Anatomy of an Era: George Darlington, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 15, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
George Darlington, Part 3
Q: The ’93 to the ’97 years, was there one year the staff did a better job than others?
GD: Well, I think we just coached like we always coached. Like I mentioned, the ’95 team was the best that ever played college football; second-team guys went on and became NFL players. The other year that was tough was the ’99 year. Because we were the best team in the country in ’99, arguably, and we fumbled more than any team in the country and we lost one game because we fumbled all the time. It was just that we had a bunch of fumblers. (laughs) That big I-back was so muscular, Dan Alexander, and Buckhalter tried to put the ball over the goal line and he fumbled against Texas. And we had a couple games where the first play of the game we fumbled, against A&M and we shut them out, and VandenBosch blocked a field goal, and the very next week against Kansas State we fumbled on the first play of the game, and again blocked a field goal. I mean, our defensive guys didn’t even get upset. (laughs) They just looked at it and said, “Hey, our offense is our offense: they’re gonna fumble it all the time, so we’ve got to be good enough.” We were very good in ’99, and it was a team that we should have competed for the national championship. We beat Texas in the Big 12 championship game, and their only score was when they picked up a fumble and ran it in.
Q: Let me ask you, Coach, looking at your statistics comparing the 5-2 to the 4-3, was that something you normally would have done? Or was it a freakish pet project of yours from out of the blue?
GD: No. When I became the secondary coach I always kept statistics of run and pass on all of our fronts and coverages, so I just carried that through with the 4-3 stuff as a contrast to the 3-4 stuff.
Q: So the Oklahoma game was when we went to the substitution package full-time, the 4-3?
GD: We had played the 4-3 during the year some, mostly passing situations. If we had third down and long we’d put in the 4-3.
Q: I keep going back to Ed Stewart, was he the younger player?
GD: He was a younger player, and it’s good you mention Eddie. Because of the 4-3 he got to start, and we used him as an example: “Here we have Ed Stewart sitting on his butt. And he’s a very good player, and we need to get him on the field.”
Q: He was kind of a tweener, right?
GD: Yeah, he was very upset when we moved him from the secondary to linebacker, but he didn’t have great foot speed compared to the secondary guys…
Q: The Barron Mileses, the Toby Wrights, the John Reeces…
GD: Exactly. We had some kids who were simply more athletic. Consequently he was the guy, the poster boy. He was so much faster and more athletic than the middle guard would have been.
Q: Any comments about the Unity Council?
GD: I think it was a tremendous tool. Like Tom verbalized it, the players got to know the skinny on what had happened so that you didn’t have the problems which you normally would have. Whereas, let’s say you and I both get into trouble a week apart and you’re a starter and I’m a scrub, and you get off and I get punished. Well, the logical thing was, “Well, if you’re the starter, obviously they’re going to cut you slack. And if I’m the scrub…?” and so, “Screw him.”” Well, with the Unity Council some kid would come in and they would know exactly what he was in there for. And later on somebody would say, “Well, why did he get that punishment?” The Unity Representative would say, “Well, he got that because he did this, this and this. And the other guy got off because of this, which is very minor.” Consequently -and more positively- it helped the team become more like owners of a football team. Because they would come up with suggestions and they could go to Tom and say, “We think we need to do this and that.” So there were positives to the players having ownership and it developed more and more, because the Unity Council were our leaders. And it kept you from having to put out a bunch of fires with intra-team squabbling. And if you went before the Unity Council you had a chance to say what you had to say. Plus, players were usually harder on their peers than we would be, too.
Q: Did that free you up to do more coaching, then?
GD: Yes, it was very helpful. If a guy missed four classes and we told him, “Hey, you’ve got to go to class.” So if he got dinged or was about ready to lose a game it was cut and dried. Here was a rule (we didn’t have a whole bunch of them), but it was black and white, “You’re not supposed to skip class. If you skipped class that’s a point (you’ve earned).”
Q: Any other changes or ways to distill what created that 60-3 record over the course of those awesome five years?
GD: Well, I think it was the talent we recruited. We were fortunate to get people who could run. We always tried to emphasize speed, but we did a better job of recruiting speed.
Q: Like getting a guy like Lawrence Phillips? Everyone knows that’s a tragic story, and yet many of the former teammates said he was the nicest guy, the hardest working, a great teammate…
GD: The situation started with his mother kicking him out of the house when he was in junior high school. He got home one day, the story goes, and she’s all beaten up. Her boyfriend had beat her up. Lawrence attacks the boyfriend and his mother throws him out of the house. That’s how he ended up in a youth home.
Q: So he loved his mother -the only parent he knows- and in defending her he ends up getting the short end of the stick? Penalized for defending her? That has to play horrible tricks with a kid’s head…
GD: He has about a year and a half before getting out of jail. I’ve testified for him. I’m trying to think when it was. It was the final sentencing, to try and get him off the three strike thing. It was sad. He’s done some things he shouldn’t have, and he hasn’t handled his temper well.
But if you talked to the coaches who coached him at Barcelona they would tell you exactly what you just said. They were friends of mine and they called me before drafting him, asking what I thought. I said, ‘Well, if he hasn’t been drinking (’cause I’d heard he’d been drinking) he’ll be the best player you guys have. The hardest worker and all that.’ Well, 6-7 weeks later they call me after he’d scored three touchdowns in the second half and said “Everything you said is true. He’s the hardest worker.” In fact, one of the people who testified at his hearing was a teammate from Barcelona who flew all the way down to San Diego from Seattle to testify for him.
Q: You recruited him, didn’t you?
GD: Yeah, and I called him and just got a letter from him the other day. I’ve tried in the last year or so to write every week, but I’ve missed a time or two. But it’s a tough deal.
Yeah, he and Roger Craig were two of the hardest-working backs we ever had. Lawrence was extremely unselfish as a player. It never came out of his mouth that he demanded the ball, not once. Whether you handed him the ball once or thirty times, it didn’t make any difference. He had a lot of positive qualities. The thing that happened this last incident? I won’t bore you with the story, but it was a tough deal.
Q: I think it was a huge credit to the coaching staff that you guys didn’t just kick him off the team…
GD: Yeah, and he was home in bed the night he got in trouble. A girl supposedly called and said, “Do you know where your ex-girlfriend is?” Somebody came and drove him over to Scott Frost’s apartment. They got into it. She, I think, slapped him and he drug her down the stairs. It was obviously a bad scene but it didn’t have to happen. I mean, if a girl doesn’t call then he’s still just in bed sleeping. He didn’t go out that night, he just got back from the Michigan State game, so it didn’t have to happen had that girl not called him.
Q: Any other guys stand out that you coached or recruited?
GD: Geez, I was blessed with so many good players. I could start rattling off names… and you’re gonna miss some people. There were a number of good leaders: Mike Brown a little bit later, was a really good leader. Mike Minter was an excellent leader, Barron Miles was well respected. Obviously the Peters. Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom were the epitome of leadership during that time. They had a lot of the fringe players who weren’t hard workers and they would either -through fear or whatever- make them work harder. (laughs)
I’m not real good at keeping in touch and that’s a negative for me. I run into guys sometimes while traveling. But I don’t have a good, continual relationship with a lot of players, which I really am sorry about in some respects, because it would be nice to get together with them and all that. The ones that I get together with most are my first high school kids from the ’60’s. Toby Wright’s over in Arizona and I’ve helped him coach some guys that he’s training. John Reece was real good kid, and Michael Booker.
Q: Anybody behind the scenes who made a big impact?
GD: Well, the FCA guys, I’m trying to think who there was. Matt Penland was one of the guys who counseled some of the guys. We were blessed to have a lot of good people that had certain talents that lent to our success. So many different people who made a difference…
Q: Do you still get approached by Husker fans?
GD: Oh yeah, in the airports all the time. Nebraska fans are a unique group of people. They’ll sometimes recognize me and come up and thank me, go out of their way to say nice things, you know? You appreciate it -you’re a little ways embarrassed by it- but the passion of the people for Nebraska football is pretty evident. Last year when they sold out for the Spring Game and they were scalping tickets? That shows you the tremendous number of people that singularly care about the football program at Nebraska. That’s just awesome. It’s one thing to pay 5 or 10 bucks for a ticket, but it’s another to be selling a practice game ticket on e-bay for $100 bucks. That’s just ridiculous. (laughs)
Q: Do you recall your first incident in moving to Nebraska, as far as grasping the culture… the people?
GD: One of the things was, in San Jose there was a newspaper man. He was working at one of the small papers in the Bay Area up there and he was a dyed-in-the-wool Nebraska fan. He’d gone to all of the games and the National Championships, so I learned more about Nebraska from him before I ever set foot in Omaha or Lincoln. His was the first “Big Red Room” I ever saw. He had stuff everywhere. I’d seen them play on television, of course, with the earlier National Championships and all that stuff.
Q: It probably never occurred to you that you’d be coaching there a year or two later?
GD: Oh yeah, ’cause after laying on my couch watching the Notre Dame-Nebraska game -in fact, out on a day like this in San Jose, I took my son and we hiked and came back and watched the game- and I remember vaguely when they interviewed a tall, red-headed guy who was going to be the new coach. And I find a few weeks later I was working for him. (laughs) We were blessed.
Tom has gotten tremendous accolades and he deserved them. And the players? The program? Once it got going, I think the biggest thing for us was that we’d probably have won one more championship earlier had we jumped on the bandwagon by recruiting by position and being accountable. By that I mean, I had a lot more influence on what defensive backs were recruited the later years than the way it was before at other positions. You know, you might have an area of the country that you recruit and I might have an area… and you might recruit a pretty good player regardless of position. But maybe we missed players had we evaluated them by position to a greater extent. And once we started doing that we started getting a little bit better players and turned 9 wins into twelve wins.
Q: Was there anyone behind that movement or did it just happen out of the blue?
GD: Well, I think it was probably discussions and arguments about it that kind of got it to be that way.
Q: And speaking of, in your book you mention that some staffs install the game plan together while others rely only on the head coach making the decisions. Did everyone have input at Nebraska? Was it a Brain Trust?
GD: Yeah, our staff? Everyone had input. Offense? I don’t know. Tom maybe had more, but everyone had input. Defense? Very much. It was a lot of input by everyone.
Q: Would you do anything differently if you had a chance to do it all over?
GD: Oh, I think you always would have liked to spend more individual time with players. Sometimes you couldn’t because of all the rules, recruiting and stuff like that.
Q: That, and flu shots in ’96, right?
GD: Oh yeah. Here you have a wealthy, successful program, and for want of a flu shot, arguably, you lose the National Championship.
Q: How many guys were sick that week of the first Big 12 Championship game?
GD: I think about 30. A lot of starters. That previous game against Colorado it was about 32 degrees & damp, and we had kids that day who played two or three plays against Texas and hardly remember playing. They were really gone. Because Texas was not a great team at that time. I mean, they were okay, but nobody was saying that we weren’t better than Texas. It was too bad, because I’ve often said that if we had it to do over we should have taken them and put them in the health center and not even practiced them until Thursday.
Q: Quarantined ’em, huh?
GD: Well, just try to get well. Because we’d already had all these games. And yes, your game plan may not have been quite as sophisticated, but at least you’d have a chance to have guys to play. It was sad. Makes me want to get a flu shot…
Nothing to sneeze at, this interview was a real eye-opener for me. George Darlington was a mad scientist of sorts, always tinkering outside the box from a defensive standpoint. His and Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride’s meetings and greaseboard ‘chat sessions’ are of legend, and George’s nefariously creative schemes were oftentimes too convoluted and intricate for his young defensive backs to absorb. Even so, it makes perfect sense that he would have been the one to ‘crack the code’ and push for a switch to the 4-3 defense as the fashion trend in future Blackshirt successes.
As I drove away from the campus interview it hit home just how thin a line the difference between victory and defeat is at this level. Can you imagine how a few $10 flu shots could have turned the course of history? For all intents and purposes, it would not be a far stretch to say that the great 60 & 3 could have been an astounding, mind-boggling, & heretofore undreamed-of 61 & 2, with 4 national championships in 5 years. Would more books have been written about these teams as a result? We’ll never know. But at least we have this one, in your hands, to tell the tale. I hope you’re enjoying it.
There were so many issues he touched on, but I found it telling how the staff would secretly root for the scout team to ‘bring it’ to the top teams in every week’s practices. In doing so, avenues for correction, for feedback, for teachable moments consistently arose. Touching upon the use of negative motivation once more, you can be sure that ‘getting owned’ by a scout teamer had serious ramification’s on a starter’s psyche and drove him to seek constant improvement in technique as well as effort. Much as the Oklahoma matchups of old made Nebraska a better football program and gave them a goal of proficiency to shoot for, the scout teamers were mini-Sooners in so many respects, serving as a whetstone for sharpening the Husker saw.
Then George addressed the oft-misused term ‘overachievers.’ “I don’t like to use the word ‘overachievers’ because I think you can achieve up to your ability.” I’ve often thought this myself, for who can truly know what a person is capable of achieving? Even the billion-dollar business of the NFL -with their expansive hierarchy of accumulated football knowledge and assorted draftniks- rarely gets things 100 percent right. When it comes to talent evaluation and predicting future upside of a high school kid, Lord only knows. I can see how a lifelong collegiate football coach would have that point of view, for he’d witnessed time and again the stellar High School All-American with a promising future sputter out like a dud firecracker whereas a walk-on out of Page or Papillion or a tweener out of Pasadena bloomed into gameday brilliance. It’s a difficult task to measure the heart behind the heft, and a good measure of heart was required to attain the coveted Blackshirt designation of those times, much less George’s approval.
Notable quote #2:
George Darlington on Tom Osborne’s messaging to the players: “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.”
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