FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wasn’t shy about his goals for assembling a staff last December, vowing to put together a group second to none during his introductory press conference.
Bielema admitted Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long and the administration probably “looked at him a little crazy” while stressing what he believed was the program’s most important hire, though. He needed the Razorbacks to guarantee they could dole out whatever was necessary to pry strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert away from his alma mater at Wisconsin.
“Ben Herbert touches our players more than any person in our program,” Bielema said last month. “He is hands on with them on a daily basis. So it was important for me to be able to have the pool and the resource to bring him Ben Herbert with us.”
It took a hefty salary — Herbert’s $300,000 a year is more than five of Arkansas’ nine full-time assistants — but Bielema got his strength and conditioning coach to Fayetteville last month. Now, Herbert is busy laying the foundation for the football program under Bielema’s guidance, getting his hands on the Hogs as the offseason strength and conditioning program completes its second week.
He’s the first new staff member to do so. NCAA rules prohibit coaches from working with players during the offseason (except for the 15 spring practices). So Bielema and the rest of the Razorbacks are counting on Herbert to set the tone this winter.
It’s a job Herbert, who was a defensive lineman at Wisconsin, relishes.
“I’m a passionate guy. The guys mean a lot to me,” Herbert said last month. “The guys here at Wisconsin, I love these guys. I love them to death. I appreciate every ounce of sweat that they drip and every amount of energy that they give. And it’s no different than the guys that I’m going to start to work with (at Arkansas).
“I want to put those guys in the best situation possible. That’s ultimately what my goal is — to help them be successful.”
He’s also someone Bielema and another former Wisconsin coach, Arkansas defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, believe in completely.
“You see a big guy with a bald head and you think he’s just going to scream for eight hours a day,” Partridge said. “But I think the thing that Herbs has done a great job of over the years is he teaches them techniques in the weight room and he’s a tremendous teacher of nutrition. …
“He was a big reason why we felt very comfortable not caring at all about how many stars a recruit has. We knew that if we brought a kid in who would work and buy in and believe and had the intelligence to follow what he was teaching, he was going to help them reach high levels.”
Strength coaches are valuable commodities in college football because of their access to players year-round. They work with them on a daily basis for four or five years. So, in essence, they’re the ones molding, shaping and building teams.
Former strength coach Jason Veltkamp’s work with the Razorbacks was evident the past few seasons, developing athletes and demanding accountability to help Arkansas reach new heights under former coach Bobby Petrino.
While many of those same beliefs remain under the new staff, Herbert likely brings different approaches. It seems his efforts have been felt by a few Razorbacks who haven’t been shy about expressing their thoughts via Twitter earlier this week.
“That workout…. OMG!” running back Jonathan Williams said.
Added cornerback Ray Buchanan Jr: “New Strength Coach is REAL. #sore”
It’s no surprise to former Wisconsin tight end Jake Byrne. The Rogers native went to Wisconsin as a wide receiver, but wrapped up his career as a 260-pound tight end.
He credited Herbert for molding him. Byrne, who recently signed with the Houston Texans, said the strength coach had the same impact on the rest of the Badgers, too, a group that includes current NFL players like Houston defensive end J.J. Watt.
“You see Wisconsin’s offensive linemen. They are huge,” Byrne said. “But they don’t always come in that way. … He was one of the driving forces for Wisconsin. He set the tone and kind of what to do. Just the mentality and the enthusiasm he brought was one of the biggest things that got us going, got us fired up.”
Bielema said there will be notable results at Arkansas, too, during the seven-week winter program that ends just before spring practice starts in mid-March.
“He has a power to him and embraces these kids in a way that they’re going learn that they can eat, recover and train in a way that their bodies will literally change within weeks,” Bielema said.
That’s why Partridge said Herbert was “paramount” to Wisconsin’s success.
He even has his own experiences, too. In addition to watching Herbert transform Wisconsin players the past several years, Partridge also hired him. Herbert helped Partridge lose 60 pounds as part of a weight-loss competition.
“It doesn’t matter how hard you lift, you can’t out train poor nutrition,” Partridge said. “That’s a big, big point that Herbs has always made. Giving those kids a visual is huge. He’ll come up with some visuals for these guys.”
A few years ago, Herbert brought two plants into the Wisconsin weight room to illustrate the point. He named one “The Deacon” and the other “The Governor.”
The Governor received everything a plant needs to thrive: water and fertilizer. The Deacon got a steady diet of things like beer, cookies and pizza.
The results are what you’d expect. The Governor thrived. The Deacon didn’t.
Herbert also has been known to find a wrestling championship belt, label it with the word “Tonesetters” and encourage weight-lifting groups to compete for it. While physical gain is the aim, teamwork and accountability are equally important underlying themes to Herbert’s work with football teams.
“I think the more you talk the less they listen,” Herbert said. “So for me, I try to use as many things visually as I can to show them. To get them to understand things. to get them to show progress, to show results. It’s just part of my style I guess.”
That’s why Bielema, Partridge and anyone else who has worked closely with Herbert believe the strength and conditioning coach is worth every penny.
“The thing I learned watching Herbs transform the football team, if I’m ever lucky enough to be a head coach, the strength coach will be my first hire,” Partridge said. “The strength coach is the guy that’s around your team the most. Molds their attitude, molds their work ethic, teaches nutrition …
“He’ll have a huge, huge impact on those kids’ lives.”