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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 1 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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?

MY OLD FRIEND, HUSKER FOOTBALL, YOU ARE BADLY IN NEED OF A 12-STEP INTERVENTION RECOVERY PROGRAM

November 1, 2015 2 comments

The more the University of Nebraska football program’s woes continue and indeed only get worse, the more capital I believe my semi-mock diagnosis of the program’s mental imbalance has actual traction. But I’ll let you be the judge.

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE HUSKER FOOTBALL PROGRAM-
MY OLD FRIEND, YOU ARE BADLY IN NEED OF A 12-STEP INTERVENTION RECOVERY PROGRAM
Offered in the spirit of satire or don’t take any of this too seriously.

Dear Nebraska Football Program:

It is with great concern and compassion that I appeal to your better angels and ask you to accept a therapeutic regimen that can address your chronic mental illness. Please consider letting those who have your best interests at heart intercede on your behalf so that you can get the help that you need in order to return to health, which is to say sanity, sobriety and serenity.

Let us not mince words but rather state the obvious – you are sick. There is no use in denying it. You have all the symptoms. Low self-esteem. Depression. Performance anxiety. Paranoia. Anger issues. Irrational, inconsistent decisions and behaviors. Inability to develop trusting relationships. Doing the same thing over and over again and failing at it and yet expecting a different result, which as any rational person knows is a classic marker for insanity.
But, my troubled friend, you are so deeply lost in your illness that you cannot see these things for yourself.
The first step to getting better is to admit that you have a problem. Simply going about business as usual and acting as if everything is normalt is a self-deluding proposition that will only keep you right where you are at – in the depths of your addiction.

I can hear you protesting already – I’m no addict…what addiction? Your addiction my friend is to self-inflicted pain. Since 2004 and even before then, you have struggled to find your way as one by one the caring, supporting, guiding figures in your life left you and the infrastructures that once made you strong began falling away. You have had trouble adjusting and transitioning to the succession of leaders who have followed because of your profound abandonment and identity issues.

The near constant scrutiny and criticism directed at you have weighed on you and frayed your nerves and impaired your decision-making.

So much has changed in your environment from those days when you were well and robust and the envy of so many others. As that landscape has become increasingly competitive and pressure-filled and as you have lost what few supports you had around you, you have more and more come to interpret the world as a cruel, harsh place. Negative thoughts have replaced positive thoughts. You live in fear and doubt that the next shoe will drop or that the current regime will let you down just as surely as the previous ones did.

When you get in close games, you freeze up or, well let’s just say, have difficulty doing the right thing.
You have endless rationalizations for why these things happen, but that is only deflecting the problem from the true source: yourself.

Just when you need stability, one leadership team is replaced by another and you have to learn new ways of dong things before you even mastered the old ways.

All of this feeds your insecurity. Little problems get inflated into big problems. Your sense of isolation is increased. You revert to unhealthy old habits and patterns that become ever more entrenched the more you act on them. You have trouble investing in the present or the future because your sense of being all-in is not there. Hope is dim.
When all those around you share the same mindset and tendencies, well, then bad attitudes and behaviors only get reinforced.

In short, your confidence is shattered and your ability to make sound decisions compromised. The more you act out, the more hard wired that becomes, thus making it even harder to enact positive changes.

Making matters worse, many of the decision-makers behind Husker Football and many of your fans, friends and family members are enablers. Out of good intentions they actually fuel your mistaken belief that you are whole and well, when in fact you are broken and sick.

A sure sign of disturbance is when your relationships suffer as a result of your acting out and there are untold examples of how as a program you have alienated, embarrassed, insulted the very fan, alumni and media base that helped give you life and that sustains you. What’s worse, you don’t seem to care that you have caused injury and estrangement. And yes I know that elements of that same base have said and done hurtful things to you, but this is where balance and forgiveness must prevail. Making amends.

Another sign of illness is, of course, impaired job performance. Here, the record of shortcomings speaks for itself.
Furthermore, you have continually resisted, ignored or criticized genuine efforts to offer you advice and counsel. You must acknowledge that your affliction is unmanageable and that you cannot handle it alone. Your only recourse is surrendering to a Higher Power. But you get highly agitated and defensive when remedies and assitance are broached.

There is also a decided tendency to overreact to things. In the name of progress, you have recklessly trampled on and discarded tried and true traditions that gave the program an identity for new systems and styles that have repeatedly proven a poor fit. You keep trying to be something you are not and were never intended to be and that disconnect only causes you more internal confusion and cognitive dissonance. The more separated you become from your true self and the resources available to you, the less resilient you become to change or challenge.

The longer this crisis has gone on the more you have become used to conflict, chaos, failure, despair and even hopelessness. Oh, you put on a good face, but it is clear that you no longer believe in yourself or in what you’re doing.
Things have come to the point where an intervention is called for. Since the board of regents, university administration and athletic department leadership have effectively failed to act responsibly, which is to say without due diligence in making the three most recent head coach hiring decisions, I am proposing that legislation be enacted to take the football program out of their hands and be given to an executive committee comprised of rank and file fans as well as past and present players, coaches and university officials. The majority members would be fans. In so doing, the voices of Nebraskans who are both close to the situation and who have the perspective of outsiders looking in would not only be heard but would have a definite say in things.

Our money, after all, is funding the entire athletics apparatus as taxpayers, season ticket subscribers and boosters. The program would not be what it is without the fans. They should be a part of determining whatever direction the program takes and whatever hires and fires it makes.

Radical? Unrealistic? Never happen? Probably. Then again, Nebraska Football is a unique phenomenon in this state for the disproportionate impact it has on the collective psyche. There is nothing else in the state to unite its disparate, geographically isolated populations the way the program does. The program’s crisis and failure, if left unchecked and unmitigated, is likely to get worse before it gets better, that is if it ever does get better. It is the considered opinion of myself and others that the program is actually heading for rock bottom right now. Rather than let another scenario play out whereby the current coaching staff manages to give the program a fix to prop the program back on its feet only to see it fall back into relapse again, I propose a more dramatic and thorough treatment plan that undoes the current model and gives fans a real say in what happens now and moving forward.

Call it crazy if you will, but I prefer to call it recovery.

Then again, it is only football.

Sincerely,

A Fan in Search of Solutions and with Clearly Too Much Time on My Hands

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