Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema
New Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema didn't hold back when he was hired by Arkansas on Dec. 4 to replace former head coach John L. Smith. The constant struggle to hire and retain quality assistant coaches was difficult for him to do with the limited budget he had when he was the coach at Wisconsin.
The current Arkansas staff will make a total of $3 million in 2013, according to WholeHogSports.com. That's $1.1 million more than Bielema's staff at Wisconsin made in 2012.
As Bielema told Chris Bahn of ArkansasBusiness.com:
They were talking money that I can’t bring them at Wisconsin...Wisconsin isn’t wired to do that at this point. I just felt for me and for my future and my life and what I want to accomplish in the world of college football, I needed to have that ability to do that, and thankfully I’ve found that here at Arkansas.
Yes, he certainly has.
There's certainly a debate whether Bielema or Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn put together the best staff of the four new SEC head coaches. But there really isn't a "wrong" answer. Both staffs are incredibly talented.
The one major criticism of Arkansas hiring of Bielema centered on his recruiting record. His classes over the last six years have an average rank of 50th in the Rivals.com team rankings, and he was the most vocal critic of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer's tactics of continuing to recruit committed prospects when Meyer was hired prior to the 2011 season.
The SEC wasn't going to change for Bielema, so he has changed for the SEC.
So let's look at the staff that Bielema has assembled and how it could affect recruiting.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has proven that he has what it takes to be a successful coordinator in the SEC. Under his leadership, Tennessee finished second in the SEC in total offense with 475.9 yards per game and was fourth in scoring offense (36.2). He has served as the recruiting coordinator at three separate schools: Purdue, Wyoming and Cal State Fullerton.
Much like Chaney, new defensive coordinator Chris Ash has proven to be successful on the field and in living rooms. His Badger defenses finished in the top four in the Big Ten in total defense in each of his three years on staff.
In two separate stints, he served as Iowa State's recruiting coordinator and served in the same position at San Diego State in 2007-08. Part of his territory while at Wisconsin was in Florida and Texas, according to the Benton (Ark.) Courier. Arkansas had 21 players from the state of Texas on its 2012 roster, which makes Ash's experience in the Lone Star State incredibly valuable.
The biggest coup of the coaching season was perhaps Randy Shannon's move to Fayetteville from TCU as the new Razorback linebackers coach. The former Miami (Fla.) linebacker, assistant coach and head coach has spent nearly his entire coaching career in South Florida and has deep roots in one of the most talent-rich areas in high school football.
Which first-year staff is the best in the SEC?
Bielema also addressed Arkansas' biggest issues with its staff.
Ash should be able to turn around the Hog defense sooner rather than later, and the addition of offensive line coach Sam Pittman will be huge to an offensive line that was simply atrocious over the last few years under former head coaches Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith.
In his only season at Tennessee, Pittman turned around the Vols' offensive line to become one of the best in the SEC. The Vols led the SEC and tied for third nationally in sacks allowed in 2012, giving up eight all season. That's 10 fewer sacks allowed than Arkansas gave up in 2012 and 20 fewer than it did in 2011.
It's not going to be a quick turnaround. Roster turnover combined with Arkansas' brutal schedule in 2013 will make it difficult for Bielema's Hogs to contend for the division title in year one.
But they have the staff that can coach and recruit Arkansas back into contention in short order.