Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema had some fascinating stories to tell about his time working at Kansas State under Bill Snyder.
Bielema served as K-State’s co-defensive coordinator in 2002 and 2003, helping the Wildcats win a Big 12 championship. During that time, he spent considerable time alone with Snyder. One memory that popped into his mind during a Liberty Bowl news conference Friday was a particularly turbulent flight.
The two coaches were alone on a small plane for a recruiting trip to Los Angeles when weather created a bumpy ride over mountains. Bielema remembers clutching the arm rest of his seat until the rough stretch passed. But Snyder was less patient. He told the pilots up front to steady the plane, or else.
“That’s when I realized he was a real power freak,” Bielema said.
Bielema considers Snyder a mentor, saying he advised him on everything from jobs to strategy decisions over the years. When he left K-State after two years for Wisconsin, Bielema took the job without talking to Snyder because he knew Snyder would convince him to stay.
All throughout bowl preparation, Snyder has said he doesn’t look forward to coaching against his former pupil.
Their friendship is genuine. It is also a tad strange.
Bielema is a former defensive lineman that likes to wear sandals and casual clothing. Snyder is skinny and is always in a suit.
Those styles clashed at times when Bielema lived in Manhattan, and he has several stories to share about those days. Like the time he was upset Snyder took a week off to attend a Nike trip while Bielema toiled in the office compiling future scouting reports and decided to play a prank.
“We found out that it was $1.25 every sheet you faxed him, because he was on a boat,” Bielema said. “We faxed him 150 sheets, just to give him a little jab. I thought we would hear from him about that. He just took them all in. To this day, I don’t know if he knew we were joking with him a little bit. He should have, 50 of the pages were blank.”
Perhaps that topic will come up Saturday during pregame festivities. Regardless, Bielema looks forward to a matchup against Snyder.
“I know what we are getting into,” Bielema said. “I told our players all since the day of the announcement, ‘You are going to see a team on the field that looks really good and plays really good, but then you are going to have to amplify that by 1,000 once you get on the field.’ With them, they are going to play extremely hard and extremely physical.”
No word on quarterback
Snyder likely knows who he will select as Kansas State’s starting quarterback for the Liberty Bowl, but he isn’t ready to share his decision publicly.
When asked about the topic Friday, Snyder told reporters he would inform the media of his decision Saturday after the game concludes.
Joe Hubener started 11 games this season and played in all 12, so the junior seems to be the favorite to take the first snap against Arkansas. But receiver/quarterback Kody Cook also led K-State to a come-from-behind victory against West Virginia in the final game of the regular season. He is a viable option.
Both quarterbacks split time in bowl practice. It’s possible they both play Saturday.
“We are both getting the same number of reps,” Hubener said. “It is competitive throughout, but we are both cheering each other on and sharing tips with each other. That is just K-State football. We want to make each other as prepared as possible.”
Snyder reiterates his intentions to return
For the second time since the regular season ended, Snyder said he has no intention to retire as K-State’s coach after the Liberty Bowl.
As of now, the 76-year-old expects to coach for at least one more season.
Every year, he gathers his family during the offseason and asks for their thoughts on his coaching future, but they continue to support his work with the Wildcats. Until that changes, he expects to keep coaching.
K-State pep rally
A large contingent of K-State fans — estimated as high as 10,000 — attended the Wildcats’ pregame pep rally on Friday at Autozone Park, a minor-league baseball stadium in downtown Memphis.
Some worried K-State fans may not travel well to a bowl destination, given the team’s up-and-down season and 6-6 record, but they drove east in strong numbers.
K-State sold all but a few of its 8,000-ticket allotment for the game. Thousands more purchased tickets directly from the Liberty Bowl or on secondary markets.
Many of those fans arrived as early as the team did on Monday. They visited Graceland and packed Beale Street on New Year’s Eve. Arkansas is expected to have a fan advantage at the game, but purple dominated red throughout town this week.
“For us a bowl game is about our wonderful fan base, an awful lot of people who save up their nickels and dimes,” Snyder said. “The only vacation they take is that one they take after the season is over. It is meaningful to them as well as it is to our players.”
Tim and Dianna Halpin were two K-State fans that made the drive from Olathe. They had their fingers crossed for Memphis, a drivable destination they could easily reach and support their favorite team, as well as their son Colin, a trumpet section leader in K-State’s marching band.
“We went to the Fiesta Bowl and the Alamo Bowl and we were going to go anywhere they went this year, but we were happy it was the Liberty Bowl,” Tim Halpin said. “The Cactus Bowl would have been a long trip.”
“We have never been to Memphis,” Dianna Halpin said. “We wanted to see it.”
K-State fan Mike Tufano said it was a no-brainer to make the trip from Kansas City, even if the game won’t be as glamorous as some recent bowls. He called it an easy trip to a fun tourist location for a bowl K-State has never played in.
“For me, it’s not about the quality of the bowl or game this year,” he said. “Getting back to 6-6 was a huge accomplishment for a team that was at 3-6 and earning their way in matters. I’m proud of the way that they fought back to get there.”
Bielema said the Razorbacks will wear new uniforms for the Liberty Bowl. The uniforms haven’t been shared publicly, but he said players enjoyed seeing them for the first time Thursday. K-State will wear the same uniforms it always has under Snyder.
Not much for Memphis barbecue
Snyder was asked a question about Memphis barbecue on Friday, in particular which restaurant served his favorite ribs. Snyder was unable to answer, saying he had only eaten one rib since arriving in Memphis. It was a leftover from his wife’s dinner.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett