Last Saturday, the Arkansas Razorback football team shocked the state when they came from behind 31 to 7 to beat the Ole Miss Rebels – or Land Sharks, whichever – to win a late-game thriller. It was the largest come-from-behind win in at least this century.
The win likely breathed new life into a Razorback squad that has been downright unwatchable all season. And tomorrow, they are all but assured another victory against a lowly Sunbelt Conference opponent at home. Tomorrow's almost-certain victory will give the Hogs a two-game win streak, something they haven't had since going 3-0 to start the 2016 season.
And that has me pondering an important question, one that Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long and the wealthy boosters who pull his strings have faced all season: What do we do with fifth-year head coach Bret Bielema?
For me, the answer is fairly simple. Though, it doesn't come without a cost.
The wins on Saturday, and likely tomorrow, should not distract Arkansas fans from the abysmal season we've already suffered through. A win – by the skin of their teeth, I might add – against a terrible Ole Miss team does not erase the fact that the Hogs were spanked by Auburn, crushed by Alabama, demolished by South Carolina, upset by Texas A&M and embarrassed by TCU. The only other wins under our belt are those against teams we have to pay handily to play.
In summary, we suck. We’re terrible. We stink. And it's not necessarily the fault of our players. They haven't magically lost their ability to play; many just aren't yet cut out for the league and its level of competition. They've played their hearts out for a coach who has shown a willingness to throw them under the bus when pressed against the wall.
The majority of the players just aren't there yet. They likely just need more seasoning. And that's not their fault. That's the fault of the man who recruited and coached them: Bret Bielema.
To put it plainly, Bielema has to go. And I'm far from the only Razorback fan that agrees.
Entering the summer, Bielema had a fan approval rating that topped 73 percent. That's not too shabby for a coach whose team collapsed at the end of the 2016 season, with some major upset losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech. But, I suppose, there was still hope for the 2017 season.
That hope disappeared quickly.
Prior to last Saturday's game done in Oxford, Bielema had an approval rating that sat just below 34 percent. And despite a historic come-from-behind win – literally the first in his tenure at Arkansas – his approval rating among Arkansas fans plummeted.
According to SECCountry.com, Bielema enters Saturday's game on the hill with an approval rating of just 13.4 percent. That's enough to put him dead last in the SEC, even below Tennessee's Butch Jones and the now-unemployed Florida head coach Jim McElwain.
To put that into perspective, McElwain was fired this week, and Jones likely isn't far behind him. But Bielema still has three years left on his contract, and Jeff Long has shown no signs of letting his pal go. And that's probably because Florida and Tennessee have an expectation of winning games. Arkansas does not. By Long's own admission, Arkansas is not a "win at all cost program." In reality, Arkansas is not even a win at any cost program.
It was previously reported that Bielema's contract required him to be paid a sum of roughly $15 million to be sent walking during the season. That number would, reportedly, have decreased to $11 million in January. Long embraced those reports because he has no intention of letting Bielema go, and therefore wanted to make it seem that firing him would be way too expensive. Mind you, the Razorback football program brings in about $100 million, annually.
But the reporting was wrong. According to a legal review of the contract by a team of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette attorneys, Arkansas would only be required to foot $5.9 million to give Bret the boot at the end of the season. That's chump change for Razorback athletics. And considering Bielema is already being paid more than $4 million annually, that could end up being a bargain.
The fact that Long embraced a false report in order to justify retaining a losing coach shows that his focus is not on winning. And, for me, that means it's time to send Long packing, too.
I've met resistance from a number of Razorback fans arguing the need for Long's departure. But what, exactly, has he done to improve the program in the last five or six years? This is the same athletic director that hired a bankrupt wide receivers coach to fill the shoes of Bobby Petrino in 2012. That infamous coach, John L. Smith, gave us a 4-8 season record. With four whole seasons to rebuild the program, Bielema is most likely going to finish the season with only four wins.
But I can't necessarily blame Long for hiring Bielema prior to the 2013 season. He had just secured his third straight appearance to the Rose Bowl with Wisconsin. He averaged more than nine wins in each of his seven seasons there.
And in Bielema, Long saw an opportunity to repair the program's tarnished image. Petrino, despite having been an incredible coach, embarrassed the school after wrecking his motorcycle with his mistress, who he had also hired, on the back. Long not only needed a decent coach, he needed one with good character. He also needed a coach with charisma, who could handle his own with the public. He found all of that in Bielema.
But, with that being said, the program no longer needs a jolly fat guy who's good with reporters. The program needs a coach who wants to win every single game and doesn't make excuses when he doesn't. The Hogs need a coach who will give them hell at halftime, rather than pork rinds and barbecue sandwiches.
The Razorbacks need a coach who can inspire hope in the fan base. As of right now, Arkansas football fans have absolutely nothing positive to hang their hats on, other than the first Razorback basketball game tonight.
Long has been instrumental in expanding Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium – with the largest public education bond in state history – but those extra seats will be empty if he can't put a good product on the field. If he can't see that, it's time for those who pull his purse strings to pull his plug.
If the season finishes as most predict it will, in the cellar, then it would be in Bielema's best interest to seek a divorce, too. If Long does keep him around, and he stays to go down with the ship, Bielema will ruin any chance he has of leading a decent program in the future.
If Bielema ever wants to coach at another high profile school, he would be wise to come to some sort of mutual agreement to resign this winter.
Regardless of how the season ends, I think it’s time to turn the page on the Bret Bielema, and perhaps even the Jeff Long, era at Arkansas.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Caleb Talley is a member of the Times-Herald news staff. He may be contacted at 870-633-3130 or by email at email@example.com.)