FAYETTEVILLE - Addressing Wednesday’s meeting of the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club at Mermaid’s Restaurant, retired Oklahoma Sooners Coach Bob Stoops stuck up for a coaching colleague, Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema.
Bielema’s steady progress after inheriting the mess that went 3-9 his first Razorbacks season in 2013 to 7-6 and 8-5 in 2014 and 2015, took a slide closing the 7-6 2016 season losing 24-7 and 24-0 halftime leads in losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech. The slide continues with a 2-3 start this season, including 0-3 against two SEC, teams, Texas A&M and South Carolina, and one Big 12 team, TCU.
Losing 48-22 as 2-point favorite over South Carolina last Saturday in Columbia, has ignominiously zoomed Bielema to the top of the various Coaches Hot Seat websites become among the Internet rages.
Well, Stoops recalled of the last team he coached, his 2016 Sooners started 1-2 and finished 11-2 capped by whipping Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.
“We lost to Houston and Ohio State and everybody said, ‘The sky is falling in Norman, Okla.,” Stoops said. “We can’t do anything and we’ll be lucky to be .500 and we go on the longest winning streak in college football last week. (The 4-1 Sooners under new Coach Lincoln Riley were upset last Saturday by Iowa State.) So give it time. I think Coach Bielema is an excellent coach and has a lot of good coaches around him.”
Bielema and Stoops have some common roots as University of Iowa players, though not in the same time span, under retired Coach Hayden Fry and each, again at different times, coached at Kansas State under Bill Snyder.
Mark Stoops, one of Bob Stoops’ brothers and the head coach at Kentucky, and Bielema coached together at K-State under Snyder.
“I know Bret very well,” Stoops told media immediately after his address to the audience. “He’s close friends with my youngest brother, Mark. Bret’s a lot younger than me but we’ve been around a lot of different functions together and are good friends. I believe in him. He’s an excellent coach so I hope they can finish the year strong.”
What’s his message to Arkansas fans for hope this situation can be turned around?
“Just that things can be turned around,” Stoops said. “I’ve said to this group we started 1-2 a year ago and ended up winning the Sugar Bowl and ended up fifth in the country. So, you know, you’ve just got to have some patience and keep improving through the season and understand, too, when you lose some key people in some key spots it makes it harder and tougher on you but you;veto to keep trying to recover and they will.”
Hard to see an immediate Arkansas turnaround with the nationally No. 1 6-0 reigning SEC champion Alabama Crimson Tide looming against the Hogs Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Kickoff is 6:15 pm. on ESPN at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium.
However, though not the 30-point underdog that Arkansas has been deemed Saturday, Stoops’ 2013 Sooners were definite underdogs when they stunned Coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, 45-31 in the Jan. 3, 2014 Sugar Bowl.
“The key to our game with Alabama was our ability to throw the football,” Stoops said. “We threw the football really well in that game and made a lot of plays through the passing game. And then other parts of the game were strong enough to hold up and we were able to win it.”
Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen threw an amazing 400 yards and three touchdowns against Alabama last year, but Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick picked off three passes and the rest of Alabama’s overmatched the Hogs. Alabama prevailed 49-30, the 10th consecutive time that Saban’s Tide beat Arkansas.
Allen went into Wednesday night’s practice hoping to increase his activity from Tuesday’s limited workout after missing the fourth quarter of the South Carolina game with an injury to his throwing shoulder.
Technical difficulties nixed Wednesday’ SEC Football Coaches/Media teleconference on which both Saban and Bielema would have participated.
Saban did speak earlier in the week in Tuscaloosa, using the occasion to light a fire under his Tide against Arkansas because Alabama was strongly challenged last Saturday by Texas A&K before prevailing 27-19.
“Even though Texas A&M really played a good game, played hard, showed a lot of heart in the game, we played a pretty ordinary game for us," Saban said Monday. "I don't think we executed the way we'd like to with the consistency we'd like to.
"I think it's something that as coaches we take responsibility for, but also want to take responsibility for getting everybody to respond the right way so that we have a chance to improve, help our players be the best players that they can be."
Fitzpatrick, with an interception and forcing a fumble, was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his part in thwarting the Aggies’ upset bid.