Anatomy of an Era: Larry Townsend, Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 69, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch
Anatomy of an Era: Larry Townsend, Part 2
Q: Going back to what you said about knowing you were going to win because of the work ethic and everything, what percentage of that do you think came from the coaching and what percentage do you think came purely from the players and their own motivations? Can you weigh it out?
Larry Townsend: In the beginning I think it shifted. In the beginning it was kind of more from the coaches, and then eventually it just infected all of us. And then it got to a point where they didn’t even have to really do as much. I would say it started 80-20, but then it shifted to about 30-70. The players just took it all the way to the next level.
Q: So could I safely assume that because of your bonds of friendship, your unity, your focus & chemistry, that you made the coaches’ jobs a lot easier during those years?
LT: Yeah, I would think so. Because you didn’t have to tell us things twice, too much, you know what I mean? You didn’t have to tell us things too much. You only had to go over it a couple times. After that we took it and just went. You didn’t have to keep beating a dead horse with us.
But at the same time, it’s having coaches that are that good. You take all those players and all those guys, that focus, all those athletes playing at their peak, then at the same time you take all those coaches being together for 15, 17, twenty-some years at the time, they finally had gotten the level of players that they had always wished they had. All the years. I remember when they came to recruit me, they said they needed more athletes, more big guys who are athletic, “We need athletic guys.” They had gotten to a point where they had plenty talent, then they could just do what they wanted to do. It showed their perfection. I think it was due to them, definitely.
Q: They had an abundance of riches?
LT: Yes, really true.
Q: Do you have a favorite game that stands out to you?
LT: I think I like that Miami National Championship, the first one we won. It was the first we won, that was so sweet. It was like nothing else.
Q: Was it a feeling of satisfaction? Of validation?
LT: You couldn’t even explain the satisfaction, because of all those years losing to the Florida schools and then to finally be the team. I remember, the only thing I remembered of Nebraska -because I was one of those kids who was a good athlete and a good football player but I never watched football, really. I don’t watch sports much to this day, but the only game I remember was the Irving Fryar game where he dropped that ball. Wasn’t it the ’84 Orange Bowl? That’s the game I remembered! And here ten years later I’m playing the ’94 Orange Bowl and us actually winning it. I remember that from when I was a little kid, man. I was like 9 or ten years old, man. And then to think back, ‘I remember seeing this when I was a little kid growing up in California’, and then here I am part of it ten years later. How amazing is that? It was kind of cool.
Q: Any single play from your career stand out to you most?
LT: What stands out to me, I remember throwing the Gatorade on Coach Osborne after that game. That just stands out. I remember doing that. All the plays kind of mush together a little bit, but that was kind of something that was special to me. (laughs)
Q: What about the practices?
LT: I recently talked to Matt Vrzal and the other guys and they reminded me of the time I went out to practice when it was, like, negative 20 degrees. I went out to practice with my ski parka on underneath my pads. They said, “Dude, you looked like this big black bear. A big abominable snowman with pads on! Your arms were sticking straight out because you couldn’t put ‘em down because of too much padding!“
I’ll never forget, I walked on the field -and here’s this California kid, you know what I mean?- and everybody else is used to this kind of weather. I walked out there and I was so tired of being cold, and I had that big old jacket and stuff on. I’ll never forget: the whole practice -the whole team, 150 players and the coaches- even Coach Osborne laughed at me. The whole practice. And I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to be cold no more, you know? (laughing)
Q: That’s priceless. (laughs) Did you do it more than once?
LT: No, that was the only time I did that.
Q: Who knows, you could have started a trend?
LT: Yeah, the guys bring that up, “Do you remember when you wore that ski parka? Oh, my gosh!” Oh, and do you remember what the defensive line used to do to each other? Do you remember that? The spitting and all that?
Q: Are you talking about the ”girthing”?
LT: Girthing! Remember that? Oh, man. I forgot it was called that. That kind of stuff stands out, I remember that stuff.
Christian Peter puts the heat on Kansas State quarterback Chad May during the Huskers’ 17-6 win in Manhattan in 1994. (Ted Kirk)
Q: And If I recall correctly, Larry, did they call you guys “The Crazies”?
LT: Nasty, Fat, Nasty. We used to say we were “Nasty, Fat, Nasty.”
Q: Didn’t you guys have some t-shirts made up?
LT: Yeah, we had shirts made up: ‘Nasty, Fat, Nasty.’ Oh, I remember that. I wish I could find one of those shirts, they would be worth every penny. (laughs) ‘Nasty, Fat, Nasty.’ Nebraska D-Line!
Q: I was speaking to a former defensive back a short while ago and he described a game plan one time as being pretty simple: let The Crazies go after the ’em and everything else will just take care of itself. (laughs)
LT: Yes, “…then we’ll be okay.” We were led out there by Christian.
Q: Tell me about Christian.
LT: Christian was a good dude. He was a good guy but he got a bad rap a lot of the time. But he was a pretty good dude. I remember, what really impressed me about him: he’d gotten in trouble at one point in time and, I kid you not, he wasn’t supposed to go to a bar or anything like that, a pub or drink a beer or nothing. And me and Jason and Nunns and all of us, we would go out every weekend… and Christian would never go. And I used to think, ‘You know what? Wow, I probably would have snuck out sometime or other!’ He really stuck to what he was supposed to.
And I remember Christian, he was a pretty mentally strong guy. He was the kind of guy that made a whole lot of guys around him better. I’ll always remember he said this, because we had gotten in trouble with Coach McBride for not going to class or not doing something, and Coach McBride made us get up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning and he made us run. It was like negative 20 degrees or something like that and he made us run hundreds. He said, “You guys have got to run hundreds until I make you stop.” So we go to run these hundred yard dashes and Christian said, “Don’t you start that running crap.” (Because I used to be able to just run.) “Don’t you start that crap. Don’t you do that! You better stay next to me. Stay next to me!” (laughs)
But to make a long story short, he said, “You know what, Larry? You’re a better athlete than I am. You’re a better athlete; you have more talent. But you know what? I’m a hard worker.” And I’ve always remembered that, even to this day. It was really true. Christian made everybody better because he made everybody work harder. People would see how hard he was working and his intensity level raised everybody else’s. That’s real important to have, especially on a team like that. Especially in that kind of situation. It’s real important to have that.
Q: So he led by sweat?
LT: Definitely. That’s how Christian was.
Q: Christian was always pretty articulate, speaking what was on his mind, right?
LT: Oh yeah, he did that!
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Q: If I recall, Terry Connealy was usually a little more reserved…
LT: Terry was usually quiet.
Q: Until what? Somebody said that as soon as he got on the field, though, Terry got a look in his eyes that would make your blood curdle…
LT: Yeah, Terry was trippy, man. It was weird. He was like ‘no muscles’, know what I mean? No muscles or no nothing like that, but you got down to playing and he was freaking strong, he was pretty quick. He was always like that, you look at him and you’d never know it. He was a pretty good player. He was intense.
Q: Do you recall the first time running out into the stadium in front of a home crowd?
LT: Oh yeah, it was my freshman year. I was a pretty good athlete, so I had the option if I wanted to play my freshman year. So I was going to play my freshman year and everything and I went running out there and I was just like, ‘Damn! This is the real deal. This is pretty serious.’ It was just a good experience, but after that you kind of got used to it, got a little hooked on it going out there every weekend and seeing all those people all the time.
Q: You got a rush from the crowd going nuts?
LT: Oh, definitely. That was the standard.
Q: Any memorable off-field experiences?
LT: Oh man, that stuff’s all too bad, man. (laughs) That stuff always involved some girls and beer. It was usually something like that. (laughs)
Q: Was there anyone behind the scenes who really meant something to you or the team in general, who made the difference for the team?
LT: There are so many people that were so key. You had all the trainers, who were all so key to keeping that going. Dennis in the academics, he did a tremendous job. Remember George Sullivan? Sully, he was a real good guy, too. He meant a lot to the team. All those people like that, all of them together were like the glue that binds, helped keep us together and kept us on track.
Q: So it’s hard to pin one single person down?
LT: You know who really didn’t get their due, though, was Coach Solich. He was just an excellent coach, man. He produced so many incredible running backs, he was a real key figure in the offensive scheme of things. I think that he never really got his due.
Q: What are you the most proud of?
LT: I think just accomplishing something that so few teams are able to do, doing something for that state that hadn’t been done in so long. They were due that. That state loved that football team so much, it meant so much to them and to do that it meant a lot to be a part of that. It was a huge honor.
Q: You went up against Tommie in a few scrimmages. What about Tommie?
LT: He was probably one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen. Talk about someone not getting their due, it was that guy. He was a phenomenal player. He was a Michael Vick before there was a Michael Vick. He helped pave the way for guys like that. He was such a good player, and the thing I liked about Tommie was the intangible things. He wouldn’t lose. Tommie only played in a handful of games that he ever lost, from high school I think he played in one or two games that he lost. In college it was three at most. What was the same thing in all those victories? It was Tommie Frazier.
Q: What was it about him?
LT: It was one of those things where he wasn’t really that vocal, he just did everything with his play. But man, if you needed the big play you knew he was going to do it. His karma for sports was the best I’ve ever seen. (laughs) It’s like if he was falling down and he threw up a pass, it would probably get caught.
Q: Like that one to Ahman Green against Colorado?
LT: Yeah, and the thing about it was that he did it all the time. He did it so easily. You kind of just got spoiled when he was back there, the dude was that good.
I’ll never forget, after we played Miami and saw what Warren Sapp did I said to myself, ‘I want to do what he did. It’s amazing what he did.’ And I remember I broke through the O-line once in a scrimmage and I was like a half yard from Tommie, and some sweat appeared -I blinked my eye- and looked back and he had cut twice. By the time I had come to a stop he was down the field ten yards! I said, ‘Oh, my God. How are you supposed to catch that dude?’ He could run sideways and backwards as fast as he could run forward. He could do all that stuff. It was just amazing.
Q: Like catching mercury, huh?
LT: It was like catching water, trying to catch Tommie.
Q: Talking of your experiences in the professional ranks after Nebraska, did some of the conversations with your professional cohorts bring anything to light as to how unique or different Nebraska was in comparison to other programs of the time?
LT: It was just weird to see how not every school was like we were. Not everybody was that intense and that serious, had that many guys who were that motivated and that hungry and willing to do anything, you know what I mean? You talk to guys from other schools and stuff and you start to realize you came from a good place, from a special place.
Q: You almost took all that unity and focus for granted at the time?
LT: Yeah, you play with other guys from other teams and you realize it‘s not the same way.
Q: So have we missed out on anything, missed out on touching on what you feel was really important, that most fans should know about those teams?
LT: I just think the work ethic and our dedication, how devoted we were and focused we were, all those things are what made us so good. I’m just really proud to have been a part of it. And when you talk to Coach McBride tell him I’m doing very well out here in California and that I carry everything that he taught me with me yet today, and that everything that I didn’t accomplish in football, I’ve succeeded in doing later on by applying the same things I learned in football. You learn that not just in football, but in life, that you just dig down deep and you keep trying. And I’m winning now, all day long. I want him to know that.
Larry properly defined the name ‘Blackshirts’: “..serious and hard-nosed and mean and biting nails and going 120 miles an hour.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. The D-Linemen had those t-shirts printed that said something to the effect of, ‘Nasty, Fat, Nasty.’ Not that they were a gluttonous or obese group –far from it!- but it symbolized how they were more about substance than style, about attitudes than accolades, often bringing the pain at the expense of their own well-being. One image remains in my mind to this day of Christian Peter: an opposing running back had scooted for a 5 yard gain into the heart of the Husker defensive backfield where a back had cut him down. Well, the poor kid likely thought the Husker tackling would cease as he began to stumble to the ground. Wrong. Coming full steam from his rear was Christian Peter who all but bludgeoned the back of the kid’s helmet with his full force and, akin to a human Slinky, darn near compressed the kid’s spine an inch into the turf. The runner groggily got up and trotted back to his huddle, but he was never the same that day. Such was the downright viciousness and dreaded terror that Charlie’s boys would wreak. No wonder the skull and crossbones became a sign of the Blackshirt defenses, because they had you considering your mortality.
There was Larry’s, “I would say it started 80-20, but then it shifted to about 30-70. The players just took it all the way to the next level.” This statement explains why the Nebraska coaching staff is not the lone subject of this journey, but the players also, and to a vast extent. A large ownership stake was theirs, and the leadership, too. A big piece of the training leadership for those guys was the Barrabas of the Blackshirts himself, Christian Peter: “Christian made everybody better because he made everybody work harder. People would see how hard he was working and his intensity level raised everybody else’s.” I’m led to believe Nebraska wasn’t any more talented than ten other teams of the day, but oh, the work ethic, the blood, the sweat, the tears… bruises, too. It’s been said that the will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win. Big difference there. Huge. The resultant offshoot of this mindset was not merely that they were physically ready for this brand of warfare, but that they were mentally girded even more so, “It never even factored into your brain that another team would beat you or would outplay you, because we had such good work ethic.” Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, perhaps? (Latin: After this, therefore because of this) The possible cause and effect worked for the 60 & 3 era from a mental standpoint, that’s for sure.
Notable quote #2:
Larry Townsend on the staff dynamic: “It was like a big family and (Tom Osborne) was the dad. It was just kind of like that, and all of the other coaches were your uncles. So you did what they said, but T.O. was like the dad.”
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Author assumes no responsibility for interviewee errors or misstatements of fact.