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?
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:
Thirty-five years into practicing my craft as a journalist in my home state of Nebraska and I finally got to interview and profile state icon Tom Osborne. I mean, when it comes to the most famous living Nebraskans, there is Osborne, Warren Buffett, Alexander Payne and, well, that’s about it, unless you want to include Dick Cavett, Roger Welsch, Ernie Chambers, Pete Ricketts, Cathy Hughes, Bob Gibson, Johnny Rodgers, Tom Mangelsen, Nick Nolte, Marg Helgenberger and Gabrielle Union. I’ve interviewed them all with the exception of Nolte (long to do so) and Ricketts (don’t really care to). So it was satisfying to get this opportunity to take the measure of Osborne, especially since I grew up on Nebraska football and for most of that time he was the undisputed face and architect of the program. There is nothing groundbreaking in my cover story appearing in the November 2016 issue of the New Horizons (it should hit newsstands and arrive in mailboxes by October 31-November 1). But I believe I did achieve what I set out to do, which was create a humanistic portrait of this genuine living legend that keeps in proportion the fact he is a man, not a monument. His legendary status is not for anything heroic he did, after all, it’s for doing his very public job at a high level over a long period of time. In that sense, he’s just like hundreds of thousands of other Nebraskans who get up and go to work each day, most of whom never get their name in the paper until they die because their work isn’t covered by the media and obsessed over by fans. That’s how it goes in this game of life. When I followed Nebraska football more closely during its glory years, it was often hard for me to get a bead on Osborne through media reporting and television-radio interviews he gave. It took me a long time to appreciate his gifts because they are the subtle gifts of someone who is at his best in private, intimate moments with a player or coach or parent. He is all about the quiet communication, relationship building, intense analysis and unconditional love that happens one on one. That studied yet intuitive skill set is very personal and when combined with his naturally introverted demeanor it doesn’t pop out like the extroverts of his profession and their loud, over-the-top, folksy antics or mannerisms that sometimes seem a facade or a put-on. I believe I have captured in Osborne’s own words and in the words of those close to him some of the qualities that have come to define who he is and what he represents. I portray a man who has settled very comfortably into the role of elder statesman. He wears the mantle well.
Living legend Tom Osborne still winning game of life at 79
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the November 2016 issue of New Horizons (a free monthly published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging)
Right man for the job
What do you say about a living legend that’s not already been said?
When it comes to former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, aka T.O. or Dr. Tom, his whole life story and career is already delineated in print and online. That exposure comes with the territory from being a College Football Hall of Fame coach at a big time legacy program like Nebraska’s.
Next fall marks 20 years since he last patrolled the sidelines as coach. He misses some aspects of it and others not so much.
“I miss the game, I miss the strategy, but the main thing was the relationships,” he said, still looking fit and ruddy-faced at 79. “It didn’t mean winning wasn’t important because if you didn’t win a fair amount you weren’t going to stay employed, so that was something always in the back of your mind.”
NU couldn’t have found a better fit than Osborne. The native son grew up in small town Nebraska as a star athlete at Hastings High and Hastings College, where his grandfather captained the football team more than a half-century earlier, His father loved athletics and vicariously enjoyed his son’s exploits. Osborne won both state high school and college athlete of the year honors. He played three years in the National Football League as a wide receiver before joining the University of Nebraska football staff as a grad assistant under Bob Devaney. He earned a master’s and Ph.D. in educational psychology while serving in the Nebraska National Guard.
Osborne’s intelligence and mastery soon showed itself. In less than a decade on the full-time staff he moved from position coach to offensive coordinator and then to head coach when Devaney hand-picked him as his replacement. The 36-year-old successfully followed the winningest coach in school history and eventually surpassed his achievements.
“He knew that Tom was the right guy for the position,” said Frank Solich, the man whom Osborne passed the baton to when he stepped down as coach. “He had a great deal of trust in him and just turned the program completely over to him. I think there remained a great relationship between the two and it made it an easy working relationship for Tom.”
There was a symmetry to Osborne’s leaving. Just as Devaney retired on top, so did Osborne. He followed precedent by handing the reins to his longtime assistant, Solich. The former Ohio prep star played at NU and after finding success as a high school coach he led the Husker freshman team before joining the regular NU coaching staff.
Osborne said he meant for the 1996 season to be his last. He’d promised Solich five years earlier he was quitting. But when top players he expected to declare for the NFL draft instead returned for their senior season, he felt obligated to stay. He did and the rest is history. He had NU on such a roll then it was hard giving it up, but there was that promise he made to Solich.
“I kind of felt like I couldn’t back down from what I told him – that was the primary reason I left. Also, I developed atrial fibrillation that year, which I thought was a little bit of a physical sign. But even if I hadn’t had the atrial fib, I felt at that point I had to turn it over to Frank at that point.”
Unlike Devaney, who stayed on as athletic director, Osborne made a clean break. He refused at least two opportunities to remain near or in the game.
“When I retired from coaching I was given the chance to go on the radio and be a color commentator and I refused simply because anything I would say could be interpreted as critical of Frank Solich or as somehow overboard in his favor, and I didn’t want to be put in that position.”
He could have coached again if he wanted.
“When I got out of coaching, Michigan State offered me the job up there. I knew the president of the school. I was tempted. It would have been quite a bit more money than I made here. But my grandchildren were here. I knew Nancy’s heart was here. And I just didn’t know if it would be a good idea. So I stayed here. I felt I needed to end my career as Nebraska coach.”
Besides, Osborne in anything but black, scarlet and cream just wouldn’t do. He “decided to do something different” by entering an entirely different competitive field – politics. He ran for and won Nebraska’s 3rd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. During his six years in office he made an unsuccessful bid to be Governor of Nebraska. He returned to NU as athletic director following the Bill Callahan debacle and hired Bo Pelini, whose character issues he later lamented.
Just as Devaney didn’t meddle when Osborne led the program, T.O. took a hands-off role with Pelini.
Osborne appreciated Devaney giving him free reign.
“I’m sure he had thoughts on who ought to be playing and what plays we ought to run but he never made public his speculating or criticizing, so I’ve pretty much taken that approach. Unless you’re in every meeting and you know the injury report and you’re at every practice you really don’t have enough information to intelligently comment on what’s going on. I have views on things but it’s something I wont necessarily talk about.
“It’s about respecting the coach’s right to be able to function without somebody like me looking over their shoulders and commenting, so I kind of stay away from that.”
What makes him tick
Today, three years removed from his AD duties, Osborne’s a Husker icon with no official active ties to NU, The respected patriarch and beloved former CEO is held in high esteem by administrators, athletic officials, coaches and fans. He’s been a model of “values, consistency and integrity” said one of his favorite players, Turner Gill.. True to Osborne’s deep Christian beliefs, football was always more about the journey, not the won-loss record. He even wrote a book titled More Than Winning that took its cue from an earlier coaching treatise.
“I read a book by John Wooden (the late UCLA hoops coach)years ago and he talked about the fact he never mentioned winning to his players – he always talked about the process, How you put your socks on so you didn’t get blisters, how you bend your knees on free throws, and those kinds of things. We kind of broke the game down to the fundamentals we felt you needed to accomplish each day. The main emphasis during the week was on how we prepared, it wasn’t so much on winning games. So if we did the little things and the details correctly, the winning would take care of itself.”
That formula worked to the tune of 255 wins in 25 seasons. He was under enormous stress to win and he did.
He weathered the pressure and arm-chair critiques that come with the territory. He endured under heavy fire from 1973-1979 when he went 1-7 and 3-4 against chief rivals Oklahoma and Missouri, respectively. It got so bad he seriously considered bolting for Colorado. But he stuck it out and finally got over his OU and MU nemesis and can’t-win-the-big-one albatross.
During that rough stretch he was befriended by an important figure in his life.
“(D.B.)’Woody’ Varner was the chancellor at UNL when I was starting out as a head coach. We had good teams but we lost to Oklahoma the first five years and that was wearing very thin on people. It wasn’t just a matter of having a winning season and going to a bowl game, it was ‘Did you beat Oklahoma?’ and if you didn’t beat Oklahoma you didn’t have a good year, no matter how many you won.
“But Woody was always very supportive. Quite often he’d come over after one of those tough losses. Here he was wanting to spend time with this young guy. He probably had a lot of other things as chancellor he could have been doing, He was a very good friend and mentor.”
What Osborne misses least is the win-at-all-costs mentality.
“Just the fact there were times when it became a one-game season and some of the public reaction. You know, if you win a game you’re the greatest and if you lost a big game then people were mad at you and you’d get all kinds of crazy mail. So the unevenness of the experience – you’re either up or down and not too much life in the middle. Most people live most of their lives somewhere in the middle and in coaching sometimes there isn’t a whole lot of middle.”
The pressure to keep up with the competition invites scenarios where some coaches are willing to cut corners.
“I remember one of our coaches came to me and said. ‘You know, if we cant beat ’em, maybe we ought to join ’em.’ He was referring to some things happening in recruiting that weren’t entirely ethical. Schools were bending the rules and on occasion we were losing players to those schools.
I said, ‘No. We may get fired, but we’re going to go out of here with our heads up by doing things the right way.’ I felt essentially in coaching your primary duty is that of a teacher and if you were conveying to young people that bending the rules was the way to get ahead, you weren’t really fulfilling your academic mission. I wanted to be consistent in what we were saying and what we were doing.”
The big money, recruiting excesses and unrealistic expectations that surround college football give him pause.
He finds much of the business side “unpleasant.”
Like any good teacher, Osborne took the most satisfaction in helping young people develop.
“I remember Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys coaching legend) telling me one time he didn’t feel he made a difference in any player he coached in the NFL in regards to their character because by the time they came to him at 23-24 their character was pretty well formed. I didn’t feel that way in college. I saw a lot of players come to us as one person at 17-18 who left a somewhat different person at age 21-22. That was one reason why I was never that interested in going into professional athletics because I felt there was more going on in college in terms of education and culture and those kinds of things.”
Frank Solich, the man Osborne selected to succeed him and the current head coach at Ohio University, said, “Tom was way ahead of the game in terms of looking after our players academically. It was as important to him that we had success in the classroom as well as on the football field. He wasn’t just after the wins. He was also after doing what he could to help his players get ready for what was out there in the real world. He was able to cover both of those bases and his players appreciated it and his coaches appreciated it.”
The buttoned-down Osborne has always played things close to the vest in public but he’s regarded as a warm person in private.
“He’s a very caring person,” said Solich, “I think there’s no question his players as well as his coaches knew he cared for them beyond just playing the game and coaching the game. That came across all the time. He’s a very loyal guy. He developed loyalty within his players and especially his coaches. Aa lot of us hung around a long long time and obviously there were reasons for that. Number one was how Tom treated people.
“He looked after his players and coaches. He wanted people to succeed and reach their highest potential and did everything he could in order to help us reach our individual goals. He developed such relationships that those players and coaches would do anything for him. He’s just a special guy that I think would have been special in anything he went into. He’s still helping people now with the Teammates program. I think that’s embedded in him – to help people – and so he continues.”
Solich said he tries emulating his old boss.
“Just as you could always go to him, I have an open door policy here for my players, for my coaches. They can always come to me I hope and feel comfortable in doing that and be able to really discuss anything. Tom was very much that way for the people that worked for him.”
Turner Gill quarterbacked Osborne’s 1981-1983 high-octane teams that contended for three straight national titles. Now a veteran coach at Liberty University, Gill said, “He always told people their value. He has a unique way that whenever he meets anybody, even for the first time and for a few minutes, he makes them feel like they’ve know this man for a long time. He has that presence about him. He has that unbelievable way of being able to touch people and make them feel valued.”
Gill felt such a kinship with Osborne that he asked him to be a groomsman in his wedding.
“I just wanted him to know how I really believed in him and felt about him for me to ask him. If he’d had said no it would not have been a disappointment, but I was pleasantly surprised he accepted. It’s just a fond memory and special moment not just for me and my wife but for all the people there who witnessed it.
“We’ve known each other in a deep way and continue to value each other. I feel privileged and honored to continue our relationship to this day.”
On being a servant leader
Osborne said as coach he practiced transformational leadership, where “the leader essentially serves – your main objective is to have the best possible outcome.” His best teams so bought into it that they became unstoppable forces.
He said, “If people know you care about them and value them then they are much more responsive because they feel whatever you’re asking them to do is to promote their long-term interests. It’s important the leader be able to model the behavior and be consistent. If somebody has to take the hit for something negative that happens, you don’t point the finger at somebody else, you accept responsibility.”
Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers recalls Osborne as always “doing what he was saying.” “It was clear what his values-base was.”
Osborne said effective communication is key to leadership. His subdued personalty didn’t fit the popular coaching stereotype.
“You do a lot of listening. You try to understand what it’s like to walk in people’s shoes. You can’t be telling or ordering people around. You have to have good communication skills. Being positive is important because the best way to change behavior is to catch somebody doing something right and reinforcing it. So often people equate coaching to hollering, screaming, swearing. When you’re constantly on people’s backs, they begin to tune you out, so I tried not to coach that way.”
When he saw a need to correct, he did it subtly.
“People want to be treated with respect. They want to be given a clearly defined job and then the autonomy within that area to operate. I don’t think I ever walked around and interfered with a drill or second-guessed a coach in front of the players. If I had something I felt I needed to talk about, I did it privately.”
As Osborne’s teams often demonstrated, character, hard work and love can trump talent.
“There’s no question maybe the most important thing your team can have is good team chemistry and unity of purpose and that essentially is a very spiritual act. You focus on physical skills, you focus on the mental side – knowing assignments and making sure you understand what it is you have to do in an actual game. But I think there’s also a spiritual side, too, and the transformational leadership develops that”sense of people caring for each other and for the shared the task at hand.
He said it’s about moving people away “from thoughts that it’s all about me to making this organization, program or team the best it can be.”
He said his longtime offensive line coach at NU, Milt Tenopir, “was a really good teacher and a good representative of the kind of things I’m talking about.”
Osborne acknowledges he picked up traits from Bob Devaney that helped make him a better coach.
“I learned something from Bob about good people skills and a good sense of humor. He had a good feel for when to lighten up on the players and tell them a joke or whatever and when he should bear down on them a little bit. So it wasn’t always grinding and it wasn’t always the same all the time. He had a good touch with people.”
Devaney and Osborne
Building a culture
Osborne inherited the walk-on program and expanded it. He saw how the work habits of hungry student-athletes motivated to be Huskers could rub off on scholarship players.
“I think every organization develops its own culture and some of that depends on the values system and principles of the leadership. But I think in a very real sense the walk-on players had an awful lot to do with shaping the culture of Nebraska football because these guys constituted about 50 percent of our football team. They were mostly from Nebraska, so they grew up wanting to play at Nebraska. Most of them would give up scholarships at other schools, usually smaller institutions, to come play. Almost by definition they were overachievers. They would go the extra mile, work a little bit harder, be a little bit more loyal, be willing to sometimes be on the scout team for three or four years just to have a chance to get a letter and maybe rundown on a kickoff and be part of the program.
“As a result I think the attitude of these walk-on players began to permeate those who came from outside of Nebraska or maybe came for other reasons. Sometimes players came to be part of a high profile program, be on TV more and maybe get a faster avenue to the National Football League. But I often talked to those guys and they would mention that the work ethic and attitude of the walk-ons really began to affect them.”
Many walk-ons came out of obscurity, buried deep on the depth chart, to work themselves into the starting lineup, even stardom.
“In every case they had a great deal of determination, a great work ethic and good character,” Osborne said, “and I think that made all the difference. Character is always a big ingredient.”
Make no mistake, Osborne not only knew how to motivate and lead, he knew Xs and Os as well as anyone. He was an offensive innovator and risk-taker. He called memorable trick plays in critical situations. He boldly converted from a pro style to an option-based spread attack with dual-threat signal-callers who are now all the rage today. Rather than settle for a tie and probable share of the national title, he went for two points and the win in the heartbreaking 31-30 Orange Bowl loss to Miami.
Leaving it all behind
As surprising as those moves were, his sudden announcement he would retire following the 1997 season shocked most everybody. That’s because it came in the midst of a historic five-year run of excellence. Counting what his final team did in going 13-0 and winning a share of the national championship, he led the Huskers to an unprecedented 60-3 record and three national titles in that 1993-1997 span. Though a head coach 25 seasons, he was still only 60 years old. Many of his veteran peers went on to coach into their 70s. Yet here he was calling it quits just as NU became the dynasty program of an entire era.
In his usual pinched way, he articulated well-arrived at reasons for stepping away. None of them eased the pain of Husker fans losing the man who brought Nebraska to the pinnacle. But he methodically, dispassionately explained his decision to leave was the result of fulfilling promises he made. He also assured the program would be handed off to trusted colleagues who would maintain the carefully developed culture there.
One of his biggest disappointments came when Solich was unceremoniously fired after six seasons.
“I left the program in good shape and in good hands and we had good teams under Frank. He had some injuries that first year, then two 10-win plus seasons, played for a national championship, won the Big 12. He won 76 percent of his games, which is what some of the great coaches of the game did. Frank’s teams played at the top level, went to several BCS bowl games, played for a national championship. If you/re around for only six years and you do that, you’re a good coach, so it was unfortunate he was let go.”
One that got away
Besides losing a beloved former player, Brook Berringer, to a fatal plane crash shortly after his senior season, perhaps Osborne’s greatest disappointment was Lawrence Phillips. The tragedy that became his life and death haunts the ex-coach.
“Lawrence had some issues, primarily with rejection and abandonment. Somehow his mom had chosen a boyfriend over him and he was kicked out of the home when he was 10. He was pretty much homeless for two years. Then he got put in a group home. It was a pretty rough place. Everyone was there for criminal activity. He was 12 when he went in and I think there was some abuse.
“He was pretty well crippled. He didn’t have a lot of trust for people. We knew Lawrence had a difficult background but we also knew the people at the group home said that he had not committed any crime, that he was very adamant against drugs and alcohol and gangs. The coaches at his high school were very complimentary of him, too. He completed two years of school in his senior year because he missed most of two years. He tested out as academically gifted. He had the characteristics of a very good player – unselfish, great work ethic. So we weren’t necessarily out there recruiting a problem.”
Osborne said when Phillips was charged with two misdemeanors for entering a female student’s apartment and dragging her down three flights of stairs, he was kicked off the team with conditions for possible reinstatement.
“He met all the conditions, including going to counseling. When he went to the NFL I told his agent he needed to stay in counseling.”
Phillips stopped going to counseling and between the lack of mental health support, the big money and the rejection of being cut and suspended several times, he spiraled downward.
“He attracted a certain group of hangers-on, most of whom were from that group home, and I don’t think they did him any great service,” said Osborne, who remained in contact with Phillips.
“One thing led to another. Primarily he experienced rejection. He had a lot of that going on and he didn’t handle it well, so he went to prison.”
In prison, where Phillips killed someone and later committed suicide, prison officials ignored his insistence that he not be given a gang member for a cellmate.
“There was a fight and the other guy died.” Osborne said. “Lawrence got the feeling there was no way he was going to get out of prison, so he took his own life. It’s a very sad story because he had a lot of things going for him, but he just wasn’t able to overcome his previous experience.”
Phillips was not the first or last NU player from a troubled past. Osborne earlier helped Johnny Rodgers stick to the straight and narrow after a hold-up he was charged in came to light. “We ran a lot of laps together,” Osborne wryly noted. Osborne was his position coach and by the time he was assigned to shepherd the player, Rodgers said “we were already hooked at the hip and then we had to get a little deeper because things got a little bit more complex.” “He gave me direction. He was my mentor and he’s been one of my mentors ever since.” Rodgers added.
Osborne wrote the foreword for a new book by Rodgers. Reading the book, Osborne said, “there were some things in his background I had not realized he went through.” “He came up from a difficult circumstance – pretty much without a dad and with a very young mother,” he said. “Johnny sometimes required a little discipline but we stayed with him and it’s been a journey. But he’s certainly made considerable strides in his lifetime and done some good things.”
Osborne went into some rough hoods after recruits.
“I went to a lot of inner city areas and there would be times when the mother would make sure the player was down at the curbside to walk me up because if I walked up into the housing project unaccompanied it could be a pretty dicey situation. But you did what you had to.”
The longer he coached, he saw more products of broken homes.
“We began to see a lot of changes in family structure. In the ’60s you very seldom ran across a player who didn’t have both biological parents living under the same roof with them and by the time the ’90s began to unfold you began to see more and more kids who were in families that had split up and a lot of them that didn’t have fathers. Some of these young persons quite often were not familiar with discipline and how to relate to authority and those kinds of things.
“Many of them had mothers struggling just to keep their head above water financially and not always able to devote a lot of time to their kids.”
Other societal-cultural trends added to the challenges.
“Talk radio and social media started to come along. With the influence of technology a lot of kids don’t have the same emotional intelligence. So much of their communication is electronic anymore. It used to be when you got on an airplane or a bus there was a lot interaction, people talking, and now it’s sometimes dead silent. People have headphones on or else they’re texting someone maybe three-four feet in front of them. That kind of communication doesn’t have the emotional content. It’s very much scripted and as a result some people don’t have the ability to carry on a conversation or understand where somebody’s coming from, what they’re feeling, so they’re blunted emotionally.”
Osborne’s interest in giving young people a solid emotional footing led him and his wife Nancy to form the Teammates Mentoring Program for at-risk youth.
“We feel you can’t always legislate strong families but you can provide a mentor. In many cases it’s the difference between life and death and some pretty serious outcomes. We’re in our 25th year.”
Of the program’s first cohort of 22 students, 20 graduated on time and 18 went onto higher education – trade school, community college or four-year universities. One even went to Oxford.
“We thought, well, maybe there’s something to this, so we expanded the program, first here in Lincoln, and we began to mentor young men and young women from third grade through high school. We ended up last spring mentoring 8,000 kids. We’re in 45 school districts across Nebraska, into iowa and some in Kansas. So it’s grown a lot and that’s where I spend most of my time.”
He actively recruits mentors and more are needed now than ever he said, “because we’re growing and trying to get over 12,000 matches over the next few years.” He added, “You always lose some mentors every year. Some have been with their mentee for years and want to do something else. We try to re-engage them but some don’t come back. There’s always people that move or get transferred. Just to stay at 8,000 we’re going to have to replace about 800 to a thousand mentors and then try to add another thousand on top of that.”
Tom and Nancy Osborne
Purpose and meaning
He strongly advocates volunteering for retirees who have some time on their hands.
“Retirement is tricky. Some people don’t last very long after they retire. I think you’ve got to feel that life still has purpose and meaning and you still can make contributions. Most people can in some way until the day they draw their last breath. It can be as simple as making a few phone calls to people who are hurting, delivering meals on wheels, teaching Sunday school or mentoring a young person. And yet we’ve been having trouble with the Baby Boomers. Some of them are responsive but not to the degree you would think you would see.”
He said he’s learned some things about retirement.
“You always hear stories of people who look forward to retirement and then they find out it isn’t what they thought it was going to be. Playing golf every day and traveling is okay for awhile but then at some point you wonder does this mean. Making a contribution and living with meaning and purpose is important. It think it’s really important if you retire that you have some hobbies and a willingness to engage in something that requires service and sacrifice for somebody else. Otherwise it becomes a very self-absorbed lifestyle, which i don’t think is particularly healthy.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha Department of Gerontology professor and chair Julie Masters often taps his experience by asking him to speak about aging and end of life.
“I asked him to share his thoughts with the death and dying classes I teach for our department at UNL. I also have him share the benefits of serving as a Teammates volunteer. Each semester he wows the students with his wisdom and insight about life and living and meaning and purpose.”
She likens his sage advice to that of the late Morrie Schwartz in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie. “Students see this required book come alive in Dr. Osborne’s words. I greatly admire him for his wisdom and compassion. He is an extraordinary example of someone who is aging with grace and dignity. Indeed, he is a role model for young and old alike.”
The old coach walked away with few regrets and appears quite satisfied with the quiet place he’s landed after so the limelight.
He still talks regularly with former players and coaches and enjoys catching up with their lives.
“We talk about a little bit of everything,” Turner Gill said.
What impresses everyone who knows him is his constancy.
“If he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it – he’s not going to vary off of it.” Gill said. “You don’t have to write it down, you can just count on it, because he understands his true purpose each and every day.”
As Division I collegiate athletics have become an ever larger big business segment for insitutions of higher learning, the recruitment of promising young student-athletes has gotten out of hand. Recruitment starts ever earlier and proceeds with an intensity far out of proportion to the reality that finds very few of these kids ever making much of a mark, athletically speaking, in college, much less in the professional ranks. Often times lip service is given to their academics. This pipedream on both ends of the transaction makes kids over-hungry to be courted and colleges over-zealous to secure their pledges and services. When money is at the root of things, as it is here, bad consequences are more apt to occur, including rash, cruel decisions based on cold calculations, not on the best interests of all involved. A cautionary tale of what can happen is the story of Aguek Arop, an Omaha South High hoops phenom who accepted a University of Nebraska scholarship offer tended to him when he was barely 15. After recently learning NU was no longer excited to have him, he’s reopened his recruitment just a few months before the start of his senior season at South. As my El Perico story reports, the way things played out left South Coach Bruce Chubick none too happy. He feels NU did his young star wrong and he’s not mincing words about it. He also feels Arop will wind up in a better situation, as there are several Division I schools now recruiting him, and will use the motivation of this rejection to have a great senior year. Arop and his teammates are defending the state Class A title his Packers won last year.
Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
ERIC GREGORY/Journal Star
In 2014 Omaha South High’s Aguek Arop realized a hoops dream when, at 15, he accepted an athletic scholarship offer from Nebraska. Now this once storybook wedding between promising player and program has turned cautionary tale.
His Husker commitment made him the latest Omaha Sudanese athlete to make waves in local hoops. But he recently re-opened his recruitment after NU coach Tim Miles, who can’t comment per NCAA rules, made the offer conditional. In August, Miles, reportedly asked Arop, now 17 and a senior who led South to the Class A state title last year, to attend a post-graduate prep school for developmental purposes.
Observers say it’s an odd change of heart about a heralded player from a program fresh off two straight losing seasons and lacking any in-state scholarship players. Miles surprised many when he offered Arop so early but shocked more with this twist.
South coach Bruce Chubick Sr. said, “It’s an unknown quantity down there. I think they’re in panic mode.”
Upon getting the news Arop, reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska, said, “I think my mind just kind of went blank. I didn’t really know what to think, I’ve now moved on. I didn’t take it personal. I looked at it as business.”
Chubick knows his star felt a deep sting.
“Nobody likes to be rejected. He was hurt and I was hurt. He’s like one of my kids and when your kids hurt, you hurt. I knew it was a tough thing for him. He loves Nebraska. He stayed true to his word. I’m proud of him for that.”
As for questions about Arop’s readiness, Chubick feels he’s ahead of two other Division I players he coached at this same point in their careers: his son Bruce Chubick and John Turek, both of whom starred at NU and professionally overseas. He said Arop has things you can’t measure in terms of “heart and determination,” not to mention a 6-foot-6 frame, 7-foot-plus wing span, high motor and huge athleticism.
“That kind of gets lost in the shuffle.”
Chubick doesn’t like the way NU handled the situation.
“I kind of felt in the spring they were getting cold feet about the fact he hadn’t grown, that he’d got hurt – missing his sophomore season. I mean, there were some indicators we kind of picked up on,” said Chubick.
“If they would have just set Aguek down and told him, nobody would have been happy but at least they would have been up front. You see, he played in all these tournaments all over the country and played really well, but all the college coaches knew he was committed to Nebraska, so they left him alone. So, he pretty much went through the summer circuit and then they (NU) pulled the plug after the fact, when it was too late to be recruited by these schools.”
2017 Omaha South G/F Aguek Arop will move on from Nebraska and has reopened his recruitment.
Chubick also didn’t appreciate Miles passing the buck.
“They wanted me to break it to him,” Chubick said, “and I wasn’t real fond of that because it’s not really my place. I mean, he held true to his commitment.”
Though NU technically didn’t de-commit, Chubick said their loss of interest got couched “under the ruse of going to a prep school, which to me meant they didn’t have a plan for him.” He said, “If Nebraska would have said we want you to redshirt that first year, that would have been the indicator they really had a plan.” In his opinion no redshirt option was broached because NU’s “loaded at the 3 spot, which is probably what he would have to play.” He noted, “They have a freshman and a transfer coming in who play Aguek’s position. The math doesn’t add up.” Meaning, he said, even if Arop went the prep school route, “they wouldn’t have a scholarship for that position and they’re all about numbers down there, which I think is a mistake.”
Chubick said, “I’ve told Aguek, things happen for a reason and maybe this is a good thing. A couple schools that have expressed interest in him were in the NCAA tournament.”
He expects Arop to play his final South season proving a point.
“Oh, I think he’s going to be hungry as all get out. I want him to be pissed and have the I’m-going-to-show-you attitude, and I think he’s got that. ”
Arop simply said, “I can’t wait for the season to start.” He appreciates his coach having his back. “He’s always looking out for us. He doesn’t let anyone try to take advantage of us.”
As for where he’ll play in college, he said he’ll choose “the best fit for me” and one “somewhat close to home.”
South opens its season in December.
The more researchers explore the human brain the more evidence there is that very young children, even infants, learn from the very start of life and then so much of their continued development is dependent on how they are nurtured and stimulated and what they are exposed to. The more enriching and interacive the environment it seems, the more children thrive and the better prepared they are to succeed as they progress through those critical developmental years. Sam Meisels knows all about that and a lot more when it comes to early childhood. He leads the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and he and his staff work hard to make Nebraska the standard by which early childhood progams and initiaitives are judged.
Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett.
The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has always had a progressive bent, Billionaire investor Warren Bufffett’s first wife, the late Susan Thompson Buffett, gave generously to liberal causes.
The daughter has carried on this legacy by supporting quality education for children from low income families. Her Sherwood Foundation is a major player behind programs attempting to bridge achievement and opportunity gaps from birth through college. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund backs Educare. The Fund created the Institute in partnership with the University of Nebraska.
The research, policy, outreach-armed Institute housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha emerged from her conversations with NU-system leaders about the need to improve early childhood outcomes for at-risk populations. She and Meisels say since learning begins at birth any early deficits can contribute to later academic-reading struggles. That’s why enriching activities from infancy on are vital. As the Institute’s tag lines read: “Start Early, Start Well” and “All children need the opportunity to develop, learn and succeed in life.”
In Meisels, she tapped an early childhood guru as BECI’s founding executive director and as Neb.’s new Pied Piper for the cause.
“Sam is the real deal. He’s a world-class early childhood leader deeply committed to leveling the playing field for very young children growing up in families facing some very tough odds. Sam’s vision of making Neb. the best place in the country to be a baby is a vision inspiring more and more people, and I’m convinced we’ll get there,” she says.
“Children are born learning. Their earliest experiences set the trajectory for how they will succeed in school and life. Sam has put together a team at the Institute to help him and, really, to help all of us across the state close the student achievement gap and develop an early childhood workforce to do the critical work of nurturing Neb.’s youngest learners.”
Meisels came from Chicago, where he helped make Erikson Institute the nation’s leading graduate school in child development. Before joining Erikson in 2002, he held senior positions at prestigious schools.
The University of Rochester graduate with a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education has ample experience with children both as a parent and as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher. As a leading authority on the assessment of young children he’s spent much time observing early child ed programs.
Most of his time today is spent with stakeholders, including school district superintendents, education officials, legislators and philanthropists, as well as with fellow experts in devising strategies and policies for better assessment and training.
On September 11 the Buffett Institute and the Aspen Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring leading early childhood experts about the future of early childhood education and care.
Institute staff have traveled the state to meet with and speak to many constituencies. With the Buffett and NU names preceding them, Mesiels and Co. can get in any door and before any audience to advocate for quality, accessible early childhood programs that educate rather than warehouse, that have well-trained staff and that are accountable to state standards.
Meisels is impressed by the public-private support marshaled for early childhood efforts in Nebraska. Those initiatives are in part responses to societal failures. The state faces a crisis of young children living in poverty, a factor posing serious challenges for healthy development. The 2010 census showed 40 percent of all children birth through age 5 in the state meet the Nebraska Department of Education’s general at-risk criteria, including low income, English as a second language, having adolescent parents or being born prematurely. That percentage equates to 60,000 children statewide. The numbers keep growing.
These problems are magnified in families and communities lacking resources for quality out of home child ed and care. Meisels sees a need for more such programs wherever he visits.
“A lot of pre-schools I go into, not just in Neb. and certainly not just in Omaha, are places where kids spend time, but they don’t learn very much. They meet in places where there’s very little attention paid to something as simple as transitions, whether it’s from home to school or within school from one activity to another activity. Most very young children have trouble making transitions – being able to change what they’re doing into something else and do it in a way that makes sense in a group of 12 or 20 children.
“We’re talking also about relying not at all on television but relying instead on what takes place interactively. We’re talking about having art experiences, alphabet letters, displaying children’s work on the walls, having goals in the areas of social problem solving, literacy, math. Even for 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds you should have appropriate goals in those areas.”
Meisels doesn’t often see those things in place. He also sees disturbing disconnects in the continuum of early childhood programs.
“Right now in this area we have a number of 4 year-old programs sponsored with public dollars but very, very few programs for 3 year- olds. It’s like having sixth grade and fourth grade but no fifth grade.
That doesn’t work.”
Meisels not only finds it illuminating but rejuventating to visit pre-schools in order to get a handle on what’s happening in settings where young children spend much of their time.
“When I go into a pre-school I actually feel transformed, honestly. I’m taken over by the environment. The first thing I do is look around and see how many adults are there and how many children are there. Then I just listen for a little bit to get the tone – how are children talking to each other, how are adults talking to children, how are children tailing to adults. I note the interactions and how problems are solved.
“Then I start to walk around and note what the materials are like – are children able to reach them, are they in good repair, is there a good variety. Do we just have a few books and counters for math or are there blocks, is there a dress-up corner for dramatic play. On and on and on. That gives me a pretty darn good idea.”
He says while most out of home providers are motivated by the right reasons, some cut corners rather than put children first.
“If you’re going to be very concerned about the bottom-line, you’re going to try to have to hold costs down, most of which are for the personnel, and to that extent you’re going to short change everybody.”
He says most providers pay relatively poor salaries – on average $28,000 – to child care educators.
“That’s a terrible salary given that who’s more important to us in the world than our children. We’re also paying it all out of our pocket. The amount of federal and state dollars that goes into early childhood is very, very small compared to what goes into K-12 education. So who pays for it? Parents pay for it.
“Salaries, work conditions and benefits are very, very bad and the status of that profession, my profession, is low as a result.”
All of which serves as a disincentive to enter the field, leaving many inner city and rural communities wanting because there aren’t enough early childhood educators to meet the need.
With providers charging a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more a month, parents must make hard decisions and sacrifices, perhaps going well out of their way in order to access child ed or care.
“These are generally young people and they can’t be stretched very far,” Meisels says.
Parents of limited means sometimes choose the more expedient rather than best option, including in-home providers operating off the radar and therefore outside the eyes of regulators.
“Many people are unlicensed and then they’re totally unregulated,” Meisels says.
Since not all children who receive out of home child care are in licensed-regulated settings, he says, “We have to find ways of reaching out to them through professional development, improving the quality of the programs as a general rule.” He says, “For those programs that do enroll children who receive any kind of state subsidy the state now has a quality rating system and so those programs over the coming years will have to meet certain minimum requirements of quality, not just health and safety, and we will work with that and try to improve that.”
The Institute has launched the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program in order to raise the standards and skill levels of early childhood staffers. It is hosting higher education faculty from across the state October 5-6 for the conference “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce in Nebraska.”
Meisels says another challenge posed by the early childhood arena is variable quality in day cares and after school programs. ”
Some of them have educational goals, some of them have more fun, play-based goals. It’s a big issue all around. Actually United Way of the Midland here is focusing more of their attention now on trying to improve after school programs.”
A formal approach to the issue is the Achievement Gap Challenge through the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585). The plan will be funded for three years by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Created in collaboration with 11 metro area school districts, the plan aims to reduce achievement gaps for children birth through age 8. It emphasizes creating more quality pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds and enhancing teaching and curriculum for pre-K through third grade.
Home visits will target at-risk kids up to age 3. The idea is to educate families about activities and resources that aid development in situations where children may not be getting the stimuli they need.
“For example, we know if children aren’t exposed to a lot of words early in life that even as early as 18 months they’re going to show a deficit in vocabulary that can persist all the way through third grade,” Meisels says. “And we know there’s a very tight correlation between vocabulary and learning to read.
“So we want to teach people to talk, to read and to sing to their kids. We want to help them learn how to help their children grow in terms of physical well-being, fine motor and gross motor skills, all aspects. We need to communicate to parents – what are our goals for learning. how well is your child doing in terms of what has he learned about this and about that. We particularly want the parent to have a strong relationship with the child. What takes place between the parent and child is the driving force in childhood development.”
He says it’s not only parents who can stand to be schooled about children’s age appropriate behavior.
“We need to teach parents about why play is a valuable avenue of learning for young children, why there’s always a surplus of activity level in children. We need to teach teachers that, too. Some kids getting expelled are not wanting to sit down all day long or for a few hours, which is what we would expect for a 4 or 5 year-old. Some people don’t know that.”
He says the Institute will monitor and support early elementary ed outcomes with schools, centers and families.
“We’ve got to think in terms of families rather than parents because a lot of children are raised by other family members. We have to think about the family with the child all the time. There’s no such thing as an isolated child because as humans cannot survive alone. That’s not just our physical needs but our emotional needs, our intellectual needs. We need to be supported, scaffolded all the way, for a long time.”
He says education intervention is generally well-received.
“Because you’re very alone when you’re the parent of a very young child and a new-born especially, you want someone to talk about it with. How you do it is very important. Finding someone from the community who understands what you’ve been through is very important.”
He says the early childhood field’s come a long way.
“We have learned what to do with kids, we’ve learned how to do it better. We’ve learned that children can learn a great deal. We’ve learned the first five years of life is when the greatest amount of brain growth occurs. All of that is supportive of what we’re doing. We can teach very young children about letters, about numbers, about shapes, about space, about all kinds of things like that.
“A more recent revolution is we’ve learned we need to teach them about non-cognitive things, too, like taking responsibility for their actions, relating to others, being cooperative. It’s these non-cognitive factors that have a lot to do with how well they succeed then in life. Much of the evidence behind that has grown out of what we’ve learned from early childhood programs as we follow kids longitudinally through their early adult years.”
He says early childhood has more visibility “than at any time” and
“the research is pretty clear that if we can be persistent in our effort we will experience the persistence of effect.”
When it comes to assessment, Meisels says No Child Left Behind initiated “more testing than we’ve ever seen and most of it has not been useful.” He adds, “A lot of it has been punitive in nature. I think something that is punitive is not educational.”
“The assessment work I do,” he says, “is based upon teachers observing, recording and comparing to standards in order to differentiate what they do with individual children. You have to have evidence-based data. We learn how to observe so that we have some reliability and repeatability. Based on that I can see this is a child who learns in this way but not so well in that way and I can use that to help the child develop and have success.
“It is more resource-intensive for a teacher but teaching’s a tough job and this actually improves your teaching.”
Another punitive thing that happens in pre-schools, he says, is children being suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.
“It is a national problem. Boys are more frequently expelled than girls.”
Some reports suggest boys of color are disproportionately impacted.
Meisels isn’t surprised it happens given that the overwhelming early childhood workforce is white females.
“There are problems of identification with an authority figure who looks so different and is so different. Children from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure before.”
He says the kinds of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary action are preventable and solvable.
“Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for pre-schoolers. Some kids will respond to your saying ‘no running,’ others won’t, they like to challenge, they like to test limits. which is a very natural healthy thing to do.
“It’s our job as adults to help the child cross that divide and we have to understand where the child is so we can be successful at that. It’s a huge responsibility for the teacher to bring a child into a learning world
and to expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher.”
Meisels sees a largely health early child landscape here.
“Some factors that led to the establishment of this Institute help Neb. stand out in a very positive way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work to do, but it means there are points of excellence here. We have combined public-private programs focusing on the first three years of life that very few states have. We have four Educare schools. We have three colleges of education in the NU system.
“There are things that need to improve, too. We are a rural, low population state, so as you get into greater Neb. there are fewer people prepared at a high level. Our standards of qualification for taking care of children are not high. Some say if we made them too high we’d have nobody to serve the kids in need. We want to find ways of improving that situation. We have very few birth to 3 programs and very few programs for 3 year-olds.”
Overall, he says, “there’s room for a lot of improvement and there’s a lot of strength to build from.”
He says the investment made to support the Institute’s work sends a message that “the lives of young children at risk and their families are important enough that they would rise to be a priority of the university,” adding, “Most universities don’t do that and this is one saying that it’s important enough for us to do it.”
The Institute’s interdisciplinary-collaborative work spans across all four University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha.
“What I say to the deans around these campuses is that we can identify where most of the children at risk are coming from and we want every single one of those children 18 years after they’re born to be eligible to apply and to be qualified to be accepted at the university.
“So in a way it’s a jobs program – that these kids should grow up and hold jobs and be real contributors here in this state. Early childhood I always say is not an inoculation, it’s an investment.”