Nobody was more shocked than Hayden Fry when news hit Tuesday that Bret Bielema would become the new football coach at Arkansas.
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” said Fry, who coached Iowa from 1979-98. “He took the job at Arkansas, and he’s going to the Rose Bowl?”
Fry’s reaction reflected conversations taking place around water coolers, in sports bars and on Twitter.
For some, Bielema’s move from a perennial Big Ten Conference title contender (Wisconsin) to a middle-of-the pack program in the Southeastern Conference was a symbolic shift in perception and power.
For Fry, the move was another twist in an improbable football journey.
“That kind of fits his nature,” Fry said.
Bielema played for Fry and the Hawkeyes from 1989-92, primarily on the defensive line. They met when Bielema was a high school prospect from Illinois in search of a scholarship offer.
“He walked up to me during practice and said, ‘I want to play on your football team,’” Fry recalled. “I said, ‘What position do you play?’”
Bielema explained he was a 180-pound defensive lineman.
“Gee, you’re awfully small,” Fry said. Bielema promised he would grow, and asked for a chance to try out.
Fry told a team manager to grab a uniform, and Bielema joined as a walk-on.
“He became one of my best players and one of my best coaches,” Fry said. “Great leader, and just a super person.”
Bielema spent most of the next 25 years at Big Ten schools Iowa and Wisconsin, which made Tuesday’s revelation even more stunning. He took over the Badgers in 2006, posting a 68-24 record and winning the past three Big Ten titles.
Six years have passed since the Razorbacks won the SEC’s West Division, but the conference has emerged as the NCAA’s elite league.
“In the last six or seven years they’ve kind of dominated, in regards to the rankings,” Fry said. “And, of course, Arkansas is a great state and great people.”
Fry was an assistant for the Razorbacks’ 1961 team that went to the Sugar Bowl. He also competed against them while playing for Baylor and coaching at Southern Methodist.
“It’s beautiful country,” Fry said, “but he was working for (another) one of my ex-coaches, Barry Alvarez.
“It really surprises me.”
Alvarez is the Wisconsin athletic director.
Bielema, 42, signed a contract extension in 2011 that raised his salary that year to $2.5 million. Arkansas reportedly offered Louisiana State coach Les Miles a five-year, $27 million deal last week.
“I coached 47 years,” Fry said, “and I never read a contract in my life.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football