Anatomy of an Era: Final Chapter/THE NEBRASKA SYSTEM
Excerpted from Chapter 104, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch
Anatomy of an Era: Final Chapter/THE NEBRASKA SYSTEM
Wrapping up this “how it all happened” portion of this concluding chapter, we’ll end with a few thoughts, theories, summaries, and short statements about the “system” that comprised Nebraska Football during the Great 60 & 3.
Think of it as a late game touchdown to “seal the deal” long after the contest’s outcome is already firmly in the bag. That being said, here are some random, yet well-conceived musings from the participants of that era…
…you had a very talented bunch who were that intense and that focused and that driven, it’s just hard for them not to be successful. And they believed in the entire system: coaching, the philosophy, the weight room, the medical aspects of the training room, and also the educational aspects. – Jack Nickolite
…it was good players with great resolve who represented the university appropriately. – Mark Cisco
There are two things I really think I took away from that experience. 1) It’s basically the idea of surrounding yourself with quality people. Character counts, basically, and (affects) how you respond or react to different situations. And you can stand up for what’s right even when people believe what you do is wrong. And I truly believe the company you keep says a lot about your character and at a lot of times defines your character. I think if you surround yourself with good character people they’re gonna rub off on you and you’re going to end up doing the right thing, and if you surround yourself with other people with other goals or other ideas you’re going to be dragged along with those things…
And at Nebraska, being around someone of such great character, it’s hard not to be successful when you’re around successful, character people. 2) The other thing was just the value of teamwork, you know? The whole idea that, if you can do it yourself your goal is too small. Basically, when you’re willing to give up and willing to do what’s best for the team, how much more you can accomplish as a team. If your goal is for team success and not for personal accolades, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.
– David Alderman
I think we just had superior character on that team. My class saw the extreme ends of how things could be. In 90’-91 we were getting beat pretty bad in bowl games, the national columnists and Sports Illustrated were writing things like “Loser in Lincoln” and they showed (a photo of) T.O. running on the field, you know? People were pretty hard on Nebraska. We couldn’t kind of get over the top; we’d get beat pretty badly in bowl games. So there was a kind of psyche that had to get beat into our heads as far as how we were going to get things done. Things like what the coaches did on defense: I think they got the right group of guys together.
Philosophy will only take you so far, but you’ve got to get guys that care for each other and be willing to take it to the next level. I think character was the big thing. We had a lot of good players, and I think we didn’t have a lot of egos. I mean, having a group of football players, you’re going to have some egos, but they never got in the way of the team… Obviously you need guys with some talent out there, but it’s about getting guys to give themselves up for the betterment of the team, not just look for star players to make the big plays. We had so many guys that were very selfless, that would do anything for the team, and that got us over the hump in ‘93. We didn’t win the national championship that year, but I give them a lot of credit for setting the foundation…
– Matt Shaw
It was just very organized. Our practices and the way we went out and did things, from the way we did warmups and everything else? The level of attention and the level of detail. And the way we were all treated. We were treated with respect and there was a ‘team’ environment, a sense that everyone was important… – Ed Stewart
Everything was laid out. The structure they had in place was incredible. And it was very detailed, from early on in the morning to the end of the night, especially during football season and two-a-days. Just the whole structure of the athletic football program was amazing. …When I first got there I didn’t really know what to expect, but they had it all in place and they had pretty much what our schedule would be like and you just take it one day at a time and learn the ins and outs and the nuances.
– Jason Scott Jenkins
With Coach Osborne it was always school first. And I’ve talked to other college players and they were, “School? What!?” (laughs) So that was different in that school was always the number one goal for anybody, but you always had to get your schoolwork done and have good grades… So you’d get up at 6 a.m. and then get home at 9 at night. And that was every day. It was a full-time job …It was hard to balance your life with everything… ‘discipline’ is a good word for it. It was time- consuming. And like you said, everyone thinks you show up and have a couple practices and you’re automatically good. But it’s hours of paperwork and you get in there and watch film with the coaches. – Phil Ellis
…with Tommie we just knew he was going to win. One thing about being on the defensive side of the ball looking on the offense, I always felt like the opposing defense was going to have a hard time with our offense. And I think if you talk to the offensive players they’d just say that they always felt the defense was going to stop (the opposition). Just the amount of confidence and the amount of swagger that we had… and I truly believe a lot of the wins over those two years, teams were already defeated before we even kicked off. Really, truthfully, you could see it. Particularly when teams came into Lincoln, they were already 21 points down. You could really see it in their body language. – Eric Stokes
…if you were an all-star or just walking-on there and looking for a chance to compete, you felt like you were part of a family. The way things were done were very systematic. Things were done with excellence: the way you carried yourself, the way you practiced, the way that you prepared. There was a culture of excellence, a culture of high expectations, a culture that mediocrity would not be tolerated. And you know as a strength coach in the weightroom, in the meeting room or on the practice field, there was a way to get things done. You were not only accountable to your coaches, but you were accountable to your teammates. So there was accountability on all levels.
And to get to the level where you could wear that ‘N’ on your helmet, that came with a great deal of pride. And I’ve said it many times before, we didn’t just play at Nebraska, we worked and toiled for the opportunity to play for Nebraska. So when you put on that helmet, you were putting on something and representing more than a million people in that state that had supported that program and loved that program so much, and you didn’t take that lightly. All the sweat and the blood and the tears and the toil that went on that field before you, you not only wanted to not let your teammates down, but you didn’t want to let all the players who came before you down, either. – Aaron Davis
…we were smart football players. Across the board -of course, you had a couple knuckleheads in there- but across the board Coach Osborne recruited smart guys. Guys were smart, but they were also physical.
You know, football is a tough sport. With some of the vanilla offenses we see in football in this era, you have to get back to understanding that football is a physical sport and you want the other teams to know that you were the most physical team that they ever played against. When you go out there and express the dominance against an opponent and hit them in the mouth every single play, play after play after play after play, it’s gonna demoralize them. They’ll eventually break…And you can’t take away a guy’s heart. You’ve got to have heart when you play football, you’ve got to be physical and pay attention to detail.
And I think that’s what Coach Osborne was about. As far as teaching how to pay attention to detail, how to be physical, how to love our teammates and play for each other, how to play for your family, play for the coaches, play for the greatest fans in America. You put all those things together and that’s why you have championships. – Vershan Jackson
…a more disciplined, more physical team is definitely going to take care of an athletic team. – Chris Norris
…it was run like a business. You basically showed up and you knew what to expect and they mapped it out. Pretty cut and dried as to what was going to happen. It wasn’t like high school where you just kind of show up and you kind of figure it out over time. Everything was written down and done to a schedule. I remember it was a smooth transition when you looked at the schedule and you knew what was going to happen next. – Chris Dishman
It was a well-oiled machine and you could tell that from the second you even started the recruiting process, “Here’s where you are supposed to be, here’s what you do, here’s how we run things.” And if you did what you were supposed to do and worked hard, it set you up for success. The road map was laid out for you, what you needed to do… It didn’t just happen. To me it didn’t change dramatically to make it happen, it was tweaks here and there along the way… they didn’t have to make dramatic changes. I think it was just a culmination and tweaking, refining things, the Unity Council bringing the team tighter together and really work towards unified goals, but nothing was really that badly broken that all of a sudden things just got fixed and we start winning national titles. We’d been pretty good the whole time. – Terry Connealy
We did the same thing year in and year out. We just happened to have kids who could dominate every week. You know, in the 90’s and the early 80’s was exceptional, but in the 90’s we just had the athletes who could do anything that we asked of them and were probably more physical than anybody we faced. They were something. Pretty special. – Milt Tenopir
…we just had a swagger about it.”We are gonna come to your stadium and we’re gonna give it to ‘ya.” – Cory Schlesinger
You don’t need to try to make the game confusing. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You have to let the players play. Charlie and Tony were big advocates of that. Less is more. If you wanted to play fast you better not burden them down mentally.
And one other thing even more important than the x’s and o’s, it is the trust and relationship part of it, and mutual respect between the coaches and players. Nobody really ever raised their voice -except Charlie a few times- over the years. The ultimate thing, I think, was the great relationships there and the total trust between players and coaches.
– Clayton Carlin
…it was the caliber of players we had, their character. And I would say the people in the athletic department, guys like you and Bailey and Boyd and that staff, Dennis and all those people over in academics, and the coaching staff, the administration. Just go down the list. – Jack Nickolite
I would just have to say that the coaches coming together… and everybody working toward one goal and doing their job and going to the highest possible level each time, every play, run that like it’s your last play of the game. – Damon Schmadeke
At the time I don’t think we felt that way, but the way we played, with the way nobody really came close, the closest game was like 14 points; the unity, the way we dominated, I think we were the best team ever. – Tony Veland
It‘s hard to explain. If you weren’t there, it’s hard to explain it. If you called a meeting for 3 o’clock, everybody knew that by 2:30 you were supposed to be there. Everyone knew come game time you were going to win. You didn’t have to say it, everybody knew it already, it was just by how many points.”How many points are we gonna win by?” We prepared hard enough, we stayed together, we played for each other. We could be down, losing in some game, but we’d be calm on the sidelines, knowing sooner or later we were going to blow these guys out. We didn’t panic. We just knew that we’d win and then go back to Lincoln and relax.
It was never spoken, but everyone knew their job and their place, everybody knew their role and what they had to do. It was our time and we ran with it. – Barron Miles
…if they trust you enough, you put it out there and they give it back to you. That’s what was great about being a little piece of machinery in that great big clockworks that was headed by Tom Osborne. It was about the process. – Bryan Bailey
…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. – Doak Ostergard
Just the way the whole thing was run: top of the line, first class everything. Weight room, training table, having practice in the afternoon and, not being catered to, but giving everybody a chance to succeed was big. – Adam Treu
(We) won in Nebraska-style. We broke them… We were notorious for breaking teams, along those lines, either fatigue factor or spirit factor. – Tony Samuel
I just think it was a culmination of all things that are good and true about the concept of being a team, from the coaching staff all the way down to the trainer and the managers, it was just the most incredible thing. All the way down to Jack Stark, a guy who never did receive the credit that he deserves for all he did with our team. Everybody was on the exact same page, yet it was fun, it was exciting.
I think you could have measured the level of focus that we had in those teams, specifically in ‘94 and ‘95. If you were fortunate enough to go witness a practice during those years you would have been in for a first class treat to watch those groups on our team and how hard we worked to achieve our goals. There were no shortcuts, no easy ways to do it. We worked extremely hard, we worked very well together, we had enough people who were really, really willing to absolutely put it all on the line. We saw all that success because we were a force that couldn’t be stopped.
– Aaron Graham
Tom really made some changes that year we arrived. They started recruiting more southern athletes, they went to a 4-3 defense, and there was a higher caliber athlete started showing up from that fall forward. – Chad Stanley
“We are hard-nosed. We are hard-nosed on both sides of the ball, and especially on special teams. We will tear you about and beat you up. We will physically abuse you and mentally abuse you.” …The whole thing comes down to two words: drive and belief. Because a lot of us come from places where people just didn’t believe in what we could do, and once we did hit those goals then they’d become jealous because we’ve already outdone what they thought we could do… that whole team, the one thing is that we never gave up on each other.
And we always knew that we could go further and we never cut ourselves short… It comes down to drive and believing in your nucleus. Because when the world is against you, all you have is your family… As diverse as our group was, we were a family and we believed in each other. And had we not done what we did, it would have been a failure. All of us came to the point where failure wasn’t an option for us, we were not going to let that become the status quo at our university …as immature as some people thought our class was, we were mature about winning.
We had a great time. I think we were one of the first classes that Tom Osborne had that was really just full of knuckleheads. (laughs) But I think it was a challenge for him, as well as for us. And it all made us better. It was a ball.
– Jacques Allen
So there you have it: the How of the Great 60 & 3, the progression of both the concrete and abstract acting one upon another within the petri dish of a familial sports environment that led to the greatest run of college football dominance in over half a century.
It all happened at the prairie state’s only land-grant institution, a university campus in the capital city of Lincoln, Nebraska. Offering more than 100 degree programs and comprising nine academic colleges: Agriculture, Architecture, Arts and Sciences, Business Administration, Engineering and Technology, Human Resources and Family Science, Journalism and Mass Communications, Teachers College, & Fine and Performing Arts, plus the Graduate College and College of Law, the student enrollment hovered around 25,000 students at the time.
And the University of Nebraska-Lincoln student-athletes boasted a graduation rate of approximately 85 percent, a figure ranking them at 6th place in the College Football Association member schools and even above that of the general University of Nebraska student population.
This was no “football factory,” per se, where participation in and completion of eligibility for the sport was the ‘be all, end all’, that a disregard for educational advancement existed by and because of a focus on the sport at the expense of all else. No, you should banish that thought. This myth was far removed from the reality of the day and should be tossed aside to the ash heap of history.
Bottom line: Nebraska not only won, but it won the right way, with high-minded, altruistic and bedrock guiding principles.
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In going about winning with class and holding to high-minded educational ideals, the final result we’ve studied so intently should give every man and woman involved in that grand adventure a soothing, comforting pause, a proud swelling in the bosom, a concrete and integrity-bound hook to hang one’s hat on at the end of a day and maybe even at the end of a life well-lived.
Obtainment of this knowledge is the beginning of a lasting and meaningful and right-proportioned pride; not one in which to boast of personal accomplishments only, but in the revelry of being and playing a part in it all, of filling a need, exercising a talent, yearning to be a part of something greater than oneself and coming out on top as a unified front, a bona fide team.
T-E-A-M. That is the essence of the flame of desire that dwells in the heart of every natural born woman and man. In trusting the process, beholding the beliefs they did and the manner in which they achieved success, theirs’ was a victors’ glorious triumph time and again. For this I both honor and revere and fondly remember all who played a part in it, and I hope you do as well.
We finish up tomorrow….with one last surprise as to HOW greatness happened.
Copyright @ 2013 Thermopylae Press. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credits : Unknown Original Sources/Updates Welcomed
Author assumes no responsibility for interviewee errors or misstatements of fact.
Summary Chapter to be continued…..