History says Huskers must get tough at the top – A rebuttal

29 Aug

In today’s Omaha World-Herald, longtime columnist Lee Barfknecht lays out his case for how Nebraska – particularly the football program – can return to national prominence.  In Barfknecht’s opinion, it all boils down to a single word:

Toughness.

Having read this column a couple of times, I think it all boils down to a single word:

Bull___.

I know that over the years, Lee has proudly embraced his title of “Nebraska writer Nebraska fans love to hate”.  But I’ve never hated him or his work.  Actually, quite the opposite.  I tend to appreciate his experience, his no-nonsense approach, and the cutting wit he unleashes at anything – or anybody.  But this is not his best work.

The most passionate of Husker fans usually don’t care for his words and actions – all stemming from an infamous vote in the 1997 AP Football Poll – but he usually makes good points and delivers them with a strong – if rough around the edges – style.

But this is not one of those times.

For ease of showing you why, I’ve pasted the original World-Herald column below, along with my comments.  Lee’s words are in bold.  Mine are not.

*   *   *

People who know what I do for a living occasionally ask if I’m going to write a book about Nebraska football. It’s true that I’ve seen a few things.

Before I start laying the snark on thick and heavy, let me state this:  I would read this book.  For all of his quirks, Lee has a talent for taking old stories from the barroom to the page without losing their humor or timing.

I sat across from Bob Devaney at his desk in the old South Stadium and shared a few end-of-the-day cocktails while discussing “world events.” (Hey, when they name buildings for you, you can bend the rules about no alcohol on campus.)

As we go through this column, we’re going to play a game I like to call “Lee Barfknecht Bingo”.  When Lee uses one of his tried and true tropes, you can mark a space off on your card.  We’re going to start the game off with a two-fer:  Lee references the length of his career, and Lee waxes nostalgic for the old-school journalistic access he used to have.  Keep watching those Bingo cards, because we’re likely to have a winner today.

I watched Tom Osborne come within a whisker of using the F-word to describe “that dadgum Sports Illustrated guy” writing a story that Osborne was sure to dislike.

I don’t want to doubt a man’s journalistic integrity, but raise your hand if you think Osborne has ever come close to cursing – let alone an F-bomb.

And I’ve seen grown men cry when I went to the Minnesota locker room after Nebraska beat the Gophers 84-13.

There are plenty more tales. But if a book ever comes, be prepared for a big chapter on a topic almost never addressed:

How in the world did Nebraska get good at football in the first place?

Actually, that topic has been addressed in several Nebraska Football books over the years, but whatever.

That’s not a knock.

It’s important to call out the one sentence in your column that is not a knock.

It’s a compliment to the ingenuity, work ethic and toughness — especially the toughness, which we’ll address later — it took to overcome a virtual automatic disqualifier to success: being a small-population flyover state with a wide geographic area.

Nebraska, from the chancellor’s office on down, took football seriously from the beginning, and it thrived. The Huskers won 77 percent of their games from 1900-40, and finished the 1940 season in the Rose Bowl, the school’s first postseason trip.

What followed was two decades of darkness, notable for lackluster administrative commitment to the sport after World War II and shaky coaching hires.

NU posted three winning seasons in 21 years, and won 37 percent of its games. That’s a level of misery an old Kansas State fan could identify with.

I hope some of the other program historians (Mike Babcock, I’m looking in your direction) weigh in on if that 21 stretch of misery was truly due to “lackluster administrative commitment to the sport”.  Furthermore, how would you quantify what a “lackluster administrative commitment to the sport” looked like 60 -70 years ago?  Is Lee basing his thesis of “lackluster administrative commitment to the sport” solely on “shaky coaching hires”?  Or is there more to it?  And if there is more there, what lens is he viewing it with – one from post-war NU or one from the arms race era of college athletics?

In big-boy college athletics, I’m a firm believer that coaches win games while administrations clear the way for championships. That’s why I love what Nebraska Athletic Director Tippy Dye declared as he searched for a new football coach in 1962.

Dye’s goals were for Nebraska to be No. 1 nationally, and to hire the best coach in the country, regardless of name or location. Boosters, community leaders and his boss were in lockstep with him.

No argument here on administrations “clearing the way” for championships, or an AD whose stated goal is to be number 1.  Unless somebody can point me to a quote that says otherwise, I’m pretty sure the current athletic department leadership at Nebraska has stated they want to win championships – just like every other AD since Tippy Dye.

Dye picked Devaney, coming off four conference titles in a row at Wyoming.

The former amateur boxer and assistant to Michigan State legend Duffy Daugherty whipped Nebraska into shape immediately, going 9-2 his first season to start a staggering 40-year run of success. What followed were five national championships between Devaney and Osborne, his hand-picked successor.

But since Osborne’s successor, Frank Solich, led NU to the 1999 Big 12 title and the 2001 national title game, this program has lost its championship mojo.

I sure hope Lee doesn’t try to boil the failures and shortcomings of the program since 62-36 into a single point, because that would be ignorant, misleading, and/or lazy.  There are a host of reasons – both internal and external –  why Nebraska has fallen from a championship-level powerhouse to an “Others Receiving Votes” school.  You definitely cannot do all of those reasons justice in a 1,500 word column.

That brings us to today’s topic, just six days from the 2016 opener:

Will the Huskers ever get good enough to win championships again?

No excuse exists for a school that spends the time, energy and money on football that Nebraska does to go 16 seasons without a conference title. That goes double when you play in the woefully average Big 12 North and Big Ten West.

First off, what the hell does “woefully average” mean?  A division can be average, or woeful, but not both.  And what about the short-lived Legends division?  Personally, I always considered the Legends to be spectacularly mediocre.  But I digress…

Yes, the Big XII North and Big Ten West have been – woefully or not – average over most of the last 16 seasons.  But let’s not pretend like the Big 8 was a grueling gauntlet for most of the Devaney/Osborne years.  Personally, I believe that in the conference championship game era, a division title is equivalent to a conference title in the pre-BCS era.  You played one really good team (Oklahoma), and few above average teams (Colorado and Missouri or Okie State) and bunch of nobodies (Iowa State, K-State, Kansas, etc.).  How is that different from the path NU took to win the Legends in 2012? Or the Big XII North in 2006, 2009, or 2010?  It’s not.

Swallow hard before you read the following:

A suggestion:  World-Herald editors may want to consider printing this disclaimer before the next click-bait column they publish.

Nebraska has the third-longest conference title drought among the 14 Big Ten schools. Only Indiana and Minnesota (both 1967) are more barren. You are known by the company you keep.

On the surface, this is a great and damning stat that helps set the stage for the point that Lee is about to make.  But when you look a little deeper, this stat is fluffed up bull.  For example, look at some of these memorable championship seasons:

  • Four of those teams (Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue) shared their championship with another team.
  • That Northwestern championship squad (2000) was so great they ended up in the Alamo Bowl where non-conference champ Nebraska narrowly defeated them 66-17.
  • As for the other B1G newcomers, Maryland won a 9-team ACC in 2000.  That is a legit championship, unlike Rutgers:  The 2012 Scarlet Knights were one of four teams (in an eight team Big East) who finished 5-2, which technically made them co-champs with Cincy, Syracuse, and Louisville.  Louisville was the conference’s BCS representative, mainly due to beating Rutgers head to head.

Are any of these “championships” more impressive than being one second away from defeating Texas in Dallas in 2009?  I get that in sports, titles are the ultimate decider for an argument, but there are a lot of apples being compared to oranges here.

We all realize the landscape of college football has changed dramatically the past 20 years. Many of the competitive edges Nebraska used to hold — in strength training, nutrition, facilities, TV appearances, academic support — are gone or dwindling.

Translation:  “I acknowledge these things may have as big of an impact as what I’m about to mention, but they don’t fit my narrative so I summarily dismiss them.”

So is something else: toughness.

When is somebody in charge at One Memorial Stadium Drive going to throw open a window and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” instead of tweeting mushy motivational sayings?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a window at One Memorial open.  Do they lift up?  Crank out?  Maybe the issue is not with toughness, but an inability to open the windows.  Somebody get Maintenance and Facilities on the phone!

Also, mark off the Bingo square for “veiled shot at Shawn Eichorst”.

Nebraska has long achieved athletically in ways the outside world never thought possible. Two major reasons were the guts to hold people accountable and sheer determination.

It took toughness from Francis Allen to turn Nebraska into a national championship gymnastics school.

It took toughness from Dave Van Horn and his Husker baseball team to perform a College World Series miracle while playing at decrepit Buck Beltzer Stadium.

It took toughness from Terry Pettit to build a national championship volleyball empire from scratch, and more grit from John Cook to demand more excellence going forward.

It took toughness from Connie Yori to turn Husker women’s basketball into a top-15 program nationally, arguably NU’s most underrated success story. Why she isn’t still in charge makes little sense.

I’m not touching the Yori issue, but otherwise the answer is clear:  to win championships you simply need to hire legendary coaches!  Feel free to mark off “overly simplified solution to complex problem” on your Bingo card.

It took toughness from Bill Byrne to hire strong-minded coaches with successful pedigrees, to modernize Nebraska’s facilities despite roadblocks from old-guard boosters, and to set expectations for what turned into the Golden Decade of NU athletics (1992-2001).

I was not aware that Byrne hired Francis Allen, Terry Pettit, and Tom Osborne.  Good to know.

One of Byrne’s favorite things as athletic director was to tell his coaches, “You need to think about how to win a national title, and I’ll do everything I can to help.” It wasn’t a threat. It was about building a championship mindset.

Is anybody in NU’s athletic administration doing that today? The scoreboard in most sports says no.

The key part of that last sentence is the disclaimer “in most sports”.  Let’s ignore the National Championship the Volleyball team won as well as other conference championship teams – those don’t help Lee make his point.

Bingo card alert:  “Lee takes a direct shot at Eichorst”.  Is Lee implying that Eichorst is not offering to help his coaches win titles?  Or is question of “Is anybody in NU’s athletic administration doing that today?” a passive aggressive swipe at Eichorst for not doing a sit-down interview with Lee every month?  If you answer yes, feel free to also mark off “Lee is bitter because Eichorst prefers to not do interviews”.

And then there’s perhaps the toughest dude of all — Osborne.

Nebraska football always has been a far more fragile entity than the general public would believe, or want to know. It took Osborne, calm on top and paddling like crazy underneath, to keep what Devaney resurrected on track.

I’d love to know more about this statement.  If Lee does ever write that book, he should make it about this.

When it came time to put in the work necessary to play championship football, neither Osborne nor his staff and players took shortcuts.

The veracity of this statement really comes down to if you consider Prop 48 usage, some questionable disciplinary decisions, alleged steroid, and other rumors to be “shortcuts” or not.  Let’s just say that several of our former Big 8 rivals rolled their eyes at that claim.

Big Eight coaches used to discuss the dread they had seeing “Nebraska” on the schedule. It wasn’t the losses that bothered them most. It was the relentless effort the Huskers played with, and the physical beating inflicted that often lingered into the next game.

About a month after Osborne won the 1994 national championship, I asked if his quiet nature and strong Christian faith were ever at odds with the ruggedness his teams exhibited. He said no.

“You don’t win football games with choirboys,” Osborne said. “You’ve got to be tough to play. There’s no reason you can’t kick the tar out of somebody on the field and respect them off of it.”

First off all, that is a tremendous question to ask – and an even better answer.  It shows that Barfknecht is an excellent journalist (or at least he was in 1995).  And it helps show just how competitive the stoic Osborne was.

That culture has vanished since self-described genius A.D. Steve Pederson uprooted the Devaney-Osborne-Solich tree.

Bill Callahan’s West Coast offense was all about finesse and playing for field goals. Bo Pelini, despite his bully routine, put zero fear into opposing coaches. His teams tackled poorly, were fundamentally unsound and cracked in the biggest games on the brightest stages.

That Bingo card is really starting to fill up.  Mark down “Lee takes a shot a Bo Pelini”, “Lee takes a shot at Steve Pedersen”, and “Lee takes a shot at Bill Callahan”.

Now, we’re one year in with Mike Riley, an extremely nice man who went 6-7 and got outcoached by Purdue’s Darrell Hazell, who is 3-30 against FBS foes.

Check off “Lee makes a back-handed compliment”.  Also, in doing this exercise, I’ve really noticed just how little Lee cares for the Riley hire.  Clearly, he thinks that Eichorst could have – and should have – done better, but I don’t recall who he suggested NU pursue.  Probably Nick Saban.

And we’re four years in with A.D. Shawn Eichorst, also a very nice man whose Student-Athlete Experience policy is noble.

No, you cannot mark off “Lee makes a back-handed compliment” twice.

But a lot of the benefits and goodies that go to athletes today look to me like he’s spoiling children to get them to like him. Good luck finding many success stories where the teenagers are empowered and the adults (coaches) are hamstrung.

Check off “Lee makes a ‘get offa my lawn!’ statement”.  Maybe the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab can implement a test to gauge an athlete’s ability to walk to school, uphill, through a driving blizzard.

I cannot recall if Lee is on the bandwagon for paying athletes since colleges and the NCAA make billions off of their efforts.  I hope not, because that paragraph where he mocks Eichorst for doing everything in his power to give a piece of Nebraska’s profits to the student-athletes would make him a championship-level hypocrite.

So where is the toughness?

Good question.  Maybe the NAPL can set up a test for this.  Or maybe analytics guru Tucker Zeleny can develop an advanced metric for toughness – along with measuring an athlete’s “heart” and ability to be “clutch”.

Big Ten Network analysts asked that at a recent Husker practice, calling the workout “Pac-12 style.” That’s Riley’s old league, known far more for finesse than power. The Big Ten is sausage-ball, made at the line of scrimmage.

Absolutely.  Nebraska has depth issues at a number of positions – specifically on both lines – but Riley should spend every practice doing full contact scrimmages and Oklahoma drills before embarking on the first nine game schedule in a “sausage-ball” league.  Brilliant!

Toughness isn’t an issue at Michigan. Ask tight end Jake Butt about playing for coach Jim Harbaugh.

“He forces us to be tough,” the senior All-America candidate said. “When you practice for four hours and you’re smashing into each other, you don’t have any choice but to be tough.”

And how does Michigan A.D. Warde Manuel support Harbaugh’s methods and madness?

“He has free rein,” Manuel said. “I want Jim Harbaugh to be Jim Harbaugh.”

Warde, good on you for putting out a quote that will be trotted out every time Harbaugh does something crazy.

Toughness isn’t an issue at Ohio State. All-America middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan said the Buckeyes’ fall camp is no place for the weak or timid. All involved are utterly accountable to coach Urban Meyer — every play, every day.

“The sense of urgency we have comes from the tradition we have at Ohio State,” McMillan said. “Failure isn’t an option. They put us through the ringer.”

Depth isn’t an issue at Ohio State either.  When you can put 14 guys in the NFL and still be a preseason Top 10 team, you clearly have a talent level that most teams do not enjoy.  Also, how exactly does Urb hold players “utterly accountable”?  If he’s doing something with accountability that NU is not, this would be a good time to pass that along.

Toughness isn’t an issue at Michigan State or Wisconsin, either. Those schools have taken the former Nebraska way of doing things and successfully made it their own.

Where does all this leave Nebraska?

Having to respond to a widely read column that provides no answers or ideas other than a vague concept impossible to measure?  Much like his bizarre crusade to improve Nebraska Basketball by retiring Tyronn Lue’s number, this column is little more than an excuse for Lee to lash out at NU’s administration.  Friends, that is a final box on our Bingo card!

After 40 years of quality football, 20 years of darkness, then 40 more years of championship-caliber play, the Huskers are about to complete another 20-year period of failing to strike fear in opponents. You see it on the field, and I hear it in the press boxes.

Whether NU will soon pivot toward another long period of success remains a mystery. What is clearer is the road this school has taken to get there. It starts at the intersection of toughness and accountability.

I still don’t know what point Lee is trying to make with “accountability”?  Is he trying to say that Eichorst should fire Riley if the team is not three wins better – er, tougher – than they were in 2015?  I doubt that is the case, since a) Lee regularly writes about how schools on the coaching change carousel rarely exit, and b) it would ignore how Eichorst held Pelini accountable by firing him.

Furthermore, how does Lee account for the discrepancy between his poster child of toughness – Osborne the coach – versus a man who hired many of the coaches responsible for the poor championship “scoreboard” Lee chastises Eichorst for – Osborne the Athletic Director?  Pelini, Tim Miles, and Darin Erstad were all hired under Osborne’s watch.

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