Anatomy of an Era: Athletic Trainer Doak Ostergard, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 22, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul J. Koch
Doak Ostergard, Part 3
DO: And a couple broader things people should know about the ’90’s: unless people were here and viewed it and experienced it during that time, they can’t understand how physical practices were. Just like conditioning yourself to run a mile or whatever, you condition yourself to play physical. That’s the big difference. You see so many teams now, and hardly anybody likes to play that way. But you condition them and they’ll do it. There’s a greater price to pay for that, but you get in a game and the other team pays a greater price as the end result, and it results in wins.
Q: And deep down, that’s what you trainers are for, anyway. Getting them healed up, right? (laughs)
DO: Yup, (laughs) by the time they got to the game, that was going to be easier than practice. And even if you write three pages about that, people still aren’t going to understand how physical practices were.
And the other thing was that everybody clicked, where it was all moving in the right direction. In any organization you’re gonna have 10-20% at both ends, the good and the bad. Let’s say 20% are good and you’re not gonna have to worry about them. The bottom end, you’re gonna have 10-20% that you’re going to have to deal with on issues. The key is to get that 60% in the middle to follow the good and go that way, then you start to get a few of the bad going the right way, too. It was unreal there, the run that Coach had, that run where I didn’t really remember having to push hardly anybody, push them out to practice. They’d show up at the stadium and just expected to go out to practice. So there was a lot of ‘buy in.’ Remember that ‘Respect’, and early morning practice during two-a-days? Guys didn’t care. They thought they were paying a greater price and they were gonna do it.
I remember after that ’93 Orange Bowl against Florida State, I was sitting next to Terry Connealy on the bus, and everybody, you could just feel it. They couldn’t wait for Spring Football and the next fall to start. Usually you get done with the bowl game and you were like, ”Ughh. I need a rest.” But everybody was convinced they could be national champions and it played out that way the next few years.
Q: I know you have a 9:30 a.m. meeting coming up, so I’ll try to get you on your way quickly. From your perspective, did the average player feel much pressure to perform, any undue pressure?
DO: I don’t think so. I think there was just expectations. You walked out on the field and I think you just expected to beat the snot out of somebody. I don’t think there was ever pressure. There was a lot of confidence, and that turn, that night after the Orange Bowl after we got beat by Florida State? That was a turning point. Anxiety and all that stuff? The way Coach Osborne would just break it down and you just execute. That took off a lot of pressure.
Q: In ’92 Turner Gill came back on staff. Did that make a huge difference? Do you think it opened up Coach Osborne for other things?
DO: Not that I thought, so much. I thought that Turner was pretty limited in his involvement because Coach Osborne still coached the quarterbacks. Turner spent a bit more time with those guys. It wasn’t until probably Coach left that Turner got more responsibility and, of course, when Frank left he was really thrown into it. But I didn’t see that.
Q: What did Turner primarily do when he joined that seasoned staff?
DO: Well, just Turner, himself, he commands respect, and has a lot of dignity. So aside from his personal attributes, of course you’d have to sit in all the coach’s meetings to find if he was adding things to the offense or what not, but I didn’t get that sense.
Q: In your time as a trainer, Doak, what are you most proud of?
DO: Hmm, probably all the friendships that I made and continue to have. Just the sheer numbers, because there are so many. You could create friendships. But if you’re not in the trenches you don’t get the opportunity to really make those kind of friendships. I hardly even get the opportunity to meet them these days.
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Q: Any one shining moment stick out to you?
DO: Well, if I had to pick one, probably that first national championship, since I’d been there on the sideline when Miami beat us in ’84, and ten years later to go back to that same place and beat them. A little satisfaction there.
And then the other time -I mean, some of these moments became commonplace- but another time it was pretty impressive when we walked up to the Fiesta Bowl to play Florida. That site, just at dusk, there was just enough sunlight you could see all the Nebraska fans that were down lining up for the team, and up and down the ramps in the stadium, and you had that chant, “Gooo Biiiiigg Ree-eedddddd!!!” That chant. There were so many people. But walking in there, we walked by -there must have been 10 or 12 redshirts from Florida- they were all tall, athletic looking kids. I remember thinking, ‘Man, if these are the guys that aren’t even playing, we’re in trouble.’ (laughs) Physically, just off the hoof, they were impressive. That’s the way it was when we walked out onto the field versus Tennessee in ’97, too. It was, ‘How are we gonna beat these guys?’ They physically looked so much better! But I guess that’s why we beat teams that probably did have more physical talent, just the way we did things. And that Fiesta Bowl, you know how they have those hills in the background out there, just the Nebraska fans packing the place. The image was amazing…
Q: Anything you personally wish you could do over?
DO: There’s always things you could do better, isn’t there? There’s always times you’re in the grind and you’re short on rest and maybe you don’t treat somebody quite the way you wish you would have, you’re kind of short with them. There are always some regrets and you wished you would have handled some of those things better. Everybody had a sense that maybe that run would last forever, but during the time you’re thinking, ‘Shoot, we’re gonna go on doing this for a long time.’ You wish you would have soaked it up a little bit more.
Q: Smell the roses a bit more?
DO: Yeah, I wish somebody could have talked Chancellor Graham Spanier into naming Al Papik the Athletic Director. That was the start of the demise, right there. It wasn’t Steve Pederson firing Frank Solich, as much as everything was put in motion earlier. Bill Byrne brought extra pressure to Coach. He really felt like he had to win every game after they hired Bill, but what it would have done was assured some continuity for the program. The thinking was Al Papik would do it until Osborne was ready to step down, so Coach Osborne would never have left the program. Just think what that would have been like: In ’99 we were the best team in the country and Frank was the coach, but would Coach Osborne’s presence have made a difference somewhat? I don’t know. A lot of people miss the big picture and don’t realize that’s what put so many things in motion.
Q: Anybody else’s contribution behind the scenes mean anything special to you?
DO: That’s hard to say. There were so many people. And it likely varies so much from person to person, who you have contact with more on a day to day basis. I mentioned Coach Osborne’s way of doing things, and everybody was important. So it could be the Student Manager or Student Trainer spending time with one particular person who they felt like they have some value to put in, and would take the time to do that. You just don’t know the ripple effect, then, who it affected.
Q: Anything about that inaugural Big 12 Championship game versus Texas? That very first one?
DO: Coach Osborne wasn’t a big believer in flu shots until that game. It became mandatory after that, that everybody got flu shots. We had so many people sick, and some people might think, ‘Loser’s limp,’ making excuses. But honestly, that week we had close to forty people with the flu. And this is the real flu, not just a silent flu that comes and goes. It’s the respiratory flu. They didn’t have the most extreme case possible, but it still affects you.
Q: Weren’t we missing linebacker Terrell Farley for that game, too?
DO: Yeah, He got kicked off the team before that.
Q: Any parting shots? Any other lasting impression made on you from the experience?
DO: Well, the simplest description would be the example of Coach Osborne. You just followed his example and you just worked hard with what’s right in front of you, what you can control. I don’t like to regurgitate too may quotes, like in the book the Nebraska Way, but I think he magnified what he learned growing up in the state, boiled it down to the purest form, and then you’d try to reflect him. You take the very ordinary and make it extraordinary. It’s the thing that made Nebraska great, the ordinary attributes of the state. It’s what we do. It’s a very condensed, really solid version of it.
Q: Did you ever get the chance to go fishing with Coach Osborne?
DO: I don’t like to fish. But I’ve been golfing with him. (laughs)
Q: How would you describe that experience?
DO: The guy’s got a pretty ugly swing, but somehow gets the ball where it needs to go.
Q: He breaks it down and simply does the little things, huh?
You’ve likely noticed that the role of the trainer was much more than making ice bags and taping ankles. In many ways the training staff members were surrogate parents/big brothers/coaches, because at the time there was an NCAA-mandated limit to the amount of time a football coach could spend with an athlete each week: a paltry 20 hours per week. Who better to promulgate institutional norms and values in their stead than the athletic trainers, as close relationships were developed between staff and athlete during those long training room hours on the padded tables, in the ice bath, or during breaks in rehabilitation? The bonds last to this day and are a testament to the camaraderie and unity of those times.
One diamond I gleaned from this gravel pile was that of simplification, of ‘reducing to the ridiculous,’or ’breaking it down Barney-style.’ Remember, kids are very much atwitter in the moments leading up to a big game: there are so many concerns and tasks and neuroses tossing around their heads and stomachs that sometimes it’s difficult for a post-adolescent to gain a focus. But on these occasions Coach Osborne would quite succinctly reduce the game down to its most simple of components, like blocking and tackling. Surely the players were able to catch a breath of fresh perspective, as a result, and have one up on an opponent who may have failed to do the same.
It hasn’t been touched on overtly, but I hypothesize that the gaps in age between the coaches and players played a part, too. Having a seasoned staff with an average tenure of almost 13 years each at the institution, the situation could have gone either one of two ways: the communication could have suffered because of coaches being out of touch with the kids, or it could have thrived because the players respected these men’s experience and gave their words greater credence. To be honest, I think it was about 80% the latter from what I’ve heard (and from what my feeble memory recalls). To add, it didn’t hurt that every now and again the grownups acted exactly like kids and joined in some of the hijinks. Those rare situations can bring a group together, no joke.
Doak also made point about Nebraskans and their school spirit in general. I’ve always wondered exactly what role the fans may have played in all of this, and in all honesty would have initially argued against his comment of, “I firmly believe that the state of Nebraska shaped the football program.” But then, as if on cue, he directly mentioned the storied walk-on program of Nebraska’s homegrown players and their place in the mix, the “the mortar in the bricks,” so to speak. Who can argue with that? Not I. Doak has thought long and hard about these issues and he’s about as qualified a person as any to comment upon them, so I find myself being dragged, somewhat, in that direction of thought, despite my own predilections. He also mentioned that he was a hard-headed gent of Danish descent, and to that I wholeheartedly concur without a moment’s hesitation. I say this in kindness, but also truthfulness, for the last thing you wanted to do was get on Doak’s ‘Shit List.’ He in the training room and Reconditioning Specialist/Strength Coach Bryan Bailey in the weight room were seemingly always engaged in a tug of war over when and who would oversee an athlete’s return to full strength and the field of play. Let’s be refreshingly honest here, this was no utopia in Memorial Stadium’s offices, because it made for some tense, uncomfortable situations between the strength staff and the training staff. But after all was said and done everyone benefited, as steel sharpened steel.
Notable quote #2:
Doak Ostergard on the singular importance of each individual: “I mentioned Coach Osborne’s way of doing things, and everybody was important. So it could be the Student Manager or Student Trainer spending time with one particular person who they felt like they have some value to put in, and would take the time to do that. You just don’t know the ripple effect, then, who it affected.”
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