Anatomy of an Era: George Darlington, Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 15, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
George Darlington, Part 2
Q: Did you ever ask Coach Osborne why he picked you from among the other candidates?
GD: No, but I think one of the issues was recruiting. And Rick Duvall and I were both recruiting California, so that might have had something to do with it. Tom used to recruit California, you know, and he had to go all over. I think the head coach I worked for at San Jose gave me a pretty good recommendation, too, so that might have sealed the deal. And like, when I interviewed at Dartmouth prior to that -an example of the contrasts- I was flown up there and was on the chalkboard for three or four hours with the whole staff and all that. It was a completely different interview process. (laughs)
Q: Do you think it was a ‘gut’ decision for Coach Osborne?
GD: Well, I’m not sure. I think it was the situation where he knew what he wanted and Dewey’s recommendation carried a lot of weight because he knew him from the FCA. And I think that was a real help, as he knew where I was coming from. I even paid my taxes (laughs), meager as they were.
Q: So, from ’73 until when? Your last year at Nebraska was 2003?
GD: Actually, 2002 was my last season. Frank fired three of the four defensive coaches the day after the Colorado game, so technically we were paid until January 1st of 2003, and I went from there to Marshall.
Q: I’m sure there were some ill feelings after that.
GD: Well, there were ill feelings as far as the family was concerned, but I think the Lord opens doors and he closes some doors. Frank firing six or 7 guys that year didn’t help him, because in one year he loses his job. And I don’t know whether he would have kept his job if he kept his old staff or not. I don’t know how Steve (Pederson) would have responded, if Steve would have worked with all of us.
I knew something was strange that whole year. I mean, it didn’t come as a shock at all. There were too many meetings going on, too many backdoor things that, instead of focusing on coaching and getting ready… it was not a shock. The saddest thing, in a way, about the whole deal was Coach Nelson Barnes. That morning his dad had died and then he went to the office and got fired.
Q: Man, you’d better have a foundation of faith, a real ‘rock’ to lean on that day…
GD: Yeah, Frank knew he was fired the week before because he’d confronted Steve. I didn’t. But I knew, because you could tell things weren’t right. What was strange about the 2001 season when we lost to Miami, it was probably as good a job of coaching that we’d ever done because it wasn’t that talented a team. And to get them into the National Championship game? People lose sight of the fact because, “Well, they got beat badly by Miami.” Yeah, but maybe two players on that team would have started in ’95. And Miami had a very good team, but my point is that our 2002 team had Fonoti and Crouch and all that, but really it was a pretty average team. But they played hard and they played well. They were -I don’t like to use the word ‘overachievers’ because I think you can achieve up to your ability- but they achieved up to their ability, so that year we probably did about as fine a job of coaching as ever had been done at the school in my 30 years.
But somewhere along the line -whether Monte Kiffin had something to do with that?- I’ve never asked Frank. I had a 5 minute conversation when I got fired, and that was it. As a matter of fact, Frank was talking to our head coach here the other day because he was trying to help a young fellow he knew get the receivers coach job here, and he mentioned to say hello to me. Which is fine. I don’t really have any ill feelings towards him about the thing, because I don’t think man has control over those things. I think God has control over them, and I’ve always felt the head coach has the right to do whatever he wants to do.
In fairness, I expected to finish my coaching career there. I didn’t anticipate going anywhere else because I had recruited, well, a number of kids and we’d had good success on defense. We’d all had our different personalities -which a coach may or may not like- but you all know each other, so you work around the strengths and weaknesses.
But going back home to Marshall was kind of interesting in a way, since I was from West Virginia. And it’s interesting, the head coach who hired me at Marshall had been the Defensive Coordinator at Florida when we’d mauled them. And I’d done private clinics for them after that year, for two years in a row. Because we beat Florida so bad, some schools would pay for 2-day clinics and you‘d go in individually to clinic their staff. And I’d been to Kentucky, so I drove from Lexington to Huntington, which was an hour and half away or so. So I’d met Bobby and saw Bobby there a couple of times, too. So it all came together there.
Q: What was the staff dynamic? What was it like with the different personalities among the group?
GD: Well, one of the things that I think my wife says a lot and is true: the football staff (and I think any athletic staff) has an awful lot of egos. Well, our staff was definitely under the control and under the influence of Tom, and Tom was a tremendous person to work for: a very consistent individual, the most consistent person I’d ever been around. So his leadership blended together people with all different kinds of personalities, some people who weren’t particularly buddy-buddy and all that, but he still made it work.
One of the things that was helpful: we’d have a 10 minute chapel every morning for a number of years for the whole staff and you could come or not come -it was your choice- but there was a biblical theme we’d always focus on, which I think was a key factor.
And then Tom was always looking at developing people rather than firing people. As an example, there were situations with secretaries -one particular secretary I remember- when she first came there she was really raw as far as being a secretary and she was really dropping the ball as far as being a good secretary. And some people would say, ”Oh no, she’s not getting the job done. She just doesn’t have the skills or whatever. Let’s let her go.” And instead of Tom saying, “She’s not going to work,” he worked with her and she became a tremendous secretary, a tremendous person.
His approach was that way, and it was in football, too. He could look at a guy and project what he could become, not what he is right now. So he could take a guy -a kid on the team- and maybe some of us would be more judgmental and say the kid would never play, but Tom would look at him and say, “Well, if he improves here and if he improves there he might have a chance to play.” And Tom was very good that way. Tom wanted stability on the staff and he worked extremely hard, and to my knowledge ever had to fire only two coaches. And he would work very hard to keep people together; so there were different personalities or whatever. We worked around it and blended them together.
I think there is a lot of merit, a lot of benefit to having multiple personalities on staff. If it’s all one way I don’t think that’s good. For example, with Tom you knew he was the steady influence, he’d more than likely talk and coach in a civil manner, whereas others of us at times would get angry and yell sometimes like that. I think there was really a need for both types of personalities. If the whole staff was the same -not pushers and grinders- I don’t think you’d be successful, and vice versa. I’ve visited staffs where everybody’s yelling and screaming and I don’t think that they can be successful, either, because there isn’t a balance there. Almost to the point where I think if you join a staff and if everybody is pretty mellow you better not be, and vice versa.
Q: That being said, where do you think George Darlington fit in?
GD: I was the yeller at times. I would yell at kids. I would never cuss at them, but I would get on them pretty hard verbally. I was the pusher. Anyways, I was contrary to Tom as far as personalities. Same was with Charlie: a very caring guy, really very much a player’s coach. But you know, he would go off on guys. And they knew, “That’s Charlie. He’s gonna blow off steam, but he really cares for me,” and stuff like that.
And the big thing, a key for our success -with the number of players and the number of reps- was the scout team and the development of scout team players. And the fact that as coaches (contrary to what the kids perceived), we were very happy for the scout team to do well. We wanted them to do the best they could because it would expose weaknesses, it would expose to a guy, “Hey, I’ve got to go harder here. I see what the coach is saying. I can’t let that tackle hook me, because if I do there’s an open lane.” I don’t know that Nebraska will ever get back to the use of scout team players like we did for development.
I think if they ever want to be very successful they’re gonna have to, because year in and year out I don’t think you’re gonna out-recruit the Oklahomas and the Texases and the USC’s, whereas we used to either evaluate better than them and get some really good players. Well, what is the difference? We had the Jimmy Williamses of the world who were 6’, 190 and ran a 4.9, and 4 years later went as a first round draft choice because they grew and they took a growth spurt and they developed.
Plus the repetition of plays: you have two full scout teams going against your defense, 4 stations on the field at one time. We used to have coaches come in the spring and their mouths would be wide open because they couldn’t believe it. And since I’ve left I’ve tried to emulate it as much as I can, but there is so much opposition. At Marshall they just wanted the scholarship guys and they didn’t want to mess with any more of them, not as much as I would have liked. My focus would have been for everybody to get reps no matter who you were in the spring, that way they could learn, they could develop. They‘ll be a better scout team in the future if they’re relegated to scout team in the fall, because they’ll give a better look for the starters instead of standing on the sideline watching practice.
Q: When did practicing with those 4 stations begin?
GD: That had to begin in the ’60’s. I never knew that ever being different from the first day I got there. I assume it was from Coach Devaney, I‘m almost sure it was. And I always felt it was crucial, in the spring, that the poorest player on the football team got the same number of reps as the first player on the football team. Sure, he might be a scout team player, but he was better because he had to learn the defense, he had to learn the offense. So, consequently, he gave us so much of a better picture in the fall. And then it speeded up the number of reps that you could get.
You didn’t always have to draw cards of every play. If a team was an I-formation team you just called out the terminology, and I think the whole key to the stability of Nebraska to do what they did was the large number of players, the scout teamers: some who walked on and developed and started, some who became All-Americans. So that allowed Nebraska to have a record that most people really might not even have thought about.
And what is most amazing is that for 30 years we only had one loss to a team with a losing record: Iowa State. After we had won two big games against Colorado and Kansas and got tight ends hurt and all that, we went over there flat and got beat. We still tried to run the offense and, bottom line, they were a terrible team and we lost to them. But that’s the only time ever a team with a losing record beat Nebraska. I think that’s a bigger accomplishment than the National Championships.
Q: Can you tell me a little about the goal setting? Did the goals change from week to week or team to team?
GD: Sometimes it did. Although the big thing is a matter of evaluating where your team is in the summer, and then, “Hey, this is a realistic goal considering the different elements for being successful.” A lot of the goals were to be “Top 5 in the nation in this category.” There were other times the goals would change some because of the strength of your opponent. Maybe we would be playing Oklahoma and our normal goal was giving up 13 points a game, but they were a very powerful offensive team so this game 16 points is a realistic goal. So we would modify stuff.
Q: Do you think the players bought into these goals every week?
GD: Yeah, in fact they would come in on Monday and really want to know, “How many goals did we accomplish Saturday night or Saturday afternoon?”
Q: How many goals would you typically set per game?
GD: I’d say 15 to 17 through the years. We had a goal for interceptions per pass attempt, for turnovers, how many times did we give the ball to the offense?, get our offense inside of their fifty, third down efficiency, first down efficiency, no foolish penalties, penalty yardage, two or less big plays for the opponent. So we had certain goals like that.”These elements will allow you to be successful if you accomplish a percentage of them.”
Q: When did the goal-setting take place? Who birthed the setting of goals in the first place?
GD: Two different places: motivational speakers, and you’d read about it in books about the importance of goals. We couldn’t beat Oklahoma in the ’70’s and we invited a guy from Edge Incorporated in Phoenix, and he really sold us on goals. He said, “Goals give drive and energy.” So we really bought into the goal-setting after he came in sometime in the ’70’s, probably ’77 or somewhere in there.
Then we beat Oklahoma in ’78. Jeff Hansen from Sacramento was the one that made the big hit. That was another example of the officials being crooked, because prior to that last drive we had kicked off and John Ruud ran down the field on the kickoff and hit Kelly Phelps. I think he broke his face or his collar bone and he fumbled with both feet on the ground, but the official said he was down. And there was no way on earth he was down. That was Oklahoma’s best team. Then Hansen hit Billy Sims and he fumbled. They were good.
Q: George, the first Husker game I ever went to was that next week versus Missouri….
GD: We had nothing left for that. Completely spent. And they were very good. Missouri was very good, and we still had chances to win the game. And then we didn’t lose to Missouri again until 2003 with that staff when Pelini was there. We almost, obviously, should have lost in ’97.
Q: Speaking of close losses, any recollections about the ’94 Orange Bowl with Florida State and the two points?
GD: Oh yeah, I think about that a lot. The big thing relating to that game was that they were the heavy favorite, 17-point favorites, and the officials didn’t prepare because they thought it was going to be an easy game. Crazy Lee Corso, a Florida State grad, was dogging our guys in interviews, and Dick Enberg came and he was really bored that he had to come to a game instead of being out here at home in San Diego.
But the big thing was related to Lawrence Phillips on that one, because Lawrence was a freshman who never missed a practice and everything was fine, and then one December practice on a Saturday morning he didn’t show. Tom sent a student manager to the dorm to find out where he was and he wasn’t there. Well, it turned out his mother had gotten beaten up by her boyfriend in Omaha. (She had moved from Arkansas and just gotten a bachelor’s degree in computers) But anyway, we were dogged so much by everyone that Trev Alberts and the captains went in to see Tom and said, “Will you let Lawrence play? If our top two I-backs get hurt, will you let him play?” And he agreed. Their rationale was, “Coach, they’re giving us no chance, they’re dogging us every day on TV: blah, blah, blah.” And Lawrence had continued to practice and -though he had been suspended for the game- he got in in the second half and he played and he ripped ’em. So I remember that.
I also remember the foul called on Barron Miles at the end of the game. It really was a ticky-tack thing, he hit him over by the sidelines. And then missing the field goal? That fumble on the one yard line? Then we’re about to score on the runback for a touchdown and they throw the flag on the phantom clip? To the point, when Bobby Bowden came to Lincoln in the spring to speak at the FCA banquet he was very, you know, admitting that we outplayed them.
And the thing I remember about that game was the way Tom handled it after the game, because we felt our kids played as hard as they could, that’s the only focus. See, the biggest thing about Tom was he didn’t talk about or focus on winning or losing, it was always a focus on getting better this week than we were the week before. ’Cause he would say (and first we could reflect back on some of those games, like Clemson and games like that), was that we had no control over the outcome of the game. The only thing you had control over was, “How well did you play?” And so, we spent very, very little time talking about winning and losing, but he did talk a lot on playing better than we played last week and continuing to improve.
And a lot of coaches get tied into winning, winning, winning: “We’ve got to win this game.” 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. If you have that focus, I think that helps you. You’ve got to play to play, that’s what you’re focused on. Not, “What’s the score?” and stuff like that.
To be continued….
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