Coaching Resource: Building Culture (Arkansas Football Head Coach, Bret Bielema)

Pete Thamel, Campus Rush (

The rebuilding of the Hogs links back to Bielema’s extensive off-field cleanup. A program with an average of one arrest every 45 days in 2012 has experienced one arrest every 483 days since his hire. After Bielema inherited a roster with cumulative team GPA of 2.2, the Razorbacks enter ’15 with a team GPA of 2.8.

How did Arkansas reach this point? Bielema opened the doors of his program for two days this spring to provide a glimpse of the intricacies of instilling a winning culture. From bringing kale into the weight room to teaching lessons about Steph Curry in the meeting room, a belief in paradoxical core philosophies—discipline and fun—emerged. They’re the same tenets that allowed Bielema to capture three straight Big Ten titles at Wisconsin, and he plans on using them to win an SEC championship at Arkansas. “I don’t know if it’s gratifying as much as I just knew,” Bielema said in his office in June. “I never flinched. I never felt we weren’t going to be able to do this.”

No one has ever doubted Petrino’s X’s-and-O’s acumen, as he has won 73% of his games as a college head coach (92-34). But those have come at a price: 21 players were cleared out of Louisville for disciplinary issues following his departure from the school in 2006. Given the Razorbacks’ eight arrests from ’12 and the 10 players maintaining a GPA below 2.0, Bielema and his staff inherited a similar situation in Fayetteville. “Bret took over a train wreck,” former Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “I don’t think anyone truly understands the social issues, the academic issues, the things he walked in to.”

To fix that, Bielema infused the program with the same duo of strict discipline and positive energy that helped him churn out victories at Wisconsin. He ratcheted up the importance of academics and roamed around practice in flip-flops. He cranked up the intensity of off-season conditioning and also the volume of reggae music in his office. He made players grind to improve in the weight room, but also made a sincere effort to get to know them. His players found his office mentality mirrored his preferred method of driving—doors open. “The coaches were like, ‘Why don’t you come in our office to talk?'” Williams said. “We were like, ‘What?’ That wasn’t even something we had in our heads we could do.”

Bielema brought in a new head of academics from Kansas State, Ragean Hill, who senior quarterback Brandon Allen calls the program’s “strict mom.” Bielema receives a report every afternoon at 3 p.m. detailing which players missed classes and then doles out discipline accordingly. He also meets with the academic staff for two hours each week. As he enters his third season, the culture has embraced accountability: those 21 F’s dwindled to five last semester, and the team GPA in summer sessions was 3.0. “For as long as I’ve been in this business,” Bielema said, “guys that have very few issues off the field tend to have very few issues on the field.”

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Prior to Wisconsin’s 2009 season, strength coach Ben Herbert bought two oversized houseplants from the Home Depot and stationed them in the weight room. One plant’s nametag read: “I’m The Governor. I take pride in how I care about myself. I focus on nutrition, hydration and meal frequency.” The other’s tag read: “I’m The Deacon. What’s going on? I’ve heard all these things about feeding the body well and hydrating, but I’ve got this far doing it my own way.”

Over the next four weeks Herbert fed The Governor heavy doses of Miracle Grow and water. He fed The Deacon cheap whisky, Miller High Life and crumbled bits of Oreos and Doritos. “The Governor shot up and looked beautiful,” Herbert said. “And The Deacon looked and smelled so bad that guys were begging me to get it out of the weight room.” Herbert’s plant parable resonated to such a degree that a few weeks ago a Central Michigan transfer who debuted for Wisconsin in 2009 shot Herbert a message. “I’m in Governor mode,” J.J. Watt, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, texted after a strenuous workout.

Soon after Bielema arrived at Arkansas in 2012, a player walked into his office who Bielema assumed was a tight end. It was actually his starting left tackle. Petrino’s pass-heavy, high-octane offense favored speed and maneuverability over size and power. So, when Herbert arrived with Bielema with instructions to grow Arkansas in the model of hulking Wisconsin, he made sure the Hogs grew like The Governor.

Herbert also instilled a unique incentive to the weight room, as the program’s top four performers—Williams, junior linebacker Brooks Ellis, junior defensive end Jamichael Winston and senior receiver Keon Hatcher—earned invitations into a special Black Room workout. Throughout the summer, only those four were allowed to enter the converted closet where they endured separate, more rigorous workouts than the rest of their teammates. The Black Room serves as motivation for the best workers on the roster, and it features a photograph of Mike Tyson. The accompanying quote doubles as a mantra for the Hogs: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Security pounded on the door of the Miami Airport Marriott at 2 a.m. in January of 2014. When Bielema opened it, the hotel personnel suspiciously eyed the room’s misplaced desks and tables. Bielema had picked up his old friend, Robb Smith, in Tampa and brought him to Miami to interview for Arkansas’s vacant defensive coordinator position. (Ash left to become Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator.) Smith began to demonstrate how he would teach players tackling, and soon enough the room cleared out. “We weren’t yelling and screaming,” Smith said with a laugh. “But we were coaching, and security was ready to run us.”

Bielema hired Smith shortly after, and his addition brought the team more than just one of the country’s top young defensive minds. Smith also introduced the concept of teaching a program’s language like it’s a three-credit college course. He learned the idea from Greg Schiano, whom he worked under as an assistant at Rutgers and then for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Schiano called the language “Chopanese” at Rutgers—after the program’s slogan of “Keep Chopping Wood”—and “Bucanese” in Tampa.) At Arkansas, the team adopted “Hoganese,” which is essentially a glossary of Bielema’s football beliefs and sayings. Twice a week this summer coaches met with players for an hour to teach “Hoganese.” “What I want them to understand is we have an opportunity to create our own culture,” Bielema said. “And what we’ve created now through two years has been very positive.”

Bielema, 45, showcased that culture while addressing the team at a meeting in June. He posed a question to his players he’d been asked all spring. “Coach, how will your team handle the change in expectations from low to high?”

To the masses Bielema offered a stock answer, usually to laughs: “Well, it kind of sounds like a country music song—’High expectations are better than low expectations.'” But in front of his team, Bielema imparted a strikingly different message: external expectations can’t change the internal momentum forward. “The only way you get to where you want to be is if you expect it,” he said. “Nobody gives you things. You earn everything because you expect it and you want to get it.”

To reinforce that line of thinking, Bielema assigned his team some summer reading: Fearless, a book about Adam Brown, who overcame an addiction to crack to become a Navy SEAL. Despite losing vision in one eye as the result of a shooting and severing three fingers in a Jeep accident, he remained an elite sniper. (Brown happens to be from Arkansas, and his glass eye reportedly featured a Razorbacks sticker.) “Over the course of that book,” Bielema said, “the thing that jumped out at me is, time and time again, he’s faced with an option of failure and he says, ‘No way!”

Bielema also brought up the career collapse of Tiger Woods as a cautionary tale. As a young head coach, Bielema pointed to Woods’s play as an example of dominance, execution and peak performance. But Woods’s mindset of invincibility changed after his extra-marital affairs came to light in 2009. “All these women come out, he gets dragged through the mud,” Bielema said. “Has he won [a major] since? What’s the one thing changed in his game? Mentality. Now he doesn’t know if he can win. And he’s up and down and all around.”

Finally, Bielema talked about the underdog story of reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry, who was lightly recruited coming out of Charlotte Christian School. He attended Davidson, where he led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight, but still slipped to the Golden State Warriors with the No. 7 pick in the 2009 NBA draft. Bielema put up a flurry of Curry’s quotes on a projector screen so his team could soak in the overlooked-to-overachiever mindset.

Every time I rise up, I have confidence I’m going to make it.

I’m not that guy that’s afraid of failure. I like to take risks. I take the big shot.

I’ve never been afraid of big moments. I get butterflies, I get nervous and I get anxious. But I think those are good signs. I’m ready for the moment.

“We’re a little bit like Steph Curry here at Arkansas,” Bielema said. “Not everyone thinks we can do it. The only one that’s going to make that decision are the ones that are in here now. If you expect success you’ll make it happen.”

Arkansas has come a long way since Petrino’s crash. It looks different, it feels different and it even sounds different. With a refined identity, searing momentum and a nearly a ton of mass on the offensive line, Arkansas’s optimism is growing like The Governor. Why not us?” Allen said. “We can go into any game on Saturday and win every single game.”

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