The end of a never-meant-to-be Nebraska football dynasty has a school and a state fruitlessly pursuing a never-again-to-be-harnessed rainbow
The end of a never-meant-to-be Nebraska football dynasty has a school and a state fruitlessly pursuing a never-again-to-be-harnessed rainbow
©by Leo Adam Biga
Let’s start with the hard truth that the University of Nebraska never had any business being a major college football power in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, NU had every right to ascend to that lofty position and certainly did what it takes to deserve the riches that came with it. But my point is NU was never really meant to be there and therefore fundamentally was always out of its class or at least out of place even when it reigned supreme in the gridiron wars.
The fact is it happened though. Call it fate or fluke, it was an unlikely, unexpected occurrence whose long duration made it even more improbable.
In pop culture, self-identification terms, it was both the best thing that ever happened to the state of Nebraska and the worst thing. The best because it gave Nebraskans a mutual statewide rooting interest and point of pride. The worst because it was all an illusion doomed to run its course. Furthermore, it set Nebraskans up for visions of grandeur that are sadly misplaced, especially when it comes to football, because the deck is stacked against us. Far better that we aspire to be the best in something else, say wind energy or the arts or agriculture or education, that we can truly hold our own in and that reaps some tangible, enduring benefit, then something as inconsequential, tangential and elusive as football.
Husker football became a vehicle for the aspirational hopes of Nebraskans but given where things are today with the program those aspirations read more like pipe-dreams.
The critical thing to remember is that it was only because an unrepeatable confluence of things came together at just the right time that the NU football dynasty occurred in the first place. NU’s rise from obscurity to prominence took place in a bubble when peer school programs were in a down cycle and before that bubble could be burst enough foundation was laid to give the Huskers an inside track at gridiron glory.
The dynasty only lasted as long as it did because the people responsible for it stayed put and the dynamics of college football remained more or less stable during that period, thus prolonging what should have been a short rise to prominence and postponing the rude awakening that brought NU football back down to earth,.
Please don’t point to the program as the reason for that remarkable run of success the Huskers enjoyed from 1962 through 2001. It was people who made it happen. The program was the people. Once the people responsible for the success left, the results were very different. I mean, there’s never stopped being a program. It’s the people running the program who make all the difference, not the facilities or traditions.
Yes, I know there was a time when NU was successful in football prior to Devaney. From the start of the last century through the 1930s the Huskers fielded good, not great teams before the death valley years of the 1940s and 1950s ensued. But NU was never a titan the way Notre Dame, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State or other elite programs were back then.
Make no mistake about it, Bob Devaney was the architect of the wild success that started in the early 1960s and continued decade after decade. He deserves the lion’s share of credit for the phenomena that elevated NU to the heights of Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama. Without him, it would not have happened. No way, no how. His path had to cross Nebraska’s at that precise moment in time in the early 1960s or else NU would have remained an after-thought football program that only once in a while would catch fire and have a modicum of success. In other words, Nebraska football would have been what it was meant to be – on par with or not quite there with Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado and Wyoming. During NU’s half-century run of excellence the state schools in those states not only envied NU but despised the Big Red because they couldn’t understand why that same magic didn’t happen with their football operations. Among those states, all but Wyoming have larger population bases. Among the Division I schools, all but Wyoming have larger student enrollments. Those realities alone should have put NU at a decided disadvantage and given those schools a leg up where football was concerned.
But Devaney found ways to compensate for the lack of bodies, not to mention for all the other disadvantages facing Nebraska. One of Devaney’s chief strategies for overcoming these things became national recruiting and eventually the recruitment of African-American student-athletes in enough numbers to be a difference-maker on the field.
The continuity of Devaney’s staff was an important factor in sustaining success.
His hand-picked successor Tom Osborne was like the apprentice who learned from the master to effectively carry on the tradition without so much as one bad season. Osborne ramped up the national recruiting efforts and especially made African-American recruits more of a priority. Like his mentor, he maintained a cohesive staff around him. He also made even greater use of walk-ons than Devaney had in that no scholarship limit era. And most importantly he saw the future and embraced an ahead-of-its-time strength and conditioning program that made NU players bigger and stronger, no doubt with some help from steroids, and he eventually adopted the spread option on offense and the 4-3 on defense, emphasizing speed and quickness on both sides of the ball. The option-based, power running and play-action passing game became NU’s niche. It allowed the program to recruit to a style and identity that stood it apart. Now, NU runs a variation of what virtuarlly everybody else does in college football, thus giving it one decided less advantage.
CreditDoug Mills/Associated Press
As long as was one or the other – Devaney or Osborne – or both were still around, the success, while not guaranteed, was bound to continue because they drove it and they attracted people to it.
First Devaney died, then Osborne retired and then athletic director Bill Byrnes left The first two were the pillars of success as head coaches and Devaney as AD. The third was a great support. There were also some supportive NU presidents. Osborne’s curated successor, Frank Solich, and other holdover coaches managed a semblance of the dynasty’s success. And then one by one the pretenders, poor fits, revisionists and outliers got hired and fired.
Ever since Osborne stepped down, NU has been playing a game it cannot win of trying to recapture past success by attempting to replicate it. That’s impossible, of course, because the people and conditions that made that success possible are irrevocably different. Whatever manufactured advantages NU once possessed are now long gone and the many intrinsic disadvantages NU has are not going away because they are, with the exception of coaches and players, immutable and fixed.
Besides Nebraska being situated far from large population centers, the state lacks many of the attributes or come-ons other states possess, including oceans, beaches, mountains, cool urban centers filled with striking skylines and features and a significant African-American and diversity presence on campus. It also lacks a top-shelf basketball program to bask in. And while NU has kept up with the facilities and programs wars the Huskers’ peer institutions now possess everything they have and more.
The dream of NU fans goes something like this: Get the right coach, and then the right players will come, and then the corresponding wins and titles will follow. Trouble is, finding that right coach is easier said than done, especially at a place like Nebraska. The university has shown it’s not willing to shell out the tens of millions necessary to hire a marquee coach. I actually applaud that. I find abhorrent the seven figure annual salaries and ludicrous buy-out guarantees paid to major college coaches. I mean, it’s plain absurd they get paid that kind of money for coaching a game whose intrinsic values of teamwork, discipline, hard work, et cetera can be taught in countless other endeavors at a fraction of the cost and without risk of temporary or permanent injuries. If NU stands pat and doesn’t play the salary wars game, then that leaves the next scenario of offering far less to an up and coming talent who, it’s hoped, proves to be the next Devaney or Osborne. Fat chance of that fantasy becoming reality.
The other wishful thinking is that some benefactor or group of benefactors will pump many millions of dollars, as in hundred of millions of dollars, into the athletic department in short order to help NU buy success in the form of top tier coaches and yet bigger, fancier facilities. There are certainly a number of Nebraskans who could do that if they were so inclined. I personally hope they don’t because those resources could go to far more important things than football.
In terms of head coaches, NU hit the jackpot with Devaney. He then handed the keys to a man, in Osborne, who just happened to be the perfect one to follow him, NU has missed on four straight passes since then. I count Mike Riley as a miss even though he’s only two years into his tenure because someone with his long coaching record of mediocrity does not suddenly. magically become a great coach who leads teams to championships just because he’s at a place that used to win championships. What Riley did in the CFL has no bearing on the college game.
Even if Riley does manage more success here than he’s been able to accomplish elsewhere, everything suggests it would be short-lived and not indicative of some enduring return to excellence. That once in a school’s lifetime opportunity came and went for NU, never to return in my opinion.
Sinking resources of time, energy and money into retrieving what was lost and what really wasn’t NU’s to have in the first place is a futile exercise in chasing windmills and searching for an elixir that does not exist.
Far better for NU to cut its losses of misspent resources and tarnished reputation and accept its place in the college football universe as a Power Five Conference Division I also-ran than to covet something beyond its reach. Having been to the top, that’s a tough reality for NU and its fans to accept. Far better still then for NU to swallow the bitter pill of hurt pride and do the smart thing by dropping down to the Football Championship Subdivision, where it can realistically compete for championships that are increasingly unattainable at the Football Bowl Subdivision. If it’s really all about the process, pursuing excellence and building character, and not about getting those alluring TV showcases and payouts, those mega booster gifts and those sell-outs, then that’s where the priority should be. If it’s about developing young men who become educated, productive, good citizens and contributors to society, then that certainly can be done at the FCS level. Hell, it can be done better there without all the distractions and hype surrounding big-time football.
This isn’t about quitting or taking the easy way out when the going gets rough, it’s about getting smart and honestly owning who you are, what you’re ceiling is and making the best use of resources.
Nebraskans are pragmatic people in everything but Husker football. With this state government facing chronic budget shortfalls. corporate headquarters leaving and a brain drain of its best and brightest in full effect, it seems to me the university should check its priorities. I say let go of the past and embrace a new identity whose future is less sexy but far more realistic and more befitting this state. Sure, that move would mean risk and sacrifice, not to mention criticism and resistance. It would take leadership with real courage to weather all that.
But how about NU leading the way by taking a bold course that rejects the big money and fat exposure for a saner, stripped-down focus on football without the high stakes and salaries and hysteria? Maybe if NU does it, others will follow. Even if they don’t, it’s the right thing to do. Not popular or safe, but right.
When has that ever been a bad move?
A case of cognitive athletic dissonance
©by Leo Adam Biga
Like a lot of you out there who root for the athletic programs of all three in-state universities competing at the Division I level, I’m feeling conflicted right now. While it does my heart good to see the Creighton men’s and women’s hoops teams seeded so high in the NCAA Tournament, and this coming off strong performances by the Bluejay men’s soccer and women’s volleyball teams, I’m disappointed that both the University of Nebraska’s men’s and women’s basketball teams suffered historic losing seasons and didn’t stand a chance of making the Big Dance. The fact is that every major Husker men’s team sport – basketball, football and baseball – is in a down cycle. Indeed, among revenue generating sports in Lincoln, only volleyball is a year-in and year-out winner with the national prestige and conference-NCAA titles to show for it.
NU softball is still competitive but it’s been a long time since one of its teams has made a real run in the NCAA Tournament.
On the men’s side, NU used to be able to point to nationally relevant programs across the board as a selling tool to recruits. That just isn’t the case anymore. Baseball has been adrift for a while now and it doesn’t look like Darin Erstad has what it takes to make it a College World Series contender again.
Men’s hoops in Lincoln has been a joke for a long time now and it’s no longer funny. The succession of coaches from the early 1980s on has bred instability and NU just can’t seem to get it right in terms of hiring the right person for the job. Many of us suspect the real problem is a lack of institutional will and support to make basketball a priority of excellence. While the men have not been able to get their act together, we could usually count on the women to get things right. Yes, the program did go through some bumps with its own succession of coaches before reaching new heights under Connie Yori but then it all unraveled in seemingly the space of one chaotic season that saw Yori forced out amidst a scandal and player revolt. Where it goes from here under Amy Williams is anybody’s guess but a 7-22 record was not exactly a promising start, though she admittedly stepped into a program riddled with personnel holes and damaged psyches. Williams has the pedigree and track record to resurrect the program but how it collapsed so suddenly is still a shock.
Even the volleyball program. though still a perennial national contender, has lost ground to Creighton’s program. That’s actually a good thing for not only CU but the entire state and for the sport of volleyball in Nebraska. It’s another indicator of just how strong the volleyball culture is here. But I’m not sure NU ever thought CU would catch up in volleyball. The Bluejays have. The two programs are very close talent-wise and coaching-wise. In fact it’s become readily evident the Bluejays possess the potential to overtake the Huskers in the near future, many as soon as this coming season.
Then there’s the Omaha Mavericks. Its linchpin hockey program just lost its most important tie to national credibility with coach Dean Blais retiring. He got the Mavs to the promised land of the Frozen Four. Will whoever his successor ends up being be able to get Omaha back there and make the program the consistent Top 20 contender the university expects? Only time will tell. Since that run to the Frozen Four in 2015, hockey’s taken a decided step back, but the Omaha men’s basketball program has shown serious signs that it could be the real bell-weather program before all is said and done. Omaha came up just short in securing an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament but still had post-season options available to it only to say no to them, which is strange given the university is desperate for a nationally relevant athletics program.
Ever since Omaha made the near-sighted decision to drop both football and wrestling, which were its two most successful men’s sports, the university has hung all its athletics fortunes on hockey. Now that hockey has seemingly plateaued and lost its legendary leader, basketball becomes the new hope. But basketball is a crowded field nationally speaking and no Maverick sport other than hockey has ever really caught on with Omahans. I would like to think that Omaha Maverick hoops could but I won’t believe it until I see it.
With basketball still struggling to find a following despite its recent rise, I bet university officials are wishing they still had wrestling and football around to balance the scales and give Omaha athletics more opportunities for fan support and national prestige. The way the NU football program has continued to struggle, a kick-ass Omaha gridiron program at the Football Championship Subdivision level would sure be welcome right about now. Omaha could have kept football and potentially thrived as a FCS powerhouse. But NU regents, administrators and boosters didn’t want Omaha to potentially sap Big Red’s fan and recruiting base. Too bad, because the two programs could have found a way to co-exist and even benefit each other.
All of which takes us back to Creighton. Of the three in-state DI universities, CU’s proven to have the best contemporary model for successful, competitive and stable athletics. The Bluejays have built sustainable, winning men’s and women’s programs and they’ve found the right coaches time after time. Other than two major misses in Willis Reed and Rick Johnson, CU men’s basketball has been remarkably well led for more than 50 years. Women’s hoops has enjoyed the same kind of continuity and leadership over the last 35 years. And so on with the school’s other athletic programs. Over a long period of time the one constant has been Bruce Rasmussen, a former very successful coach there whose performance as athletic director has been nothing short of brilliant.
Culture is everything in today’s thinking and CU’s culture borne of its values-based Jesuit legacy and direction is rock solid and unchanging. This small private school has turned out to be the strongest in-state DI athletic department in the 2000s. Rasmussen’s excellent hires and big picture vision, plus the support of university presidents, have given the Bluejays a foundation that NU must envy. Even CU’s drastically upgraded facilities now favorably compare to or exceed NU’s.
Trev Alberts at UNO has proven a stronger administrator as athletic director than anyone on the outside looking in imagined, but I believe, though he’ll never admit it, that he regrets or will regret giving up the two programs that meant the most to the university. Even with that miscue, he’s built a firm foundation going forward. Baxter Arena is a nice addition but there’s no proof yet that area fans will pack it for UNO athletics other than hockey. If hoops doesn’t fly there, then UNO basketball is never going to capture fans the way it deserves to and that’s a shame.
Nebraska, meanwhile, stands on shaky ground. This is the weakest spot NU’s been in, in terms of overall athletic success, since the late 1960s-early 1970s. When other sports struggled then, the Husker athletic department always had its monolithic football program to fall back on, bail it out and keep it afloat. After nearly a generation of below par results, if things don’t dramatically change for the Big Red on the field and soon then NU’s once automatic crutch is in danger of no longer being there. If there’s no elite basketball program to pick up the football slack, NU athletics has nothing left to hang its hat on. Does anyone really have faith that NU athletic director Shawn Eichorst is making the right moves to return NU to where it once was? A lot of what’s come down is beyond his control, but the hires he makes are very much in his control. The four big questions are whether Mike Riley, Darin Erstad, Amy Williams and Tim Miles are the right coaches leading their respective programs. My opinion is that Riley is not. The sample size at NU is still too small to justify letting him go now but his overall career record indicates he won’t get done here what he couldn’t do elsewhere. Erstad has had enough time on the job and I’m afraid his excellence as a player hasn’t transferred to coaching. He’s got to go. Williams will likely prove to be a very good hire as she rebuilds the women’s hoops program. Miles is, like Riley, a guy who’s shown he has a limited ceiling as a coach and I’m afraid he’s been at NU long enough to show he can’t get the Huskers past a certain threshold. He should not have been retained.
All this uncertainity is weakening the Husker brand. Part of any brand is an identity and in college athletics that identity is often set by the head coach. Right now, it’s hard to get behind any of these coaches because, as an old expression goes, there’s no there-there. Winning sure helps but even when NU wasn’t winning big in basketball and baseball, it had some coaches who stood out. Joe Cipriano brought some verve and passion the way Danny Nee did. Cipriano got sick and had to step down as coach. Nee eventually wore out his welcome but he sure made things interesting. Between them was Moe Iba, whose own dour personality and his team’s deliberate style of play turned off many, but the man could coach. Everyone after Nee has been a let down as a coach and as a brand maker. John Sanders turned NU baseball around but he ended up alienating a lot of people. Dave Van Horn took things to a new level before he was inexplicably fired. Mike Anderson continued the surge until he too was let go after only a couple down seasons.
When NU was dominant in football and nationally competitive in basketball and baseball, tickets were hard to come by. Boy, have times changed. Yes, NU still mostly draws well at home, but not like the old days. A few more losing seasons and it will start to be a sorry sight indeed with all the empty seats.
By contrast, Creighton appears to be in great shape to maintain its success in basketball, both men’s and women’s, as well as soccer, volleyball and softball. CU is among the nation’s kings of college hoops attendance-wise and support for its other programs is very healthy. As NU anxiously faces an uncertain future in terms of success and support and as UNO figures out where it fits into the in-state DI picture, CU boldly adds to its winning ways and is the clear-cut winner in this competition for the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of area sports fans.
Who would have ever thought that?
As Division I collegiate athletics have become an ever larger big business segment for insitutions of higher learning, the recruitment of promising young student-athletes has gotten out of hand. Recruitment starts ever earlier and proceeds with an intensity far out of proportion to the reality that finds very few of these kids ever making much of a mark, athletically speaking, in college, much less in the professional ranks. Often times lip service is given to their academics. This pipedream on both ends of the transaction makes kids over-hungry to be courted and colleges over-zealous to secure their pledges and services. When money is at the root of things, as it is here, bad consequences are more apt to occur, including rash, cruel decisions based on cold calculations, not on the best interests of all involved. A cautionary tale of what can happen is the story of Aguek Arop, an Omaha South High hoops phenom who accepted a University of Nebraska scholarship offer tended to him when he was barely 15. After recently learning NU was no longer excited to have him, he’s reopened his recruitment just a few months before the start of his senior season at South. As my El Perico story reports, the way things played out left South Coach Bruce Chubick none too happy. He feels NU did his young star wrong and he’s not mincing words about it. He also feels Arop will wind up in a better situation, as there are several Division I schools now recruiting him, and will use the motivation of this rejection to have a great senior year. Arop and his teammates are defending the state Class A title his Packers won last year.
Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
ERIC GREGORY/Journal Star
In 2014 Omaha South High’s Aguek Arop realized a hoops dream when, at 15, he accepted an athletic scholarship offer from Nebraska. Now this once storybook wedding between promising player and program has turned cautionary tale.
His Husker commitment made him the latest Omaha Sudanese athlete to make waves in local hoops. But he recently re-opened his recruitment after NU coach Tim Miles, who can’t comment per NCAA rules, made the offer conditional. In August, Miles, reportedly asked Arop, now 17 and a senior who led South to the Class A state title last year, to attend a post-graduate prep school for developmental purposes.
Observers say it’s an odd change of heart about a heralded player from a program fresh off two straight losing seasons and lacking any in-state scholarship players. Miles surprised many when he offered Arop so early but shocked more with this twist.
South coach Bruce Chubick Sr. said, “It’s an unknown quantity down there. I think they’re in panic mode.”
Upon getting the news Arop, reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska, said, “I think my mind just kind of went blank. I didn’t really know what to think, I’ve now moved on. I didn’t take it personal. I looked at it as business.”
Chubick knows his star felt a deep sting.
“Nobody likes to be rejected. He was hurt and I was hurt. He’s like one of my kids and when your kids hurt, you hurt. I knew it was a tough thing for him. He loves Nebraska. He stayed true to his word. I’m proud of him for that.”
As for questions about Arop’s readiness, Chubick feels he’s ahead of two other Division I players he coached at this same point in their careers: his son Bruce Chubick and John Turek, both of whom starred at NU and professionally overseas. He said Arop has things you can’t measure in terms of “heart and determination,” not to mention a 6-foot-6 frame, 7-foot-plus wing span, high motor and huge athleticism.
“That kind of gets lost in the shuffle.”
Chubick doesn’t like the way NU handled the situation.
“I kind of felt in the spring they were getting cold feet about the fact he hadn’t grown, that he’d got hurt – missing his sophomore season. I mean, there were some indicators we kind of picked up on,” said Chubick.
“If they would have just set Aguek down and told him, nobody would have been happy but at least they would have been up front. You see, he played in all these tournaments all over the country and played really well, but all the college coaches knew he was committed to Nebraska, so they left him alone. So, he pretty much went through the summer circuit and then they (NU) pulled the plug after the fact, when it was too late to be recruited by these schools.”
2017 Omaha South G/F Aguek Arop will move on from Nebraska and has reopened his recruitment.
Chubick also didn’t appreciate Miles passing the buck.
“They wanted me to break it to him,” Chubick said, “and I wasn’t real fond of that because it’s not really my place. I mean, he held true to his commitment.”
Though NU technically didn’t de-commit, Chubick said their loss of interest got couched “under the ruse of going to a prep school, which to me meant they didn’t have a plan for him.” He said, “If Nebraska would have said we want you to redshirt that first year, that would have been the indicator they really had a plan.” In his opinion no redshirt option was broached because NU’s “loaded at the 3 spot, which is probably what he would have to play.” He noted, “They have a freshman and a transfer coming in who play Aguek’s position. The math doesn’t add up.” Meaning, he said, even if Arop went the prep school route, “they wouldn’t have a scholarship for that position and they’re all about numbers down there, which I think is a mistake.”
Chubick said, “I’ve told Aguek, things happen for a reason and maybe this is a good thing. A couple schools that have expressed interest in him were in the NCAA tournament.”
He expects Arop to play his final South season proving a point.
“Oh, I think he’s going to be hungry as all get out. I want him to be pissed and have the I’m-going-to-show-you attitude, and I think he’s got that. ”
Arop simply said, “I can’t wait for the season to start.” He appreciates his coach having his back. “He’s always looking out for us. He doesn’t let anyone try to take advantage of us.”
As for where he’ll play in college, he said he’ll choose “the best fit for me” and one “somewhat close to home.”
South opens its season in December.
The more researchers explore the human brain the more evidence there is that very young children, even infants, learn from the very start of life and then so much of their continued development is dependent on how they are nurtured and stimulated and what they are exposed to. The more enriching and interacive the environment it seems, the more children thrive and the better prepared they are to succeed as they progress through those critical developmental years. Sam Meisels knows all about that and a lot more when it comes to early childhood. He leads the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and he and his staff work hard to make Nebraska the standard by which early childhood progams and initiaitives are judged.
Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett.
The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has always had a progressive bent, Billionaire investor Warren Bufffett’s first wife, the late Susan Thompson Buffett, gave generously to liberal causes.
The daughter has carried on this legacy by supporting quality education for children from low income families. Her Sherwood Foundation is a major player behind programs attempting to bridge achievement and opportunity gaps from birth through college. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund backs Educare. The Fund created the Institute in partnership with the University of Nebraska.
The research, policy, outreach-armed Institute housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha emerged from her conversations with NU-system leaders about the need to improve early childhood outcomes for at-risk populations. She and Meisels say since learning begins at birth any early deficits can contribute to later academic-reading struggles. That’s why enriching activities from infancy on are vital. As the Institute’s tag lines read: “Start Early, Start Well” and “All children need the opportunity to develop, learn and succeed in life.”
In Meisels, she tapped an early childhood guru as BECI’s founding executive director and as Neb.’s new Pied Piper for the cause.
“Sam is the real deal. He’s a world-class early childhood leader deeply committed to leveling the playing field for very young children growing up in families facing some very tough odds. Sam’s vision of making Neb. the best place in the country to be a baby is a vision inspiring more and more people, and I’m convinced we’ll get there,” she says.
“Children are born learning. Their earliest experiences set the trajectory for how they will succeed in school and life. Sam has put together a team at the Institute to help him and, really, to help all of us across the state close the student achievement gap and develop an early childhood workforce to do the critical work of nurturing Neb.’s youngest learners.”
Meisels came from Chicago, where he helped make Erikson Institute the nation’s leading graduate school in child development. Before joining Erikson in 2002, he held senior positions at prestigious schools.
The University of Rochester graduate with a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education has ample experience with children both as a parent and as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher. As a leading authority on the assessment of young children he’s spent much time observing early child ed programs.
Most of his time today is spent with stakeholders, including school district superintendents, education officials, legislators and philanthropists, as well as with fellow experts in devising strategies and policies for better assessment and training.
On September 11 the Buffett Institute and the Aspen Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring leading early childhood experts about the future of early childhood education and care.
Institute staff have traveled the state to meet with and speak to many constituencies. With the Buffett and NU names preceding them, Mesiels and Co. can get in any door and before any audience to advocate for quality, accessible early childhood programs that educate rather than warehouse, that have well-trained staff and that are accountable to state standards.
Meisels is impressed by the public-private support marshaled for early childhood efforts in Nebraska. Those initiatives are in part responses to societal failures. The state faces a crisis of young children living in poverty, a factor posing serious challenges for healthy development. The 2010 census showed 40 percent of all children birth through age 5 in the state meet the Nebraska Department of Education’s general at-risk criteria, including low income, English as a second language, having adolescent parents or being born prematurely. That percentage equates to 60,000 children statewide. The numbers keep growing.
These problems are magnified in families and communities lacking resources for quality out of home child ed and care. Meisels sees a need for more such programs wherever he visits.
“A lot of pre-schools I go into, not just in Neb. and certainly not just in Omaha, are places where kids spend time, but they don’t learn very much. They meet in places where there’s very little attention paid to something as simple as transitions, whether it’s from home to school or within school from one activity to another activity. Most very young children have trouble making transitions – being able to change what they’re doing into something else and do it in a way that makes sense in a group of 12 or 20 children.
“We’re talking also about relying not at all on television but relying instead on what takes place interactively. We’re talking about having art experiences, alphabet letters, displaying children’s work on the walls, having goals in the areas of social problem solving, literacy, math. Even for 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds you should have appropriate goals in those areas.”
Meisels doesn’t often see those things in place. He also sees disturbing disconnects in the continuum of early childhood programs.
“Right now in this area we have a number of 4 year-old programs sponsored with public dollars but very, very few programs for 3 year- olds. It’s like having sixth grade and fourth grade but no fifth grade.
That doesn’t work.”
Meisels not only finds it illuminating but rejuventating to visit pre-schools in order to get a handle on what’s happening in settings where young children spend much of their time.
“When I go into a pre-school I actually feel transformed, honestly. I’m taken over by the environment. The first thing I do is look around and see how many adults are there and how many children are there. Then I just listen for a little bit to get the tone – how are children talking to each other, how are adults talking to children, how are children tailing to adults. I note the interactions and how problems are solved.
“Then I start to walk around and note what the materials are like – are children able to reach them, are they in good repair, is there a good variety. Do we just have a few books and counters for math or are there blocks, is there a dress-up corner for dramatic play. On and on and on. That gives me a pretty darn good idea.”
He says while most out of home providers are motivated by the right reasons, some cut corners rather than put children first.
“If you’re going to be very concerned about the bottom-line, you’re going to try to have to hold costs down, most of which are for the personnel, and to that extent you’re going to short change everybody.”
He says most providers pay relatively poor salaries – on average $28,000 – to child care educators.
“That’s a terrible salary given that who’s more important to us in the world than our children. We’re also paying it all out of our pocket. The amount of federal and state dollars that goes into early childhood is very, very small compared to what goes into K-12 education. So who pays for it? Parents pay for it.
“Salaries, work conditions and benefits are very, very bad and the status of that profession, my profession, is low as a result.”
All of which serves as a disincentive to enter the field, leaving many inner city and rural communities wanting because there aren’t enough early childhood educators to meet the need.
With providers charging a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more a month, parents must make hard decisions and sacrifices, perhaps going well out of their way in order to access child ed or care.
“These are generally young people and they can’t be stretched very far,” Meisels says.
Parents of limited means sometimes choose the more expedient rather than best option, including in-home providers operating off the radar and therefore outside the eyes of regulators.
“Many people are unlicensed and then they’re totally unregulated,” Meisels says.
Since not all children who receive out of home child care are in licensed-regulated settings, he says, “We have to find ways of reaching out to them through professional development, improving the quality of the programs as a general rule.” He says, “For those programs that do enroll children who receive any kind of state subsidy the state now has a quality rating system and so those programs over the coming years will have to meet certain minimum requirements of quality, not just health and safety, and we will work with that and try to improve that.”
The Institute has launched the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program in order to raise the standards and skill levels of early childhood staffers. It is hosting higher education faculty from across the state October 5-6 for the conference “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce in Nebraska.”
Meisels says another challenge posed by the early childhood arena is variable quality in day cares and after school programs. ”
Some of them have educational goals, some of them have more fun, play-based goals. It’s a big issue all around. Actually United Way of the Midland here is focusing more of their attention now on trying to improve after school programs.”
A formal approach to the issue is the Achievement Gap Challenge through the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585). The plan will be funded for three years by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Created in collaboration with 11 metro area school districts, the plan aims to reduce achievement gaps for children birth through age 8. It emphasizes creating more quality pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds and enhancing teaching and curriculum for pre-K through third grade.
Home visits will target at-risk kids up to age 3. The idea is to educate families about activities and resources that aid development in situations where children may not be getting the stimuli they need.
“For example, we know if children aren’t exposed to a lot of words early in life that even as early as 18 months they’re going to show a deficit in vocabulary that can persist all the way through third grade,” Meisels says. “And we know there’s a very tight correlation between vocabulary and learning to read.
“So we want to teach people to talk, to read and to sing to their kids. We want to help them learn how to help their children grow in terms of physical well-being, fine motor and gross motor skills, all aspects. We need to communicate to parents – what are our goals for learning. how well is your child doing in terms of what has he learned about this and about that. We particularly want the parent to have a strong relationship with the child. What takes place between the parent and child is the driving force in childhood development.”
He says it’s not only parents who can stand to be schooled about children’s age appropriate behavior.
“We need to teach parents about why play is a valuable avenue of learning for young children, why there’s always a surplus of activity level in children. We need to teach teachers that, too. Some kids getting expelled are not wanting to sit down all day long or for a few hours, which is what we would expect for a 4 or 5 year-old. Some people don’t know that.”
He says the Institute will monitor and support early elementary ed outcomes with schools, centers and families.
“We’ve got to think in terms of families rather than parents because a lot of children are raised by other family members. We have to think about the family with the child all the time. There’s no such thing as an isolated child because as humans cannot survive alone. That’s not just our physical needs but our emotional needs, our intellectual needs. We need to be supported, scaffolded all the way, for a long time.”
He says education intervention is generally well-received.
“Because you’re very alone when you’re the parent of a very young child and a new-born especially, you want someone to talk about it with. How you do it is very important. Finding someone from the community who understands what you’ve been through is very important.”
He says the early childhood field’s come a long way.
“We have learned what to do with kids, we’ve learned how to do it better. We’ve learned that children can learn a great deal. We’ve learned the first five years of life is when the greatest amount of brain growth occurs. All of that is supportive of what we’re doing. We can teach very young children about letters, about numbers, about shapes, about space, about all kinds of things like that.
“A more recent revolution is we’ve learned we need to teach them about non-cognitive things, too, like taking responsibility for their actions, relating to others, being cooperative. It’s these non-cognitive factors that have a lot to do with how well they succeed then in life. Much of the evidence behind that has grown out of what we’ve learned from early childhood programs as we follow kids longitudinally through their early adult years.”
He says early childhood has more visibility “than at any time” and
“the research is pretty clear that if we can be persistent in our effort we will experience the persistence of effect.”
When it comes to assessment, Meisels says No Child Left Behind initiated “more testing than we’ve ever seen and most of it has not been useful.” He adds, “A lot of it has been punitive in nature. I think something that is punitive is not educational.”
“The assessment work I do,” he says, “is based upon teachers observing, recording and comparing to standards in order to differentiate what they do with individual children. You have to have evidence-based data. We learn how to observe so that we have some reliability and repeatability. Based on that I can see this is a child who learns in this way but not so well in that way and I can use that to help the child develop and have success.
“It is more resource-intensive for a teacher but teaching’s a tough job and this actually improves your teaching.”
Another punitive thing that happens in pre-schools, he says, is children being suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.
“It is a national problem. Boys are more frequently expelled than girls.”
Some reports suggest boys of color are disproportionately impacted.
Meisels isn’t surprised it happens given that the overwhelming early childhood workforce is white females.
“There are problems of identification with an authority figure who looks so different and is so different. Children from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure before.”
He says the kinds of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary action are preventable and solvable.
“Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for pre-schoolers. Some kids will respond to your saying ‘no running,’ others won’t, they like to challenge, they like to test limits. which is a very natural healthy thing to do.
“It’s our job as adults to help the child cross that divide and we have to understand where the child is so we can be successful at that. It’s a huge responsibility for the teacher to bring a child into a learning world
and to expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher.”
Meisels sees a largely health early child landscape here.
“Some factors that led to the establishment of this Institute help Neb. stand out in a very positive way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work to do, but it means there are points of excellence here. We have combined public-private programs focusing on the first three years of life that very few states have. We have four Educare schools. We have three colleges of education in the NU system.
“There are things that need to improve, too. We are a rural, low population state, so as you get into greater Neb. there are fewer people prepared at a high level. Our standards of qualification for taking care of children are not high. Some say if we made them too high we’d have nobody to serve the kids in need. We want to find ways of improving that situation. We have very few birth to 3 programs and very few programs for 3 year-olds.”
Overall, he says, “there’s room for a lot of improvement and there’s a lot of strength to build from.”
He says the investment made to support the Institute’s work sends a message that “the lives of young children at risk and their families are important enough that they would rise to be a priority of the university,” adding, “Most universities don’t do that and this is one saying that it’s important enough for us to do it.”
The Institute’s interdisciplinary-collaborative work spans across all four University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha.
“What I say to the deans around these campuses is that we can identify where most of the children at risk are coming from and we want every single one of those children 18 years after they’re born to be eligible to apply and to be qualified to be accepted at the university.
“So in a way it’s a jobs program – that these kids should grow up and hold jobs and be real contributors here in this state. Early childhood I always say is not an inoculation, it’s an investment.”
I wrote the following feature and sidebar exploring some trends about the changing face of Neb. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater. Slowly but surely the state and some of its institutions are becoming more diverse. Some of the changes can be readily seen already, others not so much, but in a few decades they will be more obvious. It’s a healthy thing that’s happening, though diversity is still taking far too long to be fully felt and lived and embraced in all quarters, but that’s for another story.
Nebraska’s Changing Face
©by Leo Adam Biga
Nebraska’s “Plain Jane” sameness has long extended to its racial makeup. Diversity hasn’t held much truck here. Even when the foreign-born population was at its peak in the state’s first half century, the newcomers were predominantly of European ancestry.
An African-American migration from the Deep South to Omaha in the early 1900s established the city’s black base. Until a new immigration wave in the 1990s brought an influx of Africans and Latinos-Hispanics to greater Neb., the composite face of this Great Plains state was decidedly monotone.
The perception of Flyover Country as a bastion of white farmers has never been completely accurate. The state’s two largest metropolitan areas, for example, have always boasted some heterogeneity. Urban areas like Omaha and urban institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha express more racial-ethnic diversity because of longstanding minority settlement patterns and the university drawing heavily from the metro.
But it is true Neb.’s minority population has always been among the nation’s smallest, which only supported the stereotype.
Finally, though, its minority numbers are going up and its diversity broadening.
Still, if Nebraskans posed for a group portrait as recently as 1980 more than 9 of every 10 would have beeb white. Only 6 percent identified as African-Americans, Latino-Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.
The lack of diversity extended virtually everywhere. The largest minority group then, blacks, was highly concentrated in Omaha. Despite slow, steady gains blacks still account for only 13 percent of the city’s population and 4 percent of the state’s population.
But as recently announced by UNO researchers, Neb. is changing and with it the face of the state. A group picture taken today would reveal a noticeable difference compared to a quarter century ago, with whites now accounting for 8 of every 10 residents. Indeed, the state’s minority population has more than doubled the past four decades, with by far the largest increase among Latinos-Hispanics, who now comprise the largest minority segment. Latinos-Hispanics are on a linear growth trajectory. They tend to be young and their women of childbearing age.
Minority growth has been even greater in select communities, such as Lexington, where meat processing attracted newcomers.
Celebrated native son filmmaker Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” – set and shot primarily in the northeast part of the state – accurately portrays a slice of Neb.’s past and present through a large ensemble of characters, all of whom but two are white. The exceptions are both Hispanic. The Oscar-winning writer-director may next make a partly Spanish-language feature about the impact of the immigrant population on Neb.’s towns and cities.
New UNO Center for Public Affairs Research projections posit that by 2050 the state’s portrait will dramatically change as a result of major demographic trends well under way. Within four decades minorities will account for about 40 percent of the entire population. Nearly a quarter of the projected 2050 population of 2.2 million, or some 500,000, will be Latino-Hispanic.
It’s a sea change for a state whose diversity was traditionally confined to a few enclaves of color. Immigration, migration and natural causes are driving this new minority surge.
Everything is relative though. So while CPAR Research Coordinator David Drzod says, “Our diversity will increase,” he adds, “Neb. is one of the less diverse places countrywide and other states are going to become more diverse as well.”
Still, the snapshot of Neb. is changing due to real demographic shifts with significant longterm consequences. Just as the majority white base is holding static or declining, non-whites are proliferating. The results can be seen in the ever more diverse profiles of some communities, neighborhoods, schools and other settings.
Thus, for the first time in Neb. diversity is becoming more lived reality than aspirational goal.
Economic conditions were the main driver for the sharp rise in Latinos-Hispanics migrating here. Plentiful jobs, a low cost of living, coupled with aggressive industry recruitment, lured people to move here from places with comparatively weak economies, high cost of living and job shortages. Neb. grew its Latino-Hispanic base from points of origin in California, Texas. Mexico, Central America and South America, The state also saw its African and Asian populations increase as refugees from Sudan and Bhutan, for example, resettled here.
Drozd says, “People are not coming as directly for new jobs like in the ’90s when the meat processors were expanding and recruiting. We expect to see some regional migration that Neb. has typically seen from smaller locations to more urban locations that tend to have a diverse pool of job opportunities within various industries.”
While migration has slowed from its peak waves it’s expected to continue in fits and starts. Migration, researchers agree is “a wildcard” that can’t be accurately forecast, but Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Research Associate Lissette Aliaga Linares notes an uptick in Latinos-Hispanics from Arizona, which OLLAS Director Lourdes Gouvia attributes to that state’s anti-immigrant policies.
Drozd says Neb.’s minority experience is consistent with some surrounding states and inconsistent with others.
“We are typical of the Great Plains in that we tend to suffer from outmigration especially of young college-aged whites, which is counteracted by in-migration and increase in the minority population groups. On the other hand Neb. is unique in that we are growing faster in some of our metropolitan areas and not holding our population as well as some of the more rural areas.”
The emergence of more minorities is perhaps most visible in urban inner city public schools, where student enrollment naturally reflects the heavily minority communities these schools serve. Minority enrollment in the Omaha Public Schools stands at 68 percent.
“The diversity of UNO will continue to grow and one only has to look at the demographics in the metro area to understand that traditional middle school and high school students will increasingly be students of color,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed.
Some outstate school districts are now majority Latino-Hispanic.
The impact of diversity in this small population state that suffers from brain drain cannot be overstated.
“There’s a large part of Neb. that would be having population decline if it were not for minority growth,” says Drozd. “There’s all sorts of implications with respect to aging, the workforce, health care, education. From a gerontology standpoint you have the possibility of seeing a younger, more diverse working-age population caring for a predominantly white non-Hispanic aging population and will there be any issues associated there. With programs like Social Security you’re going to be relying more and more on an immigrant population to support payments for predominantly white people collecting from the program. So there are potentials for tension there and of course political ramifications and all sorts of factors.”
Gouveia, a sociology professor, reminds that “Latinos are going to imitate some trends of the larger population the more urban and educated they become,” adding. “The more women are able to work outside the home fertility rates will drop and the population will begin to age. It’s the life cycle.”
As minorities grow they become a larger sector of the tax and voting base that elected officials and prospective candidates must recognize.
Drozd says communities must adapt, whether offering English-as-a-Second Language programs or multicultural competency classes, in order to best serve minorities and their particular needs.
As more minorities graduate high school educators and employers hope that many of these college-bound grads and working-age young adults will attend school and find jobs in-state.
“As people have become upwardly mobile in Neb.’s past that has led to outmigration out of the state,” says Drozd. “It’s going to be a very policy relevant factor because people born in the early ’90s are now hitting age 18. Even if they choose a Neb. college where are they going to go to work? Will there be jobs and associated positions for them here in the state or will they go out of state?”
Just as preparing students to succeed in school is critical, so is preparing a workforce for today’s service and skilled jobs.
“Let’s make no mistake about this, without immigration Nebraskans may have to rethink how they are going to have a viable economy that produces not only jobs but payrolls that produce taxes from which an aging population will benefit greatly,” says Gouveia. “Without this population there won’t be services this Boomer population and this aspiring mini-global city of Omaha depends on. These are increasingly service economies and that means it’s very important for the economy to increasingly be based on higher pay jobs likely to grow, such as information technology or biotechnology.
“That also means educational institutions need to be able to truly know how to train this generation of children of immigrants. The children may not be immigrants themselves but a large number have immigrant parents who endured very poor, disadvantageous conditions that tend to disadvantage the educational achievement of their children. We have to have multidimensional. multidisciplinary perspectives to understand who this population is. And that goes to our research also.”
She believes minorities will succeed to the extent opportunities allow.
“We haven’t addressed the serious barriers to education that would guarantee that new face of America and of Neb. becomes a face with equal opportunities to participate in the prosperity all of us will want to share.” She says if barriers to upward mobility aren’t removed “it may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that’s been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population were it not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and future.”
Daniel J. Shipp, UNO associate vice chancellor for student affairs, says schools must find ways to support minority students.
“When combined with the typical struggles of new college students the demographics of race-ethnicity will create even more difficult challenges in both access to and success in college. Not only must we continue to open our doors wider to traditionally under-served student populations but once on campus it is critical for all of us to see their success as a top institutional and community priority.”
UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Pelema Morrice urges educators and employers to appreciate diversity’s many forms.
“We always focus on racial-ethnic diversity but I think intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, all those different forms of diversity, really add a lot of value to everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of evidence that the more diverse environment we’re in the more we all have opportunities to learn from each other.
“So I think it’s incredibly important for an institution to be a welcoming and diverse environment where folks can learn from each other at a higher level. I think that adds to the educational experience and it provides students with really good training to go out and be productive citizens and to be successful in the workplace.”
Diversity is also the way of this flatter, interconnected world.
Reed from UNO’s Academic and Student Affairs office, says “Our students will grow up in a much more global environment requiring exposure to difference cultures and different experiences.”
Where diversity often must be programmed, Gouveia is heartened by students’ inherent embrace of it. “About this new Neb. mosaic, one thing I’m particularly hopeful about is the younger generation. I love our new students. From any background they are so much more prepared and so much more ahead of where we are as professors or department chairs or deans in terms of knowing how to do diversity. We are the ones who are often behind them.”
As Neb. becomes more multi-hued, UNO’s Morrice says representative stakeholders should discuss what diversity holds for the state.
“With these new demographics coming forward it means our student base will obviously be more diverse than it is now and that means the outcomes will be more diverse and so we’ll see more diverse workplaces and communities within the state. We’re just a piece of that puzzle but I think it’s a good collective conversation for everyone to have as the state continues to grow and it becomes clear that there will be different faces at the table.”
UNO’s Changing Face
©by Leo Adam Biga
The same demographic trends on pace to make the United States a minority majority population by 2050 and making Neb. a more racially-ethnically diverse place in the second decade of the new millennium, are increasingly being expressed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Roughly a quarter of UNO’s 2013-2014 freshman class is minority and just under 20 percent of the school’s entire undergraduate enrollment is minority. Both are record marks for the school. In 2000, for example, UNO’s minority enrollment stood at 9 percent. The minority numbers are even greater among graduate students.
The 11 percent rise in UNO minority enrollment from 2000 until now reflects in large measure the Latino-Hispanic boom that happened in-state from 1980 to 2010, when that segment increased from about 37,000 to 167,000. The Latino-Hispanic population is expected to add another 370,000 residents by 2050, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.
As a public institution with a state-wide reach, UNO’s a model for the changing face of Neb. Drawing principally from the Omaha metropolitan area, which as the state’s largest urban center has always been Neb.’s most racially-ethnically diverse spot, UNO is, as expected, one of the most diverse campuses in the University of Nebraska system.
At the University of Nebraska-Kearney minority undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since 1995. Today, nearly a quarter of its students are non-white or non-resident alien. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reports the most diverse student body in its history. UNL’s 2,328 minority undergrads are about 12 percent of the undergraduate total, a 9 percent increase just from last year. Just as at UNO, the largest minority gains at each school are in the Latino-Hispanic and international students categories,
As minorities comprise a growing segment of the state’s mainstream and of its public schools’ enrollment, institutions are tasked with incorporating these populations and responding to their needs.
“The good news for Omaha is that UNO has a proud tradition of supporting minority students through various educational equity and learning community investments such as Goodrich, Project Achieve and the newer Thompson Learning Community,” says UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Daniel J. Shipp. “These programs provide student participants with a network of caring and concerned faculty, staff and peer mentors that help students to succeed and thrive in college. Moving forward, I expect we will continue to build on our national reputation for attracting and supporting the growing numbers of minority students and their families in the Omaha area and beyond.”
“Minority students are an important population but they are only one of an increasing mosaic of diversity at UNO, whether they are military, first generation, students of color or adult learners or transfer students,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed. “We are working every day to ensure that these students feel welcome at UNO and have the type of support services and environment that will make them want to be want to be here and to be successful. We do this for all our special populations of students. We have programs and learning communities as well as staff specifically directed at helping ease their transition to UNO and success in their academic goals.”
Reed says hiring faculty and staff who reflect the changing face of UNO “is a top priority,” adding, “We have made important strides in diversifying our staff but we lag behind where we want to be here and also with recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty. We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and looking at incentives and support efforts to increase the diversity of faculty and staff to reflect the changing demographics of our student body.”
There’s wide agreement that diversity is a net sum experience for all involved.
“The benefits are substantial,” Reed says. “The workplace is becoming increasingly diverse and employers need and want an increasingly diverse group of employees. We cannot underestimate the shift occurring here. We need to provide a strong educational workforce for employers and UNO must be positioned to do that effectively.”
Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Director and Sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia agrees that educators at UNO and elsewhere must increasingly consider diversity and its impact.
“We have to educate our professionals and student populations in ways that allow them to be skilled about global issues and diversity and to have multicultural competencies as the world is very connected,” she says. “But also we need to address structural barriers that may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that has been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population if not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and a future.”
Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
Never is anyone simply what they appear to be on the surface. Deep rivers run on the inisde of even the most seemingly easy to peg personalties and lives. Many of those well guarded currents cannot be seen unless we take the time to get to know someone and they reveal what’s on the inside. But seeing the complexity of what is there requires that we also put aside our blinders of assumptions and perceptions. That’s when we learn that no one is ever one thing or another. Take the late Charles Bryant. He was indeed as tough as his outward appearance and exploits as a one-time football and wrestling competitor suggested. But as I found he was also a man who carried around with him great wounds, a depth of feelings, and an artist’s sensitivity that by the time I met him, when he was old and only a few years from passing, he openly expressed.
My profile of Bryant was originally written for the New Horizons and then when I was commissioned to write a series on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends entitled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, I incorporated this piece into that collection. You can read several more of my stories from that series on this blog, including profiles of Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, and Johnny Rodgers.
Charles Bryant at UNL
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons and The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“I am a Lonely Man, without Love…Love seems like a Fire many miles away. I can see the smoke and imagine the Heat. I travel to the Fire and when I arrive the Fire is out and all is Grey ashes…
–– “Lonely Man” by Charles Bryant, from his I’ve Been Along book of poems
Life for Charles Bryant once revolved around athletics. The Omaha native dominated on the gridiron and mat for Omaha South High and the University of Nebraska before entering education and carving out a top prep coaching career. Now a robust 70, the still formidable Bryant has lately reinvented himself as an artist, painting and sculpting with the same passion that once stoked his competitive fire.
Bryant has long been a restless sort searching for a means of self-expression. As a young man he was always doing something with his hands, whether shining shoes or lugging ice or drawing things or crafting woodwork or swinging a bat or throwing a ball. A self-described loner then, his growing up poor and black in white south Omaha only made him feel more apart. Too often, he said, people made him feel unwelcome.
“They considered themselves better than I. The pain and resentment are still there.” Too often his own ornery nature estranged him from others. “I didn’t fit in anywhere. Nobody wanted to be around me because I was so volatile, so disruptive, so feisty. I was independent. Headstrong. I never followed convention. If I would have known that then, I would have been an artist all along,” he said from the north Omaha home he shares with his wife of nearly hald-a-century, Mollie.
Athletics provided a release for all the turbulence inside him and other poor kids. “I think athletics was a relief from the pressures we felt,” he said. He made the south side’s playing fields and gymnasiums his personal proving ground and emotional outlet. His ferocious play at guard and linebacker demanded respect.
“I was tenacious. I was mean. Tough as nails. Pain was nothing. If you hit me I was going to hit you back. When you played across from me you had to play the whole game. It was like war to me every day I went out there. I was just a fierce competitor. I guess it came from the fact that I felt on a football field I was finally equal. You couldn’t hide from me out there.”
Even as a youth he was always a little faster, a little tougher, a little stronger than his schoolmates. He played whatever sport was in season. While only a teen he organized and coached young neighborhood kids. Even then he was made a prisoner of color when, at 14, he was barred from coaching in York, Neb., where the all-white midget-level baseball team he’d led to the playoffs was competing.
Still, he did not let obstacles like racism stand in his way. “Whatever it took for me to do something, I did it. I hung in there. I have never quit anything in my life. I have a force behind me.”
Bryant’s drive to succeed helped him excel in football and wrestling. He also competed in prep baseball and track. Once he came under the tutelage of South High coach Conrad “Corney” Collin, he set his sights on playing for NU. He had followed the stellar career of past South High football star Tom Novak — “The toughest guy I’ve seen on a football field.” — already a Husker legend by the time Bryant came along. But after earning 1950 all-state football honors his senior year, Bryant was disappointed to find no colleges recruiting him. In that pre-Civil Rights era athletic programs at NU, like those at many other schools, were not integrated. Scholarships were reserved for whites. Other than Tom Carodine of Boys Town, who arrived shortly before Bryant but was later kicked off the team, Bryant was the first African-American ballplayer there since 1913.
No matter, Bryant walked-on at the urging of Collin, a dandy of a disciplinarian whom Bryant said “played an important role in my life.” It happened this way: Upon graduating from South two of Bryant’s white teammates were offered scholarships, but not him; then Bryant followed his coach’s advice to “go with those guys down to Lincoln.’” Bryant did. It took guts. Here was a lone black kid walking up to crusty head coach Bill Glassford and his all-white squad and telling them he was going to play, like it or not. He vowed to return and earn his spot on the team. He kept the promise, too.
“I went back home and made enough money to pay my own way. I knew the reason they didn’t want me to play was because I was black, but that didn’t bother me because Corney Collin sent me there to play football and there was nothing in the world that was going to stop me.”
Collin had stood by him before, like the time when the Packers baseball team arrived by bus for a game in Hastings and the locals informed the big city visitors that Bryant, the lone black on the team, was barred from playing. “Coach said, ‘If he can’t play, we won’t be here,’ and we all got on the bus and left. He didn’t say a word to me, but he put himself on the line for me.”
Bryant had few other allies in his corner. But those there were he fondly recalls as “my heroes.” In general though blacks were discouraged, ignored, condescended. They were expected to fail or settle for less. For example, when Bryant told people of his plans to play ball at NU, he was met with cold incredulity or doubt.
“One guy I graduated with said, ‘I’ll see you in six weeks when you flunk out.’ A black guy I knew said, ‘Why don’t you stay here and work in the packing houses?’ All that just made me want to prove myself more to them, and to me. I was really focused. My attitude was, ‘I’m going to make it, so the hell with you.’”
Bryant brought this hard-shell attitude with him to Lincoln and used it as a shield to weather the rough spots, like the death of his mother when he was a senior, and as a buffer against the prejudice he encountered there, like the racial slurs slung his way or the times he had to stay apart from the team on road trips.
As one of only a few blacks on campus, every day posed a challenge. He felt “constantly tested.” On the field he could at least let off steam and “bang somebody” who got out of line. There was another facet to him though. One he rarely shared with anyone but those closest to him. It was a creative, perceptive side that saw him write poetry (he placed in a university poetry contest), “make beautiful, intricate designs in wood” and “earn As in anthropolgy.”
Bryant’s days at NU got a little easier when two black teammates joined him his sophomore year (when he was finally granted the scholarship he’d been denied.). Still, he only made it with the help of his faith and the support of friends, among them teammate Max Kitzelman (“Max saved me. He made sure nobody bothered me.”) professor of anthropology Dr. John Champe (“He took care of me for four years.”) former NU trainers Paul Schneider and George Sullivan (who once sewed 22 stitches in a split lip Bryant suffered when hit in the chops against Minnesota), and sports information director emeritus Don Bryant.
“I always had an angel there to take care of me. I guess they realized the stranger in me.”
Charles Bryant’s perseverance paid off when, as a senior, he was named All-Big Seven and honorable mention All-American in football and all-league in wrestling (He was inducted in the NU Football Hall of Fame in 1987.). He also became the first Bryant (the family is sixth generation Nebraskan) to graduate from college when he earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1955.
He gave pro football a try with the Green Bay Packers, lasting until the final cut (Years later he gave the game a last hurrah as a lineman with the semi-pro Omaha Mustangs). Back home, he applied for teaching-coaching positions with OPS but was stonewalled. To support he and Mollie — they met at the storied Dreamland Ballroom on North 24th Street and married three months later — he took a job at Brandeis Department Store, becoming its first black male salesperson.
After working as a sub with the Council Bluffs Public Schools he was hired full-time in 1961, spending the bulk of his Iowa career at Thomas Jefferson High School. At T.J. he built a powerhouse wrestling program, with his teams regularly whipping Metro Conference squads.
In the 1970s OPS finally hired him, first as assistant principal at Benson High, then as assistant principal and athletic director at Bryan, and later as a student personnel assistant (“one of the best jobs I’ve ever had”) in the TAC Building. Someone who has long known and admired Bryant is University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling Head Coach Mike Denney, who coached for and against him at Bryan.
Said Denney, “He’s from the old school. A tough, hard-nosed straight shooter. He also has a very sensitive, caring side. I’ve always respected how he’s developed all aspects of himself. Writing. Reading widely. Making art. Going from coaching and teaching into administration. He’s a man of real class and dignity.”
Bryant found a new mode of expression as a stern but loving father — he and Mollie raised five children — and as a no-nonsense coach and educator. Although officially retired, he still works as an OPS substitute teacher. What excites him about working with youth?
“The ability to, one-on-one, aid and assist a kid in charting his or her own course of action. To give him or her the path to what it takes to be a good man or woman. My great hope is I can make a change in the life of every kid I touch. I try to give kids hope and let them see the greatness in them. It fascinates me what you can to do mold kids. It’s like working in clay.”
Since taking up art 10 years ago, he has found the newest, perhaps the strongest medium for his voice. He works in a variety of media, often rendering compelling faces in bold strokes and vibrant colors, but it is sculpture that has most captured his imagination.
“When I’m working in clay I can feel the blessings of Jesus Christ in my hands. I can sit down in my basement and just get lost in the work.”
Recently, he sold his bronze bust of a buffalo soldier for $5,000. Local artist Les Bruning, whose foundry fired the piece, said of his work, “He has a good eye and a good hand. He has a mature style and a real feel for geometric preciseness in his work. I think he’s doing a great job. I’d like to see more from him.”
Bryant has brought his talent and enthusiasm for art to his work with youths. A few summers ago he assisted a group of kids painting murals at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He directs a weekly art class at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, where he worships and teaches Sunday School.
Much of Bryant’s art, including a book of poems he published in the ‘70s, deals with the black experience. He explores the pain and pride of his people, he said, because “black people need black identification. This kind of art is really a foundation for our ego. Every time we go out in the world we have to prove ourselves. Nobody knows what we’ve been through. Few know the contributions we’ve made. I guess I’m trying to make sure our legacy endures. Every time I give one of my pieces of art to kids I work with their eyes just light up.”
These days Bryant is devoting most of his time to his ailing wife, Mollie, the only person who’s really ever understood him. He can’t stand the thought of losing her and being alone again.
“But I shall not give in to loneliness. One day I shall reach my True Love and My fire shall burn with the Feeling of Love.”
–– from his poem “Lonely Man”
- A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Green Bay Packers All-Pro Running Back Ahman Green Channels Comic Book Hero Batman and Gridiron Icons Walter Payton and Bo Jackson on the Field (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)