FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Bret Bielema watched from afar in April as Arkansas athletic 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 Southeastern Conference to also-ran in its season in limbo under interim coach John L. Smith.
The Illinois native takes over a program hit hard by the turmoil following the ouster of Petrino, who was fired for hiring his mistress and initially lying about her presence during an April 1 motorcycle accident. Arkansas began the season ranked in the top 10 before stumbling to a 4-8 finish under Smith, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2008.
"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 straight 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 athletic 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 first attempted to make contact with Bielema following Wisconsin's 70-31 win over Nebraska on Saturday night in the Big Ten championship game. The two talked Sunday before eventually meeting into the late hours of Monday night as Long neared an end to the lengthy search that he said included plenty of "ups and downs."
"I'm very relieved," Long said.
Long said he had no indication from Bielema or his representation before Sunday that the coach might be interested in the Arkansas job. He only 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."
After sleeping on his discussions with Long, and considering the challenge of taking on the powerhouse of the SEC, 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.
"We gave them three straight Big Ten championships. It had never been done before. "
Bielema wouldn't put a timetable on success at Arkansas, but he did say he would embrace the underdog role after the Razorbacks' lowest win total since 2005.
He said consistent turnover on his coaching staff at Wisconsin, and the ability to pay his assistants more at Arkansas, played a role in his decision to leave the Badgers — where he was Barry Alvarez's hand-picked successor following the 2005 season.
Bielema grew up on a hog farm in Illinois, a fact that brought out hearty laughter from the gathered crowd of Razorbacks faithful Wednesday in the Broyles Center.
A host of Arkansas' returning players were included in the crowd, each expressing surprise and satisfaction with their new coach.
Bielema promised to bring a balanced offensive attack to a school that's become accustomed to record-setting passing offenses — along with lackluster defensive performances — since Petrino's hiring in 2007.
"He really relieved a lot of tension in that team meeting about 30 seconds into speaking," Razorbacks center Travis Swanson said. "I know there was a lot of tension for all of us not knowing who he is as a person, but as soon as he came in there he made everyone feel comfortable."