Bret Bielema has been learning about the Arkansas-Texas rivalry since the day he was hired at Arkansas. The second-year coach has been making sure his players know all about the Longhorns and the history of the series every day since the Texas Bowl pairing was announced.
That is only going to intensify as the Hogs hit bowl week, both in Fayetteville through Friday and then after they get to Houston before the 8 p.m. Monday date with the Longhorns. Bielema has pulled in a set of former players for daily visits with his players leading up to the game.
Bielema met with the media on Monday afternoon, sharing a cool moment he shared with former UA head coach Frank Broyles in the moment just after the bowl pairing was announced. He'd just heard the news when Kevin Trainor handed him a phone with Broyles on the other end.
“Ever since I came here I heard, obviously, about this game and the history and everything it was. But it really came full circle for me after the bowl announcement," Bielema said. "I'm excited for the bowl, excited to play Texas, excited to do all of that.
"But Kevin (Trainor) brought the phone over to me and when I heard the reaction from Coach Broyles' voice and he was hearing it for the first time, that gave me chills. It gave me a full circle of what it means to play Texas to a certain generation and how much has to be carried forward to our players."
“It was really cool, I guess, he had not heard it, right Kevin? I guess that would be the best way to describe it. He hadn’t heard we were playing Texas. He was at a little holiday party. I’m not going to do my coach Broyles imitation, but he said be ready for those Longhorns.
"They’ll come at you. You’ve got to be ready from the first snap and the fans of Arkansas were going to be excited. And a lot of history that goes back to the Southwest Conference. He brought up coach Darrell Royal and I mentioned that. Just really kind of one of those moments, again, I got chills. I know it was pretty cool for Kevin and anybody else that knows coach Broyles and knows how much that series probably means to him.”
Bielema embraces the history of the program and has made it clear past players are welcome in the building and around practice.
"I always say we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us," he said. "That’s not just a coaching cliche, it’s absolutely how I feel and I try to get our players to buy into that. It’s fun, I think, to embrace the alumni.
"When I first got here, they basically told me they weren’t allowed to come to watch practices and be a part of the program."
That was changed immediately.
"If there are former alumni at any event, I try shake their hand and say hello. It’s a part of how they are (being a Hog)," he said. "It’s a part of their DNA, whether they were born with it or created it when they were here. Once you’re a Razorback, you’re always a Razorback, so I think that part’s really genuine."
Bielema said it was a cool moment the weekend of the Alabama game this year when the 1964 players attended a practice. Current players got to shake their hands one by one after the workout.
"Unfortunately it was the weekend we lost the game against Alabama," Bielema said. "But we had that ’64 team back and our kids went out and the way practice kind of ended, our offensive guys got to go through and shake hands with all of them, and then our defensive guys got to go through and shake hands with all of them. To have that connect be genuine I think did a lot of for our players. I know it did a lot for the ’64 team, but for me as a coach to teach a little humility to an 18- to 22-year-old young man I think goes a long way."
Bielema is connected with some former players, sometimes with weekly texts. Former player Jimmy Johnson sends Bielema messages all the time. And there's been messages and gifts from other lettermen.
"Jimmy, we text back and forth," Bielema said. "Bill Burnett gave me a DVD. I got a book in the mail with the story about the history of the Arkansas-Texas game, in particular the game itself .
"Everywhere I’ve gone, I hear about the (Texas series). I’m very good friends with Lyndy Lindsey, so from his generation, both living it and seeing it as a young child himself. Coach Barry Lunney didn’t get to play in the game, but he talked about it right away. And then some of the old high school coaches, being around in the state. I got a text right away from Buzz Bolding when the announcement was made.
"I haven’t gotten through all my Christmas cards. I’ve tried to get through them all, but I’ve got piles and piles of letters of people sending notes in, and you can tell this game means a lot."
Bielema said Monday that bowl practices have been outstanding. He thinks the team is healthy, noting that only tight end AJ Derby has health concerns. Derby had his knee scoped the week of the Missouri game. He's done some individual drills but has not participated in contact portions of the bowl workouts.
Bielema said Derby could still play in the game and could return to practice this week.
I’m going to talk to him today," Bielema said. "I’ve kind of left him along. The big man got engaged (to basketballer Calli Berna), so he’s got certain things going on in his life. I told him until we got to this kind of week, a week out from game prep, let’s just worry about you, getting yourself healed up. So I’m going to talk to him today, and if there’s a role he can fill, then we’ll do it. If not, he’s going a very, very bright future ahead of him. I don’t want to push it in anyway to set back anything he’s got going in the future. We've got a very good chance to get him back in the next four or five days."
Bielema was impressed with freshman quarterback Ty Storey, cleared to practice with the team in bowl practices after signing a financial letter of agreement with plans to enroll at Arkansas in January.
Storey impressed with his huddle presence in the workouts Saturday and Sunday with the squad. Bielema said that was one of the first things he talked to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney about Saturday after practice.
"The first time Ty came in the huddle, Jim saw the same thing because we talked about it afterward, but the first thing he did was he put his hand on his left shoulder and he put his other hand on his near wideout and he just went in the huddle like he owned it," Bielema said. "That stuff is born in him. That was an innate quality he just walked in with and that's pretty fun to watch."
Bielema had loved what he's seen throughout the bowl workouts.
"I have been very excited about our kids and the approach that they have had," he said. "Yesterday's practice encompassing the whole fall might have been one of our better practices just tempo, clarity.
"Because of the length of the preparation here it's kind of been nice to install bits and pieces. I thought we approached December very, very well. With our coaches it gave us maximum time on the road with our recruits and we were able to balance it up with little time.
"Since the dead period started last Sunday to just have that focus with our kids and go through final weeks and basically have our entire game plan in, offense, defense and special teams. The kids have responded very, very well. Excited to get the bowl game, obviously sold out, the first time in bowl history.
"Obviously there is a certain buzz. I was in the Houston area recruiting and a lot of coaches just talked about how they were going to come by. There is a high school social that I think last year they had five or six coaches and I think 50 coaches have responded and are going to be there.
"The excitement both in the fan base and the people we really care a lot about, it should be a great opportunity for our Texas players - the guys that have grown up in the state and now are at Arkansas to have that game and a chance to do that which obviously can only come about during bowl opportunities. As far as our health, everybody is back with us."
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