FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Bret Bielema watched from afar in April as Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long handled the difficult circumstances surrounding Bobby Petrino’s firing, liking what he saw so much that he wrote Long a letter of support a few months later.
Bielema also liked what he heard from Long earlier this week during a clandestine meeting in New York, eventually agreeing to become the Razorbacks’ long-term replacement for the scandal-ridden Petrino.
The former Wisconsin coach was introduced in Fayetteville on Wednesday, bringing an end to a nearly eight-month search for Arkansas — which fell from the upper echelon of the SEC to also-ran in its season in limbo under interim coach John L. Smith.
“I truly believe that truly successful men are more defined during their times of adversity than during their times of success,” Bielema said. “… I know they wanted to have more success and go to a bowl game, and I know they wanted to achieve all the things they felt were in front of them at the end of the year.
“But they persevered.”
Bielema will receive $3.2 million annually for six seasons, leaving behind a Wisconsin program he led to a 68-24 record over the past seven seasons. The 42-year-old coach said he won’t coach the Badgers in their third consecutive visit to the Rose Bowl.
“I just felt it was time for me to try and spread my wings and fly a little bit further,” Bielema said.
Long said he interviewed four candidates for the job, though Bielema was his first choice. The athletics director said he first met Bielema when he was an assistant coach at Wisconsin in 2005, but it was his September letter of support following Petrino’s firing that caught his attention.
Long said he had no indication from Bielema or his representation before Sunday that the coach might be interested in the Arkansas job. He had the coach’s letter — one of “three or four” he received from coaches relating to the difficult decisions surrounding Petrino’s firing and Smith’s hiring as interim coach.
“I still have the letter,” Long said. “That impacted me … It meant a lot to me. He sent along with it a couple of things he believed in coaching. It had an impact on me.”
Bielema accepted Arkansas’ offer Tuesday. He met with his former players at Wisconsin on Tuesday night, introducing himself to the Razorbacks on Wednesday afternoon before his introductory news conference.
“I left a great place,” Bielema said. “I left a place that gave me my first opportunity as a head coach. One of the things I really believe in as a coach is if you can leave the place in a better place than where you were you should feel good.”