FAYETTEVILLE — Bret Bielema thinks the world of Charlie Partridge.
The assistant was part of Bielema’s coaching staff at Arkansas and Wisconsin for the past five seasons. He watched him recruit South Florida with success and develop defensive linemen over the years at both stops.
But Bielema wouldn’t look at his trusted assistant’s departure to become the head coach at Florida Atlantic as a blow to Arkansas’ efforts to rebuild after a 3-9 season.
"The way I always see it, it’s an opportunity to get better," Bielema said. "That’s going to be hard. Charlie’s really good. I don’t mean that as a disrespect (to Partridge). I love him to death and would never have wanted to lose him.
"But that’s the way I’ve got to look at it."
Partridge was officially introduced as FAU’s fourth football coach in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, describing the opportunity to return home to South Florida for his first head coaching job as a "big moment." Bielema said watching Partridge get that chance left him feeling both "happy and sad," but knew the day was coming because of the assistant’s outstanding reputation and work ethic over the years.
It’s part of the profession and nothing new to Bielema. He watched assistants leave for jobs numerous times while at Wisconsin. But Bielema said he always keeps a list of three coaches at every position handy so he’s prepared to hire someone new.
"That list that I keep isn’t etched in stone," Bielema said. "I’m not just going to go to those three. I have half a dozen names that have come across my desk in the last 48 hours that are very intriguing that I’m definitely researching. I probably won’t bring anybody in until after the first of the year. I might talk to about half a dozen guys by phone, kind of off the record, and see where it’s at. It’s a fun time for me as well."
Bielema said he believed Partridge would be a candidate for the job as soon as it opened on Oct. 30, when Carl Pelini resigned. He got a call from FAU during its search process and was notified of the program’s interest in speaking with Partridge. He soon had a conversation with athletic director Pat Chun.
Partridge played a key role in Arkansas’ defensive development and recruiting efforts. He was especially effective in South Florida, where he was so respected that several local high school coaches attended his press conference.
Partridge thanked each one Tuesday.
"To the high school coaches, thank you for your trust," Partridge said Tuesday. "I wouldn’t be here without it. Thank you for your support. I’d have no chance if it weren’t for you guys that are in this room and the high school coaches at large."
His work played a big role in helping Arkansas sign South Florida natives Alex Collins, Denver Kirkland and De’Andre Coley last year. Losing him won’t be easy, but Bielema said the Razorbacks aren’t backing out of South Florida.
Bielema and linebackers coach Randy Shannon have long-standing ties there, too, so the Razorbacks will continue to target prospects from the state.
"It doesn’t hurt us I don’t think that bad," Bielema said. "Now if he was our lone face down there … But I’ve been down there a long time. I’ve signed over 60 kids from those three (South Florida) counties and really don’t expect it to be much more than a blip on the radar. I think our tradition speaks for itself in the way we handle kids and hopefully that will persevere over everything."
Bielema said he was able to contact some of Arkansas’ defensive line prospects and players who were recruited by Partridge when word of his departure began to leak out late last week. He believed there was "no panic" from anyone because of the change, although there’s disappointment from Arkansas’ current defensive linemen.
"His kids are disappointed, I know, because they love him and that’s what I want," Bielema said. "If they weren’t disappointed, then I’d be upset."
Partridge’s departure comes at a manageable time, considering the recruiting calendar is in a dead period until Jan. 16. Bielema said that is "nice" for the current situation, giving him some time to find the right fit to join a staff that includes Shannon, defensive coordinator Chris Ash and cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson.
Bielema said his goal is to have Partridge’s replacement on staff by the time the Razorbacks go back on the road to recruit in mid-January.
"As good as Charlie is, I’ll try to find somebody better," Bielema said.