Don’t look now, but UNO hockey may be on the verge of making the kind of noise and capturing the kind of attention traditionally reserved for Nebraska football and Creighton basketball. My Reader (www.thereader.com) story charts some of the reasons why this already has beenand continues being a special season for the program. For the first time this late in the season UNO’s nationally ranked and in a contending position for accomplishing big things in their conference and perhaps in the NCAA tournament. The Mavs play their last regular season home series this weekend, March 6-7, at the CenturyLink and it’s an important opportunity to keep momentum and maintain a solid spot heading into the post-season.
UNO Hockey Staking its Claim
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since launching hockey in 1997 to subsidize its non-revenue generating sports UNO’s netted a nice return on investment. Maverick hockey crowds rank among the best nationally, with annual ticket revenues of $2 million. When the school dropped football and wrestling in 2011, it added pressure on hockey to be the signature sport.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha has enriched the city’s hockey legacy. The minor league professional Omaha Knights (1939 to 1975) began the love affair. The amateur Omaha Lancers (1986 through today) continued it. UNO found its niche as Neb.’s only collegiate hockey team. Despite gritty performances and many upsets its first 18 seasons. UNO didn’t emerge as a title threat. Until perhaps now.
Coach Dean Blais, tasked with making Mav hockey nationally relevant when hired in 2009, has guided UNO through conference changes, player suspensions, stars leaving for the NHL and solid if not stellar play. Now, for the first time this late in the season, he has UNO contending. His team’s defeated several highly ranked clubs, splitting four games, three in overtime, with perennial power North Dakota, where Blais won two national titles.
His best offensive player, sophomore forward All-America candidate Austin Ortega, recently tied the NCAA single-season record with his nation-leading 10th game-winning goal.
UNO, 17-10-3 at press time, climbed to No. 4 in the Division I ratings. It’s led the powerful National Collegiate Hockey Conference most of the year. Entering the final regular season home series versus Colorado College at CenturyLink Center, UNO hopes for momentum that carries into the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and the NCAA tournament.
As UNO hockey enters the local sports conversation reserved for Husker football and Bluejay basketball, it may establish itself as a must-see attraction and traditional power. The timing’s apt since it gets its own facility next year when the UNO sports arena opens on the Ak-Sar-Ben campus, where the Knights played. Touted underclassmen helping drive this special season were recruited to the new venue.
Sophomore center Jake Guentzel is enjoying the ride, “We’re more on the map, more fans are coming, so it’s pretty special.” He’s not surprised by the success. “I thought we had the players to do it, I just didn’t know if we had the experience. We’re bottom-heavy with freshmen and sophomores but we’ve adapted pretty well. We’ve been fortunate we’ve had the opportunity to play and we’ve taken advantage of it.”
He says preseason predictions of UNO finishing sixth in the league provided motivation. He credits an early road trip to Western Michigan, where UNO got a sweep. as a confidence-booster and bonding experience. The right mix of leadership has team chemistry just right.
Senior goalie Ryan Massa has waited four years for UNO to break out. “It’s nice to finally see all the hard work pay off for the guys.” He feels a humbling exhibition loss to Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in October was a necessary rude awakening. “It kind of opened the new guys’ eyes to understand the level we’re playing at and helped them grow and mature a little bit faster than maybe anticipated.”
Senior forward Dominic Zombo likes this team’s make-up. “I do see a component I haven’t seen in the past. We’ve got a really tight-knit group. We don’t have any passengers here, nobody’s just going through the motions, everybody’s here to get better, to win games. Every single guy’s committed to their job. That’s what makes us so competitive as a team.”
Blais doesn’t know if UNO’s truly arrived but he’s confident it soon will.
“I would think so but you never know from year to year. This is a special group of guys and for them I hope we win a league championship, get to the Target Center (home to the Frozen Faceoff), advance to the national tournament. Those are benchmarks for a program and our seniors know they’re paving the way for the underclassmen. Hopefully getting to the tournament isn’t a big accomplishment, it’s an expected accomplishment every year.
“We have a new arena coming that’s going to take the program to another level.”
UNO athletic director Trev Alberts says the arena signifies that Mav hockey matters.
“You can tell people hockey is very important to your school but if you don’t even have a place you can call home and practice in, it’s difficult to get the kind of talent in here you ultimately need.”
He says the arena will put the program on near equal footing with its stiffest competitors.
“When I hired Dean I really wanted to have somebody who’d been there, done that, who knew what it took to win at the highest levels.
There’s built-in disadvantages to being in Omaha, so far from hockey hotbeds. I just feel good we’re finally able to give he and his staff some tools necessary to assemble the kind of talent we hope to have here.”
Having its own intimate space will benefit UNO, which shares the huge CenturyLink with Creighton. The average hockey crowd of 8,000 downtown still leaves the venue half-empty. That same crowd fills the new arena. It should spike demand from fans and corporate sponsors.
Die-hard hockey fan Ernie May, who’s never missed a UNO home game, says, “I can’t wait to get into our own building. I think that’s going to be fantastic and make the interest grow.”
“Clearly this will be the best opportunity we’ve ever had to have a branded-out facility of excellence our student athletes can compete in,” says Alberts.
Omaha hockey historian and former UNO sports information director Gary Anderson says, “They’re going to go into an arena exactly the right size they need for the fan base they’ve created.” He says there was never any doubt Omaha could sustain college hockey. “When the program was born you still did have a lot of old-time hockey fans and the Lancers were around the peak of their success, so consequently UNO built a really good fan base right from the start.”
That loyal base bodes good times ahead.
“I’ve been absolutely amazed and humbled by the support UNO hockey fans give to this team, even in some pretty poor years,” Alberts says. “Our fans are hungry and we’re hungry to give them what they want, which is a consistent winner on the ice.”
May enjoys that the Mavs are meshing to put themselves in position to make history: “For me this year almost has as much excitement as the first years we had hockey.”
Coach Blais is trying to ensure his team attends to all the details heading into the intense post-season, where little things become magnified and championship teams find ways to win. UNO getting swept on the road at St. Cloud State (Feb. 20-21) resembled the late season swoons it’s suffered in past years.
“I don’t know if we have any more than we’ve given already,” he says. “How many times can you go to the well? My teams at North Dakota could operate at 70 percent and still win. We’re not there yet. Our margin for error’s slim. We’ve got to be all engines going, we can’t have one engine not running. We’re darn close. It starts with recruiting and we’ve been lucky enough to land some dandies.”
Even if UNO should reach the top, he says, “it’s one thing to get there, it’s another thing to stay there.” First things, first.
Massa says, “Every single one of us believes in our potential. None of us doubts we can be playing at the Boston Garden (site of the Frozen Four) competing for a national championship this year. We’ve played against the best all year and we’ve done well against the best.”
Zombo can’t imagine what a UNO hockey title would mean.
“I wouldn’t be able to explain. I’ve never been a part of anything like that that’s a dream.”
UNO’s dream ride continues at home Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7. Listen on 1180 The Zone 2.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
As much as I enjoy writing about the arts and artists, I equally enjoy writing about athletics and athletes. I finally caught up with a former football great from Nebraska, Joe Arenas, who has never really gotten his full due. If the name isn’t familiar, it’s because his professional and college exploits happened about 60 years ago. And though he was a very fine player – so good that he is still among the NFL’s all-time leaders in career kick return average – his jack of all trades verstality as a returner, running back, receiver, and defensive back made it hard for him to really stand out except as a returner. When you come right down to it, how many returners other than maybe Gale Sayers, Travis Williams, Brian Mitchell, Eric Metcalf, and Devin Hester really made a dent in the national consciousness? Sayers was of course a great running back in addition to being a great returner. The other thing working against Arenas was that he had two future NFL Hall of Fame teammates, in Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, who got most of the offensive touches out of the backfield. Before playing pro ball Arenas starred in the single-wing at then-Omaha University, where again he did a little of everything. In the single-wing Joe played a half-back spot in that offense but he did everything a quarterback does. Before he ever played college ball Joe served as a U.S. Marine in World War II. He was wounded at Iwo Jima. My story about Joe for El Perico newspaper refers to the fact that Arenas was among a small number of Hispanic football players who made a mark in the game. I also reference how Omaha U., which today is the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is where another athlete of color, Marlin Briscoe, played quarterback in an era when that was very rare at a predominantly white university. What I didn’t mention in the article is that a third athlete of color with local ties, Wilburn Hollis, played quarterback at two mostly white institutions, first at Boys Town and then at the University of Iowa. I was delighted to find Joe a still vital man in his late 80s.
Homegrown Joe Arenas made his mark in college and the NFL
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
The longer out it is from the University of Nebraska at Omaha dropping football in 2011, the more its gridiron greats recede into obscurity.No one should forget (Guadalupe) Joe Arenas.This son of Mexican immigrants was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and grew up in Lincoln, Neb. during the Depression. Small but determined, Little Joe didn’t play organized football until college yet he still made the National Football League. The high school basketball standout made the varsity hoops squad at the University of Nebraska before transferring to then-Omaha University, where he played both sports, becoming one of America’s most accomplished Hispanic athletes.
He won All-American football honors as UNO’s do-everything offensive cog (1947-1950), averaging 200-plus yards total offense as a junior and finishing sixth in the nation in total offense as a senior. As the go-to back in the single-wing, a precursor to the spread formation, he received snaps from center, called plays, ran, handed-off, passed, caught and punted the ball. He returned kicks and played defense, too.
Two decades later another athlete of color, Marlin Briscoe, became the first black starting quarterback at UNO and in the NFL.
San Francisco made Arenas UNO’s first NFL draftee as an 8th round pick. He enjoyed seven productive years (1951-1957) at halfback, returner and defensive back. He once led the league in kickoff returns and retired as the all-time returns leader. He still ranks ninth in league history in career kickoff return average (27.3).
“If I got one or two blocks, that’s all I needed,” Arenas says. “Just get me started and I’d try to maneuver around and shake ‘em off. Just shifty, that’s all. I used to get out early to see teams practice. I’d study their punter and kicker – where they hit it, how far they hit it, getting to know their habits, so I’d know where to stand and what to do.”
After fielding the ball, he let his smarts, instincts and athletic ability take over, netting career marks of 3,798 kickoff return yards and 774 punt return yards. He brought back both a punt and a kickoff for scores. From scrimmage he compiled 987 rushing and 675 receiving yards and scored 16 touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown.
Upon leaving the 49ers he laid off two years to mend injuries before trying out with the Boston Patriots of the new AFL. He soon retired for good. En route home to San Francisco his back flared up and he recuperated in Houston, falling in love with his physical therapist. He stayed, they married and the couple raised two daughters.
He remained in Texas coaching football, working with receivers for College Football Hall of Famer Bill Yeoman at the University of Houston. In the 1980 Cotton Bowl the Cougars upset Nebraska 17-14 when an Arenas receiver made the game-winning grab in the end zone with 19 seconds left. Arenas sent several proteges to the NFL.
Long before any of that, he put athletics on hold and his life on the line serving in the U.S. Marines. He took part in the amphibious landing on the Japanese-fortified volcanic island of Iwo Jima, where he and his fellow “no guts-no glory” grunts staged the bloodiest assault of the Pacific theater. American troops storming the beach were pinned down under heavy fire. Arenas dug in and prayed.
“I got hit the very next day. It was a shrapnel wound and they carried me down the beach, where I got evacuated, and I’m glad I did because that was quite some campaign there. Oh man, I’ll tell you, I was probably fortunate to get hit and get the hell out of there. All my buddies got shot up.
“That was the worst place anybody could have been. The Marine Corps lost more on that island than they ever lost anywhere. The Japanese had the advantage. They were up on two highlands and we were down in a valley. They could see everything going on right down below them. All they had to do was look down their scopes. They were picking us off like clay pigeons. But we had enough force and enough people and material and guts (to prevail).”
He didn’t let his back wound slow his athletic career. He competed with the best, including three 49ers teammates who made the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and Y.A. Tittle.
Playing in an era before collective bargaining and free agency, he never made more than $10,000. Like other players then Arenas worked a regular off-season job to make ends meet. He was a salesman for spice giant McCormick and Company.
He “never thought” himself or the few other Hispanic players active then, like Tom Fears or Eddie Saenz, as groundbreakers. He’s proud Hispanics have since shined: Joe Kapp, Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett, Jeff Garcia. At 49er gatherings he’s met franchise legends John Brodie, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice. But there, like at UNO alumni events, few teammates are around. “There’s not too many left,” says Arenas, who at 89 is now a widower living in a Webster, Texas retirement center.
Coming back to Neb. gets harder. Besides, there’s no more football at UNO. “I’m really saddened by UNO not playing football anymore.”
He still enjoys watching the game on television, the coach in him critiquing players’ techniques and lack of hustle. He still signs bubble gum cards with his likeness on them that fans and collectors send him.
Gone, but not forgotten.
My latest story about Omaha’s own world boxing champion, Terence “Bud” Crawford, who is fresh off his Nov. 29 title defense in his hometown. I was at the CenturyLink for the fight and some of what I experienced there is in this story for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/). It’s on the stands now. My blog contains several other articles I’ve written about Terence.
Sparring for Omaha: Boxer Terence Crawford Defends His Title in the City He Calls Home
In a class by himself
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Terence “Bud” Crawford grew up a multi-sport athlete in North Omaha, but street fighting most brought out his hyper competitiveness, supreme confidence, fierce determination and controlled fury. He long ago spoke of being a world champion. That’s just what he’s become, too, and he’s now sharing his success with the community that raised him and that he still resides in.
A gifted but star-crossed amateur boxer, he turned pro in 2008 and for years he fought everywhere but Omaha. It was only after winning the WBO title last March against Ricky Burns in Scotland, he finally returned home to fight as a professional. As reigning champion Crawford headlined a June 28 CenturyLink Center card. He successfully defended his title with a rousing 9-round technical knockout over Yuriorkis Gamboa before 10,900 animated fans.
He made a second victorious defense here Nov. 29 against challenger Ray Beltran. Before a super-charged crowd of 11.200 he dismantled Beltran en route to a 12-round unanimous decision. The convincing win made him Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year.
Even with everything he’s done, Crawford, who’s expected to move up to the welterweight division, says, “I’m hungry because I want more. I don’t want to just stop at being good, I want to be great. I want to keep putting on performances that will take me to that next level.”
This warrior believes winning is his hard-earned destiny, saying, “If I fight like I want to fight, can’t nobody beat me.”
Through it all he remains devoted to community. Residents reciprocate by turning out in droves, showering him with rock star adulation.
Chants of “Crawford, Crawford, Crawford” and shouts of “We love you” filled the arena Nov. 29. When the ripped, goateed Crawford attacked, fans went wild. He fed off the dynamic energy and high theatrics, his counterpunching, dancing style a perfect fit for the pulsating music, colored lights, fight video montages and amped-up crowd. When the decision was announced family and friends swarmed him in the ring. He climbed the ropes to acknowledge the fans, his face beaming and his gloved hands raised overhead, waving. On his way way to the dressing room, the title belt around his waist and his boy at his side, he humbly accepted congratulations and posed for pictures with admirers.
Known for cool under fire, he doesn’t let the pressure of the big stage get to him.
“With him, man, he don’t give a damn if the fight’s in hell, it’s just another day in the gym,” co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre says. “He knows exactly where he wants to go in this game and he knows how to get there and what it’s going to take to get there.”
North O has a history of producing great athletes. Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers and Ahman Green all came out of the same poor neighborhood as Crawford. But where the others achieved their real fame outside here, Crawford’s doing it in his hometown. Now regarded as the best fighter ever from Neb. and as one of the best, pound for pound, in the world today, he’s become a darling of HBO, whose telecasts of his last few bouts scored major ratings. He’s also become a true people’s champion.
His local loyalty is seen in his B&B Boxing Academy located in the heart of The Hood. He wants it to be a launching pad for more champions.
“I want to show we’re not just stepping stones, we do have talent in Omaha and I’m not the only one with the talent – it’s just that people have never been given opportunities like I’ve had.”
He’s “lost count” of the aspiring boxers trying to follow his path. He wants boxing to get kids off the street the way it did for him. “I want to be a positive influence and show them a different route.” His partner in the gym, McIntyre, says they aim “to develop young kids into young men and young men into responsible adults,” adding, “We want to let everyone know if we can make it from this community they can, too.”
Treven Coleman-Avant is among the fighter stable there trying to emulate Crawford’s ring success.
“I pray for many years to come hell be the champion and I plan to come right up along with him,” he says.
It’s not all about fighting. Near Thanksgiving Crawford gave away free turkeys outside the gym, personally greeting recipients and receiving hugs, kisses, thank-yous and God-bless-yous in return.
“If I’m going to have my name out there I want to be in the middle of it interacting with the people I make happy,” he says.
“Much appreciated,” a woman in line offered.
“He’s not forgotten us,” another woman said.
“He takes his and gives back to where he started from,” a man added.
Shawntay Crawford says of her brother, “He’s a loving, caring person.”
“You see him being a true champion outside the ring and that’s what its all about,” Coleman-Avant says.
Bud simply says, “We all make the community and I feel like when you’re going good – give back and help out.”
The fighter takes care of his own. McIntyre. among several Omaha-based coaches and trainers with Team Crawford, says, “Bud’s assured me we’re never going to fall apart. He’s given us that security we’re here to stay.”
Crawford’s also revived boxing in Omaha, where the sport was dormant until his emergence. Few thought Omaha could support a world title card.
“A lot of people doubted and now they’re believers,” Crawford says.
He expects to fight again in Omaha for Top Rank and HBO.
“As long as I keep performing to my best abilities, put on a great show and as long as everybody keeps coming out to support me of course they’re going to keep coming back. Why wouldn’t they?”
“LIke I always say, there’s no place like home.”
Follow the fighter at teamterencebudcrawford.com.
High-flying McNary big part of Creighton volleyball success; Senior outside hitter’s play has helped raise program stature
I have long followed the athletic programs of the major universities in my home state of Neb. Thus, I have noted with interest the emergence of African-Americans in collegiate volleyball yet their absence from the University of Nebraska’s elite program. To my knowledge NU volleyball has never had a black player on its roster, which is strange because its peer programs increasingly do. One need only look at the volleyball program at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., for example, to see evidence of this trend. CU has three black players on its roster. I profile one of them, Leah McNary, in this story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/), not because she’s black but because she’s a skilled player who has helped the Bluejays establish themselves as equals to the big girls down in Lincoln. An art major interested in perhaps one day going into art therapy, McNary comes from an athletic family but she wasn’t even that keen on playing competitive athletics in high school while growing up in Florida. But when she settled on volleyball and enjoyed success with a club team she found herself commiting to CU. During her four years at the Jesuit school she’s helped elevvate the volleyball program and along the way she’s had the opportunity to travel to China, Nicaragua, Mexico, New York City, et cetera.
High-flying McNary big part of Creighton volleyball success; Senior outside hitter’s play has helped raise program stature
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Leah McNary has been there for much of Creighton volleyball’s ascendancy from weak little sister program in the shadow of Big Red to all-grown-up competitor holding its own.
“It’s exciting being a part of a process of building a program,” she says. “We’ve progressed a long way. I think we are up there with them (Nebraska) now.”
The Florida native came to Omaha after only three years of serious volleyball competition. Many colleges missed on this classic late-bloomer. What she lacked in refined skills she made up for with athleticism, something that runs deep in her family. Two older sisters were major college scholarship track athletes and her father played college basketball. Though her mother didn’t play competitive college sports, she was a cheerleader. McNary was leaning to cheerleading herself after finding basketball too physical but settled on volleyball.
Her club play brought her to the attention of CU head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, who couldn’t help but see what gets everyone pumped about McNary – explosive jumping ability and ridiculous elevation. Combined with a long arm span and the ability to strike the ball with great force, McNary has all the tools of an elite outside hitter. Except she’s 5’10 – 5’8 3/4 without shoes. Despite being susceptible to the block, she’s been an elite attacker all four years at CU and she’s heavily contributed to the Bluejays becoming a Top 25-caliber team and making two consecutive NCAA postseason appearances.
Where CU invariably got swept by the Huskers, they regularly take a set now. They even beat NU in an exhibition. McNary’s a reason why CU now hangs with the big girls, though they’ve struggled against ranked foes this year.
She nearly bypassed athletics altogether to follow her true passion – the arts. She’s played music from a young age and she’s now a studio art major. She’s interested in doing art therapy one day. Booth says it’s the first time she’s coached someone who identifies as an artist. That artistic inclination is expressed in McNary’s highly emotional and empathetic nature. She’s channeled her feeling-creative side into being an intense competitor, though her emotions still get the better of her. Booth says McNary’s at her best on the court when she has her emotions in check and her confidence on high.
After a solid start to this senior season McNary’s scuffled. Her season attack percentage is well below .200 owing to excessive hitting errors. Getting kills has never been a problem but even finding clean hits is a chore lately. Aware she’s pressing, she’s intent on correcting her mechanics, particularly her approach to the net. A sign of how far the program’s come is that even a year ago CU would have been in trouble with McNary slumping like this but Booth’s built such quality depth the team’s dominating Big East play (8-1) and doing fine overall (15-7) despite McNary’s decreased production.
Given her history she’s sure to get back on track.
“Coach says we’re a really resilient team and I think I’ve become a resilient player. When obstacles and tough situations present themselves I keep pushing through. I’m a very determined person. Working hard is something I take pride in. I want to be the best at whatever I do, even in art. That’s driven me. I think my drive is what pushes me over the edge. I have such a competitive edge because I hold myself to high standards. It hurts me to not do well ”
She’s led the team in kills each of the past two years and is on pace to finish in the top five in kills all-time at the school. She carried CU to its only Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles in 2012 and to a second place finish in its inaugural Big East campaign last year.
Pegged to redshirt as a freshman, McNary developed so quickly and the team struggled so badly that three weeks into that season Booth inserted her into a match for the first time. It just happened to be against in-state rival and perennial measuring stick Nebraska. She proved she belonged and hasn’t looked back since.
“I was new to such a high level of volleyball. I think I’ve grown into being a confident player.”
One reason why she stood out in the NU match is that she was the lone African-American on the court. That situation occurs less and less frequently as volleyball becomes more inclusive.
“I feel like the sport’s getting more diverse, which is awesome. It’s an encouraging thing,” says McNary, who idolized Destiny Hooker growing up and now has two black teammates in Marysa Wilkinson and Brittany Lawrence. NU has its first ever black commit in Tiani Reeves. McNary hopes more girls who look like them are inspired to pursue the sport.
A big early confidence boost came between her freshman and sophomore years when she made a spring 2012 developmental trip to China with NU’s Alicia Ostrander to train with Chinese national players.
“I was so nervous. I wondered, What if I’m not good enough? It actually ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I for sure learned a high level of play. I think it made me appreciate the sport more.”
The grueling, multi-hour practices steeled her for anything.
“When I got back for summer two-a-day workouts it seemed so much easier. I had already prepared myself for a really tough season. China was like my preseason before preseason. I felt like I was more prepared, especially conditioning-wise, and I found myself getting after it more because everything there you had to go one-hundred percent.
“That trip showed me what I was capable of. It showed me what could be my future if I worked hard.”
As a sophomore she made first team All-MVC and was named to the league’s All-Tournament team. Last year she was a first-team All-Big East selection. She and teammate Kelli Browning were selected by USA Volleyball to participate in the U.S. Collegiate National Team program.
She now has aspirations of playing professionally (beach volleyball) after college. Major expectations spring from her high-achieving, super competitive family. Her mother’s a county judge in Florida.
“It makes me believe I can do anything in life.”
McNary, who has a heart for children, enjoyed a team trip to Nicaragua last summer that saw her and her teammates train and play matches but also do community service work with kids. She’s also made an Athletes in Action trip to Mexico that involved service work.
A perk about playing in the Big East is getting to visit places like New York City and the nation’s capital.
McNary’s started a family legacy at Creighton, where her sister Madison now attends law school.
With a big home stand this weekend against Big East foes Marquette (Friday) and DePaul (Sunday), CU can polish its resume for the NCAA selection committee. Should McNary and her mates make it back to the post-season, as they fully expect to, they plan advancing deeper in the tournament than before.
“We have all the pieces to do it. We just need to get over that hump.”
McNary and Co. play at 7 p.m. Friday and at 1 p.m. Sunday at D.J. Sokol Arena. For tickets, visit http://www.gocreighton.com.
Doug McDermott’s Magic Carpet Ride to College Basketball Immortality: The Stuff of Legends and Legacies
NOTE: Now that Doug McDermott’s NBA life has offcially begun as the 11th round pick of the Denver Nuggets, who immediately dealt him to the player’s first choice, the Chicago Bulls, I thought it made sense to repost this feature article I wrote about the CU hoops legend.
As a longtine Creighton basketball fan part of me delighted in the magical season that Doug McDermott and his teammates enjoyed this past season but another part of me despaired because I had no outlet to write about what was happening, at least not for pay. Then, a couple weeks after the season concluded I was presented the opportunity to write about McDermott and the incredible ride that was his senior season and the singular legacy he established over his four-year career as a Bluejay playing for his father. The publishers of Hail Varsity magazine, which nornally covers Husker sports, arranged with CU officials to create a commemortative yearbook on the special 2013-2014 season and I was offered the assignment of writing the 120-page book’s profile of McDermott. I jumped at the chance and that story follows below. Read much more about McDermott and his teammates in the “Leaving a Legacy” yearbook featuring exhaustive story and photo coverage of this once in a generation player and this historic season to remember. Order yours today at http://creighton.myshopify.com. Also available at all Omaha area Barnes & Noble locations.
Doug McDermott’s Magic Carpet Ride to College Basketball Immortality: The Stuff of Legends and Legacies
©By Leo Adam Biga
Read much more about McDermott and his teammates in the Creighton Men’s Basketball Commemorative Yearbook, “Leaving a Legacy,” from the publishers of Hail Varsity magazine. Order yours today at http://creighton.myshopify.com. Also available at all Omaha area Barnes & Noble locations.
Reigning consensus national player of the year Doug McDermott wears his living legend status comfortably. That’s a good thing, too, as his iconic status in college hoops history will likely only grow from here.
Playing for Creighton’s mid-major program in the Missouri Valley Conference kept him off the national radar his first three years, though insiders knew he was special. With CU’s move to the Big East in 2013-2014, where the Bluejays exceeded expectations and McDermott’s dominant play made headlines, he became a marquee name. With all of college basketball’s eyes trained on him, his monster senior year and steady climb up the NCAA’s career statistical charts was documented across every media platform. Virtually every week he passed a legend on the all-time scoring list. His 26.7 scoring average led the nation. He led CU to a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance and Top 25 ranking. Interview, autograph and picture requests flooded him at home and on the road. In Omaha he was the headliner for the greatest show in town that set attendance records.
Showing a grace and poise beyond his 22 years, he took it all in stride and became a Golden Boy symbol for the best in student-athletes.
“The most impressive thing is how he’s handled everything,” says Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen. “He’s been humble, he’s been very mature, he’s been enthusiastic. He didn’t expect to be treated any differently than any of the non-scholarship players.”
Despite attaining the kind of stardom reserved for only a select few of the game’s greats, Rasmussen says “it didn’t change” McDermott. “It never affected him. You never had to worry about how he represented himself, this program, the university, the community. He would be the poster child for any university, not just any athletics department but any university for how you want your students represented. He’s the winner of the national Senior Class Award, which doesn’t just look at your athletic accomplishments but your community service and academics.”
Teammate Grant Gibbs says, “He’s a throwback in many aspects – in his game, in his personality, being a four-year player, committing to a program, seeing through the goals he set out to accomplish when he got here. That’s a great model for college basketball. It’s refreshing.”
McDermott shrugs if off, saying he’s simply tried to do the right thing. It hasn’t always been easy.
“I’ve just tried to embrace every single moment. I’ve tried not to let it get to me but I’ve had some bad days where I didn’t want to sign autographs or take pictures. But at the same time I remembered being that kid who went up to certain guys for signatures and pictures and if they weren’t cool about it it stuck with me. You get frustrated with the attention, especially if you take a loss. There’s been times when I’ve had to take a step back and calm down and realize how special this really is and this is why I came back – for stuff like this.”
Rasmussen says McDermott will be remembered as much for his high character as for his high scoring numbers.
Greg McDermott, who coached his son all four years at CU, agrees, saying, “I’m far more proud of how he handled his success off the floor than of the success he’s had on the floor because those characteristics of understanding how to treat people and the need to be humble and to credit those around you for your success are traits that will take him a long ways in life. Doug’s blessed with the ability to do that and he’s done it with a smile on his face. He understands this university and community has given a lot to him. A lot of people have done many things so he could have this opportunity and I think he recognizes the need to give back to that and I’m very proud of the way he’s done that.
“I will use him as an example for the rest of my coaching career on how to handle success.”
Once “discovered” last season. the press found McDermott a bright antidote to the one-and-done trend prevalent today. He’s the rare star player who put off the NBA to complete college, a decision that proved fortuitous the way his storybook final campaign unfolded.
After the 2012-2013 season he says he was 75 percent certain he’d declare for the NBA until a talk with former Jays great Kyle Korver, changed his mind. “He said you can’t put a price tag on that senior year. That stuck with me and from there on I felt it was best to come back. I’m so glad I did because this last year was probably the best this city has ever seen Creighton basketball. The fans had a chance to be part of something really special. We’ve got the new logo, the new brand. I feel like so many more people know about us now. The Big East definitely helped.”
He’s satisfied, too, he struck a blow for players finishing college.
‘Obviously some of these kids are good enough to leave after one year or two years. Maybe they need it financially. But I just feel it’s really good for college basketball to see a good player for four years. It really doesn’t get much better than that. I feel like that’s when college basketball has been at its best.”
In his case, staying meant intersecting with basketball history. The attention that came his way dwarfed anything in the annals of CU athletics and achieved the Gold Standard when Sports Illustrated put him on the cover of its March 12 issue in a homage to the classic 1977 cover featuring McDermott’s boyhood idol Larry Bird.
Calling McDermott “college basketball’s best kept secret”, SI laid out how no one, not even his dad, expected him to be an elite college player, much less the most decorated in recent memory. As one of only a handful of three-time consensus 1st Team All Americans he put up numbers few have ever posted. His 3,150 career points are the fifth-most in NCAA history. Over four years he averaged 21.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, making just under 46 percent of his 3-point tries and 83 percent of his free throws.
Being a multiple All-American may not happen again with so many top players leaving college early for the pros. He may be the last four-year college great. What most resonated with him about coming back was having one more go-round with his buddies, the guys who set the table for him, especially his fellow seniors, and with his father.
“Relationships are everything, especially on this team,” Doug says. “We all get along so well. Grant Gibbs I’ve known since I was a kid. He was an iowa guy two years older than me. I always looked up to him. I thought he was the coolest thing ever.”
Gibbs’ unexpected return for a medical hardship 6th year saw McDermott give up his scholarship for his teamate.
Another teammate, Jahenns Manigat, hailed from north of the border.
“I remember on signing day talking on the phone with Jahenns, a Canadian kid no one had ever heard of, and him saying, ‘I look forward to winning multiple championships with you.'”
The pair roomed together on campus for three years.
McDermott’s other senior running mate, Ethan Wragge was already at CU when Doug got there. The two competed for the same spot.
“He obviously didn’t want to see a coach’s kid come in at the same position but he never showed one ounce of frustration because of that. He’s probably the best teammate I’ve ever had.”
Wragge recalls the first time the two matched up.
“I’m a year older and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to let this little freshman score on me,’ and he starts throwing up this stuff and he hits the rim, hits the rim and the ball keeps going in. ‘Maybe he’s just getting lucky,’ I thought.’ But he kept doing it and doing it until it didn’t seem like luck.”
Manigat marvels how four distinct paths crossed to make their magical run possible.
“Four years ago this group wasn’t necessarily meant to be together. All the stars kind of aligned for us to go on this incredible journey. I was committed to another school before de-committing and coming here. Doug was supposed to go to Northern Iowa, Grant was still at Gonzaga and Ethan was a freshman here under Coach (Dana) Altman. Coach Altman leaves – domino effect. Just to see how it all came together and how one little thing could have destroyed this entire journey we’ve been on is special and something I’ll remember fondly for sure.”
McDermott enjoyed the journey so much he wanted to extend it and do it in the big-time glare of the Big East
“I wanted to do it all for Creighton. I think a goal of any player and coach is to want to make the place better than when we first got there and I think that’s what we did.”
No one saw it coming. In 2010 all the meta analysis missed on McDermott. At Ames (iowa) High School he played in the long shadow of top recruit Harrison Barnes, who went on to play two years at North Carolina before heading to the NBA. Those Ames teams won back-to-back state titles with McDermott as the 6th man his junior season and as the high scoring sidekick his senior season.
“Having very little expectations, I didn’t see this coming,” McDermott says. “I didn’t come into college with a lot of hype or expectations. I just kind of came in with a chip on my shoulder. No one really knew who I was and just assumed I was on the team because I was the coach’s kid. I used that as motivation to get better”
It wasn’t as if no one recognized he had talent. He possessed good range on his jumper, an uncanny craftiness around the basket and a motor that kept him in constant motion But a rail thin frame, a lack of athleticism and the absence of any intermediate game did not project into being a major conference prospect. No one could have guessed he’d be a lock for future enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or a likely NBA lottery pick.
Grant Gibbs recalls McDermott not making much of an impression.
“Doug and I played together at a showcase event. I was a junior, he was a freshman. He was just a quiet kid, really skinny, had some skill but probably wasn’t even projected as a D-I player at that point. When I was at Gonzaga he came to our prospects camp. We spent a weekend and he had gotten a lot better. He still wasn’t at the point where Gonzaga or anybody like that was going to offer him a scholarship.”
McDermott’s emergence as a legit D-! player and then some is all tied to his development, which everyone credits to a fierce work ethic. Gibbs witnessed it but didn’t fully appreciate it in the moment.
“When you’re engulfed in it and you’re a part of it every day you take for granted everything he was able to accomplish. Day in and day out he came with that workmanship mentality and all those days added up and that’s how people become great at wherever they do.”
Greg McDermott says of his son. “He’s invested a lot in this game and the results speak for themselves.”
“It’s so satisfying,” says Doug. “I remember all those long walks from my dorm to the gym. If I couldn’t sleep I’d throw on my backpack and walk to the gym at 11 or 12. It was always a pain in the butt to get in and find balls to shoot with and having the lights shut off on you. It just puts it all in perspective – all those moments of going through the grind. I wish I could go back right now because I didn’t realize how cool it was trying to get better every single night.”
His work ethic first kicked into high gear when he played with Harrison Barnes, whom he describes as “the best worker I’ve ever been around,” adding, “Ever since playing with him it was so easy to go to the gym and get better because I saw how much it was paying off for him, so I really followed his lead once I got to Creighton.”
Rasmussen says McDermott’s a model for doing what it takes.
“There’s been a lot written about what he’s accomplished. I don’t know if there’s been enough written about why Doug has accomplished things virtually no college basketball player has. Doug was always willing to do what others were unwilling to do and he did it with enthusiasm. He’s a great example for all of us. Doug approached practice every day not with the attitude, I’ll get through practice, but I’ll use practice to find out what I need to work on to improve and then go on my own and work on it. Practice was a minimum job description.
“It wasn’t just he gave a great effort the day before big games or gave a great effort every day, he gave a great effort every drill and he was locked in and focused to get better where he was weak. You would think in athletics you would see more of that and the reality is Doug is unique in his accomplishments because he’s unique in his approach.”
Doug says, “I knew I had the drive, I really did. I’m always trying to work on my all-around game but each summer I definitely added something new I wasn’t able to do the year before. It took about a whole summer to perfect those, to have the coaches feel comfortable with me doing that stuff. A lot of credit goes to our coaching staff because they worked with me so hard every day.”
He’s perhaps fondest of his “Dirk Fadeaway,” a step back jumper, ala Dirk Nowitzki’s, refined over time.
“That’s become a pretty much signature move of mine. I did it a little bit my sophomore and junior years but this year it was almost one of my go-tos. Some of these Big East guys were a little bigger so you couldn’t really body ‘em down in the post. I had to find other ways to get my shot off against them.”
His progress grew as his confidence grew.
“I realized how good a scorer I could become on the Bahamas trip we took as a team before my sophomore year. Gregory (former CU post Echenique) wasn’t with us, he was playing with his Venezuelan team, and I scored 25 a game. That’s when I started to realize I could do this with this team. That they might need me to be a little more aggressive. And that sophomore year I averaged 22 (up from 15 as a frosh) and from there I averaged about 23 and this year 26.
His experiences with Team USA over two summers also helped him polish skills and build confidence. Last summer in Vegas he was among a select group of college kids invited to play with NBAers.
“It helped my confidence out like none other just because I played against some of the best players in the world. It felt right. I wasn’t trying to do too much or too little, I was just playing my game and I happened to fit in a lot more than I thought I would. I think I kind of turned some eyes there. That was huge coming into my senior year.”
“I just think that took him to a whole other level,” says his dad. “I think in the back of his mind he always wondered, How well will I stack up when I actually play against NBA players.”
Those opportunities also exposed Doug to more great coaching. “Being around those great minds really helps you going forward,” says McDermott, who acknowledges he draws insights from many sources.
Doug’s not one to define is legacy, so let Rasmussen articulate it.
“It’s his passion for what he does, There are people who are stronger, who are bigger, who jump higher, who run faster, but his intelligence in the game and his basketball instincts are off the charts. His skill level is very good and that isn’t something that comes naturally, that comes from repetition.”
As Doug prepares for the next chapter of his life, his father’s sure his son will once again do what he must in order to succeed.
“I think there will be a process with Doug in the NBA game of where do I fit and what do I have to add to my game so I can maximize this opportunity. Is it being better around the rim? Is it my in-between game? Do I need to become an even better 3-point shooter? He’ll figure that out early in his career and build upon what he already has.”
Doug has no doubt he’ll adapt as necessary.
“I’ve added something new to my game every year. I think it’s time to add something new again. Defensively I can maybe be a little more aggressive. I don’t have to worry about getting fouls because at Creighton I had to be on the floor as much as possible for my team. My ball-handling could use some work. A lot of it will be just fitting into a different role.”
Whatever happens with him in the NBA, his deep affection for Creighton will remain.
“Deep down I never want to leave this place. I’ve developed so much love for this place.”
But move on he must, so sit back and watch the legend grow.