With fun and focus, Bret Bielema rebuilds Arkansas

Bret Bielema in a phrase? Fun but focused.

A dyed-in-the-wool woo pig sooie -- or, for you youngsters, #WPS -- fan is departing a Razorback Club autograph line clutching her Arkansas football jersey that has just been signed by the head coach. She looks shell-shocked, as if she has just met Elvis.

"What did he say to you?" she is asked. Trembling, she shakes her head to return to reality. "He said my jersey was too nice and that I must have broken into the locker room and stolen it, and he was going to contact the police. Then he said he was joking and that I could keep it even if I did steal it because they're going to play better than they did in those jerseys last year."

See? Fun but focused.

As his fourth Arkansas team files into its meeting room, Bielema stands where he always does, right by the door, calling out every single player by name and knowing a little something about each that will get under his shoulder pads. "Where'd my man get this haircut? Did you give it to him? Were the lights off?" But then later, he grabs the same player when no one else is around. The kid is struggling in a science class and in the weight room, so the coach has a scheduling idea that he thinks might help with both. "We gotta get that weight up, but we really gotta get that GPA up."

Few coaches in big-time college football walk the fun-but-focused tightrope better than Bret Bielema. Some do fun at the expense of focus, but more go the other way.

Bielema, 46, has figured out how to walk that line straight down the middle. He's the guy with the hilarious Twitter timeline that includes pics of his unknowing wife, Jen, cleaning the pool deck.

He's the guy who has replaced Steve Spurrier as the can't-miss news conference at SEC Media Days. In July, he held court on everything from Russell Wilson's wedding ("I was at Russell's wedding -- not in the wedding. I just sat and watched. I was the guy in the eighth row in the outside seat.") to Michigan's cancellation of an upcoming series with Arkansas ("The Michigan-Notre Dame thing sounds sexy to everybody else, but I think Michigan and Arkansas sounds sexy.").

He stars in the reality show "Being Bret Bielema," which recently moved from webisodes to ESPNU. Actually, he costars with Jen, whom, as the internet loves to remind us, he met at a Las Vegas casino. She was also the Freudian subject of a Bielema quote that YouTube will never let us forget, said when Bielema was ready to leave Arkansas' roller coaster 53-52 win over Ole Miss last November, "I'm just looking forward to hopping on the wife -- hopping on the plane! Hopping on the plane with my wife. I can't believe I just said that."

"I can't believe he said that, either," she recalled with a roll of the eyes at SEC media days. "But that's Bret. If people can't see the fun behind Bret, I feel sorry for them."

Certainly, there are those who don't. Earlier this month, an SEC coach was quoted anonymously by GridironNow.com as saying: "Arkansas is getting tired of Bielema's bulls---. He hasn't won over nine games. Houston [Nutt] won 10 and was a hell of a lot better person."

That coach, and the Arkansans he refers to, appear to be outnumbered -- at least for now. Time spent listening to local sports talk radio in The Natural State doesn't come with a lot of venom oozing through the speakers. Despite his living somewhere along the same timeline as fellow next-generation SEC head coaches such as Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin or Tennessee's Butch Jones, Bielema doesn't seem to be shadowed by the statewide screams of "It's time to get on with winning or else!"

"I think people know we are building something here, and we're trying to do it the right way," Bielema said.

He audibly groans when thinking back to 2013 and his first Arkansas team, which went 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC. He admits to wondering if the reasons he went to the conference -- the high levels of competition and passion -- might also be the reasons given for running him out of that conference before he'd barely unpacked. The following seasons of 7-6 and 8-5, increasing SEC wins from zero to two to five and ending with bowl victories, have eased his mind. But only a little.

"We don't have guys getting into trouble anymore, certainly not like they were," he said. "We've brought our academics way up. And I think parents know that when we say we're going to look out for their son, they know we mean it. And their son knows he's going to have fun but also work hard."

Then the coach repeats a mantra heard since his hiring. "That being said, all of that only works if we win games. We're getting there. I'm just fortunate to have people around me who know this is a long-term project."

Certainly, a big portion of that sense of security comes from his boss, athletic director Jeff Long. It was Long who sent Bobby Petrino packing and went searching into decidedly non-SEC corners for a replacement. Ultimately, he found his way to Wisconsin, impressed by Bielema's Badgers and their three consecutive Rose Bowl trips, but even more affected by the handwritten note he received from the Wisconsin head coach complimenting the AD on how he handled the bizarre Petrino situation.

What was portrayed as an unconventional hire makes a lot of sense in retrospect. Bielema's tractor-pull style of football was the opposite of Petrino's QB-centric methods, but it tapped into decades of Arkansas pigskin DNA. Bielema was painted as a Big Ten guy, and rightfully so, but Fayetteville has always been more Midwest than southeastern or even southwestern, no matter what conference it might belong to. The southern border of Iowa, where Bielema played for and coached under Hayden Fry, is just five hours north up I-35. Kansas State, where he coached under Bill Snyder, is also a little more than five hours to the west.

"He was always going to be a better fit here than some people were willing to admit, but there's a certain attitude you have to have to be at Arkansas," said Jimmy Johnson, who was a Razorbacks player and coach under Frank Broyles before he became the builder of The U and rebuilder of the Dallas Cowboys. Johnson certainly never had a difficult time balancing fun and focus. "You have to come into Fayetteville with a bit of a chip on your shoulder. We aren't Texas or Alabama, so we have to work harder. And when you do finally beat Texas or Alabama, that makes it just that much more fun, knowing what all you had to do to get there."

That's kind of like being at Iowa and beating Penn State. Or being at Kansas State and beating Oklahoma and USC. Or being at Wisconsin and beating Ohio State and Michigan. Bielema was there for all of that, learning under the tutelage of Fry, Snyder and Barry Alvarez, all members of the College Football Hall of Fame.

A man with that kind of mentors isn't one to run a loosey-goosey sort of program, even if he runs that program while wearing flip-flops and blaring country music in his office. That office is covered in notes -- legal pads packed with observations from practice that will be ripped off and placed in front of Arkansas players and assistant coaches. They know those notes might come with the occasional ironic elementary school teacher-ish smiley or frowning faces, but they also know the information written below those scribbles is ultra-serious, just as they know that being late for anything -- and on time is late -- is an offense punishable by public humiliation.

"You're only ever late to anything once," senior linebacker Brooks Ellis said. He is the perfect kind of Razorback, a Fayetteville native and pre-med student with a near-4.0 GPA. "I honestly don't know what the punishment would be if you're late twice because no one ever is."

This is the unmistakable work ethic of Bielema, a kid who grew up on a farm in northwestern Illinois, rising early every day to do chores and schoolwork, study football and work toward his dream of becoming an Iowa Hawkeye. Now he's an Arkansas Razorback. His drive has never wavered, a drive often taken with the windows down on his Jeep while listening to Justin Moore's "Kinda Don't Care" with a pair of teacup Yorkies in the backseat hanging on for dear life.

"Everyone should have a goal in mind. I don't care what you do for a living," he said. "But you also need to live your life a little bit. Look around, and see what's there. Find some fun. If you don't, this will drive you crazy. So head it off at the pass and be a little crazy first."

"That sounds fun, right?"

Yeah, coach, it does. Fun but focused.