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SEC Media Days 2013: Bret Bielema Goes to War

When Arkansas' new head coach takes the stage, no one is safe

Brandon Larrabee

For the longtime coaches in the SEC, most of them have settled into a role at SEC Media Days. Steve Spurrier is the comedic star, dispensing quips and saying things that would sound bland coming from other coaches with a flair that makes reporters laugh. Nick Saban is the pundit, giving opinions about football matters far and wide, largely because questions about Saban's team serve as nothing more than prompts for him to recite "The Process" over and over again. Les Miles is the crazy uncle and Mark Richt is the uncle that's an actuary but really wants to tell you about his job.

Some coaches are still figuring out their roles. But it looks Bret Bielema is going to be the brawler, or perhaps the general -- or perhaps the rabble-rouser, the rebel with a cause.

Bielema got off to an enthusiastic but nondescript start. Then someone asked Bielema about this comment from Gus Malzahn on concerns that Bielema and others have voiced about hurry-up offenses endangering players: "When I first heard that, to be honest with you, I thought it was a joke."

After first asking the reporter to repeat the question in apparent shock -- Malzahn had spoken just moments before in the main room -- Bielema went on a 500-plus-word harangue full of fire and brimstone that's worth quoting in full.

I'm not a comedian. Everything I say is things I truly believe in. When I go into a young man's home, when you go to recruit a kid that's 17 years old, move him halfway across the country, you can look a mom and dad in the eye, and you say, I'm going to look out for the personal well-being of your son in everything that I do. It's going to be a game day, a practice, a conditioning session, I am trusting you to give me your son to come play for me.

If I have a son that I have brought to this campus and I don't look after his personal well-being, I have lied to that parent.

All I know is this: there are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break. You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15. If that exposes him to a risk of injury, then that's my fault. I can't do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in whether I'm on offense or defense.

The problem that people have is you look at it just from an offensive or defensive point of view. I'm looking at it from a head coach's point of view, that the personal well-being and safety of my players is paramount.

I've had a situation that I've had to call a parent because their son may not make it through because of either an injury, not make it through life, but the next day, whether he can play football or not. To me that's real. That's the job I have to protect.

I sat in a Rules Committee meeting. We changed the rules significantly in the world of kicking. Everybody remember when we did that? We moved the ball from the 35 to 30, all that back and forth. We changed the rules you can't jump anymore. Why did we do that? We did it for player safety.

We've dramatically decreased the number of concussions and traumatic injuries on kickoffs because of that rule change. If we can have the same effect and change the amount of injuries to an offensive and defensive player and play the game still, would that not be a good resolution?

It's not a joke to me. It's something that I really feel strongly about. It's not rhetoric.

I'm not a scientist. You do not want me to walk in with a computer and try to figure things out. But I had a guy email me two weeks ago because he read the articles. He was all about there is statistical evidence that shows that as players become more tired, they become more vulnerable to injury. That's all I'm talking about.

If you want to play hurry-up offense, play it. I'll play you, I don't care. But it doesn't mean that I cannot try to protect my players offensively and defensively.

I have just as many offensive players as I have defensive players. That's the facts.

I do think I'm funny at times, though. I will say that.

Instantly, hundreds of reporters circled Nov. 2 on their calendars, when what was likely to be an otherwise boring meeting between two lower-tier SEC West teams in Arkansas and Auburn became Malzahn's best opportunity to get back at the man that lit him up in the briefing room.

But that wasn't the only fight that Bielema felt like picking Wednesday. Bielema took a none-too-subtle swipe at the conference where he's spent most of his playing and coaching career when he appeared to try to dodge a question about the differences between the SEC and the B1G, dropping in this line:

See, the problem you guys got me in, the good things I say about the SEC, everybody else gets pissed and vice versa. I'm in a quandary here. It's just reality.

Bielema would later take that line of comment a bit too far in another room, but it was part of a presentation that was nice to reporters but pugnacious toward others, and perhaps even a few in the room. To those who have low expectations for Arkansas:

The lower the better. I think our kids are carrying a tremendous chip on their shoulder. The same group that's going to vote us a certain place tomorrow is the same group that a year ago today had us in the top five.

To spread offenses:

Yeah, we wanted to play a little bit of normal American football. We wanted to line up with a tight end and a couple wideouts, a tailback and a fullback, see what we can do.

And Bielema basically signaled his intention to invade Texas in the recruiting wars:

We've moved into Texas, east Texas. We've had six, sometimes seven, eight coaches in Texas at any given time. If we can help make the transition from Texas to Arkansas a little bit smoother, we'll do that.

As Bielema wrapped up as the final coach on Day 2, there was a clear consensus among most reporters that he had won his first major battle as Arkansas head coach by winning at least Wednesday's portion of SEC Media Days. Winning the war over the next few days seems likely to be even harder, but the Bret Bielema who took the stage in Hoover seemed unlikely to fail for lack of trying.