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From couch potato to champion pugilist

November 22, 2017 Leave a comment

World champion Terence Crawford has put Omaha on the boxing map for the first time in decades and fellow hometown fighters are eager to follow in his footsteps. After winning several amateur titles, Steven Nelson is a rising talent as a light heavyweight professional. National Junior Olympics 152-pound champ Juan Vazquez is eying a spot on the USA boxing team and dreams of fighting in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Vazquez trains at Jackson’s Boxing Club, where his coaches Jose Campos and Christian Trinidad feel they have a special talent who could just be the next big name in boxing from Omaha. The Ralston High senior is still only 17 and he’s come incredibly far in a short time – from couch potato to champion pugilist. Read my El Perico story about Juan Vazquez here.

 

 

From couch potato to champion pugilist

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in a November 2017 issue of El Perico newspaper

No one expected nationally ranked amateur fighter Juan Vazquez, 17, to be the poster boy for how boxing can transform your life. Four years ago, the now Ralston High senior was an obese couch potato who preferred video games over physical activity.

Even after his mother practically dragged him to Jackson’s Boxing Club in south downtown, where his older brother trained, he cut up rather than worked out. Head coach Jose Campos expected Vazquez to quit when he pushed him hard in training. But Vazquez took everything Campos and assistant coach Christian Trinidad dished out and came back for more. He rapidly shed pounds and learned ring skills. Mere months after getting serious, he fought bouts – and won.

“I tend to pick things up quickly,” Vazquez said.

Campos knew he had someone special when Vazquez kept beating or nearly beating more experienced foes.

“It inspired him to get better because he knew that if he could compete with these high level kids with his little experience then he was going to be something, and he did. He started to work really hard.”

Vazquez won Silver Gloves regionals and twice won Ringside youth world championships. Then he became a national Junior Olympic champion at 152 pounds in West Virginia. He’s now a USA team hopeful eyeing the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

No one’s more surprised than Vazquez himself.

“I never thought I would compete like this nationally, but as the years went by I’ve shown I’m really good at it. What I love most about the sport is that it keeps me in shape and it makes me a better person. Every day I try my hardest in everything I do. It just gets me through my days when I’m stressed.

“It’s always there for me. It’s made me into the person I am today. I’m doing good at school. I’m healthy, I’m eating right. It teaches you things you can use in real life. It’s taught me a lot about discipline  When I train, I don’t cheat myself. If I don’t train hard, that’s going to end up turning into failure.”

Campos confirmed Vazquez is a quick study.

“He picks things up more and faster than other kids. When Juan goes into a fight, it takes him a round or half a round to feel out the other kid. He’s looking for mistakes they’re making, for flaws in their game, and once he sees it, he works off that.”

Reading opponent tendencies shows a cerebral side.

“I see everything,” Vazquez said. “I’m jabbing, feeling how hard they hit, what their favorite punch is, what are they throwing often, and how can I counter all that.”

Campos said Vazquez can adapt thanks to unusual versatility.

“If Juan notices he needs to go forward, he’s really good at going forward. If he notices he needs to box and move around, he’s really good with his footwork. If he needs to switch from right-handed to left-handed, he will do that, and be just as good, which is pretty impressive. You only see that from high level professional fighters.”

This complete package compels Campos to sing his prodigy’s praises.

“He’s smart, he’s calm and he’s super tough – physically and mentally. There is no quit in him. It’s rare. He’s one of those kids where if he sticks with it, he’s going to be a world champion for sure.”

Vazquez, who’s trained with world champion Terrence Crawford of Omaha, said, “I want to make this my career. I honestly want to pursue it for the rest of my life,

I’m willing to take it all the way – as far as I can.”

His family supports him right down the line.

“They tell me to pursue it. When they see me fighting, they see I have the potential to be one of the greatest in the sport. I see it, too. They see that boxing has really helped me with my life – with just everything.”

 

Even though he has his mom to thank for introducing him to the gym, he’s taken it far beyond her imagination.

“She never thought it’d be like this.”

She’s happy for his success but can’t bring herself to watch him fight,

“She’s scared to see me getting hit. She never wants me getting hurt. She’s really protective over me.”

Only his pride was hurt when he lost in the semi-finals of

a national tournament in Tennessee.

“I thought it was a really close fight, but you can’t really be mad at anybody but yourself. You just have to go back to the gym and start training again.”

Campos feels too much time off hurt his boxer.

“He didn’t get to fight in between the Junior Olympics (in July) and this tournament (in October) because we couldn’t find him any opponents, so he got rusty.

“This kid needs to be active.”

Vazquez is in training now for a December tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah that will decide the USA boxing team for upcoming international competitions.

“That’s where I really need to bring it because that’s the one that’s going to determine who’s going to take that spot,” Vazquez said.

With a fighter who’s come so far, so fast, it’s no wonder Campos uses Vazquez as an example to others.

“I love that he does it,” Vazquez said. “It shows kids there is a chance for you to be slimmer and to up your lifestyle. It’s not all about eating junk food and playing games. You have to work out to keep your body in shape to live a healthier and better life.”

The nonprofit Jackson’s Boxing Club, 2562 Leavenworth St., holds fundraisers and accepts donations to send kids like Juan to competitions.

For details, visit jacksonsboxingclub.com.

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Terence Crawford, Alexander Payne and Warren Buffett: Unexpected troika of Nebraska genius makes us all proud

August 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Terence Crawford, Alexander Payne and Warren Buffett:
Unexpected troika of Nebraska genius makes us all proud

©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Terence “Bud” Crawford has fought all over the United States and the world. As an amateur, he competed in the Pan American Games. As a young pro he fought in Denver. He won his first professional title in Scotland. He’s had big fights in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in Orlando, Florida, in Arlington, Texas. He’s showcased his skills on some of the biggest stages in his sport, including the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He;s even traveled to Africa and while he didn’t fight there he did spend time with some of its boxers and coaches. But he’s made his biggest impact back home, in Omaha, and starting tonight, in Lincoln. Crawford reignited the dormant local boxing community with his title fights at the CenturyLink Center and he’s about to do the same in Lincoln at the Pinnacle Bank Arena, where tonight he faces off with fellow junior welterweight title holder Julius Indongo in a unification bout. If, as expected, Crawford wins, he will have extended his brand in Nebraska and across the U.S. and the globe. And he may next be eying an even bigger stage to host a future fight of his – Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium – to further tap into the Husker sports mania that he shares. These are shrewd moves by Crawford and Co. because they’re building on the greatest following that an individual Nebraska native athlete has ever cultivated. Kudos to Bud and Team Crawford for keeping it local and real. It’s very similar to what Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne from Omaha has done by bringing many of his Hollywood productions and some of his fellow Hollywood luminaries here. His new film “Downsizing,” which shot a week or so in and around Omaha, is about to break big at major festivals and could be the project that puts him in a whole new box office category.These two individuals at the top of their respective crafts are from totally different worlds but they’re both gifting their shared hometown and home state with great opportunities to see the best of the best in action. They both bring the height of their respective professions to their own backyards so that we can all share in it and feel a part of it. It’s not unlike what Warren Buffett does as a financial wizard and philanthropist who brings world-class peers and talents here and whose Berkshire Hathaway shareholders convention is one of the city’s biiggest economic boons each spring. His daughter Susie Buffett’s foundations are among the most generous benefactors in the state. He has the ear of powerbrokers and stakeholders the world over Buffett, Payne and Crawford represent three different generations, personalities. backgrunds and segments of Omaha but they are all distinctly of and for this place. I mean, who could have ever expected that three individuals from here would rise to be the best at what they do in the world and remain so solidly committed to this city and this state? They inspire us by what they do and motivate us to strive for more. We are fortunate that they are so devoted to where they come from. Omaha and Nebraska are where their hearts are. Buffett and Crawford have never left here despite having the means to live and work wherever they want. Payne, who has long maintained residences on the west coast and here, has never really left Omaha and is actually in the process of making this his main residence again. This troika’s unexpected covergence of genius – financial, artistic and athletic – has never happened before here and may never happen agaiin.

Let’s all enjoy it while it lasts.

Omaha warrior Terence Crawford wins again but his greatest fight may be internal

May 21, 2017 2 comments

Terence Crawford after beating Thomas Dulorme of Puerto Rico in April 2015. Crawford is 30-0 with 21 knockouts. CreditTom Pennington/Getty Images
 

 

Omaha warrior Terence Crawford wins again but his greatest fight may be internal

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Terence Crawford defeats Felix Diaz to retain his 140-pound world championship and to remain unbeaten.

That’s all well and good, but as Crawford is discovering, life outside the ring comes with consequences, too, and the streets that forged him are still a part of him and can, if he’s not careful, bring him down. His life, like all of ours, is a complicated business. The fact he’s come so far so fast from where he started and where he still has roots is causing him to be in situations that in some cases he’s ill-prepared to deal with. He’s straddlng vasty differennt worlds and trying to keep his equilibrium and integrity in them. It’s a work in progress playing out on a national and international stage. The head-strong Crawford would be well-served to listen to the advice of the wise people who’ve come forward to counsel him. Yes, he needs to be his own man, but he also needs to acknowledge when he’s out of his depth. No one any longer questions his boxing genius. Or his heart for his community and for his family and friends. As for the rest of it, only time will tell.

He is a warrior or soldier, it’s true, and much of that combative spirit is admirable, but it also has its costs. Sometimes, it’s the exact thing you don’t need or want to be. Sometimes, the opposite is called for. Sometimes, it’s more courageous and certainly smarter to back off or to deliberate or to live to fight another day, another time, aother round. It’s a quality he shows in the ring. He needs to show that same quality outside the ring, too.

For three perspectives on the forces that have shaped him and that make him the endlessly complex individual he is, you might want to check these out–
https://www.nytimes.com/…/terence-crawford-world-champion-profile.html

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/terence-crawford/‎

Crawford, right, with a group of boys in Rwanda. CreditPipeline Worldwide

Crawford won a unanimous decision over the Ukrainian Viktor Postol last summer in a title unification bout in Las Vegas. CreditChase Stevens/Associated Press

Crawford, right, at a national Golden Gloves tournament in his hometown, Omaha, in 2006.CreditNati Harnik/Associated Press

A mentor said of Crawford: “He’s a person who people will love if he’ll only allow them to.”CreditTom Pennington/Getty Images

New approach, same expectation for South soccer

April 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Omaha South High boys soccer is good again. No news there. By now, it’s become a tradition. In a you-can’t-take-anything-for-granted world, few things have become more dependable in Omaha high school sports than this program competing for district and state honors. It’s not exactly a given but at this point the team is expected to win every time out no matter who they play, no matter how few returning starters there on the roster, no matter who’s injured. The 2017 team lacks experience and suffered some key injuries before the season even began and yet the expectations both inside and outside the program remain high. As in get-to-the-state-tournament and win- it-all high. South did it last year and a couple years before tha, toot. The Packers have been in the hunt for the title several other years. Coach Joe Maass has a full-blown dynasty on his hands and he’s trying to learn from the past to help keep his latest defending champion squad hungry and peaking at the right time. Here’s an El Perico story I wrote in late March laying out how Coach Maass sees his team shaping up.

 

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New approach, same expectation for South soccer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Lessons learned when Omaha South boys soccer won it all in 2013 inform the way coach Joe Maass does things now following last year’s second state title. He not only draws on that earlier experience but on a recent family challenge and the expertise of fellow coaches.

Heavy graduation losses from last year’s championship team have him invoking “a Bill Belichick approach.” he said, referring to the New England Patriots head coach. “The Patriots don’t always have the best players yet he’ll grab somebody’s second-team player or a late round draft pick and make them a fit for his system, We’ve focused a lot more on working hard in practice then maybe we did the year after we won it the first time.”

Hard work rubs off the youth on so many new faces.

“We feel like our talent level could drop off because we’re younger,” Maass said. “We only have four or five seniors, so we’ve had to just kind of bring a blue-collar mentality to it.”

He said his Packers reflect South Omaha’s personality.

“Blue-collar tough. That’s South Omaha to me. We’re not the biggest, but we’ll bang with you if you want.”

Attitude’s everything for this perennial power everyone wants to take down.

“These guys have to remember they play for South. Every team we play approaches it like the World Cup, so we can’t let up or coast. The fact we’re defending state champions just adds to it. The first time we won it we took it serious but I didn’t realize how serious it had to be. This time it’s been more of a business-like approach.”

Twin brothers Issac and Israel Cruz, along with Emilio Margarito, are top returnees who model high expectations.

“Those guys get it. The trick is getting some of the younger guys to. Like we’re starting a freshman and a sophomore. But a lot of new players are buying into the culture those older guys set. It’s good to see.”

Regarding the Cruz boys, he said, “They’ve been starting since their freshman year. They’ve always been leaders. Everyone respects them. It’s just how it is.

They set the standard.”

“Same thing for Emilio Margarito. He’s a team captain now.”

Maass believes in open competition at practice. Nobody’s spot is guaranteed.

“If they don’t work hard, they’ll be called out. Every day you’re competing.”

This year even more so because of injuries.

“There’s been a lot of attrition – more than we’ve had in years. One of the things we talk about is next man up.”

That mantra’s extended from preseason tryouts for open spots to now and it’s already paid dividends.

With returning goalkeeper Adrian Feliz out due to injury, his spot came down to two players until one quit. That gave the job to Jeramiah Gonzales, whose brilliant opening weekend performance included a shutout of Burke in his first career start, followed by five stops of penalty kicks in a shootout against South Sioux City.

“Extraordinary,” is how Maass described what Gonzales did. “I’ll probably never see it in my lifetime again.”

He said when Felix comes back, he won’t automatically step into the starter role. He’ll have to earn it.

“They will be competing every day.”

 

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Joe Maass

 

 

Since Maass adopted next-man-up as a team philosophy, he said, “it feels like things are working better – there’s a lot more team harmony.” He added, “Back in the day, with some hot shot kids who wanted to do things their way it caused problems. We might have won, but it wasn’t fun.”

Forward Jose Hernandez is another player who, Maass said, “gets it.” “He was promoted from the sophomore team to the varsity for the Tennessee (Smoky Mountain) tournament last year and he scored the goal that helped us beat one team. He scored the first goal at state last year coming off the bench. He knows this is what you have to do. It’s not how many minutes you get, it’s what you do with them.”

Now in his 18th year, Maass has learned patience.

“We tell our kids, ‘Don’t worry about the first few games, let’s worry about games 17-18.’ As long as we’re clicking at the end, it doesn’t even matter what we’re doing right now. We just have to figure each other out and get better every day.”

His own priorities got a reality check last year when his wife Ann, an ESL instructor at South, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemo treatments and a double mastectomy later, the cancer’s in remission.

“When it first hits you, your whole life just kind of spins.”

During Ann’s illness he took a more active hand in their two young children’s lives and extracurricular activities.

“I even contemplated stepping down as coach to be a better family man but at the end of the day we managed it, and here I am. I want to win games and championships but helping younger kids is probably more important after this.”

Having taken South soccer from the bottom to the top, he’s focused on maintaing excellence.

“I just want to keep it moving along.”

He readily acknowledges assistant coaches have helped South become a dynasty.

“I’m not afraid to go out and find someone who challenges me as a coach and who on top of that can run drills and do things at a higher level than myself.

“We evolve with every coach we bring in.”

By May, South aims to win its district, return to state and compete for another title. Packer coaches, players and fans expect it. But, Maass said, “the key is to get there.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

The end of a never-meant-to-be Nebraska football dynasty has a school and a state fruitlessly pursuing a never-again-to-be-harnessed rainbow

March 26, 2017 Leave a comment

The end of a never-meant-to-be Nebraska football dynasty has a school and a state fruitlessly pursuing a never-again-to-be-harnessed rainbow

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Let’s start with the hard truth that the University of Nebraska never had any business being a major college football power in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, NU had every right to ascend to that lofty position and certainly did what it takes to deserve the riches that came with it. But my point is NU was never really meant to be there and therefore fundamentally was always out of its class or at least out of place even when it reigned supreme in the gridiron wars.

The fact is it happened though. Call it fate or fluke, it was an unlikely, unexpected occurrence whose long duration made it even more improbable.

In pop culture, self-identification terms, it was both the best thing that ever happened to the state of Nebraska and the worst thing. The best because it gave Nebraskans a mutual statewide rooting interest and point of pride. The worst because it was all an illusion doomed to run its course. Furthermore, it set Nebraskans up for visions of grandeur that are sadly misplaced, especially when it comes to football, because the deck is stacked against us. Far better that we aspire to be the best in something else, say wind energy or the arts or agriculture or education, that we can truly hold our own in and that reaps some tangible, enduring benefit, then something as inconsequential, tangential and elusive as football.

Husker football became a vehicle for the aspirational hopes of Nebraskans but given where things are today with the program those aspirations read more like pipe-dreams.

The critical thing to remember is that it was only because an unrepeatable confluence of things came together at just the right time that the NU football dynasty occurred in the first place. NU’s rise from obscurity to prominence took place in a bubble when peer school programs were in a down cycle and before that bubble could be burst enough foundation was laid to give the Huskers an inside track at gridiron glory.

The dynasty only lasted as long as it did because the people responsible for it stayed put and the dynamics of college football remained more or less stable during that period, thus prolonging what should have been a short rise to prominence and postponing the rude awakening that brought NU football back down to earth,.

Please don’t point to the program as the reason for that remarkable run of success the Huskers enjoyed from 1962 through 2001. It was people who made it happen. The program was the people. Once the people responsible for the success left, the results were very different. I mean, there’s never stopped being a program. It’s the people running the program who make all the difference, not the facilities or traditions.

Yes, I know there was a time when NU was successful in football prior to Devaney. From the start of the last century through the 1930s the Huskers fielded good, not great teams before the death valley years of the 1940s and 1950s ensued. But NU was never a titan the way Notre Dame, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State or other elite programs were back then.

 

The late Jerry List (left) and Red Beran carry Bob Devaney off the field at the 1972 Orange Bowl.

 

Make no mistake about it, Bob Devaney was the architect of the wild success that started in the early 1960s and continued decade after decade. He deserves the lion’s share of credit for the phenomena that elevated NU to the heights of Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama. Without him, it would not have happened. No way, no how. His path had to cross Nebraska’s at that precise moment in time in the early 1960s or else NU would have remained an after-thought football program that only once in a while would catch fire and have a modicum of success. In other words, Nebraska football would have been what it was meant to be – on par with or not quite there with Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado and Wyoming. During NU’s half-century run of excellence the state schools in those states not only envied NU but despised the Big Red because they couldn’t understand why that same magic didn’t happen with their football operations. Among those states, all but Wyoming have larger population bases. Among the Division I schools, all but Wyoming have larger student enrollments. Those realities alone should have put NU at a decided disadvantage and given those schools a leg up where football was concerned.

But Devaney found ways to compensate for the lack of bodies, not to mention for all the other disadvantages facing Nebraska. One of Devaney’s chief strategies for overcoming these things became national recruiting and eventually the recruitment of African-American student-athletes in enough numbers to be a difference-maker on the field.

The continuity of Devaney’s staff was an important factor in sustaining success.

His hand-picked successor Tom Osborne was like the apprentice who learned from the master to effectively carry on the tradition without so much as one bad season. Osborne ramped up the national recruiting efforts and especially made African-American recruits more of a priority. Like his mentor, he maintained a cohesive staff around him. He also made even greater use of walk-ons than Devaney had in that no scholarship limit era. And most importantly he saw the future and embraced an ahead-of-its-time strength and conditioning program that made NU players bigger and stronger, no doubt with some help from steroids, and he eventually adopted the spread option on offense and the 4-3 on defense, emphasizing speed and quickness on both sides of the ball. The option-based, power running and play-action passing game became NU’s niche. It allowed the program to recruit to a style and identity that stood it apart. Now, NU runs a variation of what virtuarlly everybody else does in college football, thus giving it one decided less advantage.

 

Nebraska players carried Coach Tom Osborne off the field after the Huskers defeated Miami in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1995, to claim the national championship. CreditDoug Mills/Associated Press

 

As long as was one or the other – Devaney or Osborne – or both were still around, the success, while not guaranteed, was bound to continue because they drove it and they attracted people to it.

First Devaney died, then Osborne retired and then athletic director Bill Byrnes left  The first two were the pillars of success as head coaches and Devaney as AD. The third was a great support. There were also some supportive NU presidents. Osborne’s curated successor, Frank Solich, and other holdover coaches managed a semblance of the dynasty’s success. And then one by one the pretenders, poor fits, revisionists and outliers got hired and fired.

Ever since Osborne stepped down, NU has been playing a game it cannot win of trying to recapture past success by attempting to replicate it. That’s impossible, of course, because the people and conditions that made that success possible are irrevocably different. Whatever manufactured advantages NU once possessed are now long gone and the many intrinsic disadvantages NU has are not going away because they are, with the exception of coaches and players, immutable and fixed.

Besides Nebraska being situated far from large population centers, the state lacks many of the attributes or come-ons other states possess, including oceans, beaches, mountains, cool urban centers filled with striking skylines and features and a significant African-American and diversity presence on campus. It also lacks a top-shelf basketball program to bask in. And while NU has kept up with the facilities and programs wars the Huskers’ peer institutions now possess everything they have and more.

The dream of NU fans goes something like this: Get the right coach, and then the right players will come, and then the corresponding wins and titles will follow. Trouble is, finding that right coach is easier said than done, especially at a place like Nebraska. The university has shown it’s not willing to shell out the tens of millions necessary to hire a marquee coach. I actually applaud that. I find abhorrent the seven figure annual salaries and ludicrous buy-out guarantees paid to major college coaches. I mean, it’s plain absurd they get paid that kind of money for coaching a game whose intrinsic values of teamwork, discipline, hard work, et cetera can be taught in countless other endeavors at a fraction of the cost and without risk of temporary or permanent injuries. If NU stands pat and doesn’t play the salary wars game, then that leaves the next scenario of offering far less to an up and coming talent who, it’s hoped, proves to be the next Devaney or Osborne. Fat chance of that fantasy becoming reality.

The other wishful thinking is that some benefactor or group of benefactors will pump many millions of dollars, as in hundred of millions of dollars, into the athletic department in short order to help NU buy success in the form of top tier coaches and yet bigger, fancier facilities. There are certainly a number of Nebraskans who could do that if they were so inclined. I personally hope they don’t because those resources could go to far more important things than football.

 

The sellout streak at Memorial Stadium, in Lincoln, Neb., is at 349 games, and counting.CreditSteven Branscombe/Getty Images
 

 

In terms of head coaches, NU hit the jackpot with Devaney. He then handed the keys to a man, in Osborne, who just happened to be the perfect one to follow him, NU has missed on four straight passes since then. I count Mike Riley as a miss even though he’s only two years into his tenure because someone with his long coaching record of mediocrity does not suddenly. magically become a great coach who leads teams to championships just because he’s at a place that used to win championships. What Riley did in the CFL has no bearing on the college game.

Even if Riley does manage more success here than he’s been able to accomplish elsewhere, everything suggests it would be short-lived and not indicative of some enduring return to excellence. That once in a school’s lifetime opportunity came and went for NU, never to return in my opinion.

Sinking resources of time, energy and money into retrieving what was lost and what really wasn’t NU’s to have in the first place is a futile exercise in chasing windmills and searching for an elixir that does not exist.

Far better for NU to cut its losses of misspent resources and tarnished reputation and accept its place in the college football universe as a Power Five Conference Division I also-ran than to covet something beyond its reach. Having been to the top, that’s a tough reality for NU and its fans to accept. Far better still then for NU to swallow the bitter pill of hurt pride and do the smart thing by dropping down to the Football Championship Subdivision, where it can realistically compete for championships that are increasingly unattainable at the Football Bowl Subdivision. If it’s really all about the process, pursuing excellence and building character, and not about getting those alluring TV  showcases and payouts, those mega booster gifts and those sell-outs, then that’s where the priority should be. If it’s about developing young men who become educated, productive, good citizens and contributors  to society, then that certainly can be done at the FCS level. Hell, it can be done better there without all the distractions and hype surrounding big-time football.

 

Steven M. Sipple: After latest loss, NU leaders face tough decisions

 

This isn’t about quitting or taking the easy way out when the going gets rough, it’s about getting smart and honestly owning who you are, what you’re ceiling is and making the best use of resources.

Nebraskans are pragmatic people in everything but Husker football. With this state government facing chronic budget shortfalls. corporate headquarters leaving and a brain drain of its best and brightest in full effect, it seems to me the university should check its priorities. I say let go of the past and embrace a new identity whose future is less sexy but far more realistic and more befitting this state. Sure, that move would mean risk and sacrifice, not to mention criticism and resistance. It would take leadership with real courage to weather all that.

But how about NU leading the way by taking a bold course that rejects the big money and fat exposure for a saner, stripped-down focus on football without the high stakes and salaries and hysteria? Maybe if NU does it, others will follow. Even if they don’t, it’s the right thing to do. Not popular or safe, but right.

When has that ever been a bad move?

A case of cognitive athletic dissonance

March 17, 2017 Leave a comment

A case of cognitive athletic dissonance

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Like a lot of you out there who root for the athletic programs of all three in-state universities competing at the Division I level, I’m feeling conflicted right now. While it does my heart good to see the Creighton men’s and women’s hoops teams seeded so high in the NCAA Tournament, and this coming off strong performances by the Bluejay men’s soccer and women’s volleyball teams, I’m disappointed that both the University of Nebraska’s men’s and women’s basketball teams suffered historic losing seasons and didn’t stand a chance of making the Big Dance. The fact is that every major Husker men’s team sport – basketball, football and baseball – is in a down cycle. Indeed, among revenue generating sports in Lincoln, only volleyball is a year-in and year-out winner with the national prestige and conference-NCAA titles to show for it.

NU softball is still competitive but it’s been a long time since one of its teams has made a real run in the NCAA Tournament.

On the men’s side, NU used to be able to point to nationally relevant programs across the board as a selling tool to recruits. That just isn’t the case anymore. Baseball has been adrift for a while now and it doesn’t look like Darin Erstad has what it takes to make it a College World Series contender again.

 

Although it likely was in use long before, I first found the block N as it appears here in the 1970 media guide. If anyone can find it much earlier, please let me know. Huskers_script_2016.gif (9489 bytes)

 

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Men’s hoops in Lincoln has been a joke for a long time now and it’s no longer funny. The succession of coaches from the early 1980s on has bred instability and NU just can’t seem to get it right in terms of hiring the right person for the job. Many of us suspect the real problem is a lack of institutional will and support to make basketball a priority of excellence. While the men have not been able to get their act together, we could usually count on the women to get things right. Yes, the program did go through some bumps with its own succession of coaches before reaching new heights under Connie Yori but then it all unraveled in seemingly the space of one chaotic season that saw Yori forced out amidst a scandal and player revolt. Where it goes from here under Amy Williams is anybody’s guess but a 7-22 record was not exactly a promising start, though she admittedly stepped into a program riddled with personnel holes and damaged psyches. Williams has the pedigree and track record to resurrect the program but how it collapsed so suddenly is still a shock.

Even the volleyball program. though still a perennial national contender, has lost ground to Creighton’s program. That’s actually a good thing for not only CU but the entire state and for the sport of volleyball in Nebraska. It’s another indicator of just how strong the volleyball culture is here. But I’m not sure NU ever thought CU would catch up in volleyball. The Bluejays have. The two programs are very close talent-wise and coaching-wise. In fact it’s become readily evident the Bluejays possess the potential to overtake the Huskers in the near future, many as soon as this coming season.

Then there’s the Omaha Mavericks. Its linchpin hockey program just lost its most important tie to national credibility with coach Dean Blais retiring. He got the Mavs to the promised land of the Frozen Four. Will whoever his successor ends up being be able to get Omaha back there and make the program the consistent Top 20 contender the university expects? Only time will tell. Since that run to the Frozen Four in 2015, hockey’s taken a decided step back, but the Omaha men’s basketball program has shown serious signs that it could be the real bell-weather program before all is said and done. Omaha came up just short in securing an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament but still had post-season options available to it only to say no to them, which is strange given the university is desperate for a nationally relevant athletics program.

Ever since Omaha made the near-sighted decision to drop both football and wrestling, which were its two most successful men’s sports, the university has hung all its athletics fortunes on hockey. Now that hockey has seemingly plateaued and lost its legendary leader, basketball becomes the new hope. But basketball is a crowded field nationally speaking and no Maverick sport other than hockey has ever really caught on with Omahans. I would like to think that Omaha Maverick hoops could but I won’t believe it until I see it.

With basketball still struggling to find a following despite its recent rise, I bet university officials are wishing they still had wrestling and football around to balance the scales and give Omaha athletics more opportunities for fan support and national prestige. The way the NU football program has continued to struggle, a kick-ass Omaha gridiron program at the Football Championship Subdivision level would sure be welcome right about now. Omaha could have kept football and potentially thrived as a FCS powerhouse. But NU regents, administrators and boosters didn’t want Omaha to potentially sap Big Red’s fan and recruiting base. Too bad, because the two programs could have found a way to co-exist and even benefit each other.

 

 

Steven M. Sipple: Different boss, same message: Win and win big

Shawn Eichorst

 

Bruce Rasmussen, Creighton athletic director

Bruce Rasmussen

 

Trev Alberts said as UNO inches closer to the end of the transition to D-I, the Mavericks are ready. (Courtesy Photo UNO Athletics)

Trev Alberts

 

All of which takes us back to Creighton. Of the three in-state DI universities, CU’s proven to have the best contemporary model for successful, competitive and stable athletics. The Bluejays have built sustainable, winning men’s and women’s programs and they’ve found the right coaches time after time. Other than two major misses in Willis Reed and Rick Johnson, CU men’s basketball has been remarkably well led for more than 50 years. Women’s hoops has enjoyed the same kind of continuity and leadership over the last 35 years. And so on with the school’s other athletic programs. Over a long period of time the one constant has been Bruce Rasmussen, a former very successful coach there whose performance as athletic director has been nothing short of brilliant.

Culture is everything in today’s thinking and CU’s culture borne of its values-based Jesuit legacy and direction is rock solid and unchanging. This small private school has turned out to be the strongest in-state DI athletic department in the 2000s. Rasmussen’s excellent hires and big picture vision, plus the support of university presidents, have given the Bluejays a foundation that NU must envy. Even CU’s drastically upgraded facilities now favorably compare to or exceed NU’s.

Trev Alberts at UNO has proven a stronger administrator as athletic director than anyone on the outside looking in imagined, but I believe, though he’ll never admit it, that he regrets or will regret giving up the two programs that meant the most to the university. Even with that miscue, he’s built a firm foundation going forward. Baxter Arena is a nice addition but there’s no proof yet that area fans will pack it for UNO athletics other than hockey. If hoops doesn’t fly there, then UNO basketball is never going to capture fans the way it deserves to and that’s a shame.

Nebraska, meanwhile, stands on shaky ground. This is the weakest spot NU’s been in, in terms of overall athletic success, since the late 1960s-early 1970s. When other sports struggled then, the Husker athletic department always had its monolithic football program to fall back on, bail it out and keep it afloat. After nearly a generation of below par results, if things don’t dramatically change for the Big Red on the field and soon then NU’s once automatic crutch is in danger of no longer being there. If there’s no elite basketball program to pick up the football slack, NU athletics has nothing left to hang its hat on. Does anyone really have faith that NU athletic director Shawn Eichorst is making the right moves to return NU to where it once was? A lot of what’s come down is beyond his control, but the hires he makes are very much in his control. The four big questions are whether Mike Riley, Darin Erstad, Amy Williams and Tim Miles are the right coaches leading their respective programs. My opinion is that Riley is not. The sample size at NU is still too small to justify letting him go now but his overall career record indicates he won’t get done here what he couldn’t do elsewhere. Erstad has had enough time on the job and I’m afraid his excellence as a player hasn’t transferred to coaching. He’s got to go. Williams will likely prove to be a very good hire as she rebuilds the women’s hoops program. Miles is, like Riley, a guy who’s shown he has a limited ceiling as a coach and I’m afraid he’s been at NU long enough to show he can’t get the Huskers past a certain threshold. He should not have been retained.

All this uncertainity is weakening the Husker brand. Part of any brand is an identity and in college athletics that identity is often set by the head coach. Right now, it’s hard to get behind any of these coaches because, as an old expression goes, there’s no there-there. Winning sure helps but even when NU wasn’t winning big in basketball and baseball, it had some coaches who stood out. Joe Cipriano brought some verve and passion the way Danny Nee did. Cipriano got sick and had to step down as coach. Nee eventually wore out his welcome but he sure made things interesting. Between them was Moe Iba, whose own dour personality and his team’s deliberate style of play turned off many, but the man could coach. Everyone after Nee has been a let down as a coach and as a brand maker. John Sanders turned NU baseball around but he ended up alienating a lot of people. Dave Van Horn took things to a new level before he was inexplicably fired. Mike Anderson continued the surge until he too was let go after only a couple down seasons.

When NU was dominant in football and nationally competitive in basketball and baseball, tickets were hard to come by. Boy, have times changed. Yes, NU still mostly draws well at home, but not like the old days. A few more losing seasons and it will start to be a sorry sight indeed with all the empty seats.

By contrast, Creighton appears to be in great shape to maintain its success in basketball, both men’s and women’s, as well as soccer, volleyball and softball. CU is among the nation’s kings of college hoops attendance-wise and support for its other programs is very healthy. As NU anxiously faces an uncertain future in terms of success and support and as UNO figures out where it fits into the in-state DI picture, CU boldly adds to its winning ways and is the clear-cut winner in this competition for the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of area sports fans.

Who would have ever thought that?

What if Creighton’s hoops destiny team is not the men, but the women?

February 8, 2017 Leave a comment

What if Creighton’s hoops destiny team is not the men, but the women?

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Wouldn’t it be weird if the local college hoops team of destiny this year wasn’t the men’s squad as we all assumed through mid-January, but in fact their female counterparts on campus? Maybe, just maybe, we got this narrative wrong. No worry, there’s still time to jump on the bandwagon and rewrite history. Sound crazy? Not so fast. The Bluejay men are not the same since losing Maurice Watson and even though the Jays are still a quaity team and even still control their own fate, each loss from here on out during the remainder of the regular season and on through the Big East tournament will only further hurt their standing in the eyes of the national pollsters and NCAA selection committee. Unless CU can play very strong the rest of the way, its once realistic if not probable shot at a No. 2 seeding will be long gone and the Jays could very well end up in their customary No. 8 or 9 spot. The once 17-0 Jays have come back down to earth and are not 3-4 in their last seven games. More importantly. they are now exceedingly fragile bunch mentally speaking. Meanwhile, the women’s team, which traditionally gets off to slow starts, once again struggled mightly early in the year, opening at 1-3. They entered the 2016-2017 campaign with a deep, talented and experienced roster, but injuries hurt them early on. Since getting healthier and adjusting to the loss of one of their own top players, they have gelled to go 16-3. The team gets steady contributions from nine, even ten players. At 17-6 and 11-2 the Lady Jays sit just outside the Top 25 and are poised to enter the Big East Tournament in great shape and further enhance their chances for a decent NCAA seed that could help them advance to the second weekend of March Madness. Steady at the helm is veteran head coach Jim Flanery, who has established himself as one of the state’s better college hoops coaches, men’s or women’s side, in the last quarter century. He seems to get the most ouf of his players year in and year out.

 

Bluejays Bytes Podcast: Episode 15, Sponsored by Lawlor’s Custom Sportswear

 

 

The great thing about the CU women’s program is that it’s heavily built on Midwest student-athletes. Almost all the players come from within an 8-hour driving radius. There are three Nebraska kids on the roster and the rest come from Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. The lone outlier is from Oklahoma. The Jays doesn’t do any one thing particularly well but they do most everything pretty well and their balance and depth is hard for other teams to match even though CU is often overmatched athletically at certain spots. Being fundamentally sound and hard-nosed can make up for a lot of deficiencies, especially against teams that are about even in terms of overall talent. I’m not saying the Hilltop women’s team will go farther than the men’s team, but they do have the advantage of being on a roll that is weeks long in process and showing no signs of slowing down whereas the guys are still in herky jerk mode trying to adapt to the loss of their indisputable leader on and off the court. Even though his career was prematurely cut short and he only played one and a half seasons in a CU uniform, Watson will go down as one of the school’s all-time top talents in the same category as Silas, Portman, Harmon, Apke, Johnson, McKenna, Benjamin, Gallagher, Harstad, Buford, Sears, Walker, Korver, Tolliver, Funk, McDermott. The same is true of Justin Patton, who may be off to the NBA as soon as next year, and Khryi Thomas, who before all is said and done may be the best of the lot. Marcus Foster has the potential to be in this conversation, too, but he needs to be better than he has been since Watson went out or else he will be remembered as no more than a pretty good scorer and super athlete but certainly not a great or even a difference-maker of a player. I mention all this because by contrast the Creighton women don’t have any one player who can be considered a certifiable star compared to all-time program greats like Halligan, Gradoville, Yori, Nenman, Janis. They are all about team and the whole being greater than the parts. Audrey Faber, Marissa Janning, Brianna Rollerson, Sydney Lamberty. Jaylyn Agnew. Laura Works and Baily Norby are the interchangable heart and soul cogs of the team and have had to be since M.C. McGrory was lost for the season after only nine games. Because the Lady Jays lost one of their best players so early compared to the men losing their best player mid-season the women have had the advantage of more time adjusting to her absence and they’ve compensated well enough that they’re in contention for the Big East title and a nice NCAA tourney seeding.

 

Creighton locks down Villanova in the second half to remain unbeaten at D.J. Sokol Arena

 

 

To be fair, the women losing McGrory was not nearly the blow the men endured when Watson went down, but what the Lady Jays have done since is not only comendable but darn impressive. And coach Jim Flanery deserves much credit for the job he’s done in taking over for school legend Connie Yori and turning out competitive teams year after year with less than eye-popping talent. What he’s done compares favorably with what CU volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth – reigning National Coach of the Year – has done. Bernthal Booth led CU to the Elite Eight this past season and I would love to see Flanery get his hoops program there one of these years. It would be a long shot, for sure, but, hey, it was a longshot for the volleyball team to get there, too. But they did it. Maybe this is the year he makes it happen. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the women’s basketball team does it the same season the volleyball team did? Why stop there? How about both the men’s and women’s teams advancing to the Sweet Sixteen? Neither program has ever done it. Why not this year? Why not do it when both team

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