Anatomy of an Era: George Darlington, Part 1
Excerpted from Chapter 15, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
These were my people. This was where I came from. They knew about hard work, bad harvests, and low prices. But they also knew about the importance of sticking together when times were tough.
-Shane Osborne with Malcolm McConnell, Born To Fly
Kenneth C. Davis, in his 2003 book Don’t Know Much About History had an amusing anecdote about General George Washington preparing to cross the Delaware River on a dangerous, revolutionary night raid: “Stepping into his boat, Washington -the plain-spoken frontiersman, not the marbleized demigod– nudged 280-pound General Henry “Ox” Knox with the tip of his boot and said, “Shift that fat ass, Harry. But slowly, or you’ll swamp the damned boat.” In this day and age of political correctness and side-stepping doublespeak, it’s refreshing to hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
That’s why this interview with Coach George Darlington makes its mark from a number of perspectives. Always frank and unafraid to offer an opinion, he at times offended some. But everyone knew it was simply a case of “George being George”, and that’s one of the reasons I find the man so endearing.
I was fortunate to join him on the beautiful University of San Diego campus for a deck-top lunch overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the western horizon. That school’s Defensive Coordinator at the time, the mood was relaxed as we shared this informative exchange. It was a fun one. Listen intently, as you’ll get an earful on a variety of topics, by George.
Notable Quote #1:
“Our whole thing and Tom’s whole thing was “You‘ve got to play better than you did last week, and play to the best of your ability,” and that’s all that you can be accountable for.”
Question: Now George, before we get started I’ve gotta know: how did you find time to teach that Football 101 class all those years?
George Darlington: It was Thursday night, and the hay is really in the barn by Thursday night as far as preparation. And I recruited California, so I couldn’t call until well after 9 o’clock Central Time. So it didn’t interfere with recruiting and I just got going with it. The way it got started is, Jim Huge -who had been a quarterback at Nebraska- was a principal at East High School when I first got to Nebraska, and he first taught that class through Southeast Community College. And I would provide him the 16mm film. I handled the film exchange at the time. And then his wife had respiratory problems so they moved to Wyoming and he said, “Well, why don’t you teach the class?” So I started teaching it through SE Community, then KLIN heard about it and they made me a real good deal. They said, “Look, we’ll sponsor you. You can keep all the money for the class and we’ll sponsor it on radio. And it really grew. We even had a waiting list. One year it had 150 people in the class and it went for 6 weeks in the fall. And there were ladies that would take it every year, that were kind of groupies in a good way. Mostly older. One lady just passed away at 105 this past year. She took it until she was 96.
Q: Taking it every year, did they just want to see game film or what?
GD: Part of it was the game film, another part was they’d get an essence, a preview of what was going to happen the next ballgame. When it wasn’t too dark we went onto the field and walked through the plays. So besides the video and all that, then we would have a banquet the ladies would sponsor and they would invite one or two players to be their guest. So we would have players that would come, and that was a big hit. The most bizarre thing, probably (and there were a lot of bizarre things), one lady took the class and she commuted from Chicago. She hardly missed a class. She had relatives in Omaha, so if we were playing at home she’d come and stay for the game. Wouldn’t fly back to Chicago until Sunday. I remember when registration was going on, somebody said, “Look where this lady is coming from for the class!” And I’m thinking maybe York or Grand Island or something like that, so I said, ‘Where’s she from?’ and she says “Chicago!” (laughs) It was a good deal. I really enjoyed it.
Q: How does the old saying go: ”If you want to learn, teach”?
GD: Well, it was fun because of the use of video and stuff like that. It worked out very nice. I taught that for 23 years.
Q: Did you find yourself going through a metamorphosis of sorts in your coaching techniques and doctrine? When we went from the 5-2 to the 4-3 defense, was that a huge thing for you?
GD: Well, I’d kept statistics on our base package as opposed to the 4-3 because the guys didn’t want to do it. I was able to show after the year that we were actually more productive with the 4-3. The big thing was, we beat Oklahoma in Norman and played the 3-4. (Of course, they didn’t call it that at the time.) But Oklahoma took the ball and drove down the field against our base 5-2 defense, and then we put in the substitution package and stopped them: they kicked a field goal. Next series, same thing. Finally, after that second drive we put the substitution package in the whole time.
And then we played Miami in the Orange Bowl and we lost 22-0 or something like that, and yet we played well on defense against them. It was all 4-3. And what we did, we didn’t have very good defensive tackles and we couldn’t come up with 5 kids. Of course, you had two tackles and a noseguard and at least a couple subs. Well, we couldn’t do that, but we had better linebacker-type kids and we went to the 4-3 and worked with the people we had.
Q: So you’re saying it was the confluence of your keeping track of statistics & tendencies as well as a manpower thing? Simply working with what you had…
GD: It was both. Because guys -they could give up their comfort zone, and we’d been successful defensively down through the years- but the 4-3 (with how we played it) fit our personnel better than what people now call a 3-4. 5-2 defense is what we used to say. It was exactly like people are playing today, with 3 down linemen and 4 linebackers. And the substitution package was essentially the 4-3.
Q: How long was that defensive package part of the program?
GD: It was always there in some way, basically on passing downs in the early ’90’s. But once we committed to it we played it all the time. And we were able to play with some of the smaller kids who were faster, and we improved the speed of our defense with those people.
Q: Was it purposeful that we had more of the smaller, faster guys or did it just happen that way?
GD: Well, we always tried to recruit speed, but it was probably as much as anything the fact that defensive tackles are hard to recruit. We just didn’t have a wealth of them. If we would have had a lot of really good defensive tackles we never would have changed. It’s very, very difficult to find good, athletic, big people. More like offensive guys.
Q: Now, at one time you were the rush end coach, right? Defensive ends?
GD: Right, defensive ends were really outside linebackers. That was why I say what we call the 50 defense was really the 3-4; it was more nomenclature than anything. We had the Bob Martins, Scott Strassberger, all those kids were outside linebackers, undersized.
Q: I remember there was a big to-do about, “Now we’re calling them ‘outside linebackers.’“ Was there an award or something that we changed that for? Otherwise they were known as rush ends, right?
GD: Exactly. Hey, what do you think of this salmon?
Q: Pretty decent. And I have to tell you, George, I grew up playing 8-man football, so I wasn’t as aware of all the intricacies of the game when I came to Lincoln…
GD: I’ll tell you, 8-man is fun to watch! What town?
Q: Petersburg. Near Albion. It had the big, white dome at the intersection of highways 32 and 19. My father, Marv Koch, built it to hold fertilizer for his agricultural supply business. We had guys like Kelly Prater in our conference, and the Schmadeke boys grew up 13 miles away, in Albion.
GD: Oh yeah, I remember those guys. I’ve been through that town a couple of times. What did you major in, again?
Q: Exercise Science, physiology. Though I’d like to think that I actually majored in building champions. I learned so much from time spent in the weightroom, the meetings with Boyd and the crew talking about how to make the strength program better, the whole football staff you were a part of, and working under and alongside Bryan Bailey. I still keep in touch with him every few weeks now that he’s up the road at USC.
GD: He really landed on his feet well. He did a really good job. Tell him I said ‘Hello’ the next time you talk to him, will you?
Q: Will do. And I have to tell you, George, he sometimes says this to the USC players’ faces, he says, “You guys have some talent, but you know what? You couldn’t touch our teams at Nebraska. You couldn’t touch those guys. They had unity, they had work ethic, they were tough, they were fast. You wouldn’t stand a chance against those Nebraska teams of the ’90’s.”
GD: Well, I really, sincerely think the ’95 team is the best team that’s ever played college football. People don’t realize that we had horrendous scores against people and took it easy on them. And then you beat Florida 62-24 and knelt down on the one yard line? We had guys who didn’t even practice on defense in the game for the kickoff team…
Q: Any names you recall?
GD: No, not exactly, because we were just clearing the benches at that point in the game, you know? Their last touchdown was a kickoff return and I don’t think anybody but the kicker had ever covered a kickoff in the game, so they ran it back for a touchdown. Our quarterback, Matt Turman, knelt down on the goal line to keep us from going to 69 points. And the next year that team, Florida, won the National Championship ’cause we stupidly didn’t give our players flu shots and ended up losing to Texas in the Big 12 Championship game.
Q: Which reminds me: in your book ‘Football 101’ you were talking about rare occurrences of crooked officiating…
GD: Well, we had –one most notably, which costed us the most- was the Penn State game in ’82 when the kid caught the ball close to a yard out of bounds. The thing I relate to was if they would have had instant replay like they had now; we would have won that game and we would have won the ’83 Orange Bowl and the National Championship. (And the close one to that was the William Floyd fumble that we recovered was called a touchdown versus Florida State in ’94.) And what the Penn State people don’t realize was that the very next play (which was a touchdown play) the ball had bounced, but the out-of-bounds play should have ended it.
South Carolina was probably one of the worst. It was a split crew and we had some Big 8 officials and some southern league and it was absolutely fraudulent. They did everything they could to win. I was on the radio after the game -for some reason that was my turn or that year I was on after every game or something- and I blasted the officials. (Today I would be fined even for telling the truth.) So anyway, on about Tuesday the Big 8 Head of Officials called Tom. And they were trying to have fun with me and they got me out of the defensive meeting and said, “The Commissioner is on the phone. He is really upset.” So I get on the phone with him. He said, “Everything you said was exactly right, and I talked to our officials who were there.” Everything was out-and-out cheating. And if I recall, Tom or somebody said, “Well, if they were doing that, why didn’t you try to even things up and call them the other way? If you see an obvious call is fraudulent?”, you know? And our guys didn’t do that. We won right at the end of the game. They ran a play they shouldn’t have run and they fumbled the ball; they should have just taken a knee.
What was funny about that was that Nebraska Wesleyan, in Lincoln, was dedicating their stadium at halftime. They’re dedicating the stadium at halftime, the Nebraska/South Carolina game is right at the end of the game, and a lot of Nebraska fans are there listening to the radio. My wife and daughter were there listening to the radio with their heads down because someone was leading the prayer at the middle of the field, and we recovered that fumble and they just screamed, “Yaaaaaaaaay!” right in the middle of the prayer! (laughs) That was bad.
And then the Clemson game in ’82, when Tom went to the officials’ meeting before the game -you usually go a couple of days before- he came into our staff meeting after that and said, “We’re in trouble.” Because every one of those officials knew Danny Ford and were hugging him and all this stuff. And we had so many 15-yard penalties that game. Every time we’d do something a flag would come out.
Q: Like calling Dave Rimington offsides? An offensive center offsides, for crying out loud!
GD: Yes, there was a whole bunch of stuff. It was too bad. And they were good. Clemson was a good football team, but they got an awful lot of help.
Q: So tell me, you were from New Jersey?
GD: No, I’m from Charleston, West Virginia, but I played college ball at Rutgers. And then after going to Stanford I went back and started coaching in New Jersey. I went to Stanford for graduate work and got a double major Masters in PE and History.
I knew I wanted to be a coach when I was 6 years old. I never outgrew it. I was a little kid and I lived 2 blocks from the football field at Stonewall Jackson High School and they were very good when I was in grade school, and my parents would take me to the games. And then I would go over every day and we would play tackle football next to the field or occasionally watch the high school team practice. That’s what got me interested.
Q: What position did you play in college?
GD: Defensive end and offensive end. We had to play both ways. It was two-platoon at that time.
Q: You played some lacrosse, too, right?
GD: Yeah, the reason for that was that they had no spring practice at Rutgers at that time, and so they encouraged us to go out for sports in the spring at that time: either track or baseball or lacrosse. So I went out for lacrosse. The first lacrosse game I ever saw, I played in.
Q: Weren’t you an All-American?
GD: Yeah, I was third team All-American, primarily as a defensive player. I played for three years. At that time the attack players and midfielders were usually from Long Island or Baltimore where they had lacrosse in grade school and junior high. They were more skilled at throwing the ball and all that.
Q: Like Canadian kids and hockey?
GD: Yes, great correlation.
Q: How did you end up coaching at Nebraska?
GD: I was coaching up here at San Jose State and the head coach got fired. And he had been at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes conference with Tom, and he tried to get on with Tom himself and make me a part of the package. Anyway, Tom called me up and convinced me at the convention in Chicago. I was literally sleeping on the floor between two beds in the Astroturf salesmen’s room -because at San Jose there was no money and we had to almost threaten their lives to get money to fly to Chicago- and he interviewed me the next morning after the FCA breakfast.
And then it was really funny, because I didn’t have a job and he said, “Well, I’ll get back to you. I don’t want you to take another job until I get back to you,” and all that. And I’m thinking, ’I’ll never hear back from this guy again,’ So I didn’t say anything to my wife when I called her. And then a night or two later Tom called her to encourage her to make sure I didn’t take another job. And so when I call she’s jumping through the phone! And of course, I had no real opportunities for any other jobs. The Lord really opens a lot of doors and that’s a great example of it.
Q: You were Coach Osborne’s very first staff member hire?
GD: Yeah, exactly. He’d only been a few days removed from the Orange Bowl when they’d beaten Notre Dame, and there were three coaches that left. One was Coach Devaney retiring, of course, and then there was Jimmy Walden, and another fella who went on to coach at Miami, Florida. Quite frankly, he and Tom -from what I understand- didn’t get along well, because basically it looked like he should have gotten the head job. Then he coached in later years as a defensive coach at Kansas State, and I think he may have retired to Omaha. It’s silly that I don’t remember his name, but anyway, Rick Duvall and Jerry Moore and myself were the new hires. And he retained, of course, everybody else.
Q: What was your impression of the meeting with Coach Osborne?
GD: Well, it was a very short and brief interview because the FCA breakfast went on to the speakers, but we talked for maybe 5 minutes. And at the breakfast he said, “I’d appreciate you not taking another job until I get back. I may have a job for you…”
To be continued…
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