Anatomy of an Era: Al Papik, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 28, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Al Papik, Part 3
Q: And the personalities of the coaching staff, who stands out to you?
AP: Well, Bob Devaney, of course, was a unique individual. Bob Devaney could have been the CEO of General Motors or any major corporation. A lot of people didn’t feel that Bob was that astute, but he had that kind of ability and insight and organizational mind, so he was a great person to observe and be around. I recall when the University received the edict to establish a compliance program, and although Bob definitely wanted me to accept that position, he did tell me, “Hey, we don’t need a compliance program, we won the national championship without one.” And someone said, “Bob, that’s why you won the national championship, because you didn’t have any compliance program.” (laughs) So that’s the kind of individual that he was.
And I think Tom Osborne had a way of getting a large number of people to support his objectives. He was able to -in his own mind, to develop and plan what the culture should be, what the goals and objectives should be- and later attain those and to see the difference in the individuals or how they would accomplish that.
But the kind of relationship that we were able to have? Although I was Director of Compliance during the time that Bob Devaney was the Athletic Director, I reported directly to the Chancellor. (And that was not the best working relationship. There aren’t very many people who would accept a position like that: where the Athletic Department pays your salary, you work for them and you work with them, yet you don’t report to them.) But we knew each other well enough and were blessed to have a great working relationship when Tom Osborne was the football coach and when Bob was Athletic Director.
Then I had a couple of years with Bill Byrne coming in as the new Athletic Director when Bob retired as AD. Bill was very supportive of myself and even wanted to expand the work, administratively, that I would be doing within the entire department. It was a positive experience and I was able to have a good relationship with a practically all sports that were offered within the Department of Athletics.
Q: I’m sure that setup created some tension now and then, what with you reporting to one entity, but being employed by the other?
AP: If the Chancellor’s Office would issue an edict that said, ”Get this done, but don’t inform Bob about it,” those were some rough waters to work through, (laughs) but they worked out.
Q: Any recollections of the position coaches? McBride, Darlington, Turner Gill and the others?
AP: Yes, the last two years of Tom’s coaching career I served as Director of Operations. Every morning we would have our football meetings, so Tom put me in a position at this large football table with all the assistants and strength people and medical people. I had Charlie McBride sitting on one side and George Darlington sitting on another side, and invariably Tom would encourage this considerable conversation between coaches where they would support or disapprove or present their own way to accomplish what the day’s objectives might be, planning the program for that day or that week or that contest, et cetera. So, not being on the football staff as a coach but only being on the football staff as an administrator was a different position and made for an interesting day. (laughs)
Q: I’m sure you say that a little tongue in cheek, Al. Any particular moments stand out as worthy of remembrance?
AP: Charlie McBride, of course, tried to portray the ‘tough guy’ role, you know? “I’m the guy who can chew an athlete out if it needs to be done,” coming at it from the ‘tough guy’ point of view. Ron Brown or Turner Gill were maybe from the other side. George Darlington would like to get on the chalkboard, and no one was better. No one could ever outdo George if he got on the board and explained what would work and what would not work, et cetera. There was just a continuing conversation, which ended up being very positive -because everything would be brought out- and before we would leave the meeting we were all to agree on a certain position and support it. So without going into any specifics, we had a multitude of personalities that complemented the entire program, because it was so diverse.
Q: Coach Osborne was a real consensus-builder, then. Was he instrumental in plotting a direction for the upcoming game or did the assistant coaches help do that week by week?
AP: I think Tom drew out what he’d like to see accomplished in sort of a general way, and the coaches needed to get together to decide in a specific way how to meet or attain those objectives. He would, in most cases, have the majority be the rule. But he certainly provided the leadership and determined what the topics would be for the day.
Q: Oh, to be a fly on the wall in those meetings!
AP: Right! I’m glad that they’re not on record. (laughs)
Q: Did you ever find yourself raising your hand and saying, “Hey, guys, time out. I’ve got an idea here,” being a former coach?
AP: Oh, no. (laughs) I can recall the last two years at Nebraska with Frank Solich as head coach. Tom came to me and said, “I’m going to make it official tomorrow, but I want you to stay and serve in this position with Frank for a year,” and I stated I would. But it surprised a lot of people, because Tom wasn’t quite ready to quit coaching yet (probably should have made that decision to be an athletic director and coach like some people were in that day and age, and then give up coaching later), but he did promise this position to Frank Solich and he felt that it was time to do it. And it followed a championship game and the bowl game and so forth, so it was sort of the opportune time.
I don’t think one could ever say that the coaching staffs that Bob Devaney and Tom both had weren’t diverse. They had a great deal of loyalty, stayed a long time, were very capable and very much responsible for the outcome and success that was put toward Bob and for Tom -whoever was the head coach- in the final accomplishments.
Q: Just to insert my opinion here, Al: I was kind of hoping that you would have served as Athletic Director for a while.
AP: Well, there was a move internally, though at that stage I was talking about retirement two years before.
I stayed longer. That, I did, because the timing wasn’t right, and the Chancellor at that time wanted to be sure that the administration -according to the bylaws and so forth- made sure that we ran the athletic department, not Bob Devaney or Tom Osborne. So the situation wasn’t an ideal situation, but it would have worked out -could have worked out- that if Tom wanted to coach a couple more years he could have and then become Athletic Director, but for whatever reason he didn’t want to pursue the issue of doing both. It wasn’t that uncommon in athletic administration in those days, but it certainly was moving in another direction with more emphasis on administration, more emphasis on business, rather than a former coach being the director of athletics, subsequently. Like Bob Devaney, for example.
Q: Was Graham Spanier the Chancellor at the time?
Al Papik (far right) (Nebr. Sports Info)
Q: Did you have any major challenges with the guys who would walk on out of nowhere: the I.M. Hipps, the Toby and Jimmy Williamses? Any quirky compliance issues you had to deal with?
AP: Oh, I think that we had an issue with Lawrence Phillips, who was one of our outstanding football players, as you know. Some other problems surfaced that were great.
We had an issue where he arrived on campus with an automobile, and we had a program that we’d just put in place where all the athletes had to register their automobile, which he did -he reported the automobile was given to him by a booster. Well, actually the automobile was provided for him by his group-home mother. (And all of that was documented, and we got the necessary information from the group-home mother, that that was her title.) She was the one who owned and ran the group home in California, and many people in the group home were young men and women who, maybe for whatever reason, had a problem with their home life and had to be housed in the home. And sometimes they would go there under the direction of a court system, and of course the group home was supported by state funds. It was a business that somebody ran in the state of California, in this particular case.
Well, the NCAA had a special program where it said the foster parent could provide monetary support for a student like a regular parent would, but there was nothing ever decided about what role a group-home parent played in this factor. And then they gave us an interpretation that said if the group-home parent did this kind of thing for other people who lived in the area that it would be permissible, otherwise Lawrence would be in violation and we’d have problems and probably have some penalty. So I spent a week in California at the group home working with her and discovered that there were other students -young men and women that she supported- who’d gone to colleges, gone to a junior college, whether it was the regular support like clothing, etc. Shelter, of course, was provided by the group home and was paid for by the state, and because of that we were able to get out of a situation that didn’t penalize us for that particular situation.
Q: And Lawrence’s car, was it a rather pedestrian car or an upper-crust model?
AP: It was just a regular car that provided transportation for him, not any fancy Mercedes or whatever. (laughs)
Q: (laughs) In spending the time in California at the group home, were any impressions made on you as to the situation Lawrence came from?
AP: Yes, very much so. Me? Very much so. I think that we knew he was in a couple of different situations at times… had support from someone like an assistant principal or academic counselor/advisor, somebody in his high school at one time. I think he attended two different high schools, but there were some problems at home where he didn’t have the typical parental support that an average athlete would have. (I was not familiar with the way the group homes worked in the state of California, and I found out on my visit that many individuals were assigned by the courts.) Many times the student wasn’t able to function within that family unit, and the student had difficulty keeping in school or keeping them on the right track if they’re going to school. In some cases the courts would determine and assign them to a group home and the state of California pays for that young man’s room and board and clothing and so forth… and they can still be attending a high school, but that structure would fill in for the lack of parental support that normally does exist.
Q: In summation -from your perspective- are there any other nuances of the 90’s teams that made them stand out?
AP: I would just probably say that Tom Osborne had a major, major role through his ability to see the big picture of what needs to be done, to get the program to that level and keep it at that level, be it his staff, the facilities, the recruitment, and to instill that into everybody these same goals, the same objectives.
And the situation was right at that time, also: Nebraska was very supportive of his program. We didn’t get the kind of national recognition he would have received if he was in a metropolitan area rather than Lincoln, but a majority of the credit would have to go there, with Tom.
Mr. Papik talked about Tom Osborne’s vision -the big picture and how it came about- and Al was certainly one of those visionary people himself. I really enjoyed this conversation, and to be real honest with you, it was the longest we’ve ever shared. Rarely did I have much to do with him and his work in the compliance office, but still we were of the same unified mind and sense of purpose in our respective departments. That speaks a lot to Coach Osborne’s and, to an extent, Athletic Director Bill Byrne’s leadership qualities and their constant striving to enhance and increase the tools at the Athletic Department staff’s disposal. It was as if twenty years of collecting the proper people to his coaching staff, creating or adding particular elements of support staff, and the right athletic talent with the proper sense of urgency and destiny finally was realized.
Al specifically addressed the greatest inherent value of the walk-on program, which wasn’t necessarily about the talent, but the numbers. It’s pretty easy to get all caught up in the “Undersized, under-recruited & inferior to All-American, Cinderella-type stories (which are tremendously inspiring in their own right, don’t get me wrong), but the walk-on program’s greatest contribution was spreading out the collisions and availing the coaching staff repetition after repetition after repetition. Those reps took a physical toll on the young bodies, but the multiple reps contributed greatly to muscle memory, so it was a great trade-off. What is that, you say? The concept of muscle memory essentially means the play calls, schemes, techniques and skills eventually become second nature: the system and the player eventually merging and becoming one, reaching a the point of involuntary operation. And when you can place eleven individuals at one with their roles & position skill-sets and then merge those eleven into one cohesive, functioning unit, you’ve got yourself the ingredients for success, for domination, for the capacity to wear on a foe and maybe even break their will.
Notable quote #2:
Al Papik on Nebraska recruiting student/athletes: “Tom felt the recruits needed an opportunity to see the institution as a whole rather than just come to visit the football coaches and the football facilities.”
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