State of the Hogs: Arnie Bielema

Arnie Bielema has called the hogs, but he's not sure how much that was required of his son on a modern farm in Prophetstown, Illinois.

The phone call brought back flashbacks from the late 1980s when I sat down with Arnold Palmer in the locker room at a major championship for a one-on-one interview. After about the third Mr. Palmer reference, he reached out and patted me on the knee and said, "It's just Arnie."

I wasn't anymore comfortable then as I was this week when the voice on the other end of the telephone line said, "No, I'm not Mr. Bielema, I'm just Arnie." But he did make a good argument for dropping the mister references.

"Wouldn't it be easier for you to just say Arnie than to pronounce Bielema?" he said. "Have you gotten it down yet?"

Well, no, I hadn't, but I'm getting better every day, I told Arnie Bielema.

"Here, I can help you," he said. "I remember what they put in the Iowa game program when Bret was a sophomore. They have those pronunciation guides and those that have tough names get a listing. I guess they thought Bielema was tough.

"They did a pretty good job and I've used it ever since whenever anyone has needed help. It said, ‘Beel-uh-mah.' Pretty good."

Folks in Arkansas are learning how to spell and say the name of the new Arkansas football coach. Bret Bielema made a big impression in the hiring press conference 10 days ago, just about the way he's done it every stop of a coaching tour that includes Iowa, Kansas State and Wisconsin.

Arnie Bielema is as excited as he's been every step of the way. He said he looks forward to the drives to Arkansas to watch the Razorbacks play football, just like he was when Bielema was an assistant on Bill Snyder's staff in Manhattan, Kan.

"The drive is almost exactly the same," Arnie said. "We have it figured at about nine hours. We've been to Fayetteville, 18 years ago for our niece's wedding. So we've made that drive. We loved Fayetteville and the beauty of the state of Arkansas."

That's a big change from the 100-mile trek from Profetstown, Ill., to Madison, but Arnie Bielema said he's always loved time on the road. Maybe that's from all of those days as a traveling salesman.

"I put 50,000 miles on my vehicle a year as a salesman," he said. "Yes, we had a pig farm, but you need to make money other ways, too. I was on the road selling socks and jocks."

Bielema said things were pretty good on the farm during his years raising pigs. There weren't the highs and lows in the commodity market that today's farmers faced.

"The margins then never went to bad one way or another so a little farm could make it," he said. "It's not like that anymore. Only the big operations can survive now. You'd have to raise a lot of pigs in today's market. We were in the top five percent of farms back then in the 80s, but it would be a real small farm now. There were some bad cycles after we got out of it."

Bielema said the numbers stayed between 2,500 and 3,500 for most of his time raising pigs. There's talk about how rough Bret had it on the farm, but he downplays that.

"I think during Bret's time, he didn't do some of the things that people think he did," Arnie said. "He wasn't shoveling (manure) or some of the things some remember about farm life. He generally was on a tractor. There were chores before and after school, but we didn't make it too rough on the boys."

There were three Bielema boys and Arnie said Bret was always trying to figure out an easier way to do things.

"The four of us got after it, but Bret sometimes thought of things to get it done a little easier," he said. "He was always the ramrod of the bunch, the way I called it. And if there was a better way, I wasn't against it. We didn't mind listening to him."

Arnie watched the announcement press conference last week and chuckled when his son talked about his days calling pigs on the farm.

"I'm not sure Bret ever called a pig," he said. "There was some of that when we had them in the fields. But we were farming in confinement during his time working the farm. You don't have to call them when you have them in confinement. And you have machinery to do all the work. It cleans the floor and does everything much easily.

"Now you can get dirty, but it wasn't like what it was like at one time on a pig farm. Modern farming is far different.

"I've called them. You yell SOOOOOOOOOIEEEEEEEE! and then sometimes in your highest pitch, PIG! That PIG will get the attention most of the time. I've gone to pig calling contests at county fairs in Iowa. That's generally for the women.

"But when I was a kid, you did call them up out of the field. You called them up just like you did cows. You did it at the top of your lungs."

There is little doubt that Bret Bielema is a farm boy. His father is proud of that, but said there were city boy treats for the Bielema boys growing up.

"I got them into sports and golf as soon as possible," he said. "I loved golf and still do. So I thought I could teach them that and it would be something we'd always have. So I had all of my boys playing golf by the time they were 7 or 8. They took to it well.

"I still think it's a great game. I walk and carry my bag, still at age 76. There are some courses around here where they make you ride a cart. I'd rather drive 50 miles and walk and carry my bag. I kid some of the guys about them riding in those carts.

"I play three times a week, and sometimes four. I can't shoot my age, but if I live long enough, I will. It's just a great game for me and even better if you can walk. There are times that the weather might be too cold to ride in a cart, but it's great with a light jacket walking. I'll wear a layer and get out when it's 45 and work up a sweat."

What kind of golfer is Bret?

"He's good, when he gets time to play and gets in a groove," he said. "He'll play in the (Razorback Club) fund raisers and he'll get it going after he's played a couple of times. He can hit it a ton. It will be wild when he first plays each year, but he'll figure it out. He can play a little.

"He's not going to hold anything back. He takes a wild swing. I call it an angry swing. He swings like he's trying to beat hell out of it."

Bielema likes to tell the story about leaving the farm for the first time to attend college at Iowa. He said he cried on the way to Iowa City, but knew he'd eventually go back to life on the farm.

"I never thought that," Arnie said. "I knew he was gone. We knew that when he went to college. I felt that about all of them when they went to college, that they wouldn't be back. I would have never encouraged any of them to come back."

Arnie said there were chores on Saturday mornings after high school football, something Bret figured out was good for his body.

"We'd do our work, then head into town about noon," Arnie said. "His teammates were just getting out of bed and venturing out. They were all complaining about how sore they were. I told Bret, ‘You see, you never have any of that because we get up and work.' And I believed that was good for him. He'd have the kinks worked out before they were out of bed."

It was good to grow up in Prophetstown, west of Chicago near the Iowa border just outside the Quad Cities communities.

"Bret was exposed to everything because of that," he said. "You do everything in a town that size."

In other words, no one just specializes in football. Bret participated in track and wrestling and played the tuba in the band.

"He played in the band at halftime with his uniform on," Arnie said. "That is just the way you did things in a town this size."

There was one time as a sophomore that Bret Bielema played at halftime and then disappeared.

"I think he'd played in the sophomore game and got hit on the head, a concussion, maybe the only one he ever had," Arnie said. "So he's out there at halftime of the varsity game with that tuba. He marched off the field and just kept going and then fell out behind the stands in the yard. Someone came and got me. He was laying there beside the tuba and was out. That was kind of spooky.

"I got a ride to the hospital in the ambulance and he spent the night at the hospital. But he was okay the next morning."

The only other serious injury came early in his career at Iowa. He tore the ACL in his knee.

"They explained how he could build up the muscles around it and keep playing," Arnie said. "So he did. Played without the ACL from then on. He had a deep snapper do the same thing at Iowa, tear it and keep playing. Bret told him how he did it. You have a brace. You can do it."

Arnie Bielema knows what's next for Arkansas football fans, getting used to "big boy football." That's what Bret Bielema calls his style of play. "That's what he called it at Wisconsin," Arnie said. "I think he'd say big boy football or sometimes he called it American football. That last part caused a little bit of a commotion. But I think most everyone understood what he was talking about.

"It's pretty simple. Here's what we are going to do. Let's see if you can stop it. But it's fun. He's more pass than some think."

Hayden Fry, Bielema's college coach and mentor, said the same thing when he described style of play. Fry said Bielema will have fundamental football, but there will be tricks and frills sprinkled throughout, just like his teams at Iowa.

"I think that's right," Arnie Bielema said. "That was Coach Fry. I did always get a kick out of Coach Fry -- the only man Bret said he learned more from than his father -- when he get to talking about life on the farm. He said he knew all about us old country boys and how much work we did on the farm."

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