Anatomy of an Era: Gerry Gdowski
Excerpted from Chapter 14, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
The man of the prairie is ready for action at home or abroad, balanced by a reasonable culture and poised by an experience whose lessons he does not leave to be learned by his grandsons.
-Albert P. Brigham, Geographic Influences In American History, 1904
I happened to luck into another conversation with the rarest of birds, this one being none other than Gerry Gdowski.
A native Nebraskan who not only served as the Huskers’ starting quarterback years earlier, he also played second fiddle to Coach Osborne as a QB Coach at the genesis of the splendid 60 & 3 run. His was the connection before Turner Gill’s arrival on campus amid the NCAA’s reduction of allowable coaching staff numbers. At the time of this interview the Co-Offensive Coordinator with Frank Solich’s Ohio University Bobcats, he’s now putting his education to good use as the QB Coach at Vanderbilt University. I was interested to hear his insights from those early days.
Notable quote #1:
“Trev was a senior on that team. Him and Connealy, Raemakers, just defensively it was that crew that probably really started the mindset that you hear a lot about later.”
Question: Hey Gerry, you likely have great insight because you were both a player and then a coach at Nebraska during that renaissance.
Gerry Gdowski: Yeah, I don’t know about all that, but I’ll try. (laughs)
Q: I remember that in ’89 you were All-Big 8, set some passing records, game records for touchdowns. And then what happened?
GG: You know, I had a tryout with the Saints and then got cut. Then I actually worked for an accounting firm up in Minneapolis for close to a year before I went back in the fall of ’91 to work as a Graduate Assistant.
Q: When you joined the team again in ’91, what time of year was that?
GG: In the fall, just at the start of two-a-days. I guess when I left I didn’t anticipate coaching or think about it at that time, but once I’d gotten out and done accounting for a little while I wasn’t really happy doing it. I had the opportunity and was actually back for bowl practice for the holidays, talked to Coach Solich and Coach Young. They asked me how it was going and at that time they kind of brought up, “Hey, are you’re interested in the fall? In coaching?” That’s how I got back in.
Q: So I take it your last game as a Graduate Assistant was the Florida State, 18-16 game?
GG: That was it.
Q: Can you give me some of insight into the duties of your G.A. position those ’91-’93 years?
GG: The first year I was mainly with the quarterbacks. As a G.A. I was with the QB’s that first year, and then the couple years after that I was with the tight ends and wide receivers. I think that was the first year that they didn’t have any sort of freshman team at all, in ’91. In the past all the G.A.’s would kind of coach the freshman team.
And you know, either that year or the year before, they decided we needed to basically redshirt everybody. There was an occasional guy who played; Tommie played as a true freshman, there was the rare guy. But speaking for myself, I kind of got caught up with a few other guys in my class who played freshman ball, didn’t redshirt and became backups. And all of a sudden our fifth year came up and some of us found we ‘wasted’ a year playing freshman football, for lack of a better term. That was maybe, perhaps a big factor in what they did later. But I’m sure there were a few guys the coaches ended up getting for a fifth year that maybe they wouldn’t have in the past.
Q: A lot of the G.A.’s were former Nebraska players, who I likened to the third arm of a position coach. Would that be a good generalization?
GG: I would agree with that. And you know, it was a lot of behind-the-scenes film breakdown stuff, too. A lot of times the G.A.’s were working a week ahead as far as the breakdowns, so when you’re done with the game on Saturday the coaches want to have that ready as far as preparation. So what they want to watch and what they want to look at is done already, so you’ve kind of got to both focus on that game that week, but you’re also getting ready one game ahead on the schedule.
Q: You were looking ahead as a multi-tasker?
GG: Exactly. And it was a growing experience. Most guys who play, they don’t quite understand all that goes into the preparation, how the plan is put together and that kind of thing. So, obviously, it was a good experience.
Q: So when you came back, did you find the offense had changed much from when you were starting and playing?
GG: At that time I think it had started to change a little bit: A few more one-back type of sets, spreading it out a little bit more. You know, when I played it was pretty much a fullback in the game every play, and then as time passed it might be two tight ends and one back in the game, then maybe three or four wide receivers in the game at a time. Not a lot, but things were definitely moving a bit more in that direction.
Q: Any idea what spurred that type of change? That type of thinking?
GG: I’m not sure. Coach Osborne would have the best answer for that. But I think during the late 80’s and my time there -even the early 90’s- you went to bowl games and you played the Miamis and the Florida States and those type of people, and I think you know that’s how they hurt us, also, spreading their great athletes out in space and getting them the ball. So I think any time you see something or play against something that, “Man, that’s hard to defend or hard to handle,” when somebody does that there’s (especially in the coaching profession), there’s a lot of copy-catting, you know?
And so, I’m sure maybe that had a lot to do with it, the struggles that we had against some of those teams that maybe were a little bit faster than our team, overall. A little more athletic overall. You say, ‘Man, what are they doing, how are they getting it done while we’re having such a hard time?’ I’m sure that on both sides of the ball, playing those teams and having the coaching staffs prepare for those teams you realized the speed factor and the benefit of getting people spread out. You’d definitely take a good look at that type of stuff.
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Q: Were you involved in recruiting?
GG: Well, G.A.’s couldn’t leave campus, but once guys got on campus we did tours and took them around campus to different professors and whoever they were meeting with and that kind of stuff.
Q: Do you recall being in meetings where the focus of the recruiting was talked about?
GG: I think speed definitely became a factor.”How fast is he? Is he a track guy? What are his track times?” Certainly, at that time, you could get a guy into summer camp and time him. So, I think that certainly was a factor in recruiting. In thinking back, you can’t really say it was a turning point, but for sure, I think we got faster. How exactly that happened, I’m not sure.
One other thing I can remember during that time was maybe a guy like -the names popping into my head for some reason are Ernie Beler and Ed Stewart, guys that really were recruited as safeties and really wanted to be safeties- they became linebackers. Trev Alberts was originally recruited as a linebacker and ended up being a defensive lineman when they switched from the 3-4 to the 4-3.
Q: It reminds me of Gary Pepin with Nebraska Track. Seems he always recruited the 220 meter runner and then tried to make him into a 440 meter runner…
GG: Yup, sure. Yes, you’re right.
Q: And if I recall, you were pretty good in track, too…
GG: Oh, I got around there okay. I wouldn’t say I was a blazer…(laughs)
Q: I remember you taking off on a few runs…
GG: I didn’t get caught very often. (laughs) And the first year I was back was actually the last year they were allowed 5 GA’s. And then they went to 2. And you know, the guy I worked with the whole time there was Bill Busch, who was actually on Callahan’s staff. The other guys, Bryan Carpenter I was with, and Brian Mohnsen. When they went to 2 GA’s, they stuck around and kind of became the video guys.
Q: Gerry, do you think having Carp & Moose as the video guys made much of a difference at that time?
GG: Yeah, they did. I’d have a hard time saying what other schools did at that time, but today it’s kind of pretty much universal. And at that time there were limits to what you could do as far as keeping track of defense and plays they were running, down and distance-wise, what they were blitzing, that sort of thing. You were kind of limited -technology-wise- with what you could do.
Q: So first you’re a player and then you‘re on the other side sitting in the coaches meetings. What stuck out to you most the way their business was conducted?
GG: You know, the one thing that really sticks out to me was -it must have been the ’93 season, that loss to Florida State- was the “Refuse to Lose”. I don’t know who came up with it exactly, but I do remember being in a staff meeting. I remember needing somebody to come up with that, and it became kind of an important slogan for the year. Somebody in the staff room, I don’t know if there were strength coaches there at the time, but in the staff meeting it was discussed. And it started to appear on t-shirts shortly thereafter. And I’m not 100% sure, but I’m almost 80% sure it was Turner Gill came up with that. I’m not sure, but that might have been the case.
Obviously, for a long time winning 9 games, 10 games, but when you still struggled at times with certain teams in certain situations it was just about creating a different mindset, as far as, “We’re not gonna lose.” And I think you look at that Florida State game, there were obviously some breaks went against us, but still everybody kept fighting until literally 1 second left. And we almost got it done.
Q: I remember seeing you on the sideline from the video of that game. What sticks out about that game to you?
GG: I really think that strong-willed attitude was there at that point. I think some people had probably talked about it for a long time, “Uh oh, we’re playing Miami again, we’re playing Florida State again.” I think that feeling around the country, around the state, was that we couldn’t compete with those teams. But that was probably the game where there was a change of the attitude, where the guys believed that they could compete and beat them, and that was certainly the catalyst of what happened the next couple years.
And this team had read it and heard it all. It was no different as to what the rest of the country thought about that game, too. I can’t remember, but weren’t we like 2 touchdown underdogs in that game? But for whatever reason the attitude and the mindset was different. It really stands out to me. Even being on the sideline late in the game you felt like something was going to happen, that we were going to win that game.
Q: Anything else that contributed to that mindset throughout the year?
GG: You can probably point to a few guys that started it. Tommie, obviously, came in and was probably one of the most competitive guys that I’ve been around. It’s hard to quantify, but just the way he played. He was just one of those guys that you kind of believed he was going to figure out a way to get something done to win.
And then Trev (Alberts) was a senior on that team. Him and (Terry) Connealy, (Kevin) Raemakers, just defensively it was that crew that probably really started the mindset that you hear a lot about later with the (Christian & Jason) Peters and (Grant) Wistroms. Those type of guys, I think they really kind of started that whole mindset that, “Hey, we’re gonna get it done.”
Q: It was just you and Coach Osborne working with the QB’s your first year?
GG: Yes, and then the next year was when Turner Gill came back. That’s when we went from 5 GA’s to 2. The way they had the staff divided, I went to the receivers the next year, helping Ron Brown.
Q: What was it like coaching along with Coach Osborne? Any bits of wisdom you picked up?
GG: The biggest thing to me (and I think people complained about it at times), was just the way he approached every game. It really didn’t matter who you were playing: he got ready the same way, approached the game the same way, did the same things in meetings, in practice. Obviously, as a player you do, you knew the difference...
Q: In what way?
GG: For a #1 vs. #2 game. At the time in the Big 8 the other teams weren’t very good for a while. I mean, Oklahoma’s good years were when I was playing, but the other teams weren’t very good. Colorado started to come up there toward the end of the ’80’s. But the way Coach Osborne approached it in meetings and at practice, it was the same, it was very even-keeled, “This is what we have to get done, this is our approach, this is what we’re gonna do.” And that’s the way it was done.
Q: Was there an emphasis on being very positive with the kids?
GG: Yeah, for the most part it was very positive. Different coaches had their different styles. Now Charlie (McBride) had a little different style. (laughs) I think Coach Osborne’s approach was positive in how he approached things, and really it just carried over. I worked for Tony Samuel for a long time and I work for Frank now, and I think it’s really carried over to their approach and it’s affected my approach, too.
Q: Your time as a player, as well as G.A., were there any precepts that stand out to this day?
GG: That was probably the main one: just in your everyday approach, you try to be the same. And to be positive -not beat the kids down- try to be as positive as you can and really try to teach as much as anything. Take your role as a teacher and not a drill sergeant-type of approach.
Q: Do you have a moment you’re probably most proud of as a G.A.?
GG: You know, I think we won 3 Big 8 championships. To do that 3 times in a row, plus the trips to South Beach, you know, that’s probably the big thing. Because obviously, especially at Nebraska at the time, you want to win them all and win the national championships, but you’ve got to win your conference, and that was always the number one goal, and so to get that done was wonderful.
Q: Was that focus on a National Championship new or was it always there?
GG: I think it was always there. I don’t know after the Florida State game, if things changed for the next few years, but we always had that focus while I was there, that we were going to win the Big 8 and we’ll see what happens from there.
Q: Anything stick out about the culture or organization itself as being extra special or significant?
GG: It’s hard, but going back to it, again, I think something changed in that leading up to that Florida State loss. Again, it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it was, but all of a sudden there were a lot better players, too. (laughs) That was definitely a part of it, probably a very big part of it, but I think there was maybe a little bit of a different attitude during that season, they began to think that, “Hey, we can beat anybody.”
Q: Do you think that ending the freshman program made any difference at all?
GG: Very little. You know, the coaches didn’t have that much to do with the freshman team at the time. There were some guys who maybe would have played some freshman ball, but they ended up having them for the ’94 and ’95 teams where maybe they wouldn’t have had them in previous years, you know? You might be able to get a roster and figure that out.
Q: Any memorable sideline moments from those years?
GG: Not really, because I was up in the box. At the time the Offensive GA’s would go up in the end zone and we’d draw up the defense on cards and send them down to Osborne after each series. I do remember that first game and how fast it was going, how hard it was trying to get all 11 guys drawn on the card at the time. It was a challenge. I’m sure Coach Osborne -those first few series- was trying to decipher what the heck we were writing. (laughs)
Gerry got me to thinking about the old freshman team and how the new recruits would get some serious reps and “coaching up” by the young bucks on staff, but I can see how its falling by the wayside may have bought the team an extra year of seasoned talent for the ’95 year, especially. With the NCAA mandating that coaching staffs be more limited in number (an absolute shame when you look at it from an opportunity standpoint for young, up-and-coming coaches), those freshmen were abruptly thrown into the fire against the varsity group and made to sink or swim after the daily poundings they would receive. (I haven’t found any evidence that there was a higher attrition rate due to this change.) In other words, throwing them onto the scout team depth chart matured them at a much faster rate than in the past, the speed of the college game being what it is. I don’t think the loss of the freshman team can be discounted as to its effect in future years, another confirmation that Nebraska Football began to ‘stop doing’ some things, willingly or not.
As experienced a Husker signal-caller as you could find in those days, Gerry also made note of the subtle changes coming about from a philosophical standpoint with the new looks that T.O. and his offensive coaching staff began to dream up. These shifts left many a defensive coordinator scratching his head, for not only did the opposing team typically have only one week to prepare for the Huskers’ option game but they now had to find a way to deal with the multiplicity of sets by which Huskers would run the plays out of. It was simply a numbers game. The volume of possibilities and variety of attacks enabled by these new spread-like offensive sets meant the greater one’s chances of springing a big play when a defender was out of position, even by a mere yard . This was a case of doing one thing and doing it so well (the option game) that Offensive Coordinator Tom Osborne felt comfortable adding new wrinkles without concern for a drop in execution.
Finally, he mentioned Turner Gill’s coming up with the ’93 team slogan, ‘We Refuse To Lose.’ (Soon thereafter college basketball coach John Calipari of the University of Massachusetts copyrighted “Refuse to Lose” and has earned over six figures as a result). It was when he mentioned the t-shirts, though, that made me laugh. As was stated in the last interview, t-shirts were the equivalent of subliminal, indoctrinal bumper stickers for the players. Worn for workouts or just lounging around the study hall or dorm room, every single player every single day was inundated with the Unity, Belief, Respect & We Refuse to Lose message. Even while doing their laundry the players were reminded of the new positive thinkin’ in Lincoln.
Notable quote #2:
Gerry Gdowski on Head Coach Tom Osborne’s game preparation: “It really didn’t matter who you were playing, he got ready the same way, approached the game the same way, did the same things in meetings, in practice.”
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