Improving Nebraska Football: A to Z

16 Sep

 

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During the off-season, there was an article in the Lincoln Journal-Star that stuck in my memory.  More accurately, it was a quote from Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst inside that article:

“Every single day (after the Iowa game) we talked about, ‘How are we going to make our program better? From A to Z,'” said Eichorst.  “When we got back from the bowl game, we did the same thing. ‘How can we make our program from A to Z better?'”

The Journal-Star article – a recap of a May speech by Eichorst and Mike Riley – is understandably short on specifics.

But the concept stuck with me:  If I was in charge of improving the Nebraska Football program from A to Z, what would I do?

Here are my recommendations, from A to Z.  Most of these are directed at the folks inside Memorial Stadium, but there are things for you and I to do as well.

A – Embrace your Alumni – A program like Nebraska as a ton of strengths.  One of the biggest ones should be its alumni base.  Their passion, involvement, and support (financial and intangible) can do amazing things to further the University and all of NU athletics.  Certainly, that applies to graduates of UNL, but I’m primarily focusing on previous players.

Let’s face it:  relations between former players and past coaching staffs have been strained – or even non-existent.  Yet, having a strong network of support from former Huskers (especially those in the League or involved with coaching) is huge.  To his credit, one of the first things that Mike Riley did as head coach was reach out to former letter winners with open arms.

I’d love to see Nebraska get to a place where alumni are not identified as a “Solich Guy”, a “Callahan player”, or a “Pelini recruit”, but as a “former Cornhusker.”

B – Be Bought In.  As divided as the Nebraska fan base has been over the past few years, I think we can all agree that we all want Nebraska to return to championship level success and prominence.  But when we talk about how that happens, the disagreements start.

Some folks don’t like the coaching staff or AD.  Some question if an offense can win if they don’t run the ball 65% of the time.  Other question the loyalty and passion of other fans.  And on and on.

Instead, how about buying in to the current staff?  I’m not advocating blind faith or ignoring red flags.  What I am saying is quit pursuing the joyless victory of being the first person to say “See, I told you it wouldn’t work”.

Come together to support the program we all claim to love.  Mike Riley’s vision – and execution – may not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we need to call for firings after every loss.

C – Coach ’em up.  Obviously, the desire of every college football program is to sign a boatload of five-star talent, turn them loose, and watch the wins pile up.  But for most schools outside of Alabama, it’s not that easy.

Between injuries, suspensions, and attrition, schools often have to take some lemons and try to make lemonade.  The ability of coaches to instruct, train, and develop their players into contributors is vital.  This is an area where Nebraska has excelled in the past (Milt Tenopir, amongst others) and can excel again (Trent Bray, I’m looking at you).

D – Devaney.  Not the NU legend, or his namesake sports center, but new hire Billy Devaney.  Aside from having a mouthful of a title (Executive Director of Player Personnel and Special Assistant to the Head Coach), he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in talent evaluation and player development.  I’m intrigued to see how his role evolves and how he helps shape the roster.

If nothing else, it has to be a plus in recruiting to be able to tell a recruit “we have a former NFL GM on staff, and he loves your film”.

E – End early games.  I hate 11 am home games.  Everything is so sleepy.  Downtown Lincoln has no life before a game.  The students are notoriously late to fill in for the early kickoffs.  The energy in the stadium tends to be low.  For the recruitniks, it’s tough to get Johnny Fivestar into town – especially if he has a game the night before.  The actual W-L numbers may not fully back it up, but I greatly prefer afternoon or evening games to brunch affairs.

There is no way to completely end early games – they are a reality when your conference has multiple TV partners that want to fill programming slots.  That said, the best way to escape the Beth Mowins / Joey Galloway shift is to win.  You don’t see a lot of Ohio State or Alabama kickoffs before noon CST.

F – Focus on fervent fans.  Nebraska enjoys strong and passionate fan support.  From impacting games with constant, intimidating noise, or the flood of social media “encouragement” given to recruits, it is clear that football matters here.  We fans want this program to be successful.

The University, Athletic Department, and the football program – in my opinion – do a good job of acknowledging and recognizing fan support.  But there is always room for more.  One of the most passionate and loyal fan bases in sports deserves all of the love and appreciation NU can give.

What does that look like?  I’m don’t have any specifics at this time, but I’d challenge NU to give back more.

G – Sell the Good Life.  The perception still exists (especially with recruits) that all Nebraskans drive tractors, cows wander freely, and corn grows on every corner.  The reality is that Nebraska – and especially Lincoln – is a great place to live, work, and go to school.

I recall a brilliant idea proposed on the Sharp & Benning show:  fly recruits into Omaha and drive them past TD Ameritrade ballpark, Warren Buffet’s house, all of the Fortune 500 companies, and into Lincoln in Interstate 180, with its impressive view of Memorial Stadium, Pinnacle Bank Arena, the new Hudl headquarters, and the Capitol.  Then, casually note that the time of the trip is the same as it would take to go 15 miles in some cities.

H – Hometown Proud.  In a perfect world, Nebraska high schools produce a couple of legitimate 4 or 5 star recruits every year, and they accept Nebraska offers without so much as a visit to another school.  In addition, a large group of in-state kids decide to walk-on with several developing into starters.

In reality, the Cornhusker state rarely produces five-star talent, and sometimes those talented kids go to places like Stanford, Iowa, or Notre Dame.  The kids who may have walked on 20 years ago are now picking scholarships from Ohio, Wyoming, or one of the Dakota schools over paying their own way.  While I don’t believe in Nebraska signing every guy who dominates Class B, I completely understand that those hometown kids are the lifeblood of the program – and often the best leaders and hardest workers.

I – Invent and Innovate.  Much of success that Devaney and Osborne shared can be traced back to Nebraska being a college football innovator.  Nebraska was one of the pioneers of strength and conditioning, which gave them a big advantage on the field in the 80’s and 90’s.  Now, every school has a monster weight room, and the S&C playing field has leveled out.

Nebraska needs to find the next way to gain an edge over the competition.  The new Athletic Performance Lab certainly has the potential to give that edge.  But my money is on the analytics department showing a return on investment first.  The easy analogy is to the “Moneyball” Oakland A’s, but the ability to have strong data can be a game changer.

J – Find the next Janovich.  Regular readers know that I am a big fan of Andy Janovich.  Go back through Husker teams all the way to Devaney and you’ll find Janovich-type players:   The in-state walk-on who worked his way on the field, earned a scholarship, and became a stand out player and team leader.

Those guys are getting tougher to find as they’re opting for scholarships to Wyoming, Ohio, or one of the Dakota schools instead of a chance to walk-on in Lincoln.  But the heart and soul of the program will always be in-state kids who want it more.  This is where having a strong connection with the high school coaches in the state can help identify those guys.

K – Kick up the kicking game.  The good news is Nebraska traditionally enjoys success in one or more facets of the kicking game.  Be it an accurate place kicker, a punter with a booming leg, or a put ’em in the aisles return man, even the worst NU teams have had a special teams bright spot.

Unfortunately, the bad news is NU has had a nasty trait of turning last year’s strength into this year’s weakness.  2015 was a prime example as many components of the kicking game regressed.

Without getting sidetracked by Bruce Read’s salary, the ability to be strong in special teams can – and should – be a game changer.

L – Line of scrimmage.  I am a firm believer that football championships – especially in college – are won from the lines out.

As amazing as Tommie Frazier was, would he have been the same dynamic play maker if he played behind some of the lines from the Callahan or Pelini years?  Let’s just say that I have my doubts.

On the other side of the ball, every great defense is anchored by a strong defensive line that shuts down the run and puts heat on quarterbacks.

Mark my words: when the lines are dominating, success will follow.

M – Memorial Stadium.  Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium is one of the great cathedrals of college football.  As the Old Grey Lady moves closer to her 100th birthday, she’s never been in better shape.  Improvements, both big and small, have enhanced the game day experience for fans.

But as the watch-at-home experience continues to improve, it will be important for Nebraska to find new ways to keep Memorial Stadium as one of the great places to watch a football game.

N – Nike , Adidas, or Under Armour?  Much has been written and said about Nebraska’s current apparel and footwear contract with Adidas – and what should happen when that contract expires in June.

I don’t have a preference on the provider.  Instead, I want to be with a company that treats Nebraska differently than the majority of its clients, provides a top-tier deal, and can create uniforms and alternates that Nebraskans can be proud of.

O – Oregon.  Most of the things in this list should be considered long-term goals, if not core principles of the program.  This one is decidedly short-term.  NU needs to beat Oregon on Saturday.  Why?

Let’s start with Mike Riley.  There is a line of thinking that Riley left Oregon State because he’d never have the talent and/or resources to beat the Ducks in Corvallis.  So what would it say if he still can’t get it done at Nebraska?

Additionally, Oregon is going to be a big recruiting weekend, and an exciting victory in front of a raucous crowed sure never hurts.

Finally, while I think it can be shortsighted to paint the program’s narrative and direction based on a single game, I suspect other members of the media (both local and national) won’t have any issue with it – win or lose.

P – Put aside “P” named boogeymen.  Pederson.  Pelini.  Perlman.  Ask 100 Husker fans why the program has not won a conference title since 1999, and the odds are good that at least one of those three will be named.

Certainly, you can list off many things they did (or are accused of doing) that hurt the program.  Those three will always be polarizing figures who stir up emotional responses.  But how does that help us today or tomorrow?

It’s time to let go of the negativity.  Stop believing that people are (or were) conspiring to ruin the program, and come together to move forward.

Q – Quit losing.  Yeah, it is a simplistic answer.  But consider the deep-dive analysis of every nook and cranny of the program.  The hours of talk radio hot takes.  The message board and Twitter angst over the topic du jour…How much of that goes away if Nebraska wins 9, 10, or 11 games?

R – Recruit, recruit, recruit.  My interest in all things recruiting is rather minor.  I’ll read about the latest commits, look at their stars and other offers, but that’s about it.  I don’t watch their film and I mostly forget about them until they a) sign and/or b) start to contribute.

Mike Riley and his staff don’t have that luxury.  They appear to be organized, prioritized, and energized in everything they do around recruiting.  And they are not afraid to go after the big names.

Say what you will about stars, rankings, and the multitude of recruiting sites and services, but the numbers don’t lie:  there is a ceiling on any program’s success without multiple, high-end recruits.

S  – That’s what speed do.  College football is a speed game.  Yes, power in the trenches is vital, but the ability to run away from (or catch up to) the opposition wins games.  So many of Nebraska’s all-time great teams – and especially defenses – featured lightning fast guys flying all over the field.  This is part recruiting, part strength and conditioning, and part finding roles to get speed on the field.

T – Three hundred fifty and beyond.  The Memorial Stadium sellout streak will hit 350 games when Oregon comes to town.  But this summer, the AP confirmed what many have long suspected:  three times in 2015, NU asked “friends of the program” to buy up extra tickets at the last minute to keep the streak alive.

You may consider the streak a sham, but it’s continued existence is a lifeline to a time of prosperity and success.  It’s also a very tangible symbol of the passion Nebraska fans have for their team.

The streak is in serious jeopardy, but there are ways to protect it (another topic for another day).  Doing so should be a top priority of Shawn Eichorst.

U – Uniforms.  Hopefully by now, all of the staunch traditionalists (such as yours truly) understand that alternate uniforms aren’t going anywhere.  And since world peace is more likely than an alternate that appeals to the old school fans and the kids they are designed to impress, let’s hope they continue to make kids excited to wear the scarlet and cream – or white and chrome – without causing too much heartburn.  But I’m willing to settle for uniform numbers I can read from North Stadium.

V – Values.  The Athletic Department lists five core values:  Integrity, Trust, Respect, Teamwork, and Loyalty.  I tend to be cynical towards mission statements, core values, and other corporate buzz speech.

However, if the football program – and those associated with it – can live those values, I like their chances for success.

W – Weight Room.  I’ve been told by folks in the know that Strength and Conditioning does not win games – even if it usually gets blamed for losses.  It goes without saying that Nebraska’s strength and conditioning program is a vital part of if the program is successful or not.  Husker fans know the Boyd Epley story, and how Husker Power gave NU an edge in the 80’s and 90’s.

The challenge for Mark Philipp and his staff is building on Epley’s core principles to once again give Nebraska an athletic edge.  I have confidence they can get it done.

X – X Factor.  The Webster’s definition of an ‘X Factor’ is “a circumstance, quality, or person that has a strong but unpredictable influence”.

Throughout Nebraska’s history, the introduction of an X Factor has regularly been what propelled them from good to great.  It could be a coach (Bob Devaney), a player (Tommie Frazier), or a schematic concept (switching from a 5-2 defense to a 4-3 in order to get more speed on the field).

The challenge is identifying the X Factor and getting it to Lincoln.

Y – Youth Movement.  Here is a sobering thought:  Nebraska has starters who were not alive for the 1997 National Championship.  The coaches are currently recruiting kids who were not alive the last time Nebraska won a conference championship.

There is an entire generation out there with limited to no experience having Nebraska as a college football power.  The road back to championship football will be driven by kids who grew up viewing Boise State and Oregon as title contenders.  The challenge is getting these kids to understand what Nebraska was, and what it can be again.

Z – Zero Tolerance.  In addition to the tradition of on-field success, many Nebraska fans take immense pride in the program’s tradition of success off the field.  From Academic All-Americans to a program that has largely been free of scandal and wrong-doing, Nebraska is a program you can still be proud to support even when the on-field product is down.

That’s why I think it is important for UNL – and not just the athletic department or the football staff – has a very low tolerance for things that may harm NU.  We may have looked longingly at Baylor’s success the last few years, but I guarantee that nobody wants to trade places with them now.

I’m not willing to trade a handful of wins for a loss of integrity – even if “everybody else is doing it”.

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