Anatomy of an Era: Lee Barfknecht, Part 1
Excerpted from Chapter 50, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
I don’t agree with everything they report, but in general find (reporters) to be people who do their homework and try to be fair. I can honestly say that there are very few sports reporters, local or national, that I don’t like and get along with reasonably well.
-Tom Osborne, On Solid Ground
“The longest way round is usually the shortest way home, and the one truly reliable shortcut in writing is to choose words that are strong and surefooted to carry readers on their way” say Strunk & White in 1935’s classic The Elements of Style. Carrying readers on their way at the Omaha World-Herald for a good 30-plus years is Lee Barfknecht, another scribe known for his ever-present finger on the pulse of Nebraska Athletics. We shared quite a few bus trips over the years down to Kansas City for the annual Big 8 Conference Basketball Tournament and I’ve always respected his warm manner, probing intellect, and prose of substance.
As you can surmise from our time with Mike Babcock earlier, I feel it’s necessary to provide a little background on these guys for greater depth of understanding into not only the viewpoint from which they wrote, but also their mind’s eye back when they were simply young fans of Husker Football. Strong and surefooted the Husker beat writers had to be, because before the internet era fans near and far hung on their every word.
Surely you’ve heard the old riddle about the three colors of every newspaper, right? If not, here’s the answer: They’re black and white and read all over. Well, Lee was all over the Big Red, so let’s see if he has something worthy to share…
Notable quote #1:
“There were guys who were very straight-laced and religious and there were other guys on the staff who liked to go out and have a good time. You had some loud guys and some quiet guys, and you had some big story-tellers and some other guys who just kind of did things by example.”
Question: Hey Lee, how are you doing?
Lee Barfknecht: Good. It’s a little early out on your end of the world, isn’t it?
Q: Well, what do they say, ”The early bird gets the interview?” Or something like that.
LB: There you go. (laughs)
Q: And life, in general, is treating you well?
LB: Not too bad. I’m healthy and employed. That’s about all I ask for anymore. (laughs)
Q: For this project I’m seeking insight into all aspects of the ’90’s Husker football teams, so I wanted to get your impressions, ideas, insights and opinions, especially since you were always on the periphery. So tell me, I recall you used to follow along with the basketball team at the time, too. Were you perpetually doing double-duty?
LB: Yeah, I covered both football and basketball, so there was a little bit of crossover; pretty much going full blast from the start of August until the end of March, so that’s how I liked it.
Q: Where did you grow up?
LB: I grew up in Superior, Nebraska, a small town near the Kansas border in central Nebraska. I got a Regents Scholarship to go the University of Nebraska and went to Journalism School there and had an internship at the World-Herald my last summer of college, and when I graduated they hired me. And it’s been 30 years since.
Q: Did you originally want to be a sportswriter?
LB: My Dad passed away when I was 8 years old and my mom took a job at the weekly newspaper in town, and at the end of the school day when I couldn’t find a football or basketball game to get into I’d go down to the newspaper shop and hang around ’til she got off work. I guess I kind of got ‘ink in my blood’ that way, I guess. That’s kind of how I got started.
Q: Did you always see yourself as wanting to be sportswriter?
LB: Not necessarily. I’d always read the sports page growing up and, you know, paid attention to the guys who wrote at the World-Herald and the Journal-Star. I don’t know that I necessarily wanted to be a sportswriter, but I knew I was interested in the business. And it dovetailed with my interests that way, so it kind of led in that direction.
Q: What year did you first start working for the World-Herald?
LB: My summer internship was the summer of ’79, and my actual first day of work was the first of January, 1980.
Q: Wow, you jumped right into some pretty good years of Nebraska football, then?
LB: Yeah. (laughs) That’s for sure.
Q: Any peculiar experiences when you first started covering the beat?
LB: You know, I was just kind of getting used to the rhythm and the routine. Coach Osborne and his staff were great people to work with.
And we’d occasionally bump heads with things I’d write that they didn’t want me to find out or write about, but at the end of the day it was all done cordially and was a good business relationship. And there were times we had to agree to disagree, but it was never a problem. People just did their work and we respected each other for what each other had to do, so that was the best part of it.
Q: You studied in Lincoln. Did you do anything for the Daily Nebraskan at that time?
LB: Yeah, I worked for the Daily Nebraskan for two years, did a little football and basketball and a little bit of everything. I worked in the sports department of the Daily Nebraskan.
Q: You said that sometimes you’d butt heads. Any particular situations you recall?
LB: Oh, I remember. You know, in the late ’80’s there was a lot of talk about Coach Osborne, getting criticism about his offense being behind the times or being kind of stodgy and running too much, and after one of the bowl games there were some of the players that were kind of grumbling about it. I quoted them anonymously and Coach Osborne didn’t like that very well, and he wrote me a letter and let me know that.
Q: Wrote you a letter?
LB: Oh yeah, (laughs) I’ve got a couple envelopes full of correspondence we’ve had through the years. And like I said, there were times we had to agree to disagree on certain things and he had certain things he wanted to get across and I had things I wanted to get across. That’s kind of the give-and-take of the business.
Q: So, it’s 1991: bring me up to speed after the first dozen years of covering the beat. Any changes or metamorphoses coming about during that time that caught your eye heading into those ’90’s seasons?
LB: Probably in the ’80’s, I don’t know if there was anything that really struck me of any consequence, but when you examine the period from ’90 to ’93, I think that’s when they really evaluated what they were doing. I think the thing that was clear to me was that Coach Osborne and his staff were ready to honestly evaluate their program and see what they were doing. I mean, they were still winning nine games a year, but they weren’t playing at the upper level of the top ten teams. They were struggling a little bit and the speed issue was clearly going on: they looked at their recruiting, they looked at the style of play, the teams they were playing, they looked at their practices.
When Kevin Steele came on I think he may have had a hand in convincing Coach Osborne to maybe have more ones-versus-ones in practice. I think that helped set a different tempo. They looked at every single thing they were doing. Even though this was a veteran staff and they had year after year after year success, they weren’t afraid to go back and honestly look at what they were doing. The result was that you go on deeper into the ’90’s and you could tell it was a valuable process for them.
Q: Indeed. Any articles written that you wish you could have taken back?
LB: Oh, sure… (pause) you know, I don’t know. It is the speed of daily journalism: you do the best you can with the information you have at the time. And if you find out something more later? You go back to that and revisit that.
And you always think you could write -when you have time to go back you figure there’s something you could have written better if you could have done one more interview or something like that, and you always try to be fast- but the first thing you try to do is be accurate and fair. And if you adhere to those principles, you just go on about your business.
Q: Now, am I correct in assuming the World-Herald has the largest circulation of any newspaper in Nebraska?
LB: Yeah, clearly. Our circulation actually is larger than all the newspapers in the state combined.
Q: Looking at how you perceived your job, what would you say your aim was? To entertain? Inform? Set policy? What sway do you feel you’ve held?
LB: Well, the baseline part of my job as the football beat writer was to be the fans’ representative inside the program. The people who have intense interest in Nebraska football can go to the games but they couldn’t go to practice and they couldn’t know the players and be around the coaches, and a lot of times I tried to put myself in the fans’ shoes.
Like, if they were leaving the game? If there were four buddies leaving the game and driving home they’d be talking about the game, saying, “I wonder why they did that?” or “Did you see that?” I tried to think in those terms and tried to answer those questions for the readers. I think that’s as clearly as I can state what my purpose was. You tried to break news, you tried to explain things, tried to put things in context, just tried to basically answer those questions people might have about the program.
Q: And the average fan, what would you say is or was the biggest misconception about Nebraska football? Any glaring ones?
LB: You know, sometimes the interest is so intense and there’s a certain percentage of people that are just blindly loyal to it. And it wasn’t like we were going around prying open doors and looking for dirt, but at the same time if there was something -an issue going on with the program- we tried to honestly address it and let people know that every organization has its warts, that not everything is perfect.
And you’d get some nasty letters (and now e-mails and things like that). If you write some story that isn’t glowingly positive about the program they say that you’re trying to tear it down. But that was never the issue: we were just trying to cover what we saw. And I think, all in all, the Nebraska football fan is a highly educated fan and really knows and pays attention to what is going on.
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Q: From your perspective, how would you say the outside media, the national media was? Did they have a decent grasp or a rather poor grasp of the program, specifically pointing to the Lawrence Philips years?
LB: You know, I don’t think you can generalize. I think it boiled down to the individual person who was writing for whatever organization that came in.
But in the same way, I wouldn’t want to be painted with a wide brush like that. I wouldn’t want to paint with a widespread swath about what was or wasn’t going on. There were some national writers who came into Lincoln, did their homework, talked to the right people and did excellent work. There were other people that didn’t do their job or didn’t do it in the way I would have done it, and therefore came up with what I thought were stories that weren’t as complete or as accurate as they should have been. I think it just came down to the person who was doing it.
Q: So do you have a favorite interview or postgame moment that stands out to you?
LB: Wow, let’s see. There’s so much, it’s hard to pluck one out. After games, always talking to guys like Broderick Thomas or Johnny Mitchell or the Peter brothers, those guys were great. They always spoke their mind and had things to say.
And really, the high-intensity games when the Colorado-Nebraska series was heating up, they were interesting times. The Nebraska-Oklahoma series, too. Not just one. It’s kind of hard to nail one down.
Q: And obviously, when it’s game time you were up in the press box?
Q: Was there ever a time during a game when you weren’t up in the press box?
LB: No, that was our office away from home.
Q: Do you have a game that was extra-special to you?
LB: You know, I’d have to say that whole ’93 season when they took on the motto, “Refuse to Lose.” You know, it wasn’t the most talented team Nebraska ever had -talent-wise, by any means- but it just seemed like it was that group of guys that was gonna take the program and said, “Look, we’re gonna change things a little bit.” That was the year they changed the defense a little bit and the guys just kind of bonded, and I think that was a real turning-point season.
And even though they lost the bowl game I think the way they lost the game to Florida State that year set the stage for their run the next five years. It showed and proved to those guys that the things they were doing were the right things to be really good. And it gave them the hunger to go on and prove that Nebraska football was back among the elite. I guess if I have a soft spot in my heart for any team, it’s that ’93 team.
Q: I’ve got to tell you, I was just getting out of my diapers in the ’70 and ’71 years, but I have to say the Florida State ’94 game had all the elements to be the greatest college football game ever.
LB: You could make that argument. I won’t disagree with you on that. I know some people would argue with you, but I understand where you’re coming from. That was an amazing game, you know, Nebraska being such a huge underdog.
I remember in the press box that night, the national media was talking about how Florida State was going to win by four or five touchdowns. They were thinking they were just wasting their time being there and all that. I think that season, and especially that game, was the jumping-off point for Nebraska joining and getting back into the elite.
Q: Any names stand out to you from that team?
LB: You know, Trev Alberts was clearly quite a leader on that team. Some of the guys that didn’t have the big names, guys that you don’t hear about too much? Troy Branch was on that team and Kevin Ramaekers was involved there, and clearly Tommie Frazier early in his career had become a force on the team by then, you know? It was just a bunch of guys that had that look in their eye: “We’ve been kicked around a little bit and we’re not going to take it anymore.” They took it upon themselves to really energize the program.
To be continued….
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