By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
January 12, 2022
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In the winter of 2013, Barry Lunney likes to believe his interview with newly hired Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema began by showing his offensive philosophy with his automobile driving.
Before Bielema picked Lunney as one of his first hires to his then-new Razorbacks coaching staff, Lunney was driving Bielema around Bentonville, Ark. where Lunney had served under father as the offensive coordinator at the local high school program. There’s certainly an argument that when coming upon a stoplight during that drive, Lunney showed how tempo can help get you to your destination faster.
“I think the first time I had him in my car, I tried to run a red light. I didn’t try to. I think I actually did,” Lunney said Wednesday in his first media conference with local reporters via Zoom. “I’m uptight. I’m just meeting him. I’m on the road and I’m taking him around Arkansas and he looks up to say ‘So, are you going to run that red light?’. My response was ‘Well, it seems like I was trying to for you Coach’.”
Nine years after getting the phone call from Bielema to come to his alma mater to be the tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator, the feeling for Lunney to rejoin a staff with his former boss is much more relaxed, comfortable and confident in the idea that history has proven these two men have seen highly functional offensive production in their time together.
“As I decided to make this transition, I began to look at different offensive coaches, different offensive styles and different programs and I just kept gravitating back to Coach Lunney at UTSA,” Bielema said Wednesday. “One of things that jumped out to me was how he was able to use the phrase ‘tempro’ so, it’s a tempo offense with a pro-style influence.That is something that jumped out at me and fit in with something we were already doing.”
In 2013, Lunney and his family, which includes his wife Janelle and two sons, Luke and Levi, weren’t expecting the opportunity from the newly hired Arkansas coach coming from Wisconsin. However, Bielema needed a connection to the home state and the former Razorbacks quarterback and longtime Arkansas high school coach.
“I brought Barry in and was immediately impressed with who he was, what he was and while I was at Arkansas, Barry and I got very close,” Bielema said.
Also, according to Bielema, Lunney Jr. had a highly motivated headhunter in his family tree trying to get him this job who he refers to as “dad” and a lot of Arkansas residents refer to as “Sr.” in Arkansas High School Hall of Fame coach Barry Lunney Sr.
“I really learned of Barry Jr. through his father to be very honest with you,” Bielema said Wednesday. “A proven, long-time successful high school coach in Arkansas and he was a very good agent for Barry Jr.”
Bielema even mentioned the family dynamic of the connection between himself and the Lunney family has essentially switched. When Lunney Jr. was brought to Bielema’s Arkansas staff in 2013, Lunney Jr.’s family consisted of two sons in elementary school. It was Bielema who sat down Lunney Jr. and told him to have a family meeting with his wife to make sure everybody in the Lunney household was going to be okay with Barry Jr. being on the road constantly as the recruiting face of Bielema’s Arkansas rebuild.
Nearly a decade later, it’s Bielema and his wife Jen who have two daughters at ages five (Briella Nicole) and three (Brexli Nichole) respectively.
“(Lunney Jr.) has a wonderful family and a wife who is a very special woman who, at the time when I first met them I didn’t have kids,” Bielema said. “Janelle and Jen, my wife, had a great relationship…I had a moment where I knew I was having young kids and I told this to Barry a number of years ago (that) I learned a lot from him about Arkansas but I also learned a lot about being a father.”
In his initial media conference, both Bielema and Lunney Jr. made very clear that the objective of making this move was not for the new hire to be bringing the offensive playbook of his former employer (Texas-San Antonio) to Champaign. Instead, Lunney’s familiarity with how to incorporate a tempo style in the pass game into Bielema’s core philosophy of physicality at the line-of-scrimmage and the running attack made him Bielema’s idea of the perfect fit for the Illini offense starting with the 2022 campaign.
“My foundational belief is completely in line with Coach Bielema's belief of physicality, a physical brand of football,” Lunney Jr. said. “This isn’t torrid pace…We’re not trying to play so fast that we’re going to be putting the defense in jeopardy of playing a lot of snaps but we want to play with enough pace to be able to affect the defense.”
Bielema has seen it work in the past what he described Wednesday as “complimentary football” with the passing game being able to function with the quarterback under center in a high capacity alongside a power run game. In the 2015 season at Arkansas, which was the first season with Dan Enos as the Razorbacks offensive coordinator running what is believed to be very similar to what Illinois wants to revive starting now, that offense was able to finish third in the Southeastern Conference in passing offense at 268.2 yards per game.
“It all starts (at the quarterback position) with being able to throw the football down the field but this system has some flexibility in it to be built around a pocket passer but if they have the ability to help themselves and supplement the game by using their legs than certainly that’s something we want to expose,” Lunney said.
While at Texas-San Antonio, Lunney was tasked to mix his physicality philosophy that he’s perfected everywhere he’d been before (Bentonville High School, San Jose State and Tulsa) with the shotgun spread concepts brought by his boss, UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor. The UTSA offense ranked 11th in the nation in scoring and 34th in total offense in 2021, averaging 36.9 points per game and 439.0 yards per game. In his first season at UTSA in 2020, Lunney’s offensive staff improved the program’s offense 60 spots in the nation rankings for total offense, 50 spots in scoring offense, 45 spots in rushing offense, and 60 spots in third down percentage despite being forced to flip between four different quarterbacks. .
Both Bielema and Lunney Jr. made clear Wednesday that unlike the hiring of Tony Petersen as his first offensive coordinator, the instant comfort and familiarity level with the Illini’s head coach is unlikely to ever be a problem.
“With my history of working with Coach Bielema for five years on his staff at Arkansas and he was a great mentor to me,” Lunney Jr. said. “To fast forward four years later, and it’s hard to believe it’s already been four years later, here I am with the opportunity to go to work with him in a different capacity. You take that relationship with Coach B and there’s an extension of that throughout the building with relationships I’ve built with (football chief of staff) Mark Taurisani, (graduate assistant) Taylor Reed, (director of football branding and creative media) Pat Pierson, there’s a level of confidence in knowing who (Bielema) has surrounded himself with.”
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