From landscaping to defensive backs coach, how Aaron Henry landed with the Illini
CHAMPAIGN – – The road to Aaron Henry’s coaching career requires a little ingenuity, a middle school in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a hotel in Fayetteville, Ark., A brief stint in the landscaping industry, and Bret Bielema.
All of this is a little difficult to keep track of. Especially when you consider that Henry was his head coach as a junior defensive in Wisconsin and Bielema, Henry couldn’t have been more clear that he didn’t want to train after the end of his career.
I looked at him with a smile on my face and said, ‘Hell no. I will never exercise. Always, ” said Henry, chuckling as he looked back. “See there, I’m here now.”
Here he is in Champagne as the newly hired defensive coach for the Illinois with Bielema as the team’s new head coach. Henry’s hiring process was quick, really within two days of initial official contact. Henry was the defensive coach at Vanderbilt last season and sent Bielema a congratulatory text when Bielema was announced as the new head coach. Illinois also cited Henry as a reference for Bielema and spoke brightly of his former coach when he was contacted by an associate athletic director of Illinois.
Was it an easy decision to switch to his former coach?
“I mean, think so, right? The guy is like a father figure to me, ”said Henry on Thursday to parlor inquirer. “It’s like your father is going home to do something he loves. You obviously love him and take care of him. With a smile on his face, he asks you: “Do you want to come with me?” Laughing you say, “Hell, yes.” That was what mattered. I always had it in the back of my mind, if the coach came back I’d love to be a part of it just because you know what you’re getting. I know what I’m getting I know the guy I work for. “
So let’s go through the steps towards this partnership in Champaign.
Henry ended his career as a Wisconsin player with seven interceptions, 23 defended passes, 181 career tackles and had a brief stint in the NFL. After being cut by the Oakland Raiders, he returned to Immokalee, Florida, where Bielema once sat at his grandmother’s house – where Henry lived – and promised to see that her grandson was taken care of if he was in the Was or wasn’t NFL.
After living in his hometown, Henry and his best friend moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Henry taught at Gull Lake Middle School and coached soccer at Gull Lake High School. After the football season he was ready to move to the state of North Carolina as a team chaplain under head coach Dave Doeren.
He called Chris Ash, his former defense coordinator in Wisconsin, who was then in Arkansas in the same position under Bielema. Ash spread the word of Henry’s plans to join the wolf pack. Bielema asked his former All-Big Ten player to work at a 300-child camp in Arkansas first. Henry obliges.
As Henry recalls, after that camp, Bielema offered 15 players and received nine of them acceptance after each of those nine spoke with Henry about how accurate Bielema was as a coach.
“He played for him and was a very straight forward and honest person,” said Henry. “He hasn’t talked about the bush. Every day you as a gamer walked into the building, you knew what you were getting and I could guess at that. Was he hard Hell yeah he was tough. It was absolutely tough, but I think that’s why we won a number of games. It’s the kind of soccer I grew up with. “
This news received a response and the parents actually thought Henry was already on the staff. No, just a former player who can’t say enough good things about his former coach.
Then it was time to leave and dive into the college football world on the other side of the glass. He said goodbye to Bielema and received a check for his work in the warehouse – an unexpected but nice gesture.
“He looks at me, hugs me very much and starts to shed a tear,” said Henry. “He’s crying a little, his voice rattles, he said, ‘I want you to stay.'”
Henry was surprised. He had only packed a briefcase of clothes worth a few days. Henry had an obligation to the wolf pack, but Bielema promised him he could make a greater impact as a coach
So he made a deal with him: sSpend 10 days in Fayetteville in a downtown Bielema hotel. If after 10 days Henry didn’t believe it was for him, he might be on his way. Easy enough and Henry tried. It was a nice hotel, remembers Henry, not twisted.
“I came on the third day, I’m going to him and I told him I wanted to stay,” said Henry. “Now he didn’t have a job for me and I was okay with that.”
Bielema took him in for a few months and helped him find a landscaping job that involved traveling northwest Arkansas with five other workers who spoke little to no English, cutting hedges, cutting grass and running snakes.
It was then that Henry realized he had a college degree and became a substitute teacher at Har-Ber High School, about 15 minutes from the University of Arkansas campus. After a few months he became an academic advisor in Arkansas and then opened a position as a full-time assistant.
The door was open and Henry was ready to have his way, all because of his confidence in Bielema.
“I think he kind of knew what he was doing,” said Henry. “He’s got this really, really unique way of getting people to think about things they normally wouldn’t think about.” It didn’t take long to realize I was here, the guy I trust, and I think I’ll take a leap of faith and get into this coaching profession. “
That leap of faith grew into college coaching jobs at Rutgers, North Carolina State, Vanderbilt, and now Illinois at Bielema.
“I’m thrilled,” said Henry. “I’m excited. I’m incredibly excited. I’m really that happy, man, just to work with the coach again. I know what kind of person he is. I know what kind of coach he is. I know the level of expectation . “