The enormous shadow cast by Nick Saban is where other Southeastern Conference coaches go to “die.”
Since Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, 27 coaches have either been fired or have had forced resignations at SEC schools.
Fans want the “Saban experience,” which means you win at least 95 percent of the time and play for a national title every year. Eight wins a season is often not enough.
That brings us to Bret Bielema, who checked all the boxes you want as a coach except the one that counts — wins and losses. His Arkansas teams were 29-33 and 11-28 in SEC play. The only SEC West opponent the Hogs had a winning record against was Ole Miss.
It’s the antithesis of the Saban experience.
Bielema is a fine man, classy from his hiring to firing. He cared about players and people. He just plain cared. He coached to a larger perspective. No negatives except what happened on the field — many times in the second half.
His hiring appeared to be a good one. But it was like clothes that look good on the rack. Then, when they are tried on, they just don’t fit right.
The reasons for this have been hashed and rehashed. Among them: stubborn to a fault about how his philosophy would work with the demographics of Arkansas talent and the SEC; too late to fully understand the value of speed at all positions in the SEC; poor tactical moves, particularly in the second half in making tweaks to the initial game plan; failure to hire coaches with strong Texas high school connections then alienating many when he criticized the Spread offense at a Texas coaches clinic; injuries and bad luck.
A few other observations about what has transpired.
* Firings are messy, however you do it. Although he said it, Bielema was not fired as he was walking off the field. He was taken into a private room . What happened shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Ironically, fans have been calling for his immediate dismissal and wearing sacks over their heads for a few weeks, then they ranted about how it happened after they got what they wanted.
Bielema’s boss (Jeff Long) was fired earlier. The media respected him so much they may have backed off digging into the details to break the story so he could spend one more game with his players as officially being their coach. My colleagues who cover the Razorbacks expected some kind of announcement after the game. A Saturday news conference wouldn’t make much of a difference and deny Bielema private moments with his players before they scattered.
Maybe beforehand would have been better and some of the process was mishandled by UA officials. But the question of timing was damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Whatever the play, it was a done deal well before the game.
* You wonder if interim athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples, well-connected and respected in NCAA circles, had been male, if some people would have been as offended, taken off guard, and critical about her assertiveness about the search for a new coach. Would a male have been applauded by the strong, aggressive stance and taking the “bull by the horns?”
* The method that Peoples has chosen in the quest for the next coach — being the point person and independent, no search committee while relying on advice of selected others — is pretty much the same template UCA athletic director Brad Teague has used to hire multiple coaches who have led teams to multiple championships and national recognition in about every sport.
* Recruiting is about fit, not stars. Fans’ expectations are jaded by various stars and computer rankings. Reporting about the recruitment of teen-aged boys is tricky and also messy. Much of the information that gets fans excited about recruits comes from high school and college coaches who are not going to publicly doubt or critcize a player or admit he’s the No. 3 or 4 choice on the recruiting board at his position.
Expectations rise to over-the-top levels when whether a “star” on one level is naturally assumed to be a star on the next and adjust to a different culture in college. High school highlight reels are always apples to apples as far as comparison of the quality of competition. Coaches who win consistently recruit players who fit into their philosophy and consistency, not how outside folks rank them.
* You’ll hear a lot of names thrown out for the next coach. Tis the season everywhere for coaching vacancies. The key to any search is fit and not fame or glamour. One example is TCU’s Gary Patterson, whose initial hire raised questions and criticism. Now, he’s rated one of the top coaches in the game and is on many wish lists if he decides to leave TCU. But he’s the right fit for that program.
* And the SEC? The reality is even when you pay coaches multi-million, some team is going to finish at or toward the bottom of its division.
It about delivering bang for the buck.
Or else, it’s lowering the boom.