Anatomy of an Era: Lee Barfknecht, Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 50, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Anatomy of an Era: Lee Barfknecht, Part 2
Q: Any particular visiting press box location other than that game stand out to you? I know you’re supposed to be neutral in the press box, but was there ever any occasion where that didn’t prove to be the case?
LB: As far as other media people? No, it’s a professional atmosphere up there in the press box, it’s an office space up there. There’s no cheering in the press box. Those are Football Writers Association rules. People who are involved? If they are up there cheering they get warned once. And if they do it again they get escorted out of the building.
People I have known who‘ve come up to visit the press box during a game, they say they hate it because they say it’s quiet. People are working. You might be conversing with your fellow employees about what you’re working on, but it’s not a raucous atmosphere. It’s a quiet place of business and that’s how it’s supposed to be in the press box.
Q: Did you ever find yourself quietly, internally, hoping or cheering for a touchdown?
LB: Oh, now, no, no, no….
Q: How does a guy do that? I mean, you probably grew up a fan. How can you not secretly root for the team?
LB: Well, you’re trained to do that in Journalism School. You just cannot do that. You don’t root for the team you’re covering and you don’t root against any other team you don’t cover. You just sit there and quietly analyze the game.
Q: Just kind of bite your lip and glue your butt to your seat?
LB: It’s not even that. You just know going in that that’s part of the deal. If you’re not willing to do that, you don’t get the privilege of getting the job of covering major college football or basketball. You just have to divorce yourself from any of those feelings, and you just cover it like a news event.
Q: Wow, I’m thinking if that was me it would have been tough to do, Lee.
LB: Hey, small-town Nebraska kid? You grew up listening to games and stuff, but that’s part of what you learn when you go through Journalism School. Nebraska has one of the highest-rated journalism schools in the country year after year after year. I had great instructors, and you learned the right way to do things.
Q: What places the Nebraska journalism school so high on the list?
LB: Well, the dean used to be a guy named Neale Copple. Neale really set the tone for having a nationally renowned program that was based on good, old-fashioned journalism: working hard and getting the facts straight and being fair. There was just a tenor that was set and carried out by the instructors. It was just a good, solid baseline program that taught you the right way to do things.
Q: Is there a special sportswriter code or a credo to live by?
LB: I don’t know that there’s really anything about the way you really set yourself apart as a sportswriter. I think you just consider yourself a professional journalist. You try to be fast, but the first thing you do is: number one, be accurate, and number two, be fair, and you proceed from there.
Q: So, fast and accurate…
LB: Well, accuracy is number one, fair is number two. And then if you’re fast and first that’s great. (laughs) You’ve got to get the story right or it’s no good.
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Q: Sounds just like the game of football: it helps to be fast but accuracy matters most. (laughs) Going beyond Coach Osborne, what about the other fellows on the coaching staff?
LB: If you’re trying to put it in the context of a business book, you really think it was a credit to Coach Osborne that he knew it was important to have different personalities on his staff. And clearly there were. I mean, 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.
And I think that’s a real key to any organization like that: that you have varied people yet they can all blend their strengths and they could work together. Those guys? All those guys were memorable people. The stuff that Turner Gill brought to the table and Charlie McBride brought to the table and Milt Tenopir? Everybody had different strengths and different elements yet they all came together, they got along and they produced a quality product. The thing that sticks out to me was that Coach Osborne recognized the need to have different people and then blended them together to have a strong staff.
Q: Now, you attended some practices. Any practice occasion that stands out to you from those days?
LB: You know, just the organization and the fact they used to have -one of the unsung things that made Nebraska football good was having four practice stations running plays on four different stations every day- the repetition really helped the players progress. Football is a game of repetition and you have to run those plays over and over again to get proficient.
And I think that’s where the walk-on program comes in. You had to have those guys to fill out the roster and have enough people to do that, to have a full-blown practice situation like they wanted it. You know, there were times Charlie was yelling at people or occasions when Coach Osborne would raise his voice (that would definitely get people’s attention, because he didn’t do that very often). (laughs) Other than that, football practice is football practice.
Q: About Coach Osborne, in retrospect, how would you sum up the man and his leadership qualities and the ship he ran?
LB: Well, I think it’s clear from the results: he was a very effective leader and principled man, and did things according to the plan he’d set up. It’s hard to question the results. He always championed the student-athlete. He really cared about the players who went through his program. I’m not sure you could always say that about every other head coach you come across.
But looking at it from a 30-year lens you could see it was about the kids for him and that he was a very good teacher and coach. That’s what it was always about: it was about the kids. That was always number one for him. And even as athletic director, I think he still enjoyed interacting with the athletes and having a good experience with the student-athlete during their college experience.
Q: Do you still interview and interact with him?
LB: Oh, yeah. And it’s apparent that he’s very happy being back and involved. And I think he’s felt there were things that needed to be corrected after the Steve Pederson years, and he wanted Bo involved in getting those things fixed and turned around. There’s days he looks ten years younger just being back, involved and being on the ship. So I think he enjoys it.
Q: And during the Lawrence Phillips -I’ll call it a debacle- anything about that moment in time stand out to you from that ’95 season?
LB: Just, I think the shock of them going to Michigan State that day and Lawrence had a great game and Nebraska was the number one team in the country and Nebraska was rolling along, and to find out the details the next day as to what happened? I think it was just a jolt to everybody. I’m not sure what can be said, it was just a bad situation. Lawrence is in jail and has continued to have problems in life after that so I guess we saw the beginning of it, and I’m not sure what else there is to say.
I guess my thought was that I wanted to cover football. I didn’t want to cover courts and the legal system and things like that. That doesn’t mean we didn’t do that because that was part of the job, but I clearly would have preferred writing about the game and things on the team. I didn’t want to write about things going on in the courtrooms. And the facts of his case are what they are and that’s the way it is.
Q: Have you ever been on the Heisman Voting Committee? Any thoughts about Tommie not winning it?
LB: Yeah, I was. And I thought clearly that he should have won. I voted him first that year, and I don’t understand why the Heisman voting isn’t done until after the bowl games. He would have been the winner if that was the case, but he’s not the first guy that situation’s happened to him. Vince Young for Texas in ‘05 finished second in the balloting and he would have been number one, clearly. But that’s a part of the process.
Q: Is there any provincialism going on?
LB: No, that’s a misnomer, because the votes are split geographically equally around the country. There’s always this talk about the East Coast bias with voting and polls and all that, but the votes are distributed around the country, so there really can’t be an East Coast bias because they don’t have more votes.
Q: Thanks for pointing that out, Lee. And I have to ask, was there anyone behind the scenes who you think played a big part but never got their due? Anyone stand out?
LB: You know, we covered the program so extensively, I think we wrote a story about just about everyone who ever worked there. (laughs) I’m sure there are, but nobody really comes to mind right off the top of my head.
The coaches’ secretaries were clearly great people and did a lot of work behind the scenes, but I don’t know if I can tell you of anybody who just pops to mind. Mary Lyn was always great, she had a great sense of humor and was wonderful under stress. There were times when Mary Lyn and I had to get a meeting because Coach Osborne wanted to see me about something or I wanted to see Coach Osborne about something, so she was great to work with.
Q: How often would you need these meetings?
LB: Well, it just depended on what was going on. (laughs) It was just if special issues came up and I wanted to talk to him about them or if he had an issue with me and wanted to see me, we’d get together. We had good lines of communication. So it’s just like any kind of business relationship: just deal openly and honestly. I think that’s the best way to operate.
Q: You felt that you always had Coach’s respect and attention?
LB: Well, I tried to conduct myself in a professional way and had been in the business a long time and received some recognition for my work, so I think he respected the work that we did. I hope he did. We sure respected him and his work, so I think that was a two-way street.
Q: And in closing, about those ’90’s years, anything else stand out to you as to what made it special?
LB: Well, I just think that the fact that some of the slippage that they had in ’90 and ’91, it caused them to go back and look at everything they were doing. From recruiting to scheduling to the way they practiced to nutrition and weightlifting, everything. They went back and that’s what every good organization does. If you have slump in your sales or a slump in your production, you go back and you take a good look at what you do and try to fix it and make it better and consult with other people in their business and look at how they do things. And clearly, the results, the 60 and 3 record over a five year period, it’s clear they did things the right way.
Back in a Sunday, August 30th, 2009 edition of the World-Herald’s College Football Preview, Lee wrote about one of the keys to Nebraska’s ’90’s Football success in his article titled ‘NU walk-on program succeeds as quantity brings quality, unity’:
“So how do you explain the walk-on program’s success? What’s the “real” secret?
Hard work and commitment.
Not the sexy answer you were looking for?
Like I said, Lee’s writing was always insightful, as well as succinct.
The most interesting tidbit I heard was his mention of the myriad personalities of the football coaches: the curious mix of counselors, characters, carousers and Christians. It was a mixed bag. Were there conflicts? Sure. Was there convergence and divergence of philosophy? Sure. Was there eventual consensus, though? Thrice I say sure. Some of these fellows even rubbed their share of players the wrong way, but for each example there was evidence of another standing in the gap and having a positive and profound effect on the kid. Teamwork, in a word. Unity among diversity. Pretty sharp fellow, that Osborne, for assembling such a crew.
The Lord only knows if I’ll have a chance to confirm it (Kevin Steele did not answer requests for this project), but it was the first I’d heard of Steele’s influence on “convincing Coach Osborne to maybe have more ones versus ones in practice.” Lee added, “I think that helped set a different tempo.” That’s an understatement. To end many a practice the number-one offense was pitted against the number-one defense: a goal line stand. Can you imagine the egos, the pride, the pressure, the prowling and prodding, to shut the other guys down and hold bragging rights, if only for a day? Some championship games aren’t this intense. Maybe that’s why the Huskers had so much confidence in themselves and performed so well in those big games, as they’d already survived the many skirmishes amongst one another.
And, oh yes, you can bet I’ll be tracking down Mary Lyn Wininger, Coach Osborne’s secretary during those times. Thanks for the great lead, Lee.
Notable quote #2:
Lee Barfknecht on turning the corner to greatness: “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.”
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