A Kansas City Royals Reflection
©by Leo Adam Biga
It warms my heart that my Kansas City Royals defy the cold calculations of this digitized, meta-metrics age that’s come to define the way team sports get measured these days. You see, the Royals win in spite of faring poorly in analytic forecasting, and that makes the people for whom these statistical tendencies and barometers truly serve – the gambling industry – mad. KC wins in spite of hitting relatively few home runs, scoring at a less than robust average, getting rare quality starts from its pitchers and lacking even a single superstar on its roster. The Royals win in spite of being a small market franchise with comparatively meager financial resources at its disposal. The Royals win because, well, they are winners and that is not something that can be broken down into data bytes except for wins and losses, divisional finishes, league championships and World Series titles. KC does most all of the little things right that have come to be associated with small ball – manufacturing runs by getting bunts, taking walks, advancing runners, sacrificing, hustling. They also play solid defense at every spot on the diamond and in the outfield. When the Royals are right, they play station to station team ball like no one else in today’s game, though more times than you might imagine they are also capable of keeping the line moving with hit after hit, baserunner after baserunner, enroute to big innings. They put consistent pressure on opponents until foes bend and ultimately break. If the Royals get the lead on you early or if they stay within striking distance late, they have more than enough firepower among their position players and bullpen to close the door and lock up the win or to rally and go ahead, as the situation demands. They may not be a great team in the annals of The Show and in fact these Royals may not even be as strong as the franchise’s glory years teams from 1975 through 1985, but they are consistently excellent four years running now. Should they win another division title and make a third consecutive World Series, then they are firmly in the conversation of a dynasty in our midst. What makes it all so satisfying is that the core of the club is essentially intact during this span and many of the most valuable players on this ride came up together through the KC farm system. Those that were added by trades have been part of the MLB journey to success for the full duration. The Royals may be just one more strong starting pitcher and one more run producer away from writing their ticket to another world title and assuring this bunch a measure of all-time greatness. Best of all, the Roayls are still fairly young and may be looking at another two or three or four or more years of contention. Don’t bother trying to add the numbers up to explain why the Royals are able to do what they do because you can’t quantify grit, energy, determination, desire, camaraderie and teamwork. The Royals are the epitome of guys who come through in the clutch no matter what the stats read. The numbers won’t show you a line for haivng character through advertisity or breaking the will of opponents. Of course, it’s not as if the Royals are without mega talent. The draft and farm system began stockpiling and developing elite prospects going back a decade. It took awhile for the potential to reach maturation and to show results. Each year of this four year run of results has been a different story. The Royals began to live up to their ballyhooed promise in 2013 but still had too many gaps to fill to fully emerge a top tier club. They broke through to the upper echelon and to the post-season in 2014, when they surprised everyone by reaching the World Series. Thet were arguably the better team than the Giants in that W.S. but just couldn’t overcome a certain ace. They were pretty much wire to wire leaders in 2015, when several Royals enjoyed career years, and KC fairly dominated the post season on through to a W.S. title. This season, several of those same players got off to miserable starts. Then came a rash of injuries. Manager Ned Yost and his gang of coaches and his band of brothers players have stayed the course, changed out some parts, and just like the last two years, made true on the next man up credo by plugging in guys who get the job done. So far so good. Two weeks ago or so KC struggled to do much of anything right and seemed in danger of being left out of the race before it began. Now the team has hit its stride and KC finds itself in first place. Nothing is guaranteed with so much season left to go but the team sure has the look of a contender and a champion again. The stats tell you they shouldn’t be doing this but ignore the metrics where the Royals are concerned and go with your heart. That’s what they do and it’s working out just fine.
There have been far longer droughts than the one the Omaha South High School boys basketball program had suffered since its last state title in 1990. But it would be fair to say its hoops fortunes dried up for the better part of a generation before Bruce Chubick arrived as head coach about a decade ago. He’s turned what became a perennial loser into a winner. Under him South did everything to reach the pinnacle of Nebraska prep basketball with the exception of a state title – until last weekend. In Lincoln the Packers entered as the No. i rated and seeded team and like two previous times under Chubick they made it to the finals. But where in the past they came up short and had to settle as runner up, this time they finished the job and were the last team standing and cutting down the nets after they beat Fremont 59-50 in the championship game. The story is very similar to what has happened with the South High boys soccer program under coach Joe Maass, except he took over a program that had never had any success and turned it into a juggernaut. His teams did everything but win a state title until they finally broke through in 2013. I have written about Maass and the rebuilding program he engineered that’s made South High soccer a feel good success story. This El Perico story is my first time writing about Chubick and the success story he’s led with South High hoops. It feels good, too.
Bruce Chubick builds winner at South
State title adds capstone to strong foundation
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in El Perico newspaper
Omaha South coach Bruce Chubick Sr. is back in Lincoln to chase another state title, though the challenges of the bracket don’t compare to a life journey that’s bested cancer, an in-game heart attack and bears in the backyard.
Entering the 2016 Nebraska boys state basketball tournament, Omaha South head coach Bruce Chubick occupied the same spot his soccer counterpart at South, Joe Maass, found himself in a few years ago.
Maass built the school’s once dreadful soccer program to elite status. But among the high national rankings, multiple district championships and finals appearances, the one thing missing was a state title. Similarly, Chubick’s engineered a dramatic turnaround with South hoops but for all the on-court feats – a handful of state tournament appearances and two runner-up finishes – there was no state title to show for it. Maass and his program finally got that elusive soccer prize in 2013.
Now Chubick has closed the deal after South’s 59-50 win over Fremont in the Class A finals in Lincoln on March 12. The Packers finished 28-1.
South entered as the tourney’s prohibitive favorite and No. 1 seed after a 25-1 regular season in which the team outscored foes 69 to 44 on average. The only loss came to a top Colorado club at a showcase event in Grand Island. In Lincoln, the Packers displayed the athleticism that separates them from their in-state competition. At least three Packers are Division I scholarship commits and D-I schools are looking at a fourth. No one will ever know if South would have reached this pinnacle with another coach, but the record shows the consistent winning ways began under Chubick, who deflects praise to his staff. Among his assistants is his son, Bruce Chubick Jr., who played for him at Atkinson West Holt before playing at Nebraska.
The fact is the senior Chubick, who at 65 is old enough to be his players’ grandfather, has flipped programs wherever he’s coached in his 42-year career. He led former patsy Atkinson West Holt to a Class C-1 title. At his last stop, Council Buffs Abraham Lincoln, he turned a perennial loser into a winner. Just as Maass took the South soccer job when nobody wanted it, Chubick committed to a dead end basketball program with a losing culture. It seemed a bleak challenge. Only Chubick didn’t see it that way.
“I mean, they had nowhere to go but up as far as I could see,” he told this reporter on the eve of the state tourney. “Everybody thought it was a hopeless situation. But I saw it as nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he told another reporter.
He knew he could win there but he didn’t expect to qualify for state six straight seasons and to play in three finals in that same span.
“I don’t know I would have believed that if you told me that nine years ago.”
But raising programs from the bottom up is what he does.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s just my personality,” he said. “I used to build houses, so I guess maybe I’m a builder and that’s kind of my M.O. I come in and I try to build programs. Before South, I’d get ’em built and then leave, but I’ve kind of stuck around on this one. I like South O, I always have. It’s working-class, blue-collar type people, and that’s me, so it’s a good fit.”
Besides, he’s found a great student-athlete base there that includes kids who need the strong, positive male role model he provides.
“You know, I’ve been in the Sand Hills of Neb. and the cornfields of Iowa teaching and coaching. I started in the inner city at Tech (Omaha Technical High School). And then I came back to the inner city for this job. This is the most rewarding job I’ve had. I’m not sure when I was in the suburbs or in the farming communities I was helping kids, but I’m pretty sure we’re helping kids here, and that feels pretty good.”
He’s rarely had this kind of talent to build around. Several players have gone on to play college ball and there’s more talent in the pipeline. This year’s squad started four seniors but it’s most impactful player, Nebraska basketball pledge Aguek Arop, is a junior wing. He led South in scoring and teamed with his older brother Makoor to key a high pressure defense and high efficiency offense. They’re among many South Sudan natives to emerge as difference makers in hoops just as Mexican-Central American natives key South’s soccer resurgence.
“I’ve had some really good teams over the years,” Chubick said, “and three years ago here was the most talented team I’ve ever coached. Just tremendously gifted. That was a special bunch. They’re all playing college ball somewhere. But the chemistry wasn’t good. They didn’t really mesh together and they didn’t really like each other.”
He ranks his 2015-2016 Packers as “not very far behind talent-wise” from that earlier team but far ahead in terms of cohesion. “Their chemistry is great and they’ve worked hard to get to where they’re at.”
Point guard Monte’ McGary, signed to play wide receiver at South Dakota State, said, “I think the biggest thing is we all get along as a team. Everybody likes each other, so it’s really fun. The majority of us played on the same team starting in sixth grade and then we all came here. Even if didn’t play together, we all knew each other.”
McGary said the team’s tight bond is reflected in its unselfish play.
“When we’re at our best we’re all playing defense and just having fun sharing the ball, not caring who scores. We’re just out there playing.”
That’s just what South did, too, down in Lincoln.
The Packers’s baseline to baseline game wore down the bodies and the will of opponents.
Aguek Arop said it was text book South style ball.
“We move the ball, we attack, we force turnovers, we get deflections, all that. With great defense we get easy buckets off transition.”
Aguek and McGary said they were “very hungry” to finally bring a title trophy back to South. McGary spoke of wanting “to put our names in the history books.”
With the title now in hand, McGary said, “We’re happy for the program and the school. It’s really special.”
“It’s been our goal the last three years to be the last one standing,” Chubick said. “We came close last year. I don’t think there was any denying these guys. I just think they were on a mission and they weren’t going to let anything to get in the way.”
Before the tourney Chubick praised guard Caleal Walker as the team’s “unsung hero,” adding, “He leads by example. You want a complete player that gives a hundred percent – that’s Caleal Walker.”
In the title game Walker flashed big time moves and dunks in scoring a game-high 20 points. He scored 56 points in Lincoln and was named the all-tournament team’s honorary captain.
Chubick added, “Then you’ve got Monte’, who’s steady at point guard, and Karlon McSpadden at wing. Aguek is probably the most gifted of all of them. He’s really special.”
The coach didn’t mention South big man and Iowa football recruit Noah Fant, who was in his doghouse. But the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder gave South a solid interior presence and physicality.
Chubick said, “They’re all humble, really good kids, fun to coach, fun to be around. I can’t imagine not being around them. They’ve sacrificed and done everything we’ve asked them to do and driven us crazy along the way, but they’re kids, they’re supposed to do that.”
He thinks enough of his players that when he suffered a heart attack the day of a late February road game versus Lincoln Southeast he decided against checking himself into the ER until after coaching the contest. “I didn’t want to quit on the players,” he said. The next morning a physicias inserted two stents to unblock arteries. The youthful Chubick, who stays in great shape and had no prior heart problems, said he now has “more energy” than before. He earlier survived a cancer scare and he deals with rheumatoid arthritis.
Arop said Chubick’s toughness rubs off on them. “For him to be able to fight through his heart attack, I mean it’s just a good example for us fighting through like fatigue, adversity.”
Chubick admits to being old-school but adds, “I try to stay current school, too. You gotta do both. The kids don’t want to hear stories all the time about this team you had 30 or 40 years ago. They cant relate to that, so we don’t go there.”
McGary said there’s no generation gap with this coach, who’s known to get animated on the sidelines.
“He communicates and relates to us really well. From the stands he can look kind of crazy but he’s really cool with us, we never have any problems with him, nobody gives him trouble or anything like that.”
If not for some ill-timed injuries and suspensions, South may be in the midst of a dominant run like Omaha Central went on in the early 2000s with six titles in eight years. Only Chubick’s “cut loose” some of his best players for violating team rules and school policies. If they’d played, perhaps South would be celebrating a dynasty, too. “We’re an eyelash away from the same thing except we haven’t been very lucky,” he said. “Some of those disciplinary things we could have looked the other way and probably given ourselves a real good chance to win it, but I don’t want it that bad if you’re not going to do the right thing,”
With no major injury or disciplinary problems this season, he speculated South’s time had arrived, saying, “Maybe it’s all going to come together now.” Before the state tourney, he expressed confidence in his team’s ability to seize the moment.
“They’ve risen to the occasion every time except for one bad quarter. I’m not going to question whether they will or not this time. I’m pretty sure they’re gonna. The bigger the stage, the better they play. They love the attention. I hope this ends with a state championship, but if it shouldn’t work out that way I still think the world of these kids.”
Maneuvering his players like chess players in the South gym during a walk-through practice before heading to Lincoln, he told his team, “We’ll do what we do.” Code for: South’s up-tempo, full-court game will be too much for opponents.
Sure enough, South proved too much. After the nets were cut down, Chubick made it know he’ll be back at least one more year to make another run to Lincoln.
“I promised Aguek (Arop) when he came in I would stay until he graduated, so I want to keep my word, so I’m back next year anyway.”
Whenever he does leave, he’s secure that a foundation’s been built.
“It’s there. I think it’s kind of a turn-key thing for somebody down the road, but I’m going to keep her for awhile anyway – just as long as the health holds up.”
Soccer is still no where near as popular in America as football, basketball and baseball but it’s undeniably growing year by year in having a hold on people’s interest and imagination. The emergence of soccer as a prime sport at Omaha South High School gives insight into the demographics at work that will likely one day see the sport challenge the big three team sports and perhaps even overtake them, not just in Omaha or greater Neb., but around the nation. South High is a microcosm for how South Omaha has changed from its largely Eastern European population base from the late 19th century through the 1970s to a largely Hispanic, African and Asian base in recent years. Then and now many of the immigrant and refugee families drawn there have found work in the meatpacking industry, and thus the school’s nickname, Packers. This demographic transformation has had many effects, including a student population that is increasingly soccer-centric. Boys soccer head coach Joe Maass has been there since 2000, when the change was near full flower. Since then he’s taken a moribound program that couldn’t win and nobody wanted to coach and turned it into a budding dynasty. He’s done it with players of Mexican and Latin American heritage and more recently of African heritage who have played soccer practically from the time they could walk and run. These experienced, skilled and passionate players, wave after wave and class after class of them, have made South a perennial contender for metro, district and state titles. Just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a a high school soccer game to outdraw a football or basektball game, but that’s often what South high soccer manages to do. When the program first emerged as a force to be reckoned with a few years ago and the team made it to their first state finals, record crowds turned out and most of the fans were rooting for South. The majority of fans were Hispanic. It was a hugh love fest for the team, the school and the South Omaha community. Maass is the mastermind who’s embraced this flood of talent and passion and let it flourish. My El Perico story about Maass and the evolution of South High Soccer was published just as this year’s team has found itself and climbed to No. 1 in the rankings. With the way the Packers are playing, they will be the odds-on favorite to win their second state title in three years.
As this story mentions, South soccer has earned national attention in recent years as one of the country’s best high school squads. It’s also been singled out on the national stage for being part of a turnaround in South Omaha that is Hispanic-led. Somehow I missed until just now that the program got featured in Sports Illustrated in 2015. The feature is part of a larger series on the changing face of sports in America, as demographic shifts compel changes on and off the field at every level of sport. Titled “American Dreamers,” the article highlights the Packers’ journey from an after thought to a perennial power. It also looks at the ongoing transformation of South Omaha and South High and how this immigrant community takes great pride in their soccer team and the impact it’s had across the state. After South cemented its elite status by beating arch rival Omaha Creighton Prep for the 2013 championship players wrote to then-Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman asking him to work to help improve the lives of those in their community. The story also highlights “new life” at Omaha South, including an energized community and recent academic achievements.
Masterful: Joe Maass leads Omaha South High soccer evolution
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Omaha South High soccer coach Joe Maass enjoys being part of a transformation that’s seen his soccer program blossom from awful to brilliant and his school rise from woebegone to thriving.
He was 26 when he got the job in 2000. That’s unusually young for a big school head coach but it wasn’t like candidates were busting down the doors. Slowly but surely though Maass turned that no-win situation around. He now has South soccer a perennial contender and a point of pride for the school and community it represents.
South has built a near dynasty on the strength of mostly Latino players who’ve become the new face of the more than century-old school. Michael Jaime became the first Gatorade Nebraska Boys Soccer Player of the Year (2013-2014) from South, one of several all-state players with Spanish surnames the school’s produced. In 2010 Manny Lira was the captain of the all-state team. Those players and several others went on to earn college scholarships.
For the ninth consecutive season South’s regarded as a major threat. The No. 1-ranked Packers opened the season with 10 straight wins. Since their first and only defeat of the year, 1-0 to Papiliion LaVista-South on April 13 in the Metro Conference championship game, they’ve beaten traditional rivals Omaha Westside and Omaha Creighton Prep, and on April 20 they avenged their lone loss to Papio LaVista-South. They’ve come together as a team despite injury and suspension.
The 2013 Omaha South soccer team waves to fans before taking on Omaha Creighton Prep in the Nebraska Class A boys soccer championship match at Morrison Stadium. The Packers won 1-0.
Maass says the prospects for his 2015 team are promising.
“As a unit we’re really good. I have a lot of pretty good players but there’s not like one or two players miles ahead of everybody else in the state, so this is definitely going to be a team year where a lot of different kids contribute. I think making state would be a fair goal and then maybe when we get there…”
Anything can happen. Only a few years after being a losing team, South made its first state final in 2010, the game infamous for the “green card” incident when opposing fans threw mock green cards on the field to insinuate South players were illegal immigrants. It was the most public in a long line of racial insults directed at South.
Maass says he was proud of “the way his team handled it,” adding, “The kids didn’t retaliate – they stood up for the team and school and for what was right and wrong.”
South then put together arguably the greatest season ever by a Neb. Class A boys soccer team in 2013, going 23-0 en route to the state title, setting many records in the process. Elite Soccer Report named South the top team among states where soccer’s a spring sport.
“We won the whole thing and we did it the right way,” Maass says.
None of it seemed possible 16 years ago.
“Everything that’s been accomplished I would never have imagined. I have a huge sense of pride in that and in knowing that if I stopped coaching tomorrow South High soccer’s still going to be pretty good because we’ve built a strong program.”
Not bad considering what Maass started with.
“The guy who was the head coach before me saw I had some energy and passion, so he stepped down and recommended me to replace him. The truth is nobody else applied, so they just gave it to me because essentially nobody wanted that job. There was nothing desirable about it. It was not very forgiving.
“The program was pretty bad back then. The school really didn’t fund the program. The uniforms were really old. The sport of soccer didn’t get much attention or respect, especially down here.”
Besides low interest and expectations – South won eight games his first four years – it was hard getting kids to play and fans to follow.
“I had somewhere around 11 or 12 players. The first practice there were 15 kids on the field and four of them were off the streets, they weren’t even students. I only had one senior. The next year it was maybe 13 to 15 players. Then 18. Each year it just grew a little bit.”
He scoured South O parks and fields for promising talent and before long gifted players, even some elite club players, filled his rosters.
The facilities were subpar until Collin Stadium opened in 2009, giving the by-then vastly improved program a distinct home advantage with its full-sized soccer field.
The one constant, Maass says, is that “the kids were great kids.” “But,”
he adds, “I don’t think anybody saw South going from being the worst team in the state to what it is now. We’re pretty much a projected top 10 team every year and that’s where we want to be – a top 10 team that everybody has to kind of somewhat fear.”
These days the program gets 100-plus students trying out and carries 80 to 90 players across its varsity, junior varsity and freshman squads. Grads are getting scholarships to play at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Bellevue University and other schools. Several are coaching for South, including Leo Enriquez and Cesar Lira, and several others are coaching for club teams or competing schools.
Where South soccer used to be an after-thought, it’s now a conversation starter. Cara Riggs was South’s principal when Maass engineered the turnaround. More than all the wins, she appreciated the way Maass cared.
“Joe sometimes comes off as tough, maybe even gruff. Underneath that exterior is a very soft-hearted, compassionate man who cares very deeply about the kids he works with. He has high expectations of your hard work and he’s willing to go above and beyond for you and your success. His loyalty to South High, its students and South Omaha is as strong as a Mack truck.”
Tobias Maertzke, a German exchange student who played at South a few years ago, lived with Maass and his wife while going to school there. “He’s like a family member almost,” Maass says.
Maass acknowledges he’s softened and matured since becoming a father. He and his wife have two children.
“I’ve mellowed quite a bit. I’m still fiery but not overly fiery like I used to be. The first couple years i was probably a little bit rough actually. I had a great understanding for the game but maybe not an understanding for all the kids, whereas now I feel I understand the kids, the game, how the referees work. I feel the refs respect me, so they’re not as quick to give me a yellow card if I step out of line.”
Riggs says South soccer made a positive impact far beyond the field.
“The success of Joe’s soccer program has been a definite booster for school pride and community respect. The success helped put South back on the map and recognized again in the Omaha community.”
Maass, whose roots are in that neighborhood, says, “The sense of community that came back to South Omaha is just amazing to me.”
Having built South to be an elite program and kept it there, Maass is not sure which feat is more difficult.
“It was really hard to get there but it’s hard to stay on top though because more kids are playing the sport now and other schools are starting to mirror the things we’ve done.”
Of all the achievements South’s attained, including district and metro crowns and records for most goals scored and most shutouts recorded in a single season, the 2013 state title stands out.
“Winning a championship at South after they hadn’t won one in years was big. It felt great to feel our program was on top of the world.”
Championships and records are nice, he says, “but at the end of the day” it’s the relationships he forges with “the kids” and following their life pursuits that matter most to him.
“I see them out in the community. It’s interesting to see where they end up. I hope in some way I’ve impacted these kids. That by far outweighs everything else.”
Just like the team’s Twitter page tag line reads, “We are a family, friends and a team with one big heart.. Packers.”
This will likely be my last word on the demise of the University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program in 2011. As some of you may know from reading this blog or from following other media reports on the story, the program did nothing to contribute to its demise. Quite the contrary, it did everything right and then some. UNO wrestling reached the pinnacle of NCAA Division II competition and maintained its unparalleled excellence year after year. Yet university officials disregarded all that and eliminated the program. The action caused quite an uproar but the decision stood, leaving head coach Mike Denney, his assistants, and the student-athletes adrift. In a stunning turn, Denney is more or less taking what’s left of the orphaned program, including a couple assistants and 10 or so wrestlers, and moving the program to Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. The following story for the New Horizons is my take on what transpired and an appreciation for the remarkable legacy that Denney, his predecessor Don Benning, and all their assitants and wrestlers established at a university that then turned its back on their contributions. It’s a bittersweet story as Denney closes one chapter in his career and opens a new one. It is UNO’s loss and Maryville’s gain.
UPDATE: By 2014, Denney had already made Maryville a national title contender. His team is ranked No. 1 in 2015-2016 and is the favorite to win this year’s D-II championship.
Mike Denney exhorting his troops to keep the faith
Requiem for a Dynasty:
Mike Denney Reflects on the Long Dominant, Now Defunct UNO Maverick Wrestling Program He Coached, Its Legacy, His Pain, and Starting Anew with Wife Bonnie at Maryville University
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in the New Horizons
The For Sale sign spoke volumes.
Planted in the front yard of the home Mike and Bonnie Denney called their own for decades, it served as graphic reminder an Omaha icon was leaving town. The longtime University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling coach and his wife of 42 years never expected to be moving. But that’s what happened in the wake of shocking events the past few months. Forced out at the school he devoted half his life to when UNO surprised everyone by dropping wrestling, he’s now taken a new opportunity far from home — as head coach at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo.
The sign outside his home, Denney said, reinforced “the finality of it.” That, along with cleaning out his office and seeing the mats he and his coaches and wrestlers sweated on and achieved greatness on, sold via e-Bay.
On his last few visits to the Sapp Field House and the wrestling room, he said he couldn’t help but feel how “empty” they felt. “There’s an energy that’s gone.”
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for the golden wrestling program and its decorated coach.
But this past spring the winningest program in UNO athletic history, fresh off capturing its third straight national championship and sixth in eight years, was unceremoniously disbanded.
Denney’s teams won two-thirds of their duals, claimed seven national team championships, produced more than 100 All-Americans and dozens of individual national champions in his 32 years at the helm. At age 64, he was at the top of his game, and his program poised to continue its dominant run.
“Let me tell you, we had a chance to make some real history here,” he said. “Our team coming back, I think we had an edge on people for awhile. We had some good young talent.”
UNO celebrates its 2010-2011 national championship
A measure of how highly thought of Denney is in his profession is that InterMat named him Coach of the Year for 2011 over coaches from top Division I programs. In 2006 Amateur Wrestling News made him its Man of the Year. That same year Win Magazine tabbed him as Dan Gable Coach of the Year.
Three times he’s been voted Division II Coach of the Year. He’s an inductee in both the Division II and UNO Athletic Halls of Fame. UNO awarded him its Chancellor’s Medal for his significant contributions to the university.
“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness”
Yet, when all was said and done, Denney and his program were deemed expendable. Suddenly, quite literally without warning, wrestling was shut down, the student-athletes left adrift and Denney’s coaching job terminated. All in the name of UNO’s it’s-just-business move to Division I and the Summit League. The story made national news.
Response to the decision ranged from incredulity to disappointment to fury. To his credit, Denney never played the blame game, never went negative. But as print and television coverage documented in teary-eyed moments with his wrestlers, coaches and wife, it hurt, it hurt badly.
“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness,” he said.
The closest he comes to criticism is to ask accusingly, “Was it worth it? Was the shiny penny worth it? Or are people worth it? What are you giving up for that? Your self? Your soul?”
Referring to UNO officials, Bonnie Denney said, “They’re standing behind a system that treats people very disrespectfully. You just don’t treat people like that, — you just don’t. We’ve got to put it in God’s hands and move on. We’re not going to let it pull us down. We’re going to keep our core and take it someplace else.”
Nobody saw it coming. How could they? Wrestling, with its consistent excellence and stability, was the one constant in a topsy-turvy athletic department. The decision by Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts to end wrestling, and along with it, football, was inconceivable in the context of such unprecedented success.
Unprecedented, too, was a university jettisoning the nation’s leading program and coach without a hint of scandal or mismanagement. No NCAA rules violations. No financial woes. It would have been as if University of Nebraska-Lincoln higher-ups pulled the plug on Husker football at the height of Tom Osborne’s reign of glory.
An apples to oranges comparison? Perhaps, except the only difference between NU football and UNO wrestling is dollars and viewers. The Huskers generate millions in revenue by drawing immense stadium crowds and television audiences. The Mavericks broke even at best and drew only a tiny fraction of followers. Judging the programs solely by winning and losing over the last half-century, however, and UNO comes out on top, with eight national titles to NU’s five. Where UNO won minus sanctions, NU won amid numerous player run-ins with the law.
Noted sports psychologist Jack Stark has said Denney’s high character makes him the best coach in any sport in Nebraska.
USA Wrestling Magazine’s Craig Sesker, who covered Denney for the Omaha World-Herald, said, “He is a man of the highest integrity, values and principles. He’s an unbelievably selfless and generous man who always puts his athletes first.”
“He has a unique way of treating everybody like they’re somebody,” said Ron Higdon, who wrestled and coached for Denney. “He physically found a way to touch every guy every day at practice — touch them on the shoulder, touch them on the head. I learned so much from him. I have such incredible respect for him.
“One of the reasons I never left is I felt it was a special place. I felt such a connection that I felt this was the place for me. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it.”
The influence Denney has on young men is reflected in the 60-plus former wrestlers of his who have entered the coaching profession.
“They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did”
Denney created a dynasty the right way, but what’s sometimes forgotten is that its seeds were planted a decade earlier, by another rock-ribbed man of character, Don Benning. In 1963 Benning became the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university when he took over the then-Omaha University Indian wrestling program. Having already made history with its coach, the program — competing then at the NAIA level — reached the peak of small college success by winning the 1970 national title.
Once a UNO wrestler or wrestling coach, always one. So it was that Benning and some of the guys who wrestled for him attended the We Are One farewell to the program last spring. The UNO grappling family turned out in force for this requiem. In a show of solidarity and homage to a shared legacy lost. wrestlers from past and present took off their letter jackets, vowing never to wear them again.
“Wrestling is kind of a brotherhood. It was my life, and so I had every reason to be there,” said Benning. “There was a lot of hurt in seeing what happened. It was devastating. We felt their pain.”
Benning said the event also gave him and his old wrestlers the opportunity to pay homage to what Denney and his wrestlers accomplished.
“It was a chance for us to say how much we appreciated them and to take our hats off to them. They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did.”
Benning left after the 1971 season and the program, while still highly competitive, slipped into mediocrity until Denney arrived in 1979.
For Denney, Benning set a benchmark he strove to reach.
“When we came one of the first things I said was we want to reestablish the tradition that Don Benning started.”
A farm-raised, Antelope County, Neb. native, Denney was a multi-sport star athlete in high school and at Dakota Wesleyan college. He played semi-pro football with the Omaha Mustangs. He became a black belt in judo and jujitsu, incorporating martial arts rituals and mantras into his coaching. For example, he called the UNO wrestling room the “dojo.” He has the calm, cool, command of the sensei master.
He taught and coached at Omaha South and Omaha Bryan before joining the staff at UNO, where in addition to coaching he taught.
With his John Wayne-esque swagger, wide open smile, genial temperament, yet steely resolve, Denney was the face of an often faceless UNO athletic department. In a revolving door of coaches and ADs, Duke, as friends call him, was always there, plodding away, the loyal subject faithfully attending to his duties. You could always count on him. He modeled his strong Christian beliefs.
Under Denney UNO perennially contended for the national title and became THE elite program at the Division II level. He led UNO in organizing and hosting the nation’s largest single-day college wrestling tournament, the Kaufman-Brand Open, and a handful of national championship tournaments.
He was particularly fond of the Kaufman-Brand.
“I loved that tournament. It was a happening. Wrestlers came from all over for that. It was a who’s-who of wrestling. I mean, you saw world, Olympic and national champions. Multiple mats. Fourteen hundred matches.”
“We were a positive force…”
With everything that’s happened, he hasn’t had much time to look back at his UNO career. Ask him what he’s proudest of and he doesn’t immediately talk about all the winning. Instead, it’s the people he impacted and the difference his teams made. His guys visiting hospitals or serving meals at homeless shelters. The youth tournament UNO held. The high school wrestling league it organized. The clinics he and his coaches gave.
“We were a positive force in the wrestling community. I think its going to hurt wrestling in the area. We provided opportunities.”
Then there was the annual retreat-boot camp where his wrestlers bonded. The extra mile he and his coaches and athletes went to help on campus or in the community. The Academic All-Americans UNO produced. All the coaches the program produced.
Then, Denney gets around to the winning or more specifically to winning year in and year out.
“I think one of the most difficult things to do in anything is be consistent. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. I think that consistency, year in and out, in everything you do is the biggest test.”
In its last season UNO wrestling went wire to wire No. 1. “Staying up there is the toughest thing,” said Denney.
“People don’t realize how difficult what they did really is,” said Benning, who knows a thing or two about winning.
Benning thinks it’s unfortunate that local media coverage of UNO wrestling declined at the very time the program enjoyed its greatest success. “They kind of got cheated in regards to their value and what they accomplished.”
“Whether it was on our terms or not, we went out on top. No one can ever take away what we accomplished,” said Ron Higdon.
Highs and lows come with the territory in athletics. Win or lose, Mike and Bonnie Denney were surrogate parents to their “boys,” cultivating family bonds that went beyond the usual coach-player relationship. Parents to three children of their own, the couple form an unbreakable team.
“When you do anything that takes this amount of time, you gotta have a partnership,” said Denney, who said he often asks Bonnie to accompany him on recruiting trips and invites her to get to know student-athletes.. “She’s a recruiting asset. She’s kind of a second mother to them. They get to know her.”
Bonnie said she learned long ago that “if I wasn’t going to join him in this I was going to lose him — wouldn’t have a husband.” Therefore, she said, “it’s a shared mission.”
There’s been hard times. She survived a multiple sclerosis scare. They endured the deaths of UNO wrestlers Ryan Kaufman, R.J. Nebe and Jesse Greise.
Next to all that, losing a program pales in comparison.
“We kept this in perspective because we’ve been there when the parents of former wrestlers had to pull life support,” said Denney. “To be in a hospital room and to see a former wrestler take his last breath, to be there with the parents and the wives, this (wrestling getting cut) is not in that same category.”
That didn’t make it hurt any less. The coach and his boys didn’t go down without a fight, either. Denney, his assistants, his wrestlers and his boosters held rallies and lobbied university officials to reconsider, but they could not sway NU regents to reverse their decision.
Denney keeping things positive
What cut deepest for Denney is that no one in a position of power took wrestling’s side. No decision-maker spoke up for the program.
“There wasn’t anybody that thought we were valuable enough to fight for us,” he said. “There wasn’t anybody that cared. At Maryville, they care, they value us.”
Two men Denney counted as friends, Christensen and Don Leahy, who hired Denney at UNO and whom Denney regarded as a father figure, were not in his corner when he needed them. It stings, but Denney’s refrained from name-calling or recrimination.
Following the lead of their coach, UNO wrestlers took the high road, too.
“One of the things that made us really proud of our group is how they handled all this,” he said. “They really, I thought, did a nice job of showing dignity and class and poise.”
Just like he taught them.
“We always talk about teaching and building …that we’re teachers and builders. Immediately when this went down, I thought, How can we use this? Well, it starts with the family-the team pulling together, supporting each other, picking each other up, and then modeling and displaying character under adversity. It’s easy to do it when everything’s going good. But things are going to happen in life.
“Obviously, we got hit. we got blindsided. We had no idea this was going to happen, no indication. It was a cheap shot.”
On the mat or in life, he demanded his guys show grit when tested.
“I created a family with high expectations for how you acted. You demonstrated character under adversity. You had to be tough. You had to demonstrate moxie. You had to bounce back. If you got knocked down, you had to get up.”
“I kept saying… to expect a miracle”
His boys didn’t let him down. But as hard as they were hit with their team and dream taken away, they were crushed. Naturally, in the aftermath, they looked to their coach for answers. Denney said, “They gave me this look like, ‘Fix this coach.'” Starting the very night the team got the heartbreaking news, right on through the regents sealing its fate, Denney kept his troops together.
“We tried to meet every day and just talk about things,” he said. “It was a significant kind of thing, really.”
In the process, he tried to give his guys some hope.
“I kept saying — and I don’t have any idea why, except I was just trying to keep them up I think — to expect a miracle. First of all, I said, it’s a miracle that we’ve been able to do this for all these years.”
Denney admittedly walked a fine line between keeping things positive and offering false hope, but he wasn’t going to rest without exhausting every opportunity to maintain his program — whether it be at UNO or somewhere else.
“Our whole thing when this first happened, our prayer was, let there be some way that we could somehow continue this thing,” he said. “So, I kept telling them, ‘Expect a miracle.’ They’d kind of look at me like, What are you saying that for? I was kind of having fun with it, keeping things light. You know, we’ve hit some adversity, but we can still laugh, we can enjoy each other, we’re going to make the best out of this deal.”
But it wasn’t only about staying upbeat. Even before the regents made it official and unanimously endorsed UNO’s decision to cut wrestling and football, Denney sent out feelers to other universities to try and find a new home for his program.
Creighton University, it turned out, might have been able to add the program if the timing had been different, but as it was CU was in a budget cutting mode. There were also tentative discussions with Bellevue University and Benedictine (Kansas) College.
Denney and wife Bonnie consoling each other after the Regents vote; photo from Lincoln Journal-Star
Just when it appeared all might be lost, Maryville University approached Denney. After much soul-searching and many exploratory visits, now he, Bonnie, a couple assistant coaches and 10 former Maverick student-athletes, plus some new recruits, are taking what’s left of the UNO wrestling brand to inaugurate that small private school’s first entree into varsity wrestling. It’s the only time in NCAA history one university has essentially adopted another university’s athletic program.
“This is a miraculous kind of story really,” said Denney. “That’s why we have to go there. Because of all the things that have happened to set this up, it’s almost like we’re divinely guided to go there. So, I guess, be careful what you ask for.”
Thus, at a time when most couples their age prepare for retirement, the Denneys find themselves starting all over again, at a new school, in an unfamiliar city. Except, they have been made to feel so welcome and wanted there that they expect the transition to calling Maryville and St. Louis home will be easier than they ever imagined.
Recently, the Denneys shared how the Maryville option came into focus and what it’s like to be moving onto this new, unexpected chapter in their lives.
It all began with a phone call, which is ironic because once the news broke about UNO wrestling being cut, Denney’s office phone was so deluged with calls neither he nor the message system could keep up. He hardly ever caught a call.
One day, he’d just finished meeting with his team, he said, “when I walked into my office and the phone was ringing and I thought, Well, at least i can get this one. So I picked it up and it was someone saying, ‘I”m Jeff Miller from Maryville University in St. Louis. I’m representing Maryville president Mark Lombardi.'” Miller told Denney that as part of Maryville moving from Division III to Division II it sought to add wrestling and saw UNO’s orphaned program as a ready-made fit.
Denney was skeptical at first. “I said, ‘If this is one of my friends, this is a cruel joke.’ About four times during the conversation, I said, ‘Who really is this?'”
The more Miller, a Maryville vice president, laid out his university’s interest, the more convinced Denney became this was no joke. Miller came right out and said Maryville wanted not only Denney but as many of his coaches and student-athletes as he could bring to come there and start a wrestling program.
“I was like, ‘Really?'”
The clincher, said Denney, was when Miller told him he was flying “up there” — to Omaha — to talk things over.
“So he flew up and we spent time talking at Anthony’s (the venerable southwest Omaha steakhouse that’s long been a UNO hangout). He said this opportunity has presented itself.”
“From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us”
The more Miller talked, the more Denney was convinced this was a one in a million chance come true to salvage a bad situation with something clear out of the blue.
It soon became clear to Denney Maryville had done its due diligence.
“This Jeff Miller studied our program,” he said. “They actually looked at some other things but they just didn’t feel like they fit. They felt like this fit for them somehow. From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us.”
After the rejection at UNO, it felt nice to be appreciated again.
“Since the new AD (Alberts) came, these last couple years we really felt we weren’t being embraced, let’s just put it that way. We just kind of pulled back into our own area,” said Denney. “But they (Maryville) did embrace us. It was kind of a great feeling. It felt really good, actually.”
In terms of facilities, Maryville can’t match UNO, at least right now. When the deal was struck with Denney, Maryville didn’t even have a wrestling room. A meeting room is being converted into one. By contrast, UNO had a state-of-the-art wrestling room built to Denney’s specifications and that he was justifiably proud of.
Bonnie said what Maryville lacks in tangibles it makes up for with intangibles.
“It is a change to go from UNO to that environment, but there’s something about that spirit and environment that makes you feel valued.”
Besides, it’s not so different from when Mike started at UNO. The facilities were so bad his first several years there he purposely avoided showing them to recruits. Over time, things improved. Bonnie sees the same thing happening at Maryville.
“I think it will be kind of fun to see it grow and change,” she said.
For a UNO wrestler or recruit to buy in to a start-up program in a new locale, “it took some imagination,” said Mike, to visualize what things will look like in the future.
Committing to wrestling is a big thing for Maryville. First, the school already had a full complement of sports. Next, as a D-III school it offered no athletic scholarships and its coaches were part time. Now, in D-II, it’s granting partial scholarships to student-athletes and its coaches are closer to full-time.
“They’re making a real step and you can feel the energy on campus,” said Denney, who’s been impressed on multiple visits there by the buildings going up and the programs being added. “They’ve got a little money and they’re looking for every way they can to build their university. It adds to their campus, it adds exposure for their university.”
Besides, he said, an athletic program can be a revenue producer simply via the out-of-state tuition it generates.
“It actually can be a profitable thing for them. They’re figuring out this is a good business venture. If you look at it business-wise, if you bring in 30 scholarship student-athletes, with an annual out of state tuition of $31,000 each…”
Denney’s miracle was delivered in a most unexpected way
Still, Denney said he wasn’t prepared to accept Maryville’s offer unless Bonnie wholeheartedly agreed to the move.
“First of all, I had to recruit her,” he said. “She’s the one who’s going to give up everything. She’s gotta leave everything — all of her friends, our church, our house of 35 years.”
Bonnie knew Mike wanted it, but everything was happening so fast she wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do.
“I didn’t want him to rush into anything,” she said. “We were still in shock, and they (Maryville) were coming on so strong. It’s like it had a life of its own. He took me down there and you get to this campus and the people down there are warm and nice, and I thought, You know, this is possible — I know it’s going to be difficult, but I feel it.”
And so she consented to the move with a philosophical attitude: “You have to say farewell to have that new beginning.”
“‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.'”
Denney liked the idea of playing the Pied Piper, but first he needed assurance enough of his guys were willing to follow him there to make it worthwhile.
“I kept telling Jeff (Miller), ‘We’re willing to go, we’re willing to do this thing, we feel like we’re called to do that. But I’m not going to do it if it’s just my wife and I. I’m not doing it just for us.’ I mean, really, we could just ride off into the sunset. We could make it. There’s a lot of things I could do, and we got offered some things to do, but none that I felt called to do.
“It’s not like I was looking to build up my resume.”
His passion to teach and build good people still burns bright, however.
“He’s no where ready to retire,” said Bonnie, adding he outworks assistants half or a third his age.
The Pied Piper next had to re-recruit his own wrestlers and their parents, or as many as he could, to make this leap of faith with him.
“We kind of sold them on it,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’ I had to sense our guys wanted to help start the fire. I don’t know if you call it an obligation, but I want us to do well. They’ve been so good to us. I want us to make an impact on campus.
“We always said, ‘Let’s be a positive force.’ We’re going to do the same thing down there.”
After 32 years at UNO, Denney now heads a strong Maryville Saints wrestling program
Denney led several UNO contingents to visit Maryville, whose officials always took time to express how much they wanted them there.
Many factors went into determining whether it made sense or not for a UNO student-athlete to take the plunge. For example, geography. St. Louis would put some athletes an even longer distance from home and family. Too far in some cases. Then the academics had to mesh. One of UNO’s best returning wrestlers, Esai Dominguez, decided to bypass his final year of eligibility in order to remain at UNO and finish his engineering degree. And then there was cost. Maryville tuition is higher than UNO’s.
Transplanting the program is historic and given how stringent NCAA rules are, Denney said, “we’re starting to figure out why” it hadn’t been done before. UNO officials worked closely with their Maryville counterparts to make it work.
“Now get this, Maryville sent a whole team of admissions/financial aid people to Omaha,” said Denney. “We met at Anthony’s, and all day long our guys came in with their transcripts, and we tried to get all this to match up.”
“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization”
While Denney tried retaining as much of his wrestling family as possible, “the vultures” — recruiters from other programs — circled about, pouncing on UNO strays who were uncommitted or undecided. He finally had to release his wrestlers to talk to other schools and to make visits. Some of his best returnees left for other programs.
Most of his assistant coaches couldn’t justify the move either between career and family considerations.
In the end, Denney’s brought fewer with him than he would have liked, having to say goodbye to about two-thirds of his former team.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s hard, but you’ve just got to let them go,” said Denney. “Here’s what we feel good about though — we offered everyone of them an opportunity to go.”
Still, he’s brought with him a a stable of wrestlers and coaches who have competed at and won at the highest levels. It’s a transformational infusion of talent, attitude, standard and expectation at a school whose teams have mostly endured losing seasons.
Denney expects to win right away but is enough of a realist to say, “We’re back into a building process here.” It took years to build UNO into D-II’s preeminent program and it won’t be done overnight at Maryville.
He leaves no doubt though he’s committed to making the Maryville Saints wrestling program an elite one. And he seems to be giving himself eight years to do it, saying he’s always envisioned coaching and teaching 100 semesters or 50 years (high school and college combined), a figure he would reach at age 72. Beyond that, nothing’s for sure.
“As long as we can handle it,” said Bonnie. “As long as we don’t fall over at some tournament.”
Ron Higdon can hardly believe what his close friend and old boss is doing. “I have a whole new respect for what he’s taking on and the way he’s handled it and the energy he’s putting into it, because it’s unbelievable.”
Make no mistake about it, Denney’s heart still aches over how UNO did him and his program in, but he has moved on. He does, however, offer a cautionary note for those who so cavalierly discarded the legacy of UNO wrestling.
“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization,” he said. “You must keep it, you must do everything you can to keep it. You’re going to see the long term effects of this later on. That culture won’t last.
“What happens when you lose your tradition, your history, and you forget about it — then you don’t recognize it. You lose something, and sometimes you’ll never get it back.”
- Former UNI wrestler has Olympic goals after prison (thegazette.com)
- Two high school wrestlers post bond, released in sex assault (ajc.com)
- World medalist wrestler dies at age 36 (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Wrestling Futures (deegeesbb.wordpress.com)
- Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness) (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero
I am a moderate baseball fan at best, but I am drawn to the stories behind the game and to the figures who animate it. One of the all-time great players, Roberto Clemente, made millions take notice of his baseball skills, which earned him a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown, but what he did off the field may be what he’s ultimately best remembered for. This little story for El Perico newspaper in Omaha takes a cursory look at the impact the late Roberto Clemente still has on people nearly 40 years after he tragically died at age 38 while attempting to carry out a humanitarian mission. The occasion for the story was a touring exhibition of his life that landed at El Museo Latino, and I simply asked a few folks in the local Latin community what Clemente’s legacy means to them. The exhibition continues through July 17.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente continues through July 17 as part of a 20-city tour.
It’s curated by Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with the Carimar Design and Research studio and organized for touring by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The Smithsonian Latino Center is a sponsor.
When Pittsburgh Pirates great and Latin symbol Roberto Clemente died December 31, 1972, his native Puerto Rico wept. He was only 38. The grief extended throughout the Americas.
The first great Latino star in the big leagues, Clemente was a trailblazer who opened pathways for other Latin players to follow. He’s remembered as more than a magnificent athlete, but as a man of the people, devoted to his countrymen and Spanish-speakers worldwide.
He died when a plane he was aboard delivering relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims went down in the ocean. His body was never recovered. It was not the first time he acted as a humanitarian — he helped needy people in the United States and Central America and held free baseball clinics for children in Puerto Rico. After his death his wife and children have continued his work.
In recognition of his brilliant play in the outfield, at the plate and on the base paths, the usual five year waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration was waived and he was elected by an overwhelming majority into Cooperstown. The Roberto Clemente Award was established to salute Major League Baseball players who combine outstanding play and community service. The award, given annually since 1973, made Clemente the inaugural honoree.
His homeland is replete with stadiums and streets named after him. As a national hero, his image adorns homes of Puerto Ricans there and everywhere.
With Clemente’s legacy so strong, El Perico asked members of Omaha’s Puerto Rican community and others for lasting impressions.
Antonia Correa vividly recalls the news of his tragic death on the island, where Clemente’s aid mission to stricken Nicaraguans was well known. His sudden loss cast a pale over holiday celebrations.
“It was a major emotional thing,” she says. “It was sad twice because we lost him, someone everybody was passionate about, and because of his trip to help victims.”
Correa’s memory of Clemente is forever fixed in context of what he died doing. “I remember him as this face of humanity. I keep in my mind the face of this humble man eager to help others.”
Maria Valentin remembers “days of mourning Roberto” after his death. In life he was beloved because he never forgot his roots. “He was very proud of being a Puerto Rican,” says Valentin.
Beyond baseball success, his charitable work endeared him even more.
“He was young and he wanted to help, and he did it and we loved him in the process,” says Valentin. She notes that he’s revered as “a champion for human rights” and “a role model for kids, adding “He was ours. He created a legacy not only for him but for all of us Puerto Ricans, carrying the country along. His talent, his energy, his commitment to help people still remains within us.”
She says his example of overcoming discrimination to excel when he and other Latin and black players were treated as “second class” citizens is inspiring. “He broke barriers for the younger generation. The language, the color, the strange territory should not stop you once you have a dream, once you have a talent.”
Hector Santiago says Clemente is a rare figure who transcends eras to still inspire.
Acclaimed jazz artist Miguel Zenon, who played Omaha May 21, says Clemente’s place in history “really surpasses anything that has to do with sports or fame. He just took it to another level in terms of what he achieved as a human being.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says Clemente “presented for us the archetype of what we wish all humans do when given the immense gifts and skills he possessed…His dignified presence was equivalent to that of the icons of his age and his too-soon passing only served to remind us of what had been taken from us. He would have been the penultimate ambassador for sport and humanity to the Latin world.”
Special programs in conjunction with the exhibition include a lecture series, a baseball clinic and a celebration of Puerto Rican culture.
El Museo Latino is located at 4701 South 25th St. For details, call 402-731-1137 or visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.
- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Review: “21”: The Story of Roberto Clemente (repeatingislands.com)
- Graphic biography of Puerto Rican Baseball great Roberto Clemente (repeatingislands.com)
Chancellor Harvey Perlman Passionate About the University of Nebraska, its Future and NU Joining ‘Common Friends’ in the Big Ten
A few years ago, during one of the endless news spasms about the University of Nebraska football program, New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt floated the idea of our profiling the school’s chancellor, Harvey Perlman, who at the time was adroitly handling the latest firing and hiring. As the musical chairs continued playing out it became clear that Perlman was more than the public point man speaking on behalf of the university about these changes, but the orchestrator of these moves. Below is the profile os this man at the top who speaks softly but carries a big stick.
Chancellor Harvey Perlman Passionate About the University of Nebraska, its Future and NU Joining ‘Common Friends’ in the Big Ten
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Most of you probably first laid eyes on University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman in October of 2007.
That’s when his face was all over the media in the wake of his firing Steve Pederson as Nebraska athletic director and hiring Husker coaching legend Tom Osborne to rejoin the Big Red family as the new AD.
Even though by then Perlman had already put in six years as the university’s CEO, chances are his name, much less the position he filled, barely registered with the average Nebraskan. You might have known he was a top NU administrator, but it’s unlikely you could have picked him out of a lineup or identified anything he put his stamp on.
You also probably didn’t know he’s an NU alumnus, as is his wife Susan and their two daughters and their husbands.
“We like to keep it in the family,” he said of this legacy.
It’s unlikely you knew he was previously the longtime dean of NU’s law college. Or that he joined the NU law faculty in 1967 after being mentored in the profession under the legendary Robert Kutak, who cultivated in his protege a love of art.
In 1974 Perlman left NU to teach at the University of Virginia Law School. He returned to NU in 1983 to head up the Nebraska Law College, a position he held for 15 years. He served as the university’s interim chancellor in 2000 before being named chancellor in 2001.
Obviously, much of his life is bound up in the university. Because the chancellor’s job continues to engage him he doesn’t have any plans to step down soon.
“I’m still excited about the possibilities. I care a lot about the university so it’s not an abstraction to me, it’s a passion,” he said from his office in UNL’s Canfield Administration Building
Being a native son, he said, probably opens some doors he might otherwise find closed.
“I think the fact I’m a Nebraskan gives me entree into some circles easier than an outsider would find.”
Perlman kept a low profile until the merry-go-round of athletic directors and football coaches the past 10 years. That’s when he became a focal point of attention. Perhaps for the first time then the power he wields was apparent for all to see. There he was intervening in what had become a circus of speculation and vitriol involving the topsy turvy fortunes of that precious commodity — Husker football. He acted as both architect and messenger for a sea change in NU athletics that continues making waves today.
The added scrutiny doesn’t much phase him. He knows it comes with the territory, though it can be a bit much.
“I’m used to it by now I guess. I think in part lawyers are trained to handle those kinds of circumstances, so that doesn’t give me any discomfort. The discomfort of being a public figure is probably not when you’re in public but the fact that you’re always in the public eye. I can’t go to the grocery store without people giving me advice about the football team and things like that.
“I never thought I’d be on the sports pages. I didn’t have the athletic talent to get there”
It’s not as though Perlman was invisible before the beleaguered Pederson was let go and the beloved Osborne brought back as the athletic department’s savior. Perlman had, after all, been involved in the machinations that followed Bill Byrne’s departure as AD and the much hyped arrival of native son Pederson. But when Pederson fired head football coach Frank Solich and replaced him with Bill Callahan Perlman was in the background while Pederson was out front. Critics of Pederson would assert it was just more grandstanding and arrogance on display.
Ironically, the unprepossessing Perlman took center stage when he gave Pederson the boot and brought Osborne back into the fold. It’s worked out that Perlman’s returned to the public spotlight since then. First, there was the housecleaning he began with Pederson’s ouster and that Osborne finished by axing Callahan, replacing him with fan favorite Bo Pelini. After the Callahan debacle, it’s certain the Pelini hire didn’t happen without Perlman’s approval.
Then he pushed for the Nebraska State Fair to make way for the Innovation Campus.
More recently, as NU’s Big 12 Conference affiliation grew shaky in the midst of possible league defections and the specter of Texas dominance, Perlman and Osborne teamed up to take NU in a dramatic new direction. Last summer the two men announced the stunning news NU was leaving the contentious Big 12 and joining the solidarity of the Big 10. It turned out the pair had worked feverishly behind the scenes with Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany to petition the conference for NU’s admission. Everything fell into place quicker than anyone anticipated. The switch took many by surprise and the bold move made national headlines.
So it was that the pensive, pin-striped Perlman once more found himself splashed in print and television stories, this time spinning the news of how the Big 10 would be a better cultural fit for NU than the Big 12.
Perlman, a lawyer by training, is expert at parsing words in order to be diplomatic and so he’s careful when explaining why the Big 10 is ultimately a better home for NU.
“Well, at the most fundamental level it’s a feeling on the back of your neck that you’re among common friends, not to suggest we weren’t friendly with the Big 12,” he said.
Perlman feels the Big 10 alliance is a cohesive match because like NU the conference’s other schools are Midwestern public research universities with similar institutional histories and goals when it comes to both academics and athletics .
“When you talk about the Big 12,” he said, “you can’t say that because you’ve got some Midwestern institutions, you’ve got some agriculturally-based land grant institutions, you’ve got Texas, which in many ways is an institution all of its own, with widely divergent reputations. You’ve got Texas Tech, which is different…The schools up and down that corridor are very, very different, so there is not a common culture. And it’s not a bad thing — I mean, they’re all fine institutions — but they’re very different. It’s just that in the Big Ten we just kind of felt that it was (a common culture).”
He acknowledges that NU “will be, next to Northwestern, the smallest institution in the Big 10,” adding, “But we’re still a public research university that fits that environment and that has a good history and tradition of intercollegiate athletics.”
There’s a prestige factor in all this that cannot be discounted because all 11 schools NU is joining are rated among the top academic and research institutions in America, along with most having strong athletic programs.
“Well, I mean you are who you associate with in some respects,” Perlman said, “and so there’s a stature of the Big 10…there’s a kind brand it has in common…”
He said those high standards give NU new avenues for excellence.
“It elevates the opportunities you have. Now we’ve got to take advantage of them, but at least it opens those opportunities. The Big 10 has traditionally had broad institutional cooperation in which it’s focused to provide collaborative activities within the Big 10, which the Big 12 does not.”
When it looked like the Big 12 might lose Texas and other anchor schools, suddenly the conference appeared fragile, which left Nebraska in a vulnerable spot. With things up in the air, Perlman and Osborne were not about to let NU hang in the wind, subject to an uncertain fate, and so they sought a stable new home for the school should the league dissolve.
Nebraska and the Big 10 had always shared a mutual admiration. Bob Devaney thought it a natural marriage years ago, before the Big 8 morphed into the Big 12, and before the Big 10 added Penn State. Then, in 2010, circumstances arose that soon made the prospect of NU being in the Big 10 relevant, even logical. For NU it meant security. For the Big 10 it meant another major player in its family.
“Yes, stability was critical for us because we didn’t have any place to go,” said Perlman. “I mean, we’re here, we have a good brand, that seemed to be clear. I think we could go in many directions, but if we were playing in the Big East for example the burden on our kids and our fans would be terrible. So you sit here and you look and you say, What are your options? There weren’t very many.”
At least not many that made sense or that were congruent with NU’s profile, whereas the Big 10 was a mirror image of the school and offered close proximity.
“Again, the culture fit,” said Perlman. “We seem to be a comfortable fit with the Big10 institutions. There’s some geographic adjacency, and that’s important.”
Perlman’s quest for a more secure footing in the athletic-academic arena was not unlike his wooing back Osborne, the winningest coach in NU history, from retirement to provide a calm center amid a storm of discontent.
“It was a very disruptive time for the program. We had to make a change. I had no hint that he was available or would be interested,” Perlman said of Osborne.
It turned out Osborne was both available and interested. The result was just what Perlman hoped.
“The value Tom brought clearly was stability,” the NU chancellor said.
Perlman said Osborne benefited from having “the confidence” of NU regents, administrators, coaches and student-athletes as well as university-athletic department supporters.
The experience of changing head football coaches and pursuing entry in the Big 10 brought Perlman and Osborne in close contact.
“We’ve built a working relationship that we didn’t have before,” said Perlman. “I think we have respect for each other. We’ve gone through a number of issues together and I think we both recognize we each contribute to getting those issues resolved. He has become a very fine athletic director. He has a good sense of the program beyond football, which was a concern of some, but he’s been very supportive of the range of athletic programs and he’s done a good job of managing the finances” the facilities, the coaches.
Osborne returns the compliment, saying, “I find Harvey Perlman to be someone who is a very bright person who thinks things through and does not say much until he has formulated his thoughts very carefully. He is able to be firm when the situation calls for it and is a good communicator.”
Some suggest that NU and other schools with big-time athletic programs find themselves in the equivalent of an ever escalating arms race that requires more and more expenditures on sports. When is enough, enough?
The two men, both raised in small Nebraska towns in post-World War Ii America — Perlman in York and Osborne in Hastings — share similar values and experiences based in humility and frugality. Yet they find themselves overseeing mammoth expansion programs and budgets.
“There’s clearly excesses in intercollegiate athletics,” Perlman said. “The idea that we’re competing with other schools and that you have to make investments in order to compete is not one I’m upset about. We’re doing that on the academic side all the time. It’s just not as visible. We’re competing for facilities, we’re competing for faculty. If you’re going to go out and attract top talent you’ve got to pay their price. You have to invest in the facilities.
“It’s a very competitive world in higher education across the board. Athletics is just where the numbers are larger. We’re fortunate here that the athletic department is self-supporting (thanks to enormous football revenues and generous booster donations). We don’t have to use tax dollars or tuition revenues to subsidize the department. In fact, they subsidize the academic side in a variety of different ways, so to that extent it’s hard to say, Let’s not compete. I mean, Nebraska has a position within the constellation of athletic powers, and as long as we’re successful we ought to try and compete.”
Some also question if in building a great university a great athletic department is really necessary.
“You can do it without one,” said Perlman. “In our circumstance I think we’ve achieved a lot of synergies between academics and athletics. Moving into the Big 10 is the clearest example. We wouldn’t have got into the Big 10 were it not for our brand on the athletic side, but we also wouldn’t have got into the Big 10 if we hadn’t had made the progress on the academic side that we’ve made in the last 10 years.”
Perlman points with pride to several advances the school’s made during his tenure, including more research grants, greater international engagement, improved educational programs and a growing enrollment that now exceeds 24,000.
He said NU’s influence and reach in areas such as agriculture and engineering extend across the globe.
“We may be small but we’re still a force in the world in terms of our presence in China, India, Africa…”
Sometimes the gains made in academics get obscured by what’s going on with athletics. He said the challenge is that the imprint of athletics “is so loud and prominent every day. The significance is clear — you win or you lose. A lot of the great things that happen on the academic side are not as clear, it’s more indirect, it’s more long term.” He favors “trying to even out the voice within the institution” to create more of a balance between academic and athletic achievement and recognition.
While football revenues and private donations keep NU athletics in the black and competitive with other elite programs, the university’s state-allocated academic operational budget has been subject to almost annual cuts as the state’s coffers have suffered in recent years. In a public address Perlman compared the budget slashing to the torture-execution method known as lingchi or death by a thousand cuts, saying, “I do not think a university can constantly cut its way to greatness.”
He neither wishes to sound like an alarmist nor an unbridled optimist. Instead, like the attorney he is he provides a considered pro and con analysis of the situation.
“I think there are significant cuts we’ve made that have not damaged the university for a variety of reasons. Every businessman will tell you every once in a while a budget cut is not a bad idea, just to be more efficient. Most of our cuts probably haven’t made the university worse off, some probably made it better, but as I’ve said you can’t do that continually and expect to be successful.”
Asked when diminishing returns set in and he answered:
“I don’t know, but there is a point at which quality does suffer. Our policy has been not to reduce the quality of all programs and cut across the board. We have in fact narrowed the scope — we’ve eliminated programs. I’d much rather eliminate a program then mandate, for example, a 4 percent across the board budget cut. You can’t get anywhere doing that. At some point I think you start to do real damage to your university, and more significantly real damage to the state of Nebraska.
“To the extent I cut programs that means the students and graduates of high schools in Nebraska who want that program are going to leave the state. Obviously one of the key needs for the state of Nebraska is to keep young people here, and you’re not going to do that if you continue to cut.”
As a small population state, Nebraska’s particularly impacted by the so-called “brain drain” that’s seen many of its best and brightest high school grads leave to attend college out of state. Perlman said NU’s “doing our part” to reverse the trend.
“I think for the most part we’re meeting that challenge. If you look at the top percentage of high school graduates in Nebraska who stay in the state and come to the university we’ve seen a significant increase in the last 10 years. If you look at non-resident students that are being attracted to the university that’s on a significant increase.”
He said these gains are due to “a lot of hard work by a lot of people across the whole university,” including faculty engaged in the recruiting effort.
Just a few months after NU’s entrance in the Big 10 Perlman noted the school’s enrollment spiked with more enrollees from Big 10 country than ever before.
“Coincidentally we’ve been very successful in trying to build pipelines for undergraduate enrollment in cities that happen to be in the Big 10 (Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, et cetera), and we see an uptick there now that we’re in the Big 10.”
Being in a tradition-rich power conference and having high profile, elite football or basketball teams that consistently win and net national media exposure can and does help in recruiting students.
“It’s not so crazy,” said Perlman. “It has an impact. I think what most people don’t think about is that intercollegiate athletics, particularly football, has such a kind of central place in the culture of America. We shouldn’t be surprised if students looking for a place to get their undergraduate education consider the entire environment that they’re in and one of those would be the success of the athletic programs.”
Recruiting top students and faculty is a priority for NU but there must be sufficient rewards in place to secure and retain them. Perlman suggests that just as NU must prepare students for careers, employers must ensure there are enough jobs to keep young people here once they earn their degree. He sees gains there too.
“For our college graduates there is a better chance they will stay in Nebraska for the jobs that are available,” he said. “That’s why Innovation Campus is so important, because we’re trying to do our part in terms of creating the kinds of jobs that college graduates would find attractive.”
Perlman has been a promoter of UNL’s Innovation Campus — envisioned as a multi-million dollar initiative on the sprawling former state fairgrounds site. It’s hoped a mix of public-private enterprises, both established and start-up, will do business and research there. The goal is that a critical mass of stimulus actviity will generate economic development through the products and services companies offer, the jobs they create and the taxes they pay.
“What we want to accomplish out there is clear,” he said, “and that is we want to leverage the research activity in the university to bring greater economic growth to Nebraska by getting private sector companies to locate on the property and to be adjacent to that research effort. That’s the idea. Can we fill up almost 200 acres with that kind of activity? I don’t know. We’ll try.”
In terms of what types of companies might locate there, he said “food, water and energy are the most likely attractives because that’s where our strengths are and that’s where Nebraska is, but we see other areas that could have potential. Software development is not out of the range of possibility. We don’t have any limits on what (might work).” He said NU hasn’t yet aggressively pursued potential companies “because more planning needs to be done to address the site’s infrastructure needs…” A faculty advisory committee is looking at the best ways to combine public-private efforts there.
By any measure, Innovation Campus will take time to develop.
“You look at the Research Triangle in North Carolina, it took them 50 years to get where they are,” he said. “I think we’ll move faster because the world is turning faster. Private sector companies are looking for universities” as partners and facilitators and hosts for incubation and innovation. “That process is ongoing. Fifty years ago that probably wasn’t true. I would hope that it would move quickly, but we’ve said to 20-25 years.”
The project is a stakeholder’s dream or nightmare depending on what happens.
“Some of us who were ardently in favor of getting the land and moving the state fair probably have a lot more personal reputation at stake on its success,” he said. “Realistically the university could be a great university without Innovation Campus but we wouldn’t have taken advantage of the opportunities that are available.”
Recruiting and keeping top faculty is a priority and there UNL could do more, Perlman said, to make it difficult for teachers to say no or to leave, though he says the school’s held its own in this regard.
“I think faculty salaries are not fully competitive with where they should be. With most other public universities incurring significant budget reductions over the last two or three years Nebraska’s been in relatively good shape, so we haven’t seen a lot of attrition.”
Recruiting and retaining good people is “key,” he said. All the innovation and efficiency in the world doesn’t matter, he said, “if you can’t attract talent.”
Despite some disadvantages NU has compared with its Big 10 brethren in terms of the state’s small population and the school’s smaller enrollment numbers and proportionally smaller alumni base, Nebraska finds ways to remain competitive. Perlman said the same work ethic and generosity that the state is imbued with permeates the university’s faculty and staff and supporters. That commitment, he said, gives him “not only a sense of pride but a great sense of relief.” “It is incredible,” he said, adding, “There’s a set of issues that other university presidents have to deal with that I don’t.”
If anything, he faults NU and Nebraskans for being too modest and reticent.
“I think it’s our traditional Midwestern reluctance to set really high goals and ambitions and to celebrate our successes.”
With opportunities come challenges, and vice versa. For example, based on the metrics that go into rating academic and research performance NU sits at the bottom of the Big 10. And while Perlman has said it’s not such a bad thing to be last among such prestigious company, he’s quick to add, “We’re not content to be last either — we’re not going to be last 10 years from now the way I see it.”
Perlman reminds skeptics that as much as NU courted the Big 10 the conference coveted the school. In other words, it wasn’t only a case of what NU could gain from being in the conference, it was what the league could gain from NU’s presence.
“I think it’s the brand,” Perlman said by way of explanation. “You know all the speculation was that Nebraska wouldn’t have a chance to get in the Big 10 because of the number of television sets was low relative to other schools that were mentioned (as prospective Big 10 additions). And that comes back to the assumption that all that university presidents worry about is the money, and it’s not true. Money’s significant, it’s a competitive thing, but it isn’t everything. In fact it wasn’t everything in the Big 10 when the school presidents voted (to accept NU as a new member).
“We’re a school with a good brand. We might not have a lot of television sets but we’ve probably got a lot of eyeballs across the country. We draw well” (both in the stands and in TV ratings).
Unlike the AD and coaching changes that sparked controversy and sometimes harsh attacks, the conference change was almost uniformly embraced.
“We have gotten almost no criticism within the state of Nebraska for this move,” said Perlman. “My wife continues to remind me that we can go 6-6 next year (in football), but right now everyone is pretty pleased. I’m surprised by the number of comments I get that recognize this was a major step for the academic side of the university as well as the athletic side.”
He forecasts the university’s leadership role will be ever more crucial for the state. He said the fact that NU is a close reflection of the industrious people it serves positions it to be an influential player in Nebraska’s economic growth.
“You would think its major institution would be that way and you wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “It also gives you an opportunity to lead. I mean, that’s the thing, especially in this economy — if you don’t have a strong research university taking a strong leadership role moving forward I don’t think we’ll be successful. I believe that. President Obama believes it, the minister of China believes it, the prime minister of India…The countries that want to be competitive are making major investments in higher education.”
He feels confident the University of Nebraska is poised to lead the way.
“I think it is coming into its own. The quality, the productivity, the ability to be competitive across the country is significant.”
- UNL picks Utah developer for new research park ()
- Monday Reads (skydancingblog.com)
- Nebraska to increase Memorial Stadium expansion (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Delany calls Nebraska the Packers of Big Ten (sports.espn.go.com)
- University Of Nebraska Announces $5M In Cuts (huffingtonpost.com)
- Big 12 agrees to dish out more cash for members with loss of Nebraska, Colorado (collegefootballtalk.nbcsports.com)