State of the Hogs: Mentors

It requires some digging, but you can find Arkansas roots between the two men calling the shots in the Arkansas-Florida game Saturday night. Will Muschamp and Bret Bielema may have some Wilson Matthews in their way of coaching.

Can you make a difference? Can you pass on a blessing, then they are passed along again and again?

It's what makes America great, Dr. Fitz Hill told the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club on Wednesday. As I listened to the former Arkansas assistant football coach and thought about the many Hill had touched in a positive way, it hit me that the head coaches on opposite sidelines Saturday night in The Swamp have some of the same mentors as Hill.

Hill was around Frank Broyles and Wilson Matthews during his nine seasons with the Razorbacks, including time as a counselor, graduate assistant and three years as assistant head coach under Jack Crowe, Danny Ford and Houston Nutt.

If you dig a little, you can find some of the same connections between Florida's Will Muschamp and Arkansas' Bret Bielema. Both have ties to Matthews and Broyles, via their first college mentors.

Bielema's background has been detailed here before. He played and coached for Hayden Fry at Iowa. Fry's last assistant coaching job was at Arkansas, as offensive coordinator for Broyles. Fry said much of his philosophy as a head coach came from Broyles. Fry also played quarterback under Broyles at Baylor.

"Hire assistants who want to be head coaches," Fry said Broyles told him. "I know Bret does the same thing because it's what I told him was important. Much of the way Bret does things are things I learned at Arkansas."

Muschamp's college mentor was Richard Bell, the Georgia defensive coordinator and secondary coach. Bell played for Wilson Matthews at Little Rock Central, then was a senior when Broyles arrived at Arkansas. Matthews was the first hire Broyles made, reuniting Bell with his mentor. Broyles would make Bell one of his first two captains at Arkansas, along with Billy Michael.

Muschamp was a fine high school quarterback at the Darlington School in Rome, Ga., but he was not considered a Division I prospect after blowing out a knee as a senior. Bell wanted him anyway and Muschamp walked on for the Bulldogs and eventually won a spot as a hard-hitting safety.

Team captain as a senior, Muschamp earned a reputation as an intense competitor. He played the way he coaches, like Matthews did at Central and Arkansas.

Bell, now coaching at an academy in Athens, Ga., remains close to Muschamp and has been invited to visit practices at Florida. Most consider Nick Saban as Muschamp's mentor. He coached defense with Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins. But he got his start playing that monster defense under Bell, popularized by Broyles – with Matthews as the linebacker coach – at Arkansas.

Muschamp has played against the Hogs before, as defensive coordinator at Auburn. That was the first time his link to Bell and Arkansas came to my attention. I thought it appropriate when Muschamp was on Jeff Long's short list before Bobby Petrino was hired. I called Bell for the background in preparation for his possible hire.

Bell was jumping for joy at the thought. He told me that Muschamp "had a lot of Wilson Matthews in him as a player and coach," the same fire as the old Little Rock Central coach.

That was the same thing Fry told me about Bielema the day Arkansas introduced him as head coach.

"I gravitated to Wilson during my time at Arkansas," Fry said. "We were both had Marine Corps backgrounds. I liked the way Wilson coached. What I saw is that he was tough, very tough, on players. But he was also close to them off the field. When players came back, it was Wilson that they wanted to find and hug.

"I knew why, because Wilson taught them how to win. They all knew that Wilson pushed them into being winners.

"Bret is the same way. He is tough, but players love him. They know he is teaching them how to win."

It should surprise no one that Florida is playing great defense under Muschamp. Bielema is trying to follow the same blueprint at Arkansas. Yes, it's been awhile since that blueprint was followed at Arkansas. But, it's the Arkansas way.

The key for the Hogs against Florida is to somehow look like an old Arkansas defense against the Gators. It may not happen this week or this season. But when it does, Bret Bielema will be in business and Wilson Matthews will be proud. It will a blessing has arrived. Thank you Dr. Fitz Hill for making it all click in my mind this week.

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