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

August 19, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

Let’s all enjoy it while it lasts.

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New approach, same expectation for South soccer

April 14, 2017 Leave a comment

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

 

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New approach, same expectation for South soccer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

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

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

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

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

He said his Packers reflect South Omaha’s personality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They set the standard.”

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

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

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

This year even more so because of injuries.

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

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

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

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

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

“They will be competing every day.”

 

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Joe Maass

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just want to keep it moving along.”

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

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

“We evolve with every coach we bring in.”

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

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

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

March 26, 2017 Leave a comment

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

When has that ever been a bad move?

Thoughts on recent gathering of Omaha Black Sports Legends

September 29, 2016 Leave a comment

 

 

Thoughts on recent gathering of Omaha Black Sports Legends 

It is unlikely there will be another communion of Omaha Black Sports Legends like the one that happened on September 22 at Baxter Arena in Omaha. That’s because in a single room there were Omaha native greats of a certain age whose achievements in football, basketball and baseball saw them reach the pinnacles of their sports.

Just consider who was present:

Bob Gibson – Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, CY Young Award-winner, two-time World Series MVP and multiple All-Star with the St. Louis Cardinals

Roger Sayers – Elite sprinter and dynamic football player at the then-University of Omaha set school records in each sport

Marlin Briscoe – College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Small College All-American at Omaha University, NFL’s first black starting quarterback and member of two Super Bowl-winning teams

Ron Boone – Pro basketball “iron man” who led Utah to an ABA  title

Johnny Rodgers – College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Heisman Trophy Winner and member of two national championship teams at Nebraska

Who was not there:

Gale Sayers – College and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, All-American at Nebraska and All-Pro with the Chicago Bears

Mike McGee – All-American at Michigan and member of NBA title team with the Los Angeles Lakers

Don Benning – If not for illness that finds him living in a memory care facility, Benning,  the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university, would have been there. Benning began the wrestling dynasty at UNO, where he was a mentor to many.

Bob Boozer – The late Boozer, who won both Olympic gold and an NBA title, would have fit right in with his fellow legends; as would have the late Marion Hudson, who not only integrated Dana College but set football and track and field records there that still stood six decades later.

And lest we forget, the late Fred Hare, the Omaha Technical High and University of Nebraska great, would have been right at home among his peers.

 

 

 

The fact that so many deserving figures were not there due to scheduling conflict, illness or death underscores the fact that these legends are leaving us and will continue leaving us as time marches on. Gibson, Sayers, Briscoe  Boone and Rodgers look great for their ages, but they are 80, 73, 70, 71 and 65, respectively. I mean, God grant them many more years but the fact is even these legends will eventually pass on to meet their eternal just reward. Yes, as unthinkable as it is, they will one day all be gone, too.

So, kudos to the committee that organized the An Evening with the Magician event for bringing all these gentlemen together for what could very well be the last time. Without this fitting tribute to one of their own, Marlin Briscoe, happening when it did it could have proved too late if left to some indeterminate time in the future.

That Omaha native film, TV, stage actor John Beasley served on the committee that made it happen was apt since he and Briscoe were teammates at then-Omaha U. and he is producing a major motion picture of Marlin’s life called The Magician.

What an experience it was to be in the presence of these guys who made history in their respective sports. All know and respect each other. Some grew up together. Some tested their abilities against each other. All learned lessons in the tight-knit  inner communities they grew up in that, as Briscoe said in his remarks that night, prepared them for the rigors of life. Their personal stories and life experiences have much to teach us. It was great that upwards of 200 Omaha Public Schools students were on hand to witness much of the evening. This is important local history they were exposed to.

More than a decade ago I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing these historic figures (minus McGee) and others for a series I wrote called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. I personally look forward to catching up with the legends still living for a book I intend writing about their shared Omaha background and athletic success at the highest levels of their sports.

You can check out my series at–

https://leoadambiga.com/out-to-win-the-roots-of-greatness-omahas-black-sports-legends/

Will the time come when more contemporary Omaha Black Sports Legends have the occasion to gather like their predecessors did Sept. 22? Will John C. Johnson, Larry Station, Randy Brooks, Kerry Trotter, Andre Woolridge, Ron Kellogg, Cedric Hunter, Keith Jones, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green, the Wrestling Olivers, Terence Crawford, Kenzo Cotton, and others find a reason to come together? Will they turn out to celebrate one of their own or to honor their shared roots? I don’t know. But here’s wishing they will – because they should. Not only for themselves, but for the community.

And what about the women? Maurtice Ivy, Mallery Ivy, Jessica Haynes, Angee Henry, Peaches James, Reshea Bristol, LaQue Moen-Davis, Brianna McGhee, Chloe Akin-Otiko and many more, have distinguished themselves through athletics. They deserve their due, too.

Thanks to Ernie Britt for being the driving force behind the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame that does indeed recognize these figures and provide a forum for bringing them together.

Here’s hoping these celebrations continue happening. I would recommend that whenever possible sponsors be found to make these events free and open to the public so that more segments of the community can share in them. And wherever possible, students should be invited to these events. I also advocate that the stories of these and other high achieving African-Americans from Omaha and greater Nebraska be part of an ongoing curriculum in the Omaha Public Schools. Let’s not wait until these figures are gone, Tell these stories while these figures are still alive and cthey an visit classrooms and speak before school assemblies and be the suhject of programs like Making Invisible Histories Visible.

The Silo Crusher: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 27, 2016 2 comments

Full disclosure: When the University of Nebraska at Omaha unceremoniously dropped the school’s highly successful football and wrestling programs five years ago, I took out my disappointment and frustration in some posts that might have read like rants. The posts were not written as a journalist trying to be objective but as a UNO grad, former UNO sports information staffer and lifelong Omaha resident who had grown close to both programs through my work as a journalist. My posts were my personal opinion and presented as such. The only time I wrote anything about those events in my role as a journalist was in a New Horizons cover story I did on Mike Denney in the immediate aftermath of it all. My siding with Denney definitely bled over into the story and I make no apologies for that because it was a passionate and honest response to a traumatic severing. My sympathies were entirely with Denney and I let him have his say, though he was actually quite tame in his comments, even though he was deeply hurt by what happened. I do regret not getting athletic director Trev Alberts and chancellor John Christensen to comment for the story, though I think I tried. If I didn’t, well then that’s my bad. As fate would have it, I was recently assigned to do a piece on the state of UNO athletics five years after those events and this time around the assignment called for me to tell the story from UNO’s point of view, which meant interviewing Alberts and Christensen. I must say that after talking to those two men, particularly Alberts, I have a mcuh better appreciation and understanding of why the deicison to eliminate the two sports was made and just how wrenching it was for them to make. I believe the rationale they lay out today is more telling than what they communicated then, but that may be a function of my not wanting to hear what they said before. I am sharing here the new story that I did for Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com/). It’s featured in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue.

 

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The Silo Crusher

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.

Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.

Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.

The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.

He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.

UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.

News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.

Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.

Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.

Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department. 

“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”

Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.

Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”

Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.

Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”

It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.

“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”

What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.

The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.

Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.

“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”

Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.

Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.

Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”

The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.

Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.

In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.

As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.   

On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”

Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”

Visit baxterarena.com for more information.

TrevAlberts1

 

A Kansas City Royals Reflection


 

 

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.

Bruce Chubick builds winner at South: State title adds capstone to strong foundation

March 18, 2016 Leave a comment

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

 

Coach’s mantra: Survive and advance more online Replay an interview with coach Bruce Chubick from “TBL.” NEPrepZone.com

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.”

 

 

Omaha South Coach Bruce Chubick Sr. recovers from heart attack. https://t.co/u7xdhliQwG @nebpreps

 

 

 

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.”

 

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