Arkansas has fired Bret Bielema after five seasons as its head football coach.
"I've never been let go in my entire life, so this is a first for me," Bielema said at his postgame news conference, "but I've had quite a few coaches that have moved on always kind of say, whether it's right, wrong or indifferent, you want to leave the place better than when you got here, and I know that's happened."
Bielema recorded two seven-win seasons and one eight-win season at Arkansas, but never finished higher than third in the SEC West. He finished 29-34 overall.
The Razorbacks' seven losses in conference play this year were tied for their second-most in a season in school history. The most came in 2013, also under Bielema, when the Razorbacks went 0-8 in the SEC.
Bielema told reporters in Fayetteville that he got the news that he was fired as he was coming off the field Friday, but he later clarified that he was informed in the coach's office next to the visitor's locker room in Razorback Stadium.
Julie Cromer Peoples, who was named interim athletic director after Jeff Long was fired last week, said it was important for her to tell Bielema of the change quickly after the game so that he could talk to the team before they left campus. She also said cited recruiting as a factor in the timing of the decision, saying, "It was important for us to get started as soon as possible in order to be a competitor in the market."
Said Bielema: "Obviously, everybody's probably like, 'Woo, they got him right after that [loss],' but I'd much rather have it this way than think about it."
Bielema will be owed $5.9 million with 37 months left on his deal (2020).
Cromer Peoples said she has asked Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, the former Iowa State head coach, to serve as the interim coach. She also said she plans to start a coaching search immediately, and that she's not concerned about possibly hiring a head coach while a seven-person search committee aids Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz in the pursuit of a new athletic director.
"I don't think you need a permanent AD in order to make an offer," Cromer Peoples said. "I think you need an AD, and we have one."
Bielema came to Arkansas in 2013 after seven consecutive winning seasons at Wisconsin. He became emotional during his news conference when he recounted telling players in the Razorbacks' locker room that he had been let go.
"I did get a chance to say goodbye to at least 80 of those players that were in that locker room," he said. "A lot of emotion running through there, and I think that's a great indication the imprint you've had on their lives.
"I know we wanted more wins. We were on a steady climb and ran into a speed bump that we were never able to get back out of. We were on a steady win cycle with three [wins] and then seven [wins] and then eight [wins], and then it looked like we could get to 8, 9, 10 [wins], and we didn't play well down the stretch a year ago."
Bielema lamented that six of his top 10 players weren't able to play a "significant time" this season, including veteran quarterback Austin Allen, who missed four games.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that's an excuse," he said, "but that's reality when you have the depth we've got."
Bielema becomes the third SEC head football coach to be fired this season, joining Florida's Jim McElwain and Tennessee's Butch Jones.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.