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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
©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.
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.
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?
©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.
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.
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
Marlin Briscoe: Still Making History
Now that he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame, will the Pro Football Hall of Fame be next?
Marlin Briscoe was just inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday in New York City and a strong contingent of Omahans made the trek to honor one of their own. Here is a tribute video of Marlin that UNO Athletics created from the two-day ceremony earlier this fall that paid homage to this sports legend who, pound for pound, might have been the greatest athlete to ever come out of Nebraska.
Now that he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame, will the Pro Football Hall of Fame be next? I think it will happen sooner rather than later now. Certainly, all the attention that’s come his way the last couple decades helps and with the movie of his life in the works, it should be plenty to put him over the top with the Veterans Committee. What he did by making it in the NFL as a defensive back, a quarterback, a wide receiver and a holder, and playing nine productive seasons in the league, is more than enough to get him in. The fact that he was the first black starting QB should seal the deal. But in my opinion, his transitioning from a very good quarterback who nearly won Rookie of the Year honors to being a Pro-Bowl caliber wide receiver is enough all by itself to get him in.
Link here to an appreciatIon I wrote about Marlin on the occasion of that UNO recognition–
You can also link to this profile I wrote about Marlin as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness–
And you can link to the entire Out to Win collection of stories at–
Look for my coming Omaha Magazine feature on Marlin. And look for updates on the movie to be made about his remarkable life, “The Magician” is due to start shooting in the spring.
And look for a new post making the case for Marlin as the best athlete, pound for pound, that Nebraska’s ever produced.
Mikey Williams/Top Rank
Terence “Bud” Crawford is Nebraska’s most impactful athlete of all-time
©by Leo Adam Biga
Has there ever been a native Nebraska athlete who has made as big an impact as Terence “Bud’ Crawford? I submit there has not. In fact, it’s not even close when you consider the concentrated impact he’s made in a short time.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting he’s the best athlete to ever come out of here, but the one who’s had the greatest affect.
These things really can’t be measured because much of what I refer to by impact is intangible stuff like motivation, inspiration, popularity, hopes and dreams. However you look at it though, you have to concede that Crawford has surely given a lot of youth a new or renewed sense of possibilities because of how far he’s come from humble beginnings to being on top of the professional boxing world. That’s not to mention the sheer entertainment he’s provided by his winning performances in the ring, including three sold-out fights at his hometown CenturyLink Center, where there’s about to be a fourth sell-out for his championship fight this weekend against John Molina Jr. He has a following unlike anything we’ve seen around here before for a native born athlete.
Then there’s the pride he’s engendered in his huge hometown fan base who love his success and how he’s put Omaha on the map as a boxing city that matters for really the first time ever nationally, except for the time Ron Stander fought Joe Frazier in that heavyweight championship bout at the now reduced to rubble Civic Auditorium. But that was 44 years ago and it was a one-off event – there’d never been a title fight here before then and there hadn’t been one since then until Bud emerged as a title holder a few years ago. Thanks to Bud, it’s becoming a regular thing. This won’t last forever, but it’s a wonderful ride for him, for the city, for the sport and for anyone who needs affirmation that dreams do come true with enough talent and work.
Omaha also hosted the national Golden Gloves a couple of times, once notably when Bud lost a close, controversial decision in what turned out to be his final amateur bout. But by the time the city held those tournaments the Gloves were not what they used to be in a sport that had fallen far off most people’s radar.
Bud’s emergence as a world-class, perhaps one day hall of fame worthy fighter and his hugely embraced title defenses on his home turf, broadcast on HBO and pay per view no less, have taken boxing from irrelevance here to renewed interest. He has made boxing big time again, at least for his fights, and he’s become a local sports hero every bit as big or bigger than legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, Mike McGee, Ahman Green and Eric Crouch ever were at their respective peaks. I mean, he’s even gotten a coterie of movers and shakers to endorse and advise him. Plus, he’s been feted in every way a sports figure can be – named athlete of the year, inducted in local athletic halls of fame, throwing out the first pitch at ballgames, using his name and fame to raise funds, being featured in big print spreads and in television documentaries. And on and on…
He’s big news and his fights mean big gates and presumably big business for downtown, Old Market, midtown and North Omaha bars and restaurants
Then there’s the fact that Bud has remained thoroughly rooted in his community. His family still lives in The Hood, an environment that he’s never really left and that’s never really left him, and his B&B Boxing Academy is right there within a stone’s throw of where he grew up and where he still trains part of the time.
As I have posted before, in my opinion the single greatest indicator of his impact is how he has dominated his sport over a few years time in a manner that no other Nebraska athlete has since Bob Gibson’s dominance from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s as a pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals. Bud has a ways to go to match that extended period of mastery but he appears fully capable of doing it.
I have been privileged to help document some of Bud’s unfolding story and rise to greatness. You can find my collection of stories about him, including a trip to Africa I made with him, at the following link–
Let me also reiterate a point I’ve made in previous posts that the trajectory of Bud’s career and the impact he’s made is similar in many ways to another native Omahan who’s risen to the top of his profession – filmmaker Alexander Payne. They are from the same city but from two totally different worlds and generations and yet their single-minded pursuit of their passion has gotten them to where they are and in that respect they both model the benefits of hard work, intense study, laser sharp focus and ultimate commitment to craft. Their rise to the top didn’t happen overnight but only with deliberate, intentional steps with their eyes always fixed firmly on the prize,
The same parallels can be seen in another Omahan, Warren Buffett, who has in fact jumped on the Crawford bandwagon because he recognizes a fellow winner when he sees one.
Win or lose this weekend, Bud’s story will continue to be one worth following because his legacy will only grow with time, not diminish. That’s how special what he’s done is and he has a whole lot of fighting left in him to ever more burnish his record and impact. But even if he were to quit fighting after the Molina match, I believe he’s already become the most impactful Nebraska athlete of all time. As someone who has covered Alexander Payne for 20 years, I believe the best is yet to come from the Oscar-winning filmmaker, and as someone who’s covered Bud for five years, I believe the best is yet to come from the world championship fighter. Bring it on.
Diversity finally comes to the NU volleyball program
©by Leo Adam Biga
Kudos to the Nebraska volleyball program for finally joining the 21st century by building a diverse roster of student-athletes that includes African-Americans. Better late than never. For decades the Husker volleyball program has been elite but its rosters have been lily-white, with an occasional Asian-American player, but you would have to look long and hard to find a black girl on any of those teams going back to the early 2000s and even mid-to-late 1990s. That omission always seemed strange and awkward to me but became particulalry glaring the last decade or so as more and more of NU’s peer conference programs, going back to the Big 12 and now in the Big 10, as well as peer national programs featured rosters with one or two or three or more African-American players. I could never understand how a perennial NCAA title contending program that recruits nationally could find itself year after year devoid of even one black player. I mean, what are the odds of that? What if that happened in basketball or softball? Wouldn’t that be cause for concern or called out as something in need of redress or examination? But to my surprise I never heard or saw the situation broached by NU coaches, staff, players or by media covering the program or by fans supporting it. I am quite sure the situation would not have been tolerated or overlooked or pooh-poohed in a sport like basketball. So why was it different with the volleyball program? I expect because the program was so successful in continuing to vie for and win championships and to produce All-Americans and Olympians. Of course, there was a period of time where NU slipped competitively, not by much mind you, but fell behind its elite sister programs and experienced a title drought, clearly falling behind some programs that coincidentially or not did feature black players here and there. Then, out of the blue, LSU All American Briana Holman transferred to Nebraska, though she had to sit out a season, the very year NU returned to championship form. She was the first black player to my knowledge to play for the Huskers in at least 15 years. That same year a second African-American, Tiani Reeves, from Gothenburg, Neb. of all places, joined the team and sat out as a redshirt. As the Huskers look to defend their national title this year Holman has become, as expected, a key cog as a middle blocker and attacker. Reeves has seen only limited action but she possesses great promise for the future. Both players will take leadership spots next season as NU loses the dynamic and dominating Rolfzen twins. And now comes word that of NU’s 5 new signees for the 2017 recruitment class 2 are student-athletes of color and are in fact African-American: Jazz Sweet from Kansas and Chesney McClellan from Tennessee. (See the link below for info on these girls and the other signees).
This is a great if long overdue development for the program and for black girls playing volleyball in Nebraska and the greater Midwest. More and more African-Americans are playing the sport at a high level in club and high school programs and volleyball affords a great avenue and opportuity for college scholarships. The Omaha Starlings volleyball program has been a platform for several area girls, several black girls among them, to earn scholarships at mid-major colleges. Creighton has been ahead of this trend locally and has featured a number of black players the past few years, including a girl from Nebraska and another from Iowa. I can’t speak to why it took so long for black girls to find their way into the Husker program but I am glad it’s finally happened and has seemingly become a thing. I’m sure there wasn’t any intentional bias happening to not recruit black players but the perception from the outside looking in sort of made it seem that way when season after season the complexion of the team never changed to include a black face. That was a bad look for Nebraska. I’m just glad that the Huskers are now among the many teams embodying diversity and not just giving it lip service. You go, Briana and Tiani. You go girls. And can’t wait for Jazz and Cheesney to make a quartet where there used to be none.
Here’s the link to the story about the NU recruiting class that includes Jazz and Cheesney: