If you like bulletin-board material and trash talk, the Liberty Bowl is probably not for you.
The odds of Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Kansas State coach Bill Snyder exchanging unflattering words about each other are as close to zero as you can get. Bielema once worked for Snyder at K-State and considers the Hall of Fame a mentor. Snyder was the first coach to hire Bielema as a coordinator, and calls him a friend.
Their public statements about each other in advance of Saturday’s matchup in the Liberty Bowl, at least so far, border on love.
“The mentoring he did and the guidance that he gave me, I still use today,” Bielema said, “as a daily influence of work ethic, attitude, dealing with young men and holding the responsibility of coaches. The day I left him was a very sad day. To this day, of all the coaches I’ve worked for, I probably have as close a relationship with Coach Snyder as anyone.”
“I can’t tell you that I relish competing against people that are as close to me as Bret is,” Snyder said, “and people that have been in our program, but it’s the nature of the game. I know one thing: He has put together a whale of a football team and it will be a very difficult preparation for us.”
Quite the contrast from Arkansas’ trip to the Texas Bowl last season, when Bielema got caught flashing an upside down “hook em” signal with his hand in a pregame photograph with Texas coach Charlie Strong and later described his team’s dominating victory over the Longhorns as “borderline erotic.”
The buildup to that game was dominated by trash-talk headlines on both sides. The Liberty Bowl will be different.
That comes as no surprise to those who know the shared history between Bielema and Snyder. It extends all the way back to when Bielema was a walk-on offensive lineman at Iowa and Snyder was the offensive coordinator in the late 1980s.
Snyder left to become the head coach at K-State in 1989. Bielema graduated from Iowa and became an assistant for the Hawkeyes, coaching linebackers in 1996. Bielema did such an impressive job with his players that when K-State needed a defensive coordinator in 2002, Snyder gave him a call.
Together, they won 11 games in 2002 and 11 more in 2003, including a Big 12 championship. K-State’s defense was strong both seasons, totaling four shutouts in 28 games.
Bielema left K-State after those two seasons to become defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, where he ultimately succeeded Barry Alvarez as the team’s head coach two years later. He held that job for seven years before surprisingly leaving for Arkansas in 2013.
“I like the way he conducts his program,” Snyder said. “I think it is a very similar philosophy of what we have here.”
They have gone head-to-head in recruiting over the years, and Bielema hired away former K-State assistant Michael Smith when he arrived in Arkansas. But they have remained close, reuniting several times over the years. Bielema flew to New York earlier this month to support Snyder as he went into the college football Hall of Fame. Both coaches arrived in Memphis on Monday with their teams to begin preparation for the Liberty Bowl.
Neither coach knew it at the time, but a call from Bielema to Snyder earlier this season helped put both teams on a collision course for the postseason.
It came during a slow start for the Razorbacks. They were 2-4 with losses to Toledo and Texas Tech, and their season appeared lost. Then Bielema turned to his mentor for help.
“I struggled earlier in the year with some issues I was having,” Bielema said. “I called Coach Snyder and he gave me some advice and thoughts. He’s just an awesome, awesome individual and one I can’t say enough about.”
Snyder knows a great deal about fighting through losing streaks. The Wildcats lost three straight games in 2003 and rallied to win the Big 12. This season, they lost six in a row and still qualified for a bowl.
“There may come a time when I regret giving Bret any advice about his season,” Snyder said.
Still, it seems appropriate that Arkansas and K-State have shared similar seasons. Now two coaching friends get to face each other in a competitive, yet friendly, setting.
“When this first got brought up, I don’t know what my expression was, but I was scared,” Bielema said of Snyder and K-State, “because I have seen first hand how he prepares for a bowl game and what he will do. But it is really cool to get to spend a week with him.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett