K-State's Snyder, Razorbacks' Bielema have shared history
MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) Arkansas followed a season-opening victory with three straight losses and was spiraling down the drain when Bret Bielema picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.
A familiar voice answered.
It wasn't the first time the Razorbacks' coach had called up Kansas State counterpart Bill Snyder when things were rough, nor will it be the last. And while Snyder is quick to downplay how much help he gave his old protege, there is no disputing his wisdom from five decades in the game.
''I just asked about, you know, when he hadn't won one in a while, how he would turn the corner,'' Bielema recalled of that September conversation. ''I'm always leaning on him for stuff like that.
''Obviously, it's some stuff I leaned on and took some notes and it worked.''
It worked so well that Arkansas won six of its last eight games, earned a bid to the Liberty Bowl and will face Snyder and his Wildcats on Jan. 2 in Memphis, Tennessee.
''I don't want this to be about me and Coach Snyder by any means,'' Bielema said. ''I want the bowl game to be about our players and our fans, but for me it's just going to be really cool ... to be around him. There's so many people I'm close with on their staff. It will be really, really unique.''
Both coaches trace their roots to Iowa, when they learned at the knee of Hayden Fry. Snyder had followed him from North Texas as his offensive coordinator and quarterback guru, and Bielema played for Fry before joining the Hawkeyes' staff as a graduate assistant and linebackers coach.
Eventually, Snyder took over Kansas State and rebuilt one of the worst programs in Division I football. But that success came with a price: Many of his assistants got head jobs elsewhere.
So, in 2002, it was Snyder who picked up the phone and gave Bielema a call.
''I thought for me to grow, I had to get out of my comfort zone,'' said Bielema, who was encouraged by Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and others to take the job. ''They kind of said to me, `No matter what you've heard or what you do, if you're at Kansas State for six days or six weeks or six years, you're going to be a better coach in the end,' and they were exactly right.''
It wound up being two years. Bielema's phone rang again; Alvarez wanted him for defensive coordinator. The catch? Someday soon, Bielema could take over the Badgers.
His departure irked Snyder at the time, but it never threatened to dissolve their friendship.
''I was not enamored by it when that happened,'' Snyder acknowledged, ''but by the same token, it turned out to be a good move. That was part of the package, so to speak, that there was that opportunity for him when Barry stepped down for him to step into that role.''
Bielema had plenty of success leading Wisconsin before jumping to Arkansas three years ago, and has the Razorbacks (7-5) in their second consecutive bowl game.
It just happens to be against the coach who helped him figure things out.
''We have a decent amount of dialogue,'' Snyder said. ''Bret calls when he has issues and we talk about what those are - not that I have answers, but I appreciate the fact that he asks.''
In a twist, Snyder may have drawn on the same advice he gave Bielema to turn around his own struggling team this season. The Wildcats (6-6) had to win their last three games to reach .500, and they did it by eking out wins over Iowa State and West Virginia and blowing out Kansas.
It's the sixth straight bowl game for Kansas State in Snyder's second tenure as coach, and it happens to be a rematch of the 2012 Cotton Bowl. The Razorbacks won that.
While most expect Snyder back on the sideline next season, the 76-year-old is noncommittal about how long he'll coach. Some have even suggested he might call it quits after the bowl game.
If that were the case, Bielema said he would take it particularly hard.
''A guy that I hold very close to my heart, a guy that had a lot to do with my career to where I am today,'' he said. ''If this is his last one that would be pretty cool. But who knows?''