It is hard not to admire Bret Bielema right now.
The head coach at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville knows his fate is sealed. His defense can build on last week's game and the whole team can decide to send the seniors out on a positive note by beating Missouri, and nothing is changing for Bielema.
All indications are he won't be back, and he's taking it like -- and yes, to some this may be politically incorrect -- a man of integrity.
In this time of crushing emotion while facing just his second losing season -- his first and probably his last at Arkansas -- he's not pointing fingers at anyone. He's not overusing the fact he's had a bunch of injuries, starting with last year's SEC leading rusher Rawleigh Williams and All-American center Frank Ragnow.
He didn't even get testy when asked whether he had given any thought to this being his last game at Arkansas.
He said he understands the fans want to win. He believes he is close, and he believes that with all of his heart.
He did get a little sentimental, and he's never left a doubt he likes Arkansas. Since the day he arrived he has fit in. He never wanted Arkansans to act like they were northerners. He embraced the state, the history and tradition, and tried to be part of it.
The same for his wife Jen, who had to sell their house, pack up and move all by herself, arriving after he did. This kind of situation is hard on a wife, especially after having their first child last summer.
Bielema has zero experience for the moments he is living today.
His first season at Wisconsin he went 12-1, with his only loss to No. 6 Michigan. He capped the season in the Capital One Bowl with a 17-14 win over Arkansas.
Six years later -- with a 68-24 overall record, 37-19 in the Big Ten and on the way to his third consecutive Rose Bowl -- he stunned the nation by taking the job at Arkansas, a program that was in shambles.
One year of John L. Smith was like five years of wreckage for the Razorbacks.
Bielema's legacy should not include his first year. Going 3-9 and 0-8 in SEC play should have been expected. His second year the Hogs jumped to 7-6 and 2-6, starting a streak of three consecutive bowl games. In his third season, the Razorbacks appeared to be peaking when Bielema became the first UA coach to win consecutive bowl games.
The 8-5, 5-3 season was followed last year by a 7-6, 3-5 and something began to unwind. The Hogs blew halftime leads against Missouri and Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl, and they haven't gained their footing since.
They were lucky to beat Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina. They got beat soundly by LSU and played Mississippi State evenly until finding a way to lose, and here the Hogs are with no shot at a bowl game and the future not looking good.
Friday's season finale with Missouri has almost no interest among the fans, and only about 35,000 showed up for Saturday's game.
But Bielema has remained positive. He hasn't done that for himself or his staff, he's done it for his players.
Bielema is the 10th Razorbacks coach yours truly has covered, and not one has cared more about his players off the field as much as on field than Bielema. A few have been on the same level.
Bielema always has been respectful of the history of the UA and all of its traditions, and with the end of his time here staring him in the face he hasn't wavered. He's stayed true to the school and his core values.
Sports on 11/22/2017
Print Headline: Bielema a pillar as Arkansas stint crumbles