Anatomy of an Era: Kent Pavelka, Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 103, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch
Anatomy of an Era: Kent Pavelka, Part 2
Q: Do you recall the very first Nebraska game you attended?
KP: No, I don’t. It was pre-Devaney, though. It was the Jennings era. I remember watching Pat Fischer play quarterback and defensive back for Nebraska. I vividly remember the old knothole days and we’d show up down there and neither end zone was completed and there might be 30,000 fans there. But I remember them not being very competitive before Devaney got there.
And I remember when he got there in ’62 and I was there for that first sellout against Missouri. I was there the year Gale Sayers peeled away from the one yard line in the south end of the stadium. I was standing 20 yards away watching him take the snap and go around left end 99 yards for a touchdown against Nebraska. I remember Pat Fischer, they tried to block a field goal or extra point, and at the snap of the ball he got up on somebody’s shoulder to try and get up to block the kick -which I think was legal then- but I don’t remember the game. I was too young to remember the first game. But I sure remember the whole journey from before Devaney all the way up until now.
Pat Fischer vs. Colorado, 1959
Q: Can you give me any insights about the coaches and their unique qualities and personalities?
KP: I felt really close to that whole staff as it evolved. From the day Tom took over, I guess even before that with Melton and those guys, I got to know them really well. I don’t know how to describe it… I don’t know that my experience was any different than the longtime voice of any other major program like that, who was around for a long time: you start to feel part of it. Those people made me feel like I was a part of it. Those guys trusted me and I think they appreciated me. And I certainly admired and appreciated them.
The obvious thing about those guys was their dedication, their work ethic and their character. All those things were things that I admired, and I guess, in retrospect, the fact that it lasted so long. We were all together all those years. I say ‘we’, and that gives you proof that I felt like I was part of it.
But as we were together all those years, you think back about every other team in the conference: they had different coaches, different AD’s, different staffs. And year after year and literally decade after decade it was the same family of people that were together in Lincoln. A few changes here or there, but nothing wholesale. By the time fifteen years went by maybe the whole staff had turned over, but it was so gradual that you didn’t think it had turned over at all. But everybody respected everybody. It was just a great experience. A great part of my life.
Q: Did you have a favorite away-game booth that you always liked to go back to? A different seat, a different height, a different view of the field? Was anything uniquely different or challenging in some of those other Big 8 stadiums?
KP: Boy, I’ve never thought about that. Oklahoma was just the worst because it was way, way too far away from the field. It was another couple levels above the level our old press box was. They looked like ants on the field. The combination of that and the outcome of too many of those trips… what’s to like, you know? And then Iowa State was just the opposite; it was way too low to the field and down too far toward one end zone, and when the ball’s on the other end of the field -the perspective that you had?- the fifteen and the ten and the five and the goal line, it was really hard to differentiate between them.
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I thought Nebraska was just about ideal. We were on the 45 yard line and about the perfect height, the perfect distance from the field. The Rose Bowl was way too far away, Oklahoma was way too far away. I wouldn’t say I had a favorite road booth, but I had a few I didn’t like very well. It made it hard.
Q: Did they move the Orange Bowl location during the time span you were announcing?
KP: All the games I did were at the old Orange Bowl.
Q: Can you describe that old Orange Bowl to me at all? From your perspective?
KP: Well, it was old and worn out, you know? I think that they tried to refurbish it, but the press box we were in and the booth we were in, it was like a ninety year-old house: unless you tear it down and redo it, the remodeling, you still know it’s a ninety-year old house. It was nothing special.
Q: If I recall, it was in a pretty shady neighborhood…
KP: Yeah, we got lost there driving around trying to find it and I suppose we were a little paranoid, and we were in some spots where we had to ask for directions and the folks weren’t very friendly with us. (laughs) We rolled the windows up, locked doors, that kind of thing, you know? (laughs)
Q: When you say ‘we,’ who else was along with you?
KP: The broadcast crew: Gary Saddlemeyer was with me, and my longtime spotter, Al Mackowizc. He was Bremser’s son-in-law, he worked the games with us for all those years. Jack Payne was with us, and our producer and engineer, too. It was colorful.
Q: Obviously, you used to do the TV show with Coach Osborne after the game, too -and that was before they invented Red Bull- so how did Osborne do it? What’s your take on the man from the way you knew him?
KP: You mean as far as ‘how could he do it because he was exhausted?’ Well, I don’t know that he was any more exhausted than I was, to tell you the truth. (laughs) Seriously. I’m serious about that. And it’s still true today. Like I told you, I’m still back doing Husker basketball, but after a game the fatigue from all that energy doesn’t hit you until quite a ways later. All the adrenaline of three, four hours at a time leaves you. I would guess he felt the same way, didn’t you? Right after the game you’re still pretty wide-eyed, you know?
Q: And then you finally put your head down on a pillow and you are OUT! (laughs)
KP: That didn’t address your question of ‘how did he do it.’ I appreciated the grind of his job, don’t get me wrong…
Q: And the character of the man? From the time you spent with him, how would you describe his unique qualities?
KP: I don’t know if there’s any description of him that hasn’t already pretty accurately defined him. He’s all those things that everybody has known for decades, including being focused and meticulous and driven, and yet all with a perspective that’s kind of incongruous with all those things it took to be so good at it. So many of these guys are good at what they do and maybe even as close to being as good as Osborne was, but so many of them at the same time weren’t able to put the job and their program into any kind of perspective with the rest of the world, so that’s what I think was unique about him then and unique about him now.
It takes a pretty driven, almost crazed personality to be wildly successful in life, including broadcasting or coaching at those highest levels. But it seems to me that so many people who achieve those highest levels kind of lose everything else in the process. That’s the surprising, the unique thing about people like Tom, and I don’t know how many people in the world who are like him, who could always take a step back from it and put it into perspective.
Q: Would you say he was a humble man or is it just a quiet nature? Sometimes people equate a calm demeanor with a lack of competitive fire, a lack of drive. It almost seemed that in his case it was just the opposite, you know?
KP: Yeah, I guess that’s what I was trying to say. How could you possibly -that’s why I say it was incongruous- he was kind of an anomaly because so many people are conditioned to think that to show passion you have to show crazed passion, you know? And he never lost that. He very, very, very seldom ever lost the ability (of having perspective) after the game was over: he went back to being Tom and getting ready for the next game.
And there was his whole thing about ‘not being too high and not being too low,’ too, because I guarantee he was a little high during the game. (laughs) But he was always able to get back to where he wanted to after the game and kept everything in perspective. That was unique to his personality. I know I’m not in control of my emotions like I’d like to be, and my perception of him was that he always was.
Q: I loved the way you put it about his passion not being a crazed passion. So let me ask you… you’re probably almost arriving in Lincoln as we talk here…
KP: I can see the stadium coming up as I’m driving right now…
Q: Super. So as we wind down here, is there anything more that should be said about Nebraska football and the process that you observed/experienced? Something behind the scenes during that era?
KP: I think it’s like anything else: Nebraska football, in the end, is a product that is consumed by the fans. And just like a person goes into a restaurant and orders a hamburger and without thinking about it grabs a ketchup bottle and puts ketchup on the hamburger: they usually don’t think about the ketchup industry. And there’s a guy who works at Heinz who’s literally had a debilitating stroke trying to compete against Hunts and making the best ketchup he could, to compete. And that’s the problem with our present generation: We don’t give much thought about the things we consume, we just kind of take it for granted. And people literally shed blood, sweat and tears over ketchup and football programs.
So yeah, you’ve got strength coaches and sports information people and people in the media who are vilified who -guess what, I can tell you from personal experience- think that what they do is important and they try to do what they do the best they can. So you have all these people behind the scenes who aren’t even a glimmer to the fans. Not only are they not an afterthought, they’re not a thought and they’re never considered for what they contribute. It takes all those people to make a bottle of ketchup or create a successful football program, and I bet Tom Osborne would be the first person to agree with that.
Q: I agree, Kent. And speaking as one of the many tiny sesame seeds on that Husker Football hamburger bun, didn’t Coach Osborne have the awesome capacity to make you feel just as important as anyone else?
KP: That’s a great leader, right there.
Q: Well Kent, I know you must go take in the spring practice… but I simply have to ask you one last question before we part: Is it true that your grandmother was kind of the model for ‘My Antonia’ by one Nebraska’s greatest authors, Willa Cather?
KP: Well, it’s not that she was ‘kind of the model for Willa Cather,’ she was THE model. My father was the youngest of thirteen children, and his mother’s name was Anna Pavelka. She was my grandmother, and she and Willa Cather were childhood friends in Cather Country there, the Red Cloud area, and the book is a fictionalized account of their relationship. Fictionalized only to the degree that Willa Cather changed names, but it’s a pretty accurate description of her life. And I think it is the story of the American pioneer, you know? I’m real proud of that.
Q: What did your grandma think of the book, if you don’t mind me asking?
KP: She died when I was six years old in 1955, I think. I do remember her and visiting, going to visit her. She lived with one of my aunts and uncles, but you don’t ask grandma when you’re five years old what she thinks of the book. I didn’t even understand the concept of the book.
And you might find this interesting: I have the copy of the book that Willa Cather gave her. My Aunt Elizabeth in Bladen had that on her coffee table in her living room all those years I was growing up, and toward the end I asked her if I could have it someday. And then when she died I got it. It’s initialed ‘W.C.’ for Willa Cather. She didn’t sign it. It’s initialed in pencil: ’W.C.’
Q: That’s it?
KP: That’s all she wrote.
“That’s all she wrote.“ That’s a line my beloved father used to quote, especially at the conclusion of a contest, a great activity, an event finally wound down to its ultimate endpoint. And so it is with this interview, the last of my quest for the great 60 & 3 Why and How. Kent’s is a fitting one, I believe, because it wraps everything into a nice, little, bundled-up mix of both fan-dom and quasi-staffer alike. Kent Pavelka is a hybrid, that’s for sure, and like any good native seed planted in the acres upon acres of Nebraska’s fertile soil, there’s surely a bountiful yield if one cultivates the gamut of husbandry skills throughout the long growing season.
For starters, this last interview shows with absolute and abundant clarity the strange and powerful sway Nebraska Football has held in eliciting the passions of its far-reaching populace. From the coaches to the players, from its staff and finally to its fans, this swift, savvy, and at times slaughterhouse game on a patch of 100 x 53 yard turf engulfs us in every conceivable emotion, in heights of dramatic arch, in types and shadows of virtue and morality, in rare displays of the heroic ideal.
Kent, in so many words, put the game’s hold on our collective spirit best when he described his childhood dream coming to fruition, his words painting powerful and power-filled pictures for those of us stranded miles away and outside Memorial Stadium’s massive, towering, gray walls each Autumn Saturday. But like the ancient walls of Jericho, he, too, brought them down, albeit with a microphone and a passion that burned for each and every devoted fan unable to make the laboring, flattened road trip down I-80 to Lincoln.
I’m a firm believer that one method of accurately pinpointing the mark of a true professional is the fact that they often make it look easy. Much like the coaches’ long hours of game-planning and the players’ tallied hours of mid-week practice, Kent’s passion also burned as he swallowed up every conceivable tidbit of information during the week, the most helpful being that from the very coaching staff itself. It’s apparent that great era resembled a family in so many ways, especially when it came to the sharing and implicit trust that all would be held in confidence, opening up the game for a more informed, eloquent delivery to the family of fans. He enriched our experience in that age of limited access.
And Kent nailed it right on the head with his, “It was the perfect storm.” To expand upon the offensive looks, to shift the paradigm of defensive football to speed and power at the expense of brutality and strength, to develop even further the performance parameters of the student-athlete, and then to finally go two, three, even four-deep with that talent, skill and all-out effort with the human chess pieces on gameday? It was unstoppable. Its thunder was just as frightening as its lightning, and if you could withstand the hail, well, then its descending, churning, digesting funnel cloud might just rip you to shreds. A perfect, powerful storm indeed.
Before moving to the summary chapter, we’ll end with Kent’s remark about the coaching staff that Tom Osborne assembled and led: “The obvious thing about those guys was their dedication, their work ethic and their character, (and) the fact that it lasted so long.” “All good things must come to an end,” said Geoffrey Chaucer in 17th century England, and the fact that it took so, so long for that great 60 & 3 staff to finally come to an end was a tribute to their loyalty, their professionalism, their community spirit, their selflessness and undeterred pursuit of recruiting, mentoring and teaching greatness. Someone made mention of it earlier, but you’d be hard-pressed in this day and age to assemble a collection of individuals as finely honed, as in tune with, and in all other ways adept at triangulating their game-planning experience, their talent evaluation & development, and their unique relational bonds with just about every personality in their cadre. They were football Renaissance men, and they, along with their leader, possessed veins burning with a passionate heat …namely scarlet-hued Nebraska Football blood.
Notable quote #2:
Kent Pavelka on the waning moments of the 1995 Nebraska team’s resounding national championship victory: “I tell you what, everything in life is fleeting. Nothing lasts forever. As remarkable and emotionally fulfilling -vicariously- as it has been the last three years for Nebraska fans, there is an element of sadness to it all… because kids like this leave.”
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Author assumes no responsibility for interviewee errors or misstatements of fact.