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Mark Stoops, Bret Bielema reminisce about shared recruiting trips

PHOTOS BY USA TODAY SPORTS
PHOTOS BY USA TODAY SPORTS

It’s the late 1990s in the Midwest. Two young and single college football assistants zipping across that part of the country, hot on the high school recruiting trail during the day and living life at night.

There most likely wasn’t a 1966 Ford Thunderbird involved, but it lends itself to the story, so imagine one there.

In one seat sits current Kentucky coach Mark Stoops; alongside him is current Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. At the time, Stoops was Wyoming's secondary coach and Bielema was the linebacker coach at Iowa. While recruiting in Minnesota, the coaches decided it was in their best interest to room together, even if it meant actually having to room together.

"I don't think I'd ever opt to live with Mark back in the day," Bielema says.

"Oh, he had a choice," is Stoops' response.

Thrown together by geography and financial necessity, the two became friends and cohorts, cooking up what Bielema called "a scheme" back then.

As an assistant at Iowa, Bielema was required to turn in receipts while traveling; Stoops says that at Wyoming, "they gave us a per diem where you didn't have to turn in a receipt. You can do what you want: You can sleep in your car, you can get a nice hotel, you can get a cheap hotel. So I would pocket the money, stay with him (Bielema), then I'd buy his dinner."

The recruiting trail can be brutal, so when night rolled around, the two would go out looking to have some fun. "He and I both loved to play a deck of cards," recalls Bielema, before he clarifies, "I met my wife in Vegas, so I can say it."

And with a little extra money courtesy of the athletic department, these two young whippersnappers decided to test the bankroll.

"We went to a casino and we won a little bit; at that time, we thought we were really rolling in it," Bielema says.

It might not have been quite a Danny Ocean pull, but coupled with Wyoming's per diem, the winnings were enough to put the world at their feet – well, at least the world defined by two young assistants confined to Minnesota. So they did what any young single guys with a few extra bills would do … they found the nearest Longhorn Steakhouse.

"I think we had a house cab and the chicken breast," remembers Bielema with the wistfulness of a man who enjoys a meal consisting of a good house cab and a chicken breast.

"That's when you build those bonds, those friendships that you know over all these years," Stoops says.

Nearly 20 years later, that friendship has stood the test of time. It's taken some hits over the years, sure, such as when both guys were committed to join Mark's older brother, Mike, when Mike got the head-coaching job at Arizona. Bielema was at Kansas State and set to make the move after taking care of one last game. It was the Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma; the Sooners' coach was Bob Stoops and OU's defensive coordinator was Mike.

Bielema chuckles as he tells the story now: "We beat Oklahoma. ... Coach (Bill) Snyder, I went in to tell him I was leaving. He says, 'You're not leaving.' And he talked me into staying (Bielema did leave a few weeks later, for Wisconsin), so the Stoopses didn't talk to me for about two years 'cause you piss one of them off you piss 'em all off. They get that little band of brothers."

He made it up to them, though, by refusing to let Mark work for him at Wisconsin.

"I said, 'Hey, knucklehead, there's two DC jobs out there that would be branding for you if you turn it around and do well; you'll get a head job,' " Bielema says. "And they were Notre Dame and Florida State. I think he had the interview with Florida State three days later and got the job (following the 2009 season), then got the Kentucky job (following the 2012 season)."

In keeping with tradition, their coaching paths remained parallel, bringing them both to the SEC in 2013. Both are heading into their fourth seasons – Stoops with a 12-24 record at Kentucky, Bielema with an 18-20 record at Arkansas.

Each admits to learning a lot from each other. It comes from years of trust built over a deck of cards, Longhorn's house cab and a per diem scheme that turned out to be about a lot more than saving money.

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(You can follow Kassidy Hill on Twitter @KassidyGHill)

© 2016, Kassidy Hill. All rights reserved.

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