AUBURN | Can Bret Bielema even see the strings controlling his every move?
That's the question I keep asking myself. Is he really this oblivious? Bielema, head football coach at the University of Arkansas, answered in the affirmative once again Thursday night at an alumni event in Searcy, Ark. He somehow tied the tragic death of Cal junior lineman Ted Agu, who passed away earlier this month during a routine (and properly supervised) training session, to the alleged dangers of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense he's so ardently against.
Agu, who reportedly had tested positive for sickle cell trait, wasn't playing football at all when he felt shortness of breath and asked for medical attention. He was running. He was preparing for the 2014 season. There was no play clock. There was no sinister offensive coordinator scheming to tire his opponent.
Yet Bielema somehow dreamed up a connection between Agu and the HUNH by saying that he has "half a dozen" players who also have the sickle cell trait. As a result, they're at a higher risk for fatal vascular problems due to misshapen blood cells essentially clogging blood flow during extreme exertion.
"If one of those players is on the field for me and I have no timeouts, I have no way to stop the game," Bielema said. "He raises his hand and I can't do it. What am I supposed to do? What are we supposed to do when we have a player who tells us he's injured?"
That single statement provided a most unforeseen and odd turn in a story loaded with them. It all started during the 2012 season when Alabama coach Nick Saban began affirming publicly that HUNH offenses do exactly what they're designed to do -- create confusion among defensive players.
"You go on a 14-, 16- or 18-play drive and they're snapping the ball as fast as you can go and you look out there and all your players are walking around and can't even get lined up," Saban said during the SEC Coaches Teleconference on Oct. 3, 2012. "That's when guys have a greater chance of getting hurt -- when they're not ready to play."
The comment was prescient. Texas A&M rolled into Tuscaloosa five weeks later with a HUNH offense and an outstanding quarterback and earned a 29-24 victory.
The battle lines were drawn. Defensive coaches, like Saban, had gained strategic command of most standard offenses during the 2000s. Along comes an unconventional offense that creates an advantage where one didn't exist and now college football has a problem.
Yet this would be a difficult fight.
Complaining about competitive disadvantages doesn't fly in America, where ingenuity is cherished and celebrated. A safety angle had to be created. And that angle had to be argued publicly by someone qualified enough for his opinion to matter but ignorant enough to actually believe safety was a relevant issue.
Bielema became that man.
He made his first appearance as Ambassador of Ignorance at the 2013 SEC Spring Meetings. He said long, fast-paced drives take a toll on defensive linemen "that has an effect on safety" and added that the safety issue "is really real."
Coaches who run the HUNH chuckled privately.
This is how defensive coaches are going to counter?
The 2013 season offered up another HUNH poster child: The Auburn Tigers. Running a HUNH system designed by Arkansas native Gus Malzahn, tweaked by Arkansas native Rhett Lashlee and executed deftly by quarterback Nick Marshall, Auburn launched itself from a three-win season in 2012 to the BCS title game in January.
That rapid ascent ruffled even more feathers.
Seeking to gain ground on these pacy attacks, Bielema, whose team was beaten badly by Auburn in November, transformed his empty words into empty action. Acting as chairman of the American Football Coaches Association's rules committee, Bielema proposed a rule prohibiting offenses from snapping the ball within the first 10 seconds of the ball being spotted.
He followed marching orders presumably provided by his superiors, the men with strings in their hands, and took this fundamentally flawed rule to the NCAA Football Rules Committee earlier this month.
There, he proudly presented the so-called "10-second rule" as a way to boost safety in the violent world of college football. These evil-doers, the men who designed a legal offense that negatively affected many defensive schemes, would be forced to conform the norms enforced during the days when defense ruled the SEC.
That'll learn 'em.
There was a problem. No evidence. Bielema and his puppeteers knew they didn't have it. So they made speeches -- Saban requested and was granted an opportunity to beg for mercy plead his case -- and tried to make logical arguments for the need to undermine the HUNH's dangerous mission.
Saban lurked. He spoke to the NCAA Football Rules Committee behind closed doors and disappeared into the night. He's far too image-savvy and aware to allow himself to be the face of this anti-HUNH agenda. So he says nothing publicly.
That's Bielema's job. And he's not handling it well.
He broke his silence Thursday night in a display that surely damaged the anti-HUNH bloc's remaining shreds of legitimacy. He had to say something. Malzahn needed exactly 10 seconds on Tuesday to nullify the 10-second rule.
"It's got to be documented and there's got to be proof," Malzahn said, "and there's not."
Interestingly, the only public study available examining this phenomenon (researched capably by CFBMatrix) found that Big 12 defenses, which faced more plays per game than SEC defenses, actually suffered far fewer significant injuries during the 2012 season.
Bielema's retort? You think he doesn't have evidence? Oh, he most certainly has evidence. And it's of the bombshell variety.
"Death certificates," he said. "There's no more anything I need than that."
Meanwhile, toxicology tests that could help determine Ted Agu's cause of death won't be available until the end of March -- at the earliest. His initial autopsy yielded inconclusive results.
Yet Bielema, whose team went winless in the league last year, apparently knows exactly what killed Ted Agu. And he's pointing the finger at the HUNH attack.
Prior to last night, Bielema almost seemed like a tragic hero; a dunce with good intentions who'd simply been manipulated by a cowardly, modern-day version of Geppetto.
Then he started talking Thursday. A stream of disrespectful and foolish rhetoric flowed that changed everyone's opinion. The only thing that needs to be regulated now is the Arkansas coach's mouth.
Bielema's narrow-minded desire to placate his superiors and besmirch Malzahn in and around his home state has failed.
His Razorbacks open their 2014 season at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
This is going to be fun.