Anatomy of an Era: Dr. Jack Stark, Part 2

Categories: Football No Place

Excerpted from Chapter 13 of No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Volume 1

Dr. Jack Stark, Part 2

Team Psychologist


Q: From the way you describe it, they were just guys who rose up regardless of position on the field. Were these leaders created or did they already have it, that leadership factor?

JS: I think these were guys who had some qualities, they already had it. And I had to spend a lot of time, I would speak to them about how to lead and worked with them a little bit.

They came in different packages: some guys wanted to beat others up and were tough and wanted to lead from that physical standpoint whereas other guys were more shy, so you had leaders who weren’t vocal, and they could identify with some role in a different nature, like your Kyle VandenBosch and that type of player. So they came in all types.

Q: How did you identify these leaders when you spoke to them?  Did the coaches tell you to talk to them?

JS: I just had to figure out who had it, who the players respected and listened to. It’s interesting, because the players choose who they are sometimes. Sometimes the leaders are the great players and sometimes it just seemed like these were guys who the others listened to.

And so I would go to them and say, ‘Hey, you better step it up, because the other guys are listening to you. You can’t start mouthing off or doing stupid stuff or not keeping your role or be going out on Thursday nights, ’cause we’re a team. We need you to do it, and here’s how to do it….’

And I ended up spending a lot of time with those teams, because it seemed oftentimes that there were weeks I spoke with every single player. That took a lot of time, but everyone was worth it. I sure enjoyed working with Coach Osborne and the players and built a lot of great friendships.

Q: Any special friendships? People you keep in contact with to this day?

JS: Oh boy, I probably have 50 to 60 guys that I keep in contact with all the time. There were so many of them, Paul, that were just great. More than a whole decade of guys who were really special, who grew up in front of your eyes and matured and brought that leadership out into the world & their lives outside of football after it was over. Just a special group of people that Coach Osborne and his staff brought in to play. Those classes, you had your Tommie Frazier, your Lawrence Phillips, Damon Benning, Clinton Childs to Grant Wistrom, to…. gosh, there are so many guys come to mind. They were all good kids -and some had some detours in life- in the case of Jason Peter and his life and book that he came out with recently.

Q: Let me ask: were there any distinctions or differences in mindset or attitude from the very outset that you really had to work on?

JS: There was a lot of individual stuff, and guys were focused on what they could do individually to make it to the pros. It wasn’t going badly, it was just, instead of the $60,000 or $80,000-a-year job they wanted to go to the next level of earning and the $2 million-a-year job, and everybody was focusing on that.

And just more getting along and stuff? It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t right where it could have been, and those next few years we had something that was really special.

Q: Was there a greater emphasis on getting to the national championship game, or was that goal always realistically there? I seemed that in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s some teams were just happy to make it to a bowl game and to party, maybe didn’t take it as seriously?

JS: Yeah, and we also ended up getting better players, and they were more serious: the coaches and the players became more accountable and they concentrated on goals and the focus of having a championship team.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of your job?

JS: I think the most challenging aspect for any coach or anyone working with the players is trust. Once you get that trust, once they know that you are all the way there for them and they can feel free to call you at 2 in the morning, at 4 in the morning and aren’t in it only for yourself or just to make money? Having the relationship and having their trust, that was one of the key things.

Q: It took some buildup and time to get to that place?

JS: It takes a while for guys to know you. They knew the coaches because they saw them about every day, but I tried to spend as much time as I could with them. When they’re freshmen to the time they’re seniors you get to know them a lot better. And by the 2nd, 3rd year there you’ve already had a bit of time with them, so it’s not quite as difficult.

Q: There was probably a staff dynamic going on there, too. Any recollections of the coaching staff in general?

JS: Well, we really tried to focus on how the kids interacted with coaches and how to give them feedback: what the likes & dislikes were and how the kids reacted to the feedback that the coaches gave them. And I got really close to the coaches, too, and spent a lot of time just knowing how to give the players feedback, how they worked together, and how to better share the feedback, too. So we got close. Charlie McBride and I were very, very close. It was a tremendous relationship, and the players really benefited from all of that, you know.

Q: You were able to alter their coaching philosophies or methods along the way?

JS: I think it was just knowing how to relate better to kids. There were just multiple kinds of things you could do for a kid on any particular day. For example, let’s say you had one of the tougher coaches and I could say, ‘How is so-and-so doing?’, and he’d say, “He’s doing alright, what do you think?” And I might say, ‘Well, I think so-and-so could use a real pat on the back today.’ And the coach would look at me and say, “Okay, I understand, Doc. I know you can’t tell me everything, but I get the message that maybe the kid’s having a rough time elsewhere in life.” Maybe the kid’s bummed out and feeling down, so sometimes it was just a matter of telling the coaches to deal with a player a certain way that day.

Q: Jack, I know from those years when I was working with the Nebraska basketball team that you had a lot of interaction with a number of other sports, too. In relating to those ’93-’97 teams, were the footballers different in comparison to other sports & other teams of the day?

JS: Yeah, their mental toughness was incredible. That’s because of the way Osborne ran his program. And I have to tell you, the basketball was there, too. As you know, Danny Nee was one of my best friends, and I worked with football and basketball and spent a lot of time with them, so it was quite an exhausting year, that first year in ’90-’91. We had some good basketball teams, too, huh?

Q: Indeed. Those were great years. So how would you categorize that mental toughness?

JS: Well, in the 4th quarter we wore people down… and Coach would know how to run practice better than anybody in the nation. He taught physicality; he would emphasize that every day in practice. (And then, in contrast, you would have (Bill) Callahan where you would run a pro-style practice where they hardly ever wore pads, so they never got physical in practice, and that’s why they couldn’t tackle in a game.)

Q: Please don’t go there. I might need some time on a couch with you to get over those years, Jack. (laughs) Now, you were on the sidelines for those games, right?

JS: Oh yeah, I was in the locker room and on the sidelines. I saw everything. I heard everything. A lot of times it was just me and the players in the locker room, so I saw a lot of things and I could keep it to myself. And then they could trust me and share things with me, so it was a very secure relationship.

Q: Anything pervasive or revealing stand out from some of those times in the locker room?

JS: What stood out was their incredible love for Tom Osborne. They really, really cared for him. There were times before the team prayer on game day where some guys would have something special to say about him, why they were playing for him. They just cared about Coach. They would do anything for him. It was amazing how these incredibly tough guys talked about how much they cared about Tom.

Q: How do you think that came about, Jack?

JS: It was just because he was always there for them. There were times we’d be in the coach’s meeting rooms talking about some of them and there would almost be tears. And he would always call on them and see how they were doing, ask them about their family. He was just a great guy.

It also had something to do with his spirituality, and it was to the point where the players respected his character and just didn’t want to let him down. These guys felt like he was a father to them (some guys didn’t have dads), so it was a really special relationship.

Q: Some of the guys who didn’t have fathers growing up, were they more taxing on your time?

JS: Not so much taxing, it was just oftentimes that you spent more time with them, because they needed a mentor. And sometimes it just happened that there were a lot of the black players I became very close to. Sometimes it was merely the fact that the players felt that I understood them. And I’m close to them today and have gone to their weddings and baptisms and family events. So if they didn’t have a father I just spent a little more time with them trying to understand them.

Q: Doc, one thing I’ve always found incredibly inspirational was the team prayer. Did you come up with the team prayer that was shared before the games?

JS: Yeah, there was one of the guys -and I can’t remember who it was, who came from the East Coast- he had something kind of ¾ of what we came up with. I tweaked and tweaked and tweaked it, and it became the team prayer and the guys loved it, and I still use it today. I would definitely like to give credit to the guy who came up with it, I just can’t remember who it was. (laughs)

Q: Did you present it to Coach Osborne first?

JS: I presented it to the Unity Council. We then used it every game thereafter and it became very sacred; it was the last thing we did before we left the locker room. It was kind of a mantra of sorts, and was done very well. They got into a routine and loved it, so that worked out well.

To be continued

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Paul Koch