Measured against the extraordinary exits of many Arkansas football coaches, the end of Bret Bielema’s employment is best described as routine.
No surprise. No drama.
In the last half-century plus, only the dismissal of Danny Ford at the end of the 1997 season went down with such ordinary dispatch.
Previously, Frank Broyles and close friend Darrell Royal walked off the field and into retirement together after Arkansas and Texas played on Dec. 4, 1976, Lou Holtz was canned a week before Christmas 1983, Ken Hatfield bolted for Clemson three weeks into 1990, Jack Crowe was dismissed one game deep in the 1992 season, personal missteps and a tidy bankroll were part of Houston Nutt’s departure in 2007, and Bobby Petrino’s egress in the spring of 2012 involved lies and a motorcycle.
Arkansas’ W-L record for the past five years under Bielema was so well documented that there was little, if any, debate about the decision to fire him and conversation concerning the Arkansas job quickly turned to who’s next?
If, as many believe, Gus Malzahn is target No. 1, UA decision-makers best have a 1A in mind.
Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers beat the top-ranked team in the country for the second time in three weeks on Saturday, outplaying Alabama and earning a spot in this week’s SEC championship game against a Georgia team that Auburn defeated 40-17 on Nov. 11. Winning again won’t be easy, particularly with running back Kerryon Johnson less than 100 percent, but quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked comfortable in the Iron Bowl spotlight and Auburn’s defense is excellent.
If Auburn wins in Atlanta, the Tigers will be the first two-loss team to make the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014 and they won’t play again until the Jan. 1 semifinals.
No way Malzahn bails on his team during playoff preparations and I am not convinced he will take the Arkansas job even if Auburn loses Saturday. In the first place, he is well aware of problems recruiting to Arkansas, including the state’s limited number of top-notch players.
Besides, consider his current status at Auburn. Beating Nick Saban’s bunch is one thing, but being creative on offense and fooling the Crimson Tide is worth untold leverage and Malzahn’s salary is already $4.75 million, about $600,000 more than Arkansas was paying Bielema.
Asked Sunday if he planned to be at Auburn in 2018, Malzahn answered affirmatively, but his Arkansas supporters will hold out hope that either Auburn will turn on Malzahn if the Tigers lose to Saturday or he will be unable to resist returning to his home state. Both prospects are slim.
On the Bielema front, the only defense of this year’s 4-8 record is that some key players suffered season-ending injuries and that all the teams that defeated the Razorbacks won at least seven games.
Incriminating numbers include:
—11-29 in the SEC, and 5-3 in 2015 was the only time Arkansas did better than 3-5 in the conference.
—Missouri 48, Arkansas 45 was the 13th time in 34 losses that Arkansas led in the fourth quarter.
—434 points allowed this year in 12 games, 30 more than the school record set in 13 games last year.
Recruiting is at the heart of the problem. According to ESPN, Bielema’s last four recruiting classes ranked sixth in the seven-team SEC West three times and last in 2015.
Regarding the manner in which Bielema’s dismissal was handled, I’m not clear what niceties people expected. In big business, when a major executive fails to perform, his exit does not include punch and cookies and a goodbye party and college athletics is big business.
Appropriately, interim athletics director Julie Cromer Peoples waited until after a post-game prayer to tap Bielema on the shoulder, meet with him in a nearby office, and deliver news he had to know was coming. Her approach enabled Bielema to tell his players in person before they dispersed for the weekend and found out via social media.
Sports Columnist Harry King can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org