FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash doesn’t remember the exact moment he met Charlie Partridge, but will never forget what he looked like.
The Drake defensive lineman was short and stocky. He was really strong, too, and had what Ash described as a "South Florida kind of tough guy attitude."
"If you’ve ever seen the picture on the bottle of Mr. Clean, the bald head and earrings, that was Charlie," Ash said. "He was a guy from South Florida. He’s 5-10, but he was all muscled up and had a bald head and a goatee and earrings.
"He’s tried to change that image a little bit. But he’s still a meat head."
Ash laughed as he said it. What else would you expect from college teammates?
Partridge and Ash have known each other for roughly 20 years, dating back to their playing days under current Montana State coach Rob Ash at Drake. Partridge was a three-year starter at defensive tackle, a team captain and NSCA All-American. Ash was a talented defensive back whose career was hampered by injuries, including an anterior cruciate ligament tear that sidelined him his senior season.
Both took different paths through the coaching ranks, but have worked their way onto the same staff at four stops. The latest — working for Bret Bielema at Arkansas — may just be the duo’s biggest challenge yet. The goal is building the Razorbacks into a defense that can compete in a division run by powers like Alabama and LSU.
It’s a task the two coaches have relished since arriving last winter.
It’s also one they wouldn’t want to take on without each other.
"When Coach B came here, I had options," Ash said. "I had a lot of options from our success at Wisconsin. But it was important for me to come here, not only with Coach B, but with people that I had a comfort level with because we’re taking on a big task. We’ve got a big job ahead of us to get this thing going in the right direction. I wanted to do it with people I’m comfortable with and I had the same philosophies.
"Having Charlie here to coach the D-Line was a big piece of that."
Ash and Partridge aren’t doing it alone, of course. Linebackers coach Randy Shannon and cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson have been instrumental in Arkansas’ development. The help is much-needed, too, for a group that finished 12th in the Southeastern Conference in points (30.4) and yards allowed a game (409.9) in 2012.
But it’s clear Ash and Partridge have a unique familiarity with each other, which they believe was very important to laying the foundation at their new school.
"We’ve known each other so long we can argue and have a heated argument about something and it’s never personal," said Partridge, who is Arkansas’ assistant head coach. "It’s never thought to be something more than just a discussion about we both want to do what’s right for the program and we know that’s the case.
"You know how it is. When you first meet somebody, for probably a year or two you’re trying to be polite and trying to make sure you don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Well, all that for me and him are long gone."
Bielema said the coaches are "off the charts" professionally.
He also added they’ve proven to have each other’s backs "through thick and thin."
But Bielema admitted their comfort level together can be painful to watch.
"They do sound like a couple of school girls at times chirping back and forth about the most stupidest, most ridiculous things you’ve ever heard of," said Bielema, who has had both coaches on his staff since Ash was named defensive backs coach at Wisconsin in 2010. "But I think it’s because they know each other so well."
Partridge was a sophomore at Drake when Ash arrived. He said they never became close friends early on in college. Partridge actually roomed with another former Drake player-turned-coach in North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren.
Both figured out coaching would be their profession while at Drake. Partridge knew it after his freshman year, when plans to follow his brother’s footsteps as an accountant changed after taking his first class. Ash said he didn’t seriously begin considering it his junior season, then got a head start as a student coach his senior year when a knee injury sidelined him for good.
Both credit their coach at Drake — Rob Ash — for starting them down the path.
"We’re different," Ash said of Rob Ash, who is not related even though they’re both from Ottumwa, Iowa. "But I’ve got a lot of respect for him. Obviously he’s done a great job with the players in his programs because people got into the profession."
Said Partridge: "If I didn’t have that kind of experience, I’d never be coaching."
Ash and Partridge worked together at Drake (1996-97) and Iowa State (2000-01) before splitting up for several years. Ash remained at Iowa State until 2006, then left for a two-year stint at San Diego State before returning to the Cyclones in 2009. Partridge, meanwhile, went to Eastern Illinois (2002) and Pittsburgh (2003-2007) before reuniting with Doeren on Bielema’s staff at Wisconsin in 2008.
Ash joined them in 2010. The three worked together that year before Doeren was named head coach at Northern Illinois. Ash was promoted to defensive coordinator.
"We had different paths," Partridge said of Ash. "But to come back (to Wisconsin) and see what he head learned, see how had developed was amazing. Even though we kept in very close contact, until you see him relate to his kids, he had learned and grown so much. He did an unbelievable job right when he walked in the door."
They’re hoping for similar success with the Razorbacks this season.
Both have been pleased with a defensive front that boasts experience among its starters, including preseason All-SEC selection Chris Smith. There are returning starters in the secondary with safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines, and cornerback Tevin Mitchel, too. But there are questions elsewhere, including linebacker where the Razorbacks have been working to build depth.
Linebacker Austin Jones, who will be one of the first-team starters at linebacker Saturday, said players have "embraced" the defensive plan. Defensive end Chris Smith said Ash and Partridge have been tough, "but it’s all love."
"He keeps stuff very vanilla," Smith said of Ash’s defense. "He doesn’t put in a lot of install and things of that nature. He just lets us go play. He tells us, ‘It’s not the play I call, it’s the guys that go execute it.’ So that’s what we’re going to try to do."
Success may not happen overnight in a conference that produces several NFL defensive players every year. But Ash and Partridge are enjoying the process and will get a first look at their new group on the field Saturday afternoon.
The college teammates are confident the Razorbacks will reach their goals.
"I feel like we’ve developed to this point where we can take what we did, adapt to what we have, and have a chance to put together a good defense in the best division in the best conference in football." Partridge said. "What a great challenge."