Of all the stories coming out of Bret Bielema’s hiring as Arkansas’ head football coach last week, perhaps the most endearing is how he wooed his wife Jen.
One evening in April, 2008, Bielema was enjoying a game of blackjack at the Wynn Las Vegas when he spotted “a smiling blonde, brown-eyed woman wearing a teal tank top, blue jeans and black flip-flops,” as recalled in a 2011 Fox Sports article. Interest sufficiently piqued, Wisconsin’s head coach approached the beautiful stranger to start what became a five-hour conversation.
While the attraction was initially physical, it soon became so much more. After that night, Bret and Jen didn’t see each other for five months. They relied on phone talks, the postal service and, later, flying halfway across the country. Love flourished; they married last March.
Many Americans believe this is the stuff of true romance. The couple took its time getting to know each other. They turned a chance encounter into a long-term relationship, choosing trust before intimacy.
This progression matters not only to Bret and Jen, but to Razorback fans and recruits. It tells the public: Here is a good man who refrains from acting on impulse for the sake of others.
But if Bret and Jen had gotten hammered that fateful night in Las Vegas, hooked up in the backseat of a cab and exchanged oaths at a drive-thru wedding chapel, would their story still charm? Would it even be shared?
I think not.
A football coach isn’t trained to look too far down the road.
He earns most of his pay to make decisions in the now, to successfully adjust schemes in the span of minutes and get his players locked into the present moment with laser-like intensity. The best coaches develop the ability to think one step ahead of the game on the field. All the recruiting, fish fry glad-handing and long film sessions serve only one purpose – 60 minutes, played 12 or 13 Saturdays a year.
So, it’s not surprising that Malzahn was operating very much in the present tense as the guest speaker at the Little Rock Touchdown Club on Monday. In his case, that means toeing the party line as head coach of the nascent Arkansas State Red Wolves program. In his first season, Malzahn has continued to stoke statewide interest in the program that’s now vying for its second consecutive conference title.
He stoked fires of a different sort at the Monday luncheon.
Without prompting, Malzahn launched into the state’s most enduring hot-button sports issues – the ASU vs. UA debate. UA’s unofficial policy has prevented the program from scheduling in-state competition since 1946. But that hasn’t stopped what many Hog fans perceive as other such programs from showing up at the UA’s doorstep, hat in hand, beseeching the master of the home for a few gold coins in the form of a guarantee game.
Malzahn reminded us ASU is the latest program to make such a request.
“We’ve reached out to the University of Arkansas. We’d like to play them in Little Rock in the future, and we think that would be good for the state.”
He later added: “I think it’s the day and time that Arkansas State and Arkansas needs [sic] to play to play in Little Rock… It’s not 1970 anymore. It really isn’t. I think it’s healthy for everybody concerned.”
As a freshman all those years ago, Mitch Mustain went 8-0 at Arkansas and was one of the key figures in some of the controversy that enveloped first-year college coach Gus Malzahn and head coach Houston Nutt as the 2006 season wore on.
We know the aftermath: Malzahn to Tulsa, Nutt out, Petrino in and Mustain gone to USC. Mustain had thrived in high school, then in college, under Malzahn but he never really worked out in SoCal. Aside from a start against Notre Dame, Mitch had pretty much faded into shades-wearin’ obscurity by last December.
Well, Mustain’s back. Not in the flesh, but in bullet form. His UA success – however fleeting – forms the base of a national recruiting pitch new ASU coach Gus Malzahn unleashed on ESPNU on signing day:
In this next video, you’ll notice in the following analysis that Mustain’s inclusion trips up ESPNU analyst David Pollack some, but it’s interesting to note that while Mustain’s playing days in the state of Arkansas are long over, he could still play a role in Malzahn’s ability to recruit future recruits.
Of course, ASU hopes to end up with QBs who pan out more in line with Malzahn’s latest star college quarterback, Cam Newton, rather than his first.
Little Rock Central hasn’t had an All-America caliber football player in decades, but that sure doesn’t mean the neighborhood cupboard’s bare. Two speedsters who have recently grown up in an area a few blocks southwest of the downtown high school both merited Parade All-America honors as seniors: Darren McFadden (who attended what is now Maumelle High School) and Fredi Knighten of Pulaski Academy. No, they didn’t know each other – not like McFadden befriended another high profile private school star soon to be Knighten’s teammate.
But Fredi was certainly aware of the McFaddens, who lived three blocks away from the home into which his mother moved when he started middle school. On many evenings, he recalls hearing stereos booming from McFadden’s car as it rumbled down his street. Of course, McFadden was also making all kinds of noise in Fayetteville, where he solidified his place as the best Razorback running back of all time with consecutive Heisman runner-up finishes.
It’s yet to be seen whether Knighten, a quarterback, can translate his own outstanding prep success to the college level. But if he does, it will likely be to the Razorbacks’ recruiting detriment in central Arkansas. Arkansas State now has three new inroads into central Arkansas it didn’t have during its record-setting 2010 season – Gus Malzahn, a longtime Arkansas high school coach, along with Michael Dyer and Knighten, the area’s last two Parade All-Americans. If ASU continues to build on its recent success, Jonesboro can’t help but become a hotter destination for central Arkansas high school players. A Little Rock native like Knighten, or Dyer, throwing up All-American-type numbers while at ASU would likely lavish unprecedented amounts of media attention on the Red Wolves program.
At the same time, it’s important to note as a Top 5 team the Razorbacks are also becoming a hotter name, not just at home but everywhere around the nation. Arkansas no longer needs to rely on nabbing every 5-star recruit that comes out of central Arkansas (or Springfield, Mo., for that matter). Sure, Altee Tenpenny, North Little Rock’s star running back, recently said “aye” to Alabama. But with the wide net Petrino and his coaches are casting over the nation – especially Western states – that loss doesn’t hurt the program like it would have in the Houston Nutt years.
So, to shake things up, I’ve imagined delving into the future to find some of the most provocative stories of the year 2020, and I examined what 2011 events led to them.
In brief, I found what in nine years will turn out to be the biggest stories of 2011.
Gus Malzahn. Chris Paul.
The two names shall not, it is safe to say, be forever linked in the annals of history.
But last week, these two accomplished team leaders – one a college football coach, the other a pro basketball player – shared headlines across national news outlets as they changed teams.
On closer examination, they actually share much more.
1) Both specialize in quarterbacking teams to outstanding offensive success.
Malzahn, a former high school quarterback, developed into a high school head coach and offensive coordinator who specialized in turning quarterbacks into record-book smashing Godzillas. At each level – whether Springdale High, Tulsa University or Auburn – he helped that program’s offense set numerous records.
Paul plays point guard, the hardcourt’s quarterback equivalent, and he’s done it at extremely well.Toward the end of his senior year in high school, Paul averaged nearly 31 points and 10 assists a game. In five NBA seasons, Paul has put up numbers as impressive as any point guard in league history. Sure, he scores 20+ points but consider that his 9.9 assists per game average is third-highest all-time. Or that he’s the only player to lead the NBA in steals and assists in two consecutive seasons.
2) Their abilities burst into the national spotlight at Baptist schools.
Malzahn’s second head coaching job (1996-2000) was at the private Shiloh Christian School, which is closely tied to the First Baptist Church of Springdale. In 1998, the Saints set a national record with 66 passing touchdowns and would win 1998 and 1999 state titles.
Paul attended the private Wake Forest University, which was originally founded by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention. The school opened in 1834, with a focus on teaching Baptist ministers and laymen. In 2005, Paul left Winston-Salem, N.C. after a sophomore year in which he had earned first team All-America honors.
[Go to bottom of post for more on Malzahn's 2005 Springdale team]
None of Pulaski Academy’s 14 wins this season came down to the wire. Votes for season-ending rankings, however, proved a different matter altogether. As expected, there is a severe rift in public opinion concerning Arkansas’ best overall high school football team this season.
On one hand, the state’s largest newspaper deemed P.A. the best team, followed by Fayetteville, then Bentonville. Central Arkansas-based sportswriter Robert Yates constructed these Democrat-Gazette’s rankings. Rivals.com’s national prep sportswriter Dallas Jackson also deemed P.A. as the state’s best, again followed by Fayetteville and Bentonville.
The Arkansas arm of national prep sports outlet VYPE, meanwhile, conducted a poll with Arkansas prep football coaches. Fayetteville won this poll, with P.A. and Bentonville trailing. Finally, about a dozen Associated Press members released their poll Monday. Their rankings mirror VYPE’s.
That the 4A Bruins didn’t top the Associated Press poll isn’t a surprise. In fact, no team of a similar classification (4th-largest) has ever finished first in the state’s final A.P. poll. Only two teams – 1964 Conway and 1987 Arkadelphia – have finished atop that final poll. Both teams were in the second-largest classification at the time.
This is according to the Almanac of Arkansas High School Football, by longtime Arkansas sportswriter Leland Barclay. Barclay, conveniently enough, also happens to be one of the Associated Press members whose votes comprise the poll. For Barclay, 7A teams – even those with multiple losses – are nearly always better than lower classification teams:
“Schools from the state’s largest classification will always get the nod as the overall final No. 1 team in the state because as the state champion that team had to compete and excel against the best teams in the state over an 11-week stretch. Schools from the other classifications don’t do that…”