FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema had a direct answer this week when he was asked if either he or his representation had taken part in any conversations recently with athletic director Jeff Long about his future. "No," Bielema said.
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema had a direct answer this week when he was asked if either he or his representation had taken part in any conversations recently with athletic director Jeff Long about his future.
"No," Bielema said.
Turns out, it was Long's future that should have been up for questioning — the decade-long leader of the Razorbacks athletic program was fired Wednesday .
In the wake of Long's ouster, Arkansas senior associate athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples was named interim director of athletics as the search for a new department head begins.
What isn't as certain — given that Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz didn't answer questions outside of his statement announcing Long's firing — is whether it will be Cromer Peoples, Steinmetz or the school's Board of Trustees who is in charge of handling the more immediate question hounding all of Arkansas:
What to do with Bielema?
Long was resolute in his support of the fifth-year coach until he stopped talking publicly and started declining interview requests earlier this season.
"I'm 100 percent behind Bret Bielema," Long said in September. "He's our football coach; he's building a program and he's doing many, many things right."
Since then, Arkansas' football season has taken a turn for the worse — a seemingly constant for a program that's never quite regained its footing in the SEC since the Bobby Petrino scandal and his firing in the spring of 2012. The Razorbacks are 33-40 overall and 13-33 in the SEC over six seasons since Petrino's motorcycle accident that exposed his mistress and other misdeeds.
Bielema's been in charge for the last five seasons. Arkansas is 29-32 overall under the former Wisconsin coach, 11-27 in the SEC — and facing difficult home games against No. 17 Mississippi State and surging Missouri to close out the season.
The year is likely to end with the Razorbacks missing a bowl for the second time in Bielema's five seasons, leading to daily speculation about his job security. However, he said that he's avoided any thoughts about what's to come when the regular season ends the day after Thanksgiving.
"You just focus on the task at hand. I don't think there's any doubt of what we're doing," Bielema said. "When you talk to recruits, when you talk to players, when you talk to the parents ... it's full go, it's full speed, never seen anything to tell me different.
"I know what we've built; I know what we can be."
Long was widely praised when hiring Bielema, but he's faced strong criticism since giving the coach an extension through 2020 following the 2014 season. Bielema's average annual salary over the six-year contract is $4.25 million, but the deal also contains a buyout clause that stated Arkansas could have to pay him $15.4 million if he was fired without cause prior to 2018.
In addition to his losing record, Bielema is also under criticism for his pro-style offense that has featured an offensive line which has continually worsened since his first season. Many in Arkansas, like former Razorbacks quarterback Tyler Wilson, believe the school has been at its best in the past when it was innovative offensively — such as when current Auburn coach Gus Malzahn brought the Wildcat to fruition in 2006 as offensive coordinator or when Petrino was calling plays.
Wilson, speaking on Wednesday shortly after the announcement of Long's firing, said it's imperative for Arkansas to follow the lead of many of the state's high schools and adapt to the age of the spread offense — taking advantage of the state's talent at the skill positions to lessen the importance of a dominant offensive line.
He also called the final two regular season games "critical" for Bielema's future.
"Not just wins and losses, but how the team plays," Wilson said. "Does it look like there's still fight? Does it look like the team's engaged, and are they close football games? Are they competitive?"
Follow Kurt Voigt on Twitter @Kurt_Voigt_AP