Bowl time and Christmas time turned ugly for the Arkansas Razorbacks..
Fans were expecting a celebration, a holiday bonus, hope for the future in a nice package in Charlotte.
And they got the equivalent of the Jelly of the Month Club. And the jelly turned sour.
Most fans have questions about the Razorback football program. Most questions will not go away soon and will linger in a cloud over recruiting and into the offseason.
Most fans have answers. There are no easy answers and it’s uncertain if they can be resolved by next season.
It’s a complex situation because Bret Bielema is a likeable coach. He’s a fine man. He does a lot of things you want a coach to do. No question he cares for his players. He doesn’t do “coachspeak” in news conferences. His candor is enviable. He’s the kind of coach reporters love to cover.
But I’ve never considered him a good strategic coach as far as instinctively figuring out the right tweaks or the right things to do on the sideline. He may win the pastoral care an the PR part, but he is not likely to win if the game becomes a chess match.
Off the field, there has been a lot of progress in certain areas for the UA program., particularly graduation rates and GPA. On the field, there has been little tangible. The Razorbacks are a mediocre program in a tough conference that was weaker top to bottom this season but seems to be growing teeth — both in the SEC East and West for the future.
Bielema is also a stubborn coach. His concept of what might work in his Big Ten days at Wisconsin is not working at Arkansas. It’s ironic that the coach who prided himself on closing out games with dominating line play and power football has fielded teams that could not do either. It’s frustrating that the coach who provided himself on a team playing four quarters had a “50 cent” team this season _ two quarters. Against Virginia Tech, the Hogs had a net of 36 yards rushing on 34 attempts. Nuff said about dominating line play.
Is so-called “Bielema Ball” smoke and mirrors? That’s one of the questions that won’t go away for awhile. Bielema’s teams have posted records of 3-9, 7-6, 8-5 and 7-6.
This season, the Razorbacks won seven games that included Alcorn State, Texas State and Louisiana Tech, games they were expected to win. Their signature victory was a Florida, which had few offensive weapons. They also had victories over an underachieving Ole Miss team, a so-so Mississippi State team and a TCU team that was not as strong as it has been in past years.They were dominated in the fourth quarter by Texas A&M, a sign of things to come
They were ravaged by Auburn and LSU teams were often punch-drunk on offense and blew a 24-7- lead in the second half against a weak Missouri team. That was followed by another total second-half meltdown in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech. Generally, teams trailing by 24-0 in the second half don’t come back, even against mediocre teams.
Blowing such seemingly “insurmountable” leads back-to-back reflects on coaching because it indicates toughness.
Note some of the bowl teams, even those who lost. Michigan was tough. Temple was tough. Penn State was tough.
Arkansas was soft.
So, the Belk Bowl, which had a chance to be a chance for redemption and momentum for the Hogs, turned into embarrassment and the bowl game from hell.
It not only raised questions of toughness but discipline.
It’s the combination of end-of-season stuff that is building a storm front about the Razorback program: Two major second-half meltdowns, an ejection for spitting at an opponent, a shoplifting charge against the Hogs’ best NFL prospect (Jeremy Sprinkle) , which compounded into a national joke because is allegedly shoplifted from a Belk store (the corporate sponsor of the Belk Bowl) after being given, as a perk, a &450 gift card with a 20 percent discount on top of that.
Wave after wave of embarrassment.
Bielema said he will examine the program from A-Z. There is enough to cover the alphabet. Some of the residual effect will spill over to athletic director Jeff Long, who gave Bielema a nice new contract after his second season.
In the meantime, you have a fan base, even very loyal supporters, who have become conditioned to the trap door opening whenever they start feeling good. And that uneasiness will continue for awhile.
It’s safe to say Bielema will be the coach next season but he will go into the season as one of the college coaches most on the hot seat.
The questions (with no immediate answers) are not going to go away. The storm clouds will continue to build.
Already, there are some fans on social media who are campaigning to bring back Houston Nutt.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)