and Chaney were part of Tennessee coach Derek Dooley’s staff last season, which ended when the head coach was fired just before the end of a 5-7 season.
Most members of Bielema’s staff have been through those bad years. Bielema never experienced losing at this rate as Wisconsin’s head coach, but was on Iowa staffs that went 7-27 over a three-year period. It’s part of the profession and Pittman said the experience gained through those disappointments has been valuable.
“If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, the kids will see it and you’re going to lose them,” Pittman said. “But I think anybody that saw the Mississippi State game didn’t see that we lost our football team. I think they fought it out to the end, and we got some unfortunate breaks and we lost the game. But we have good men on our staff.
“We’re all getting paid. We’re getting paid well and our job is to come and work.”
The season will end Friday, but the job simply continues.
The staff will have two more weeks on the road during a recruiting contact period that stretches until Dec. 15 and then another week before Christmas to evaluate the season. At that point, Bielema said he plans to give his staff roughly eight days off for the holidays before they reassemble and move forward into 2014.
Bielema said each staff member will get a packet, allowing them to evaluate their performance and anything else in the program. It will be part of Bielema’s season-ending evaluation with his staff members.
There’s no guarantee the group remains intact in a profession where assistant coaches are on the move on an annual basis. But Chaney and the rest of the staff are proud of the progress that has been made during a difficult season.
“We’ve handled it, me in my opinion, with a lot of maturity and professionalism,” Chaney said. “That’s what you wanted. I think that’s why coach hired who he hired.”