Anatomy of an Era: Coach Dan Young, Part 1
Excerpted from Chapter 82, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch
I think about him every day…From the time I lost him and growing up through grade school, through high school, and in college, it hasn’t gotten any easier. The part of missing him has gotten worse. But my dad was a very strong Christian and that’s something else that he’s instilled in me and it’s very important to me.
-Brook Berringer, as quoted in One Final Pass, Arthur L. Lindsay with Jan Berringer
I am deeply saddened and overcome with an almost crushing sense of grief because Brook Berringer -the able quarterback and most excellent young man who guided 1994’s team to the championship game- couldn’t be available for this project. At that time in history scientists had cloned the first sheep, named Dolly. I only wished they could have placed their efforts on replicating a beautiful human being like Brook instead. I get teary-eyed just thinking about him, especially the character and the supportive team-first attitude he showed while playing backup to a healthy Tommie Frazier in 1995. Brook’s pores exuded a class and a grace, and I say this not because he is no longer with us; It’s merely a statement of truth. But he’s now in a better place: in the presence of the Lord rather than imprisoned by the earthly bonds. Holy Scripture speaks, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” -Psalm 84:10. Amen to that.
As an organizational analysis goes, I have been extremely blessed with accessibility to almost 100 percent of the people who participated in that era, as most are still living after these twenty or so quick years have passed. Some have been difficult to track down while others, when contacted, preferred to remain silent or had determined that this is a story they wished to provide no contribution toward, letting past exploits do all their talking. That is their choice, and I have to respect their wishes.
That being said, perhaps it’s a choice of words written in poor taste on my part, but this next interview speaks from the grave, as Coach Dan Young -Milt Tenopir’s tandem Co-Offensive Line Coach- made time for me one late July 2010 evening. Dan and I have a few things in common, particularly growing up only miles away from each other’s little burgs in northeast Nebraska’s Boone County. The area is a gateway to the Western Sandhills with dirt farmyards, scattered fishing ponds & creeks, hogs, Herefords and Holsteins dominating a young man’s summer days, where the diversity of the flora, fauna and landscape leaves one a little better informed about life’s variety as well as its surprises. And little did I know but the surprise was on me, because Dan -who gave me absolutely no indication whatsoever- had only days before received the sad news that he’d been diagnosed with Grade 4 Glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer. The most aggressive of cancerous tumors arising within the body’s central nervous system, it absolutely blindsides its victims, leaving them with an almost zero chance of survival within one year of diagnosis.
Dan’s days were winding down, though he still managed a few Husker home games before that voyage through death’s dark veil. He passed gracefully and peacefully, surrounded by his family, only four months later on November 24th, 2010, a cold and late Wednesday evening. I would like to believe Coach Young knew that his words- printed here for your edification- would be etched permanently in history and serve as a lasting memory to, and for, his former pupils on the Pipeline and the kicking teams. I’d also like to think that angels are swooning in their fifty yard line seats because Brook, inevitably, now has just the right man working on his pass protection in Heaven’s fields of play. Both were good men among many.
4/1/1941 – 11/24/2010
Notable quote #1:
“When you run the option game well, there’s just no way (the opposition) can get prepared in one week to play that style of football.”
Question: Coach Young, how are you doing these days?
Dan Young: Good. Yeah, I’m good.
Q: Well, I appreciate you making the time for me as I delve into the special people who made things happen back in the day. And I tell you what, you’re a hard guy to hunt down…
DY: (laughs) Yeah, I’ve been on the move.
Q: So who are you working with these days?
DY: The last five years I’ve been with a company out of Pittsburgh: ProGrass. It’s used in colleges and high schools.
Q: Beats the heck out of that rock-hard astroturf we had back in the ’80’s, huh?
DY: Yeah, sure does.
Q: Does it still give ‘turf burns’?
Q: Oh man, that takes half the fun out of tackling somebody! (laughs)
DY: Yeah, no abrasions. It prevents a lot of injuries and you’re able to play on it twenty-four hours a day.
Q: So let me ask you: how does a kid from tiny Primrose, Nebraska end up becoming an offensive line coach for the vaunted University of Nebraska?
DY: Well, it was a huge move on my part, but a lot of it goes back to the work ethic you develop as a farm kid and what happens during harvest season and when you’re irrigating and things like that. It’s like coaching: when it’s time to work you’ve got to work. And that work ethic I developed turned me into the kind of coach who could get the job done.
Then I was fortunate to get into some real good situations. For instance, I first started coaching in a small town outside of Beatrice –Barneston- and there just happened to be a real good run of players. I think I coached there for three years, and we maybe only lost two or three games in that time. I went to St. Paul and happened to meet the principal who went on to Omaha Westside. And I was there for one year and he hired me at the junior high school, Valley View in Omaha Westside, and I was there four years and I went on to the high school and was an assistant. And when the head coach retired they hired me as the head football coach at Omaha Westside. And I was there six years, and the last two years we went undefeated and were state champions. So anyway, I just had a lot of good talent and ended up in some good situations and worked hard to take advantage of those situations, as well.
Q: Did you grow up on a family farm?
DY: Yeah, grew up there in Boone County, near Albion.
Q: So how big was Primrose back when you were a kid?
DY: Oh, it was pretty small, 150 at the most. Today it’s almost non-existent. It got hit by one of those huge tornadoes that come through, it seems like it was in the late ’60’s.
Q: So what did your time on the farm teach you?
DY: There were times where we had to work hard and farm, and times we had the opportunity to play athletics, which I always enjoyed. We went through some hard times, some years where it didn’t rain very much and didn’t make a lot of money as farmers and you saw your crops dry up. It was difficult at times. We finally put some pivot irrigation in.
And I got to know the high school coach and I decided once I got out of high school I was going to be a coach. I taught math and biology and found some people I enjoyed being around and just worked myself into some good situations. And to get to Nebraska, the last year at Omaha Westside our team won the championship in ’82 and Jim Criner was hired at Iowa State as the head coach, and one of his assistants who recruited Westside told me to apply, so I did. And he asked for some recommendations, so I put ‘Tom Osborne.’ And that was the time Frank Solich had gone from the freshman coach and went to varsity, so Tom asked me if I’d be interested in being the freshman coach at Nebraska. And he said he’d give me two weeks to think about it. I told him, ‘I don’t need two weeks. I’m ready to come down and coach on your staff.’ He told me that Cletus Fischer was probably going to retire in three or four years and if I did a good job with the freshman team that he’d certainly consider me for a position on the varsity staff at Nebraska. So that’s how it all happened, and I was very fortunate. Everything worked out and I really enjoyed my twenty years of coaching at Nebraska.
Q: Now, Cletus Fischer was a St. Edward boy, wasn’t he? Just down the road from Primrose?
DY: Yeah, he was only like thirty miles at the most. St. Ed was in the east side of the county and Primrose was in the west.
Q: So how did you end up taking on the passing game line coaching?
DY: Actually, what happened was, Cletus and Milt put up the blocking schemes, and toward the end of Cletus’s career he did the pass-pro and Milt did the run–block. And then Cletus also had the kickers, so when I took Cletus’s spot Tom gave me those same positions, and that’s how we split it up. And that was good, because when we’d do meetings me and Milt would have all the offensive linemen, and I’d go over the pass protection and show the tape and talk about different ways we were going to protect -different ways to pick up the blitz and stuff- and then I’d go out and work with the kickers while Milt would show the tape on run-block and everything we were going to do there. That’s how we did it, working as two offensive line coaches.
Q: And where did you go to college after high school?
DY: Kearney. I played one year as an offensive linemen. A small one.
Q: So it came natural to you, huh? Did you already have a pretty thorough knowledge of the passing aspects of it? Did you search out others for ideas, techniques?
DY: Well, I coached high school for twenty years and I spent a lot of clinics talking to people. So I had good ideas of how to do it. When I was a high school coach at Westside we ran the wishbone, so we were mostly play-action passing, but over time going to clinics and talking with various offensive line coaches both on the college level and getting their thoughts on things and putting them all together, came up with a kind of philosophy that we used at Nebraska.
Q: And obviously, you and Milt had a wonderful working relationship?
DY: Yeah, it worked out real well.
Q: Now, Milt wasn’t a big fan of passing the ball, was he?
DY: Well, Tom had been in the NFL and when he became involved with Devaney was more involved with the passing game, and Tom would have different routes and different patterns he wanted to run -Milt would always say, “Well, get those two to four passes out of the way in the first quarter so we can just run over ’em.”
Q: (laughs) That’s beautiful. Now, I’m thinking here, Dan, going back to ’93, ’94, ’95, did we start doing some really creative things with the passing game or am I wrong with that recollection?
DY: I guess the main thing we did was, we had some different running game option-type things going on and dovetailed a passing scheme in with the play-action passes. We ran maybe fifteen different plays and we always tried to have a pass off of those different plays. Drop-back passing, you know, you have one scheme for your five-step drop, one scheme for your quick passes, but in our play-action passing game you kind of adapted your pass pro concept closely with your running game to still be able to protect against blitzes and people who maybe smelled something out. But we had a lot of different things we did in the passing game. True passing teams, they only had about two or three schemes they protected blitzes and fronts from, and we had a lot of different schemes we used because we tried to generate it off of each of the different running plays that we had. Even though we didn’t pass a lot, we still had the protections.
Q: Would you say that Nebraska required more of its offensive linemen than some other schools?
DY: I think so, because we had not only the power running game, we had the option game and all those passes that came off of those different actions. We had kids who were very intelligent on the offensive line, and a lot of players at that time were four- or five-year players, so we had them around for a while.
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Q: It seems that teaming both you and Milt together led Nebraska to have the best of both worlds. Do you recall any other colleges at that time having two offensive line coaches?
DY: Not really. I think the only ones there might have been was Virginia Tech, I recall they had two offensive line coaches. Having two offensive line coaches was pretty much Tom Osborne’s idea. It turned out well and I think our linemen were always pretty well prepared and were able to give the opponent’s defense fits because of the power game, the option game, and the play-action passes.
Q: There was so darn much to prepare for that the opposition didn’t know what to prepare for, huh?
DY: Right. Plus, when you run the option game well there’s just no way they can get prepared in one week to play that style of football.
Q: I have to ask you about the kickers. Where did you find yourself when taking that on? Any challenges or unique situations?
DY: Yeah, I just had a lot of coaches that came in, and it worked out that we had some pretty good kickers at that time. I would just talk to them about various techniques and went to different NFL people and watched a lot of tape and just got some basic fundamentals. And I tell you one thing we did better than a lot of teams -most teams didn’t really have a kicking coach, they just had a GA that went out there and looked at them for a while- I always charted the placekickers once a week and the punters once a week, and did some challenging things so they were being evaluated every week.
And it wasn’t just that whoever makes it continues to have the job forever. It just kept them on their toes and they appreciated they were being evaluated and being coached. A lot of teams would have kickers, and nobody really worked with them until the day of the game, basically.
Q: And half of that was just ‘mental’ then, right?
DY: Right. I think we were able to get a lot out of our walk-on kickers. A lot of people wouldn’t have had them. Kyle Larsen came from Kearney as a walk-on kicker and kicked for Cincinnati awhile. Sam Koch, who’s punting with Baltimore, walked on. Tom Sieler, he walked on.
Q: What do you recall about Byron Bennett?
DY: Well, he worked hard and unfortunately missed a real key kick against Florida State at the end of the game that might have won us another championship. Me, I’ve always felt bad about him missing that kick. But in fairness to him, he did kick the field goal that we thought was going to win us the game, then they took it the length of the field and scored. After he made that field goal -the one we thought was the winning field goal- he kicked off and was pretty excited about kicking that supposed winning field goal that he kicked the ball out of bounds and they put the ball on the forty and took it down and scored. We took the ball back, took it down, put him into position to kick a field goal that was in his range, but just missed it to the left.
Q: You know what’s peculiar to me, coach? Watching the Nebraska-Texas Big 12 Championship game from 2009, it seemed there were so many parallels to the end of that game. Most notably, that kickoff that went out of bounds, just like Byron’s did…
Tom Seiler #12
Q: Do you recall any words of consolation after that? Did you have much to say?
DY: Oh, just to say that he had a lot of big kicks in his career at Nebraska and you’re not going to make them all, and just to go on from there. But I know he felt bad about it, and some guys have told me he’s kind of a little embarrassed this day to come back to Nebraska because of that kick.
Q: Isn’t that amazing, that as a kicker one single play can supposedly define a person in some people’s viewpoint? I hope he doesn’t feel that way anymore.
Now, delving into a kicker’s mindset, is there any special attitude, mindset, approach that makes them unique or different from other players? Did you find yourself approaching things from a different psychological viewpoint?
DY: I think they have to understand they only get so many chances. They have to be on the sideline all day and when they come out they have to be ready. And when they’re on the sideline they have to keep their mind in the game and their heads in the situation, so if things happen all of a sudden they have to be ready to come out on the field and play and contribute.
A lot of times we’d be training to put them in situations with only so much time on the clock and run them on the field, do different things mentally. I thought one of our centers -an excellent long-snapper, Aaron Graham- he did a great job of managing situations. I remember him with Chris Brown, making up different scenarios, giving him situations like, ”We’re playing Oklahoma and have only so many seconds left,” or “We’re playing for the national championship and have only so many seconds left.” Just creating different situations and scenarios all the time for them in taking the center, kicker and holder onto the field and working on those situations the best they could…
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Author assumes no responsibility for interviewee errors or misstatements of fact.