Anatomy of an Era: Coach Tony Samuel, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 21, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Tony Samuel, Part 3
Q: Anything really stand out about that Florida State national championship game in particular?
TS: One, I remember Corey Dixon returning the punt that gets called back, and then I also remember Florida State taking a timeout late in the game when they were on defense and they looked beat, they looked tired. I remember thinking, ‘You know what? We finally got ’em.’ I wouldn’t say it out loud, but it looked to me like we broke them. They were looking fatigued and they were just a very tough, physical team, and that’s where I thought that we’d got ’em, you know?
And I also remember they came back and scored late in the game and then we came back and had that final field goal opportunity. Those are the things that stand out for me. That was a tough ballgame. I was more looking at the situation where I thought we ‘broke’ them. We were notorious for breaking teams, along those lines, either fatigue factor or spirit factor. You’ve seen it, you’ve been around many years where all of a sudden, it’s like a full court press. And if you remember we were a very high tempo offense, ran a lot of plays, we got that ball snapped anywhere from 11 to 14 seconds left on the clock, and we were a high pressure defense. It reminds me kind of like those basketball teams that just keeps running waves of people at you until you break. And eventually, when I say break, there is a point there where you can sneak in a few quick scores while they‘re on their heels, and all of a sudden you flip the game. Like a punt return. Or you have them tired and one play that maybe was a two yard gain in the first half, now it’s 7-8 yards, where their back finally breaks.
Q: What are you the most proud of?
TS: It’s hard not to be proud of beating Miami. That was my favorite game being there. More than anything, as a player I stood on the sidelines in ’78 when we beat Oklahoma. But being inside the system and working it? Miami. There’s no question. You’ve gotta understand, one of the reasons I chose Nebraska was they won those National Championships in the early ’70’s and I went there in ’73. I figured that I’d just go there, since I’d just come off a high school team that went undefeated for the first time in that school’s history, and I figured I’d go to Nebraska and win a National Championship. And here we had to wait 21 years.
Q: Worth the wait, though?
TS: Oh yeah. That game sticks out, that’s the key for me. That’s my favorite game. Like you, I thought that Florida State may have been the most pivotal game in that era’s history, but I really liked the Miami game. And if you looked at it, we won in Nebraska-style. We broke them, I thought.
Q: Any favorite or memorable events stick out to you?
TS: Probably one of my memories was my last year: we go back down to the Orange Bowl, we didn’t play for the National Championship. That was the year we lost to Texas in the Big 12 Championship game…
Q: The infamous ‘Flu Game’?
TS: Yeah, remember that? Never anything like that, so many guys getting sick. That last couple of practices, never anyone in particular, but I remember looking around and Wistrom and Tomich were my starting ends, and you had some of the other guys following up. If you remember, we always had two starters and two pretty good guys developing into the rotation, so we had anywhere from a 3 to 4-man rotation at the ends. And just knowing that I was leaving, I wouldn’t say it was tough, but it was special. The year before when we won the National Championship, Dante (Jones) and Dwayne (Harris) were starters, and (Grant) Wistrom and (Jared) Tomich were in the rotation.
Q: Your cup overfloweth?
TS: Right. It was nice to develop it and get it to a point where they were all part of the system, you know? Typically you get a couple of them that had been there a little longer and they were more ready than the other ones. The other ones were damn good, but they weren’t ready to go, so to speak, yet. They might have been ready, not ‘all the way ready,’ but we always had them on track.
Q: Any memorable player interaction that stands out from those years?
TS: I always enjoyed my meeting with my guys, I totally enjoyed those guys. To me, going to a meeting where we got to coach by position was the highlight of my day, sometimes. There was one in particular, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the story, but it was a little different. We’d always have a team meeting first and then break into our individual meetings. Well, I always gave the fellas -there’s no magical number, two minutes or something like that- before I’d walk in. They’d get their little time to cut loose and joke, whatever, but one time in practice Tom just got blindsided. You remember how we used to practice on the field? Well, Tom had his back to the receivers and he flat-out got wiped out. It was scary, it was so bad. I was glad when he bounced up. He got up, but it could have been really bad, ambulance and all of that. Well obviously, it was on film, and I remember hearing them laughing louder than normal. And I go into the room there and they’re running that play back, over and over and over, cracking up laughing. Now of course, Coach Osborne hears the commotion and peeks his head in there too, you know, and Dwayne Harris in particular, he just couldn’t stop laughing. I had to give them another 5 minutes so they’d finally stop laughing. (laughs) You had Dwayne and Dante and Grant and Chad Kelsay. Chad: I always thought he made unbelievable strides from where I saw him in high school, from where he showed up as a freshman to the time he showed up for his junior year. He was a special guy, how he developed.
Q: What would you say about Charlie McBride?
TS: Well, Charlie, to me, is one of the best motivators I’ve ever been around. I learned an awful lot from Charlie, a very unique guy. Charlie basically let me do my thing. He didn’t bother me with technique. He wasn’t a hands-on Defensive Coordinator, he let you figure it out. I thought he was very special. A great motivator.
Q: How would he motivate?
TS: He had his ways. He talked to ’em. I remember him giving some great speeches on Friday night or Saturday morning. He used to always give his speeches on Friday night, and a couple of players asked him not to give it on Friday night because they ended up getting so wound up they couldn’t sleep. He was the guy that knew every little thing. I learned so many of the fine point techniques from him. To this day he’s one of the best guys in the country.
Coaches Darlington and Samuel wearing their game faces. (Joe Mixan photo)
Q: What about Coach Osborne?
TS: I always felt that I could trust him. There’s nothing better than knowing that you can trust your boss, you know? I always knew I could trust him. I always thought I never wanted to let him down.
Q: So many of the players say that, too, Tony. They didn’t want to get that look...not even hear him speak, but just let him down and get ‘the look’…
Q: Anything else you think played a huge part in the last few years you were there on those championship runs, Coach?
TS: Well, not really. It was just the overall system. We had, for what we did, the ultimate system. I know one thing that we haven’t mentioned, but I always thought our edge had a lot to do with special teams, which had a lot to do with depth, which to me went directly back to the walk-on program.
If you remember, when you go look around (I liked to do that for my own liking sometimes), I’d just fiddle and go through the roster in my head and say, ‘How many of these guys playing a lot now were walk-ons that earned scholarships? And whatever?’ You go back and look now, and there were some large numbers of guys we developed. Because in Nebraska, if you came out of that state and went to another school, that was unheard of. If you were from Nebraska that’s where you went. We always lost one or two, you know what I mean?
But if you remember, how many people in Nebraska remember Lance Gray? Lance Gray was a great special teams player for us. He set the mindset, he got other teams to understand the Nebraska mentality just by his play. He was a walk-on coming all the way from New York. He wasn’t even a Nebraska guy.
Q: Any guys you still keep in touch with, stay close with?
TS: You’d be surprised how they call. Two weeks ago -and I don’t hear from Barron Miles in forever- and just the other day I get an e-mail from him. He was one of my favorite guys. That guy had the biggest heart and spirit than anybody around. I remember him in particular, he won the Oklahoma State game for us. The blocked punt and recovery in the end zone, because they were giving us the what for, he scored that touchdown and we pulled it out. And you have guys like Travis Hill, and Broderick comes out to my golf tournament, and Jamie Williams is out at San Francisco Academy of Art, Athletic Director (and my son played basketball out there). I went back last year for a good friend’s funeral in Omaha and ran into Neil Smith and Lawrence Pete and those guys. I keep up with the family, a lot of them. My old teammates, you know? Guys like Tim Wurth and Derrie Nelson. I’d been there a lot of years man, and all of a sudden they pop out of nowhere on you. (laughs) And the situation with technology, you know, they go on the website and find my e-mail address.
Q: That’s how I found you. (laughs) Last question: anyone behind the scenes you feel had a large influence on success?
TS: George Sullivan! No question. George was everybody’s father, you know? He was everybody’s Daddy. Old George, he kept the rules straight, “No hats in the house”...grabbing them off guy’s heads at the training table, slapping them in the back of the head. He was the trainer, but you didn’t show up in there being soft in the training room, “If you’re hurt, you’re hurt. Let’s get that thing fixed.” A “We’re not here to pamper you”-kind of guy.
Q: That so funny you bring that up, Tony. I remember so many kids would sit down to eat at the Training Table and forget they had a cap on, and then George would come around the corner and smack ’em up the backside of the head. And then everyone else’s head was on a swivel! (laughing) In a millisecond they would snatch their own caps and throw them to the floor before he had a chance to catch them! (laughs) Old school-hilarious!
TS: You said it, Paul. He was a great guy.
Tony’s conversation was jam-packed with insight, am I right? I’ll surely attempt to get a hold of both George Sullivan and Lance Gray, hereafter. I’d forgotten about ol’ Bullethead (Gray) until Tony refreshed my memory, and have decided from here on out to make every possible effort to contact the people whose names are mentioned in these interviews. I guess it’s more organic this way, unplanned and coming about by providence rather than some pre-planned order or methodology. Doing so may seem a little disjointed, but the ride might be all the more exciting as a result. I hope you won’t mind the randomness.
Tony talked about ‘The Motor,’ a quasi-objective way of evaluating a player’s effort through a wise coach’s eye, and gave me a little hint as to how unique the recruiting methods were, as well as how foundational an ‘inner drive’ was to the incredibly effective Rush Ends of that era. He seemed to indicate that it was something that may not be teachable, that you either possessed ‘drive’ or you didn’t, and that he simply inserted the techniques of the ‘difference maker’ position on top of the foundational template of ‘The Motor.’ If you are a student of the study of psychology and the whole Nature versus Nurture debate, you’d likely have something to think about for awhile with this one.
Another item that caught my attention was his mention of working for Coach Osborne and, “I always thought I never wanted to let him down.” Didn’t we hear the same thing from Quarterback Matt Turman? So it appears that not only did the players of the day hold profound reverence and respect for T.O., but his staff did, also. Fascinating, to say the least. Refreshing too.
Then he went on to talk about something that I’ve always been extremely proud of, the fact that the Cornhuskers “won in Nebraska-style. We broke them… We were notorious for breaking teams, along those lines, either fatigue factor or spirit factor.” It’s one thing to be the team who last has the ball in a score-fest before time runs out to secure a victory, but it’s a whole other ball of wax to actually break another team’s spirit. That statement of ideology, to me, is a huge part of what made the 60 & 3 teams special. Not only did it result in victories, but was possibly a method whereby bad experiences were buried deep inside opposing teams’ heads, setting the stage for future meetings via psychological warfare and imprinting. If you don’t think this is a valid point, I ask you, “Have you ever seen the movie Jaws?” The next time you have an opportunity to take a dip in the ocean you’ll probably think twice about it, won’t you? It’s imprinting at its finest, and it works. Just ask Madison Avenue.
Lastly, Coach Samuel pointed out something that I feel is often lost on many a fan, and that is the fact that these players are, to be perfectly blunt, really just a bunch of young kids. Somewhat scared and confused and still trying to figure out who they are, where they fit in the world, and what direction they are heading in life, the load of full-time student and a Division 1 athlete in an environment as football-obsessed as the state of Nebraska is not and was not for the faint of heart. Just something to keep in mind.
Notable quote #2:
Tony Samuel on recruiting student/athletes to Nebraska: “There were so many combinations of things. If you look at our recruiting, we were never ranked really high in the nation my whole time being there.”
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