FAYETTEVILLE, AR (AP) - Arkansas has fired coach Bret Bielema after five disappointing season, moments after a season-ending 48-45 loss to Missouri on Friday.
The loss left Arkansas with a 4-8 record, capping only the second losing season of Bielema's 12-year career. It also left him with a 29-34 record in his five seasons with the Razorbacks, including 11-29 in the SEC.
It was a shockingly poor performance from a coach who led Wisconsin to three Rose Bowl appearances before being hired at Arkansas from Wisconsin after the 2012 season.
Interim athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples informed Bielema of his firing before the coach held his postgame news conference. Cromer Peoples is serving in an interim role after former athletic director Jeff Long was fired two weeks ago.
"During the course of the past five seasons, we have not been able to sustain the success on the field that is expected and required at the University of Arkansas," Peoples said. "... We are grateful for his contributions to our program and most importantly his investment in the lives of our student-athletes. We wish him the very best both personally and professionally."
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.
"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 Arkansas athletic director Jeff 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.
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.