FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Bret Bielema was welcomed to Arkansas by thousands of fans during a Razorbacks basketball game, and in return he promised to deliver the school's first Southeastern Conference football championship.
Bielema's exit came with much less fanfare on Friday when the former Wisconsin coach was fired in a tiny corner office of Razorback Stadium — moments after the Razorbacks ended their disappointing season with a 48-45 loss to Missouri.
"I've never been let go of in my entire life, so this is a first for me," Bielema said while holding back tears several times. "I've had quite a few coaches that have moved on and they always say, whether it's right, wrong or indifferent, that you want to leave the place better than when you got here, and I know that's happened, there's no doubt."
The loss brings an end to a shockingly poor five-year performance from a coach who led the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowl appearances before he was hired at Arkansas following the 2012 season. Bielema ends his tenure with the Razorbacks with an overall record of 29-34 overall, including 11-29 in the ultra-competitive SEC.
He was told of his firing by interim Arkansas athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples after the Razorbacks and Bielema left the field following the loss to the Tigers. Cromer Peoples told Bielema of his firing in the coach's office next to the visitor's locker room in Razorback Stadium, which Arkansas is using this season as its home while the stadium undergoes a $160-million renovation.
Cromer Peoples, who is serving as athletic director after Jeff Long was fired two weeks ago, said it was important for her to tell Bielema of the change quickly after the game so that he could talk to the team before they left campus.
"There's no question that coach Bielema and his staff have made a positive impact on the lives of our student-athletes ...," Cromer Peoples said. "But in the end we have not been able to sustain the success on the field that is expected and is required at the University of Arkansas. We must win games."
Cromer Peoples said she's asked Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, the former Iowa State head coach, to serve as the interim coach.
She also said she plans to start a coaching search immediately, and that she's not concerned about possibly hiring a head coach while a seven-person search committee aids Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz in the pursuit of a new athletic director.
"I don't think you need a permanent AD in order to make an offer," Cromer Peoples said. "I think you need an AD, and we have one."
Bielema was signed with Arkansas through the 2020 season, thanks to an extension he signed following his second season in 2014 when the Razorbacks improved to 7-6 after a 3-9 record in his first year.
His average annual salary over the six-year contract was $4.25 million, and the deal contained a buyout clause that stated Arkansas would have to pay Bielema $15.4 million if he was fired without cause prior to 2018. The buyout dropped to $11.7 million to start 2018, and it was immediately unclear if the school would be forced to pay the full $15.4 million, or if the two sides reached a settlement for a lesser amount.
Cromer Peoples said the athletic department's fundraising arm, the Razorback Foundation, would handle discussions about Bielema's buyout. Bielema's agent, Neil Cornrich, didn't immediately return a message from The Associated Press seeking comment.
"I definitely want to coach again," Bielema said. "... I don't know (what's next); I've never been in this situation."
Bielema's hiring was considering somewhat of a coup nationally when he was lured from Wisconsin by Long in December of 2012.
The Razorbacks were coming off a scandal-ridden eight months started by former coach Bobby Petrino's motorcycle accident and revelation that he had hired his mistress to a position in the athletic department. They had just finished a disappointing 3-9 season under interim coach John L. Smith in 2012, and Bielema brought with him instant credibility — thanks to a 68-24 record in seven seasons with the Badgers.
Arkansas struggled mightily in Bielema's first season in 2013, losing its final nine games of the season on the way to a 3-9 record. However, the Razorbacks put an end to a program-worst 17-game SEC losing streak a year later and finished 7-6 — including a season-ending bowl win over former Southwest Conference rival Texas.
The progress continued in 2015 when Arkansas defeated Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl to finish 8-5, and the Razorbacks appeared on their way to a third straight season of improving their win total in 2016 when they started the season 7-4. They ended the season with devastating back-to-back losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech, though, to end the season 7-6 — with both losses coming after Arkansas built large first-half leads.
The hangover from those losses continued into 2017, as did a two-year struggle on the offensive line. After allowing a combined 36 quarterback sacks in Bielema's first three seasons, Arkansas gave up 35 sacks in 2016 and 35 more this season.
"Thank you @BretBielema for believing in me and being a truly special coach and leader of men," Arkansas senior quarterback Austin Allen posted on Twitter.
For a coach whose identity revolved around his ability to develop top offensive linemen such as former Wisconsin All-American Joe Thomas, the falloff in line play left Bielema both frustrated and searching for answers for much of the last two seasons after former offensive line coach Sam Pittman left for Georgia following the 2015 season.
Bielema said "overwhelming" injuries were a problem for Arkansas this season, in particular to some of its top offensive players.
Top running back Rawleigh Williams, who was second in the SEC in rushing in 2016, suffered a career-ending neck injury during the spring. Also, No. 1 wide receiver Jared Cornelius injured his Achilles and was lost for the season, while starting quarterback Austin Allen missed four games with an injured shoulder.
Lastly, center Frank Ragnow — one of the top offensive linemen in the country — suffered a high ankle sprain and missed the season's final five games.