Husker Hot Takes – Fiala and Phillips Edition

15 Apr

I’ve got a handful of post-Spring Scrimmage thoughts I’d like to share, but I want to focus on the two biggest Husker stories of the week:

Former Husker linebacker and broadcaster Adrian Fiala passes away at age 67.

Adrian Fiala was a standout linebacker on the Bob Devaney teams of the late 1960s.  Although he graduated just before Nebraska won back-to-back national championships, he is widely credited for helping to elevate the team’s play from 6-4 mediocrity to a 9-2 team on the cusp of greatness.  Fiala was a two-sport standout, serving as a catcher on the Nebraska Baseball team.

But for most Nebraska fans, Fiala’s biggest impact was as a broadcaster.  He was a fixture in the Husker broadcast booth between the end of the Pavelka/Sadlemeyer era and the current Sharpe/Davison team.  He was a fixture on NET’s Big Red Wrap-up show.  He was blessed with a deep, booming voice, a humble folksy charm, and a level of preparation that inspired his colleagues.  When you think of the greatest Husker moments between 1996 and 2010 – Stuntz to Crouch, Alex Henery’s 57 yard field goal, and countless others – you could count on Adrian Fiala sharing your excitement and enthusiasm in the radio booth.  Was he a homer for Dear Old Nebraska U?  You bet your backside he was, and I never heard him apologize for supporting his home state alma mater with everything he had.

Personally, I enjoyed his work on countless NET Nebraska Baseball broadcasts more than his football broadcasts.  I always felt his strengths as a broadcaster:  a friendly demeanor and a gift for story telling, were perfectly paired for the rhythms of a baseball game.  I will greatly miss him the next time NET does a game.

Speaking of which…I would humbly suggest that NET honor Fiala during their next Nebraska Baseball broadcast (Saturday, April 18) by remaining silent during the home half of the first inning.  It would be a cool tribute to a man whose words accompanied so many Husker games.

Fiala fans should check out 93.7 The Ticket

After leaving the Husker broadcast booth, Adrian Fiala gave his talents and credibility to upstart Lincoln sports radio station 93.7 The Ticket.  The transformation of The Ticket from small time sports radio operation to one of the best Husker voices in the state is largely due to Fiala’s work mentoring the talented group of young broadcasters at 93.7.

The station’s staff – especially program manager and Fiala’s “Husker Legends Show” co-host John Gaskins – has done an amazing job of paying tribute to Fiala.  They have collected several beautiful and touching stories from a who’s who of Nebraska legends.  I encourage you to listen to the clips on their podcast page.

If for nothing else, you’ll want to hear the unbelievable story of the priest who gave Fiala the Last Rites on Monday.  While in college at Nebraska, the future priest performed as Herbie Husker.

Yes, a Nebraska legend received his last rites from Herbie Husker.

There is truly no place….

*   *   *

And on the opposite end of the spectrum…

Lawrence Phillips is accused of murdering is cellmate in a California prison.

The publicly available facts are rather limited at this time, but Lawrence Phillips is believed to have killed his cellmate last weekend.  Before I explore the Nebraska-centric angles and implications, let me acknowledge that very little of what follows is as important as a man being killed by another man – even if the deceased was serving 82 to life for first degree murder.  As much as it upsets me to see every transgression Phillips commits reported as “former Nebraska running back” instead of “ex-NFL running back”, I get that grievance is beyond trivial compared to the loss of life.  That said…

Can we stop referring to Phillips as “Former Nebraska Running Back”?

While I did see several articles and tweets referring to L.P. as an “Ex-NFL running back”, many still reference his 27 games (and just 14 starts) at Nebraska.  Admittedly, this comes from a fiercely proud Nebraska native and alumnus who wants to protect the name of his school.

I get that his first criminal acts took place in Lincoln, but at the same time, it’s been almost 20 years since Phillips was a member of the Nebraska football team.  Is there a statute of limitations that kicks in eventually?  Are other former NFL players accused of felonies identified by their pro team(s) or by the college they attended?

Many national pundits are taking advantage of this crime to attack Tom Osborne’s decision to reinstate Phillips.

Among the “highlights”:

Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch linked a 20 year old Jim Murray column from the LA Times.  Deitsch refers to the column as “ahead-of-its time“.  I agree in that the style of one-sided outraged indignation used by the legendary writer seems lifted from today’s #HotSportsTake culture where clicks are more important than being measured or balanced.

Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde retweeted the Deitsch tweet and chased it with this gem:

A respected national media member attacking Osborne’s integrity because he reinstated Phillips*?  Sheesh.

*I can’t remember if I’m on record or not about T.O. and L.P., so here goes:

Tom Osborne did not need Lawrence Phillips to win the 1995 National Championship.  That team would have been considered one of the greatest teams of all time with Ahman Green, Clinton Childs, or Damon Benning as the feature back.  To argue otherwise displays complete ignorance on that team’s talent, and the dominance they displayed throughout the season.  Remember, on the very first play in NU’s first game without Phillips, Clinton Childs went 65 yards for a touchdown (against a respectable Arizona State team a year away from a top 5 ranking and Rose Bowl berth).

Faced with the decision of what to do with Phillips, there should be no debate that the easiest option for Osborne (and Nebraska) would be to kick him off the team, expel him from school, and completely wash their hands of him.  Keeping him on the team – even if for the asinine reason of “winning at all costs” – is much more difficult for everybody involved.  The potential for distraction derailing a special season goes up exponentially with Phillips in uniform after September 10, 1995.  Period.

I truly believe Osborne knew in the depths of his soul that the best chance for Lawrence Phillips, human being, to be successful was to remain in the structured and supportive environment of the Nebraska Football program.  I have no doubt that Osborne, a devout Christian, believed he could turn Phillips’s life around.

Could Osborne/Nebraska have handled the Phillips situation better?  Hindsight always says yes.  Certainly, there is the notion that Osborne should have cut his losses and tossed L.P. to the wolves.  I’d listen to the argument that Osborne should not have reinstated Phillips until after the bowl game – giving him structure without opening the door to the “win at all costs” columns.

Clearly, the extra chance(s) Osborne gave to Phillips ultimately did not work out.  His reputation will be forever tarnished nationally (and to a lesser extent, locally) for choosing to support Phillips.  But what if Lawrence Phillips had left Nebraska, gone to the Rams and put together an average NFL career?  What if Phillips had gone through the last 20 years without arrest, professional insubordination, or anything worse than a parking ticket?  Would national pundits still take shots at Osborne’s “integrity”?

Or would they laud him for helping to turn around a troubled kid?

Damon Benning provides a raw and poignant look at who Lawrence Phillips is

Tuesday morning on 1620 AM’s excellent “Sharp and Benning in the Morning” radio show, they devoted two segments to Damon Benning speaking eloquently and passionately about Lawrence Phillips.

Damon Benning gives an in-depth look at who Lawrence is.  At one point, Benning says he is trying to “tell the story without excuses”.  It is a powerful listen.  You can hear the normally reserved Benning become emotional multiple times.

As fans – and likely as people who grew up in better environments than Lawrence Phillips – it is very easy to attack, dismiss, and write Phillips off as a thug or a piece of garbage.  Certainly, that is your right, especially if you feel that Phillips has done irreparable damage to Nebraska and Tom Osborne.  But the main thing I took from Benning’s words is it is not always easy to try to understand who the man is, where he came from, and how he processes life.  Benning describes Phillips as a smart, yet complex person built on a “shaky foundation”.  Benning notes that in his experiences “hurt people hurt people”.

Benning does not defend what Phillips has done or what he is accused of doing.  Nor does he attempt to justify his actions by sharing details of L.P.’s childhood and Nebraska career.

The first segment starts around the 2:05 mark.  The second picks back up around 5:00.  I strongly recommend listening to both segments.

*   *   *

If there is any positive we can take away from these two stories, it is that both have resulted in local radio hosts elevating their craft to exemplary and memorable levels.

But I wish this week was more about some silly scrimmage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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