Anatomy of an Era, Coach Ryan Held, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 37, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Anatomy of an Era, Ryan Held, Part 3
Q: Now tell me, how did you hook up with Tennessee after ’97?
RH: We had beaten Florida in ’95, so the Tennessee coaches came up and became friends with the Nebraska coaches. Well, I had Dan Young call those guys at Tennessee and say, “Hey, we’ve got a guy who wants to be a G.A.” So I went down there and worked my butt off in the fall, and when David Cutcliffe left to become head coach for Old Miss he took the G.A. with him, so they hired me for the bowl game. So it’s all about connections, who you know. So Nebraska coaches called Tennessee and that’s how I got my opportunity.
It was the Florida State game, the national championship game, it was my first game as a graduate assistant coach and it was my main job to get personnel from Florida State. I was on offense before that and then I had to become a defensive guy now. I wanted to be a well-rounded guy, so I switched over to defense. I knew offense, but anyway I had to tell the defensive coordinator within eight seconds what the personnel was in the game: how many running backs, how many tight ends, how many receivers. So my first game as a coach -like a main coach, in my mind- was in the national championship game and we ended up beating Florida State for the National Championship. And then, Paul, you look at the next year in ’99, you know who we played? Nebraska that year, in the Fiesta Bowl!
Ryan Held and Frank Solich with the running backs the night before the national championship game. (Chad Stanley)
Q: Oh man, I forgot about that!
RH: Now Nebraska beat us, and do you know what they made me do, Paul? You remember I’d played a little quarterback? Well, I had to go there for Tennessee during scout teams and play quarterback, because I was the only guy that knew how to do the correct steps. Now, I wasn’t Eric Crouch, obviously. (laughs) But I was out there on the scout team playing quarterback, and that’s probably why we lost. Because I was way out of shape and couldn’t get it done, but at least I did the right footwork and everything. I did that for a majority of the time.
Q: Sounds like you’re mirroring John Gruden’s ascent in the coaching ranks, G.A.-ing at Tennessee, coaching at one team, then mirroring the old team as scout team quarterback in preparation for the Buccaneers winning the Super Bowl. I’m sensing flashes of upcoming greatness for you here…
RH: Well, it would be nice to have the chance to win in the big show some day. I’m only 34, so I’m not done yet.
Q: And that NU-Tennessee Fiesta Bowl game, wasn’t it a Bobby Newcombe punt return that broke that game open?
RH: Yeah, it did. It was a 96 and a 99 yard drive that ended up really being the difference in the game, actually. We didn’t play horrible, it was really a closer game, a play here or a play there and it might have been different. We did some good things, but there were two or three plays that broke our back.
Q: Let me ask you: differentiating Nebraska’s organization from Tennessee’s, anything stand out as far as likenesses, differences at that championship level?
RH: Well, the biggest difference was the walk-on program. Tennessee didn’t believe in the walk-on program like the Nebraska team did. It was more about the scholarship kids. That year we had nine guys drafted in the first two rounds. We should have won the national championship, talent-wise. To have nine guys drafted in the first two rounds was unbelievable. A lot of guys, I think, were thinking about the NFL, and I think they came back a little fat and happy and weren’t giving it their all like we did in ’98 and beat Florida State. We ended up losing a couple games we shouldn’t have.
That’s why it’s so tough to consistently win championships. You think you can just show up the next year and it happens, but it doesn’t work that way. But the biggest difference was the walk-ons, and Tennessee was more into the prestigious, high profile recruits. But Nebraska was more into recruiting players that fit the system. So we never had recruiting classes ranked, but we won championships because we’d take guys like Joel Makovicka, a guy who the University of Florida wouldn’t take in a hundred years, but was an unbelievable fullback for Nebraska. Does that make sense? We’d take kids that fit our system, and that was another reason we were successful, because we weren’t into what a kid was ranked.
That’s what happened to Bill Callahan. He was more into the top players in the country instead of finding the right players to fit his style. That’s why you can have the No. 1 ranked class in the country, but that doesn’t mean you’ll win a national championship. Bill Callahan, at the end of the day, his deal was that philosophy and he didn’t embrace the walk-on program like he should’ve. That really hurt him, I think. That’s just my two cents.
Q: Any memorable practice occasions stand out to you?
RH: I remember it was when we were getting ready for the University of Oklahoma in ’95 -we won 38-0, I think- Tommie’s last game before the Heisman Trophy announcement. It was a Tuesday or Wednesday practice, it was cold, cloudy, night practice, and I just remember it was ones versus ones. And I just remember the offensive line and defensive line -maybe a defensive lineman got cut-blocked or whatever- but it was just a big old brawl. I’ll never forget it. We had to stop practice.
There was always a ruckus, but this was a bad one. It was bad. I just remember that practice because it was so intense. We wanted to have another undefeated season and it was just a lot of intensity. We were playing Oklahoma, a big rival, and it was just a meltdown. I’ll never forget that. And it was at the end of practice and everybody was just kind of watching. It got a little ugly. It was unbelievable.
Q: Anybody behind the scenes make a big impact, stand out to you?
RH: Mike Arthur. Boyd Epley was tremendous and gets a lot of credit, but Mike did a lot of research. And I believe, it’s my understanding, he just prepared and found a lot of different cutting-edge things that not many people knew about. He didn’t get a lot of credit, but just worked his butt off behind the scenes.
George Sullivan, too. It was great to have Sully. I’ll never forget, it was probably my freshman or sophomore year and I dove for a ball, and one of the guy’s cleats rolled up on my hand and ripped off three layers of skin and I’m over there bleeding and everything. Sully taped it up and, “Aw, hell, get back in there!” He didn’t blink an eye, just taped it down, taped it up and said, “Come in after practice.” That was all it took.
And Duke LaRue was a good guy, he was down in that freshman locker room. He was a guy who was down there, as a guy you could talk to and lean your head on if you had a tough day. He’d be taping you and have a soothing personality and help you through some things. He was great, as well.
Trainers Jerry Weber & George Sullivan in Miami (Joe Mixan)
Q: You talked earlier about the Tennessee guys getting a little fat and sassy and losing their edge, but we never seemed to do that. Any idea how that intensity was maintained?
RH: I don’t think the coaches really let us. And the players didn’t either. We had great leaders. Any great football program has great senior leadership, and teams that will consistently win have great leadership.
And Paul, I call it ‘institutional control.’ The coaches did their part, but if a guy missed a summer workout, there were guys ripping people’s asses, “Why did you miss the summer workout?!” It’s like a player’s prison (and that’s a bad analogy), but year in and year out the players ran their own institution. The players would not allow it to get fat and happy because you know when you’re successful you want to keep being successful, and you knew that everybody was going to be gunning for you. It was the other team’s Super Bowl, so the only team that stands out that we got truly upset was that Arizona State game down there. We were prepared, we had a week off before that game, we’d just pounded Michigan State, and we’d beaten Arizona State like 80-0 the year before, and then that week we had an average week of practice and they beat our ass. That’s the only time during that era that we got upset.
And we got beat by Texas, but they were a pretty talented team with Priest Holmes and those guys. But the Arizona State game we kind of rested on our laurels and thought we could just show up and win because of the previous year’s outcome. The week before the coaches kept saying, “Guys, this is a different team. Guys, they’re gonna play.” And we didn’t listen. That was the only time I felt we didn’t listen to the coaches and rested on our laurels.
Q: Now I have to ask you, any perks or privileges to being a Nebraska Football player apart from the other students?
RH: Just having (the) girls liking you if you’re on the football team and all the typical stuff that happened on any campus. The perks, obviously: going to bowl games. While everybody was home we’d be in beautiful places, but just to put Nebraska on your resume was the biggest perk. Having Tom Osborne and Turner Gill and Ron Brown on your resume, that’s the big perk to me. Someone else may say something different, but for me that was the big perk because you can’t pay for that, you know? You can’t pay for Tom Osborne to call and recommend you to get you a job.
Q: And speaking of that turnaround, what was it that you took from your time at Nebraska that helped with that turnaround?
RH: Work ethic and coming up with a philosophy and believing something. When we went in to Panhandle State we told kids, “You’re going to be part of the biggest turnaround in NCAA history.” It was a belief. Our kids believed in that and we had back to back winning seasons for the first time in 20 years there, and we turned it around in a place…. I could sit there and tell you about that place, that’s a book in itself. It was unbelievable. But the work ethic and all those things, they just paid off. My Offensive Coordinator was Chad Stanley, he was with me the whole way in these turnarounds, and our practice schedule was the same as what we did at Nebraska. We tried to do the same things in a lot of different aspects at the worst program in America… and it worked for us.
Q: Anything we haven’t touched on that set Nebraska apart those years?
RH: Boy, I just don’t know if there will never be a five-year era that can really match that many wins and championships. Just think, Paul, we were one field goal away from beating Florida State for a national championship. If we beat Texas in the Big 12 we play for another one. We could have almost won another one and played for another one in a five year period. That’s unbelievable. I don’t think it will ever be matched.
I will leave you with this: that ’95 team was arguably the best college football team -team- ever assembled. In terms of having to stop us on offense and how good our defense was, I don’t think anybody today or back in the day would ever have beaten us. That’s what I think. I was a part of that football team.
In mid-conversation with Ryan, the first item that became apparent to me was that the 60 & 3 system was replicate-able, producing success at other schools as he and his sidekick Chad Stanley carried the HuskerMethod torch. Knowing this gives me hope that others might see some promise in the way the organization was run and that this book may perhaps enable them to glean some wisdom & insights for their own particular program. If this is you, reader, I wish you success. And I encourage you to read on, because it only gets better.
Of secondary note, it was very revealing to catch a glimpse of Ryan’s teenage mindset as to the benefits of latching onto the system and learning its ins and outs from both an athlete’s as well as a student’s perspective, especially knowing that pro ball would not likely be a part of his future. Surely some naysayers and doubters down in Kansas thought he may have made a mistake in attending Nebraska, for he never became a game day star in his time. But he was a team star nonetheless, and that should never be forgotten. Why do I say this? Because his primary, profoundly meaningful contribution took place out of sight of the crowds as he weekly donned the mannerisms and talents of the likes of opponents Chad May, Jeff Handy, Kordell Stewart, Asheiki Preston, Todd Doxzon, Garrick McGee and Frank Costa, to name a few. To be named Scout Team Player of the Week four times in one season on a championship team of nearly 160 players is the Nebraska scout team equivalent of a Top-Secret Heisman Trophy. There were moments of scout team glory, something that shouldn’t be dismissed.
Finally, there was his reference to the term ‘institutional control,’ and player leadership: “The coaches did their part, but if a guy missed a summer workout there were guys ripping people’s asses.” Now, (depending on which camp you reside in) one can go two ways with this: the negative angle would be to cast dark shadows and aspersions of a bullying, coercive, haranguing mood about the team, whereas the positive spin would entail a manly accountability and support structure dedicated to living as one’s brother’s keeper. However you label it, if results are what they intended, it was peer pressure at its very finest.
Notable quote #2:
Ryan Held on the Husker player experience: “It was tough from the moment you walked in to the moment you left, and there was no going against. And the thing that was nice was that you would see success in it and you could believe in it.”
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