The first lesson Ryan Walters learned from Eric Bieniemy came at a young age: When Missouri’s defensive coordinator still wore diapers.
The result? A busted lip.
Bieniemy, a college teammate of Walters’ father at Colorado, was trying to give the elder Walters a night out with his wife. He instead gave Marc Walters a slight scare. While trying to teach young Ryan how to play football, Bieniemy accidentally cut his lip.
Thirty years later, the Chiefs offensive coordinator is still giving Walters lessons, but with no physical harm. This past year, Walters has found himself frequently relying on Bieniemy’s teachings.
When Ryan Walters entered the world in 1986, his parents were 16-year-old high school seniors. Marc Walters had signed to play football at the University of Colorado, and when he moved from Los Angeles to Boulder, he brought along his wife, Nicole, and their baby.
Despite being young parents and college students, the two occasionally tried to have a night to themselves. Marc Walters’ teammates took turns watching Ryan.
One of those babysitters was Bieniemy, the Buffaloes’ star tailback. The younger Walters, nicknamed “Little Wally” by Bieniemy, was decades away from getting into coaching, but he ended up making a lifelong mentor out of his former babysitter.
The two are now separated by 120 miles of Interstate 70 and considered rising stars in their respective coaching industries. Walters will work to improve a Missouri defense that returns six starters, while Bieniemy will try to help lead quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to the Super Bowl.
Despite being on opposite sides of the ball throughout their careers, Walters said Bieniemy has always been a coach he’s tried to emulate.
“I’ve asked him for advice and he’s always said, ‘Come down’, every time,” Walters told The Star. “The relationship hasn’t changed because it’s always been there. It’s just different now that we’re in the same position.”
Growing up on a college campus, Ryan Walters saw his father play quarterback before three ACL tears ultimately ended his career, and he remembers watching Bieniemy emerge as a Heisman Trophy finalist in 1990.
When Bieniemy went to the NFL, the Walters family saw him with the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals.
“I remember loving watching E.B. play,” the younger Walters said. “The passion, toughness — he was selfless, a great team guy.”
Around the time Bieniemy’s coaching career started in the early 2000s at Colorado, Ryan Walters emerged as a Power Five college recruit as a quarterback and defensive back. After growing up in Boulder, he had no interest in playing for anyone but the Buffaloes.
Marc Walters feared that his son was making a mistake by narrowing his options and called Bieniemy, who had just left Colorado, where he was coaching running backs, to take the same position at UCLA. He asked Bieniemy to recruit his son. If Walters’ former babysitter couldn’t get him to visit another campus, then who could?
“I knew good damn well that he was going to Colorado,” Bieniemy said. “But I was trying to steal him out of there.”
On a family vacation to Los Angeles, Marc Walters took the family shopping in West Hollywood, close to UCLA’s Westwood campus. Given the proximity to the school, he floated the idea to his son about stopping to visit an old friend. Ryan Walters declined his father’s offer and never visited the Bruins.
While some coaches might take offense to being snubbed by a recruit they know personally, Bieniemy got over it quickly. After all, Ryan Walters was headed to his alma mater.
“Every time I see him, we always have that discussion,” Bieniemy said of Walters’ recruitment.
“I wasn’t sure how long (Bieniemy) was going to be at UCLA,” Walters countered.
To Walters’ credit, Bieniemy left Westwood in 2006, Walters’ redshirt sophomore season at Colorado, and became the Minnesota Vikings running backs coach.
As Ryan Walters’ career with Colorado wrapped up in 2008, he knew he wanted to go into coaching. Marc Walters encouraged his son to call Bieniemy so he could get a better idea of what he was getting into.
Bieniemy played nine years in the NFL before getting into coaching, which allowed him to skip the smaller steps that Walters had to take. Still, Bieniemy was able to give Walters some pointers about what his first few years in the business would look like.
“You want to be able to tap into people that have been there, done that,” Marc Walters said. “Even though they’re in two separate sides of the business (college and the NFL), I think you want that. It’s fortunate to have someone like Eric.”
Walters immediately landed a job as a student assistant with Colorado to help coach the secondary before going to Arizona as a graduate assistant. Bieniemy’s main teachings to Walters have focused on coaching philosophy.
“At the end of the day, just be you,” Bieniemy told him. “Pride yourself on being a great teacher. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Walters said his appreciation for Bieniemy’s coaching style grew when he became a defensive backs coach for the Wildcats in 2011. The job made him deal more directly with players and recruits. As a young coach, he found it hard being brutally honest with players about playing time and redshirts. As he’s traveled to Oklahoma, North Texas, Memphis and Missouri, Walters has found that Bieniemy’s most valuable trait is to be blunt with his players.
“He tells his players the truth, which I try and model myself after,” said Walters, who has been in Columbia since 2015. “A lot of times guys don’t want to hear the truth, but you have to kick it to them. You love them up if it’s something they don’t want to hear, but you have to give it to them raw.”
Walters and Missouri’s coaches have had to tell a lot of hard truths to the players this season, starting in January, when the NCAA hammered the Tigers with a bowl ban and recruiting restrictions. When MU went before the appeals committee in July to fight the ruling, players came to the coaches again to see what odds that had, and Walters found himself applying Bieniemy’s teachings more than usual.
Since Walters moved to Missouri four years ago, he’s made the two-hour trip west on I-70 to visit Bieniemy multiple times in the offseason. While they work on opposite sides of the ball, the two have been able to increasingly bounce ideas off each other as the NFL continues to adopt college schemes. Walters has been able to learn why Bieniemy attacks a defense certain ways and what can be done to counter.
Walters’ most recent visit came a few months ago, when Missouri’s coaching staff met with the Chiefs’. When Bieniemy saw Walters, he immediately gave him a big hug and asked about his parents. No lips were busted.