Arkansas coach Bret Bielema reflects on fatherhood, player safety concerns

Arkansas OL Frank Ragnow speaks to the media at SEC Media Days Monday.

You’ll have to excuse the dark circles under Bret Bielema’s eyes. It’s been a whirlwind couple of days for the Arkansas coach, who became a first-time father Saturday night when he and his wife, Jen, welcomed a daughter: Briella Nichole.

So has his perspective changed now that he’s a father?

“I’m 48 hours into this baby. I can’t say I’m well versed,” the 47-year-old quipped during the SEC’s annual football kickoff Monday. “I think it changes your perspective. I knew it always would.

“If my girl ends up playing football, we probably got a lot of problems. I’ll encourage her to do whatever, but playing football ain’t one of them.”

But Bielema understands the concerns a parent might have over their sons playing football.

“If someone’s got a high school-age son, is it worth them to allow them to play football, and I have a resounding yes,” he said, but he added he is aware there are challenges that come with playing the game, including regulating player safety at all levels. “

A couple times I’ve gone to a high school practice or had the opportunity to watch kids participate. I’m like, ‘Oh, that just doesn’t look right,’ “ Bielema said. “That’s why I’m on the rules committee. The rules committee does not pay you a dime. It takes up a lot of my time and it eats up a week — three or four days of my free time that I don’t like but I do it because I want to change the game in the right way.”

The Razorbacks coach credited the SEC for its push for player safety, especially with targeting rules.

“We have changed the perspective of how kids play football,” Bielema said. “… I think we constantly have to be on the forefront of protecting our players.”

Arkansas senior center Frank Ragnow said he appreciates his coach’s commitment to his players.

“I can’t even express in words how thankful I am for that man,” Ragnow said. “He is a best friend, he is a mentor. This past year, he has been so helpful for me and I will never be able to thank that man enough for how great of a coach, how great of a person, and how great of a friend he has been to me. I am so, so thankful for him.”

One of Bielema’s players — Rawleigh Williams III — retired in May after suffering a second neck injury during the team’s spring game. Williams rushed for 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, and he finished as the SEC’s leading rusher.

“He’s a tremendous human being,” Bielema said. “I think as coaches we lose sight. We learn so much from our players. What I learned from Rawleigh Williams, you can’t put in words.”

Bielema said he was impressed with the way Williams leaned on his faith to help him decide whether to walk away from football.

“I was reading a quote from him a day after he decided to leave the game where he said, you know, I always thought I had a great plan, but I got reminded once again that He has a better plan, referencing his faith. And it was a moment where I had to take a step back and realize where he was going and what he was talking about,” Bielema said.

“That is a moment as a head coach that is so precious, it’s better than any game, anything you could ever learn, is when you know you truly have your players’ safety at their heart, in your heart.”

Accidental dial

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Monday he sent Bielema a congratulatory text Saturday on the new addition to his family, but he was surprised when he immediately received a FaceTime call from the Razorbacks coach.

“That’s never happened,” Sankey said. “I never FaceTimed with a head football coach in the SEC. The decision — should you answer or not? I decided to answer the phone.

“He said, ‘Why are you calling me?’ I said, ‘Why are you calling me?’ I thought he was going to share this moment with his wife and his daughter with the conference commissioner. He said, ‘I was just leaving Chipotle. I didn’t mean to call you. It was a mistake.’”

Bielema chuckled and added, “That was a unique experience.”

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