Anatomy of an Era: Mark “Zeke” Cisco Part 1

Categories: Football No Place
Mark Cisco #45 and the '93 Defensive Back Group hamming it up

Excerpted from Chapter 7, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1                                                          

Don’t forget us, but don’t mope. Make lots of new friends. You’ll never be twenty again. Take a chorus girl out to supper – a pretty one, mind!  

-Nebraska author & Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather, A Lost Lady, Courtesy of the Willa Cather Trust

It took a major pair of cajones -especially if you were a Michigan kid- to turn your back on Bo in those days. Coach Bo Schembechler, that is. Topping it off, doing so to walk on at the University of Nebraska was enough to get you committed to a pysch ward. But that’s exactly what Mark “Zeke” Cisco did, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a story as timely and unique as my conversation with him reveals here. Another coach’s son who broke the mold of the old Big 10 region and instead followed the chorus line, “Go West, young man…” he grew in stature and found his football heart’s delight at Nebraska, as well as a cute little Husker cheerleader to call his bride. Zeke’s playing days came to a close at the very beginning of the great 60 & 3 era, so I was interested in his opinions and experiences just as that grand crescendo began to find its footings.

Notable quote #1:

“You couldn’t take a break, because there was always somebody standing there waiting. And I took a lot of pride in always being the guy standing there waiting.”

Mark “Zeke“ Cisco Part 1

Walk-on, Strong Safety, Monroe, Michigan (Jefferson)

Where are they now? Byron Center, Michigan, Coach

Question: Hey, Zeke. How’s that Husker cheerleader of yours treating you these days?

MC: Yeah, I started dating Angie in April of ’93. About that time David Noonan made the fateful phone call for me. (laughs) He called her up and said, “I know somebody who wants to meet you.” Tell you what, I wanted to put the phone right through his face, but it worked out alright. (laughs)

Q: You’re coaching now?

MC: Yeah, I’m the head football coach at Byron Center, Michigan, which is about nine miles south of Grand Rapids. I grew up in Monroe, Michigan, the east side between Detroit and Toledo. Factory heaven.

And after I was done playing I coached at Nebraska Wesleyan for Steve Stanard, coaching with Morgan Gregory and Bruce Moore. That was kind of our connection there. And then I left Nebraska and came back to Michigan. I didn’t want to move every four years for the rest of my life. I came back to Michigan where my dad is still a high school coach here, and it wasn’t such a bad deal.

Q: When was your first fall at NU?

MC: The fall of ’89. You know, my first impression was that I’d landed in church, to be honest with you. Coming from a Rust Belt city where it was ‘you did what you were told to do and you didn’t question it’, it was tough. Your parents had tough jobs, and the last thing they wanted to hear was how mean your coach was. So, right, wrong or indifferent, where I grew up it was, ‘you just shut up and listen and you do what he asks you to do.’ It didn’t matter why the coach asked you to do something, you just did it that way.

So when I first got out to Nebraska and Coach Osborne it was a culture shock, because it was just so, I don’t know… friendly, to be honest. There was just quieter expectations that were asked of you and you were still held accountable for that. That was the first thing, it just really shocked me. That was the opposite of the type of environment I’d grown up in athletically.

Q: When you say ‘quiet expectations’, how did you come to pick up on those expectations?

MC: Living in the home of a head coach and knowing Coach Bo Schembechler personally, and being in the Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler area, that’s what I understood college football to be like. It was fire and brimstone. But Nebraska was the Midwest. The true Midwest, not the ‘Midwest’ I grew up in. Being around Coach Osborne and the staff, Coach McBride was more of a rust belt guy, but just the whole atmosphere shocked me. How could you be good like this, you know?

Q: It was ‘passively’ good?

MC: Yeah, but the expectation was the same and the results were the same. Without question, it was good players with great resolve who represented the university appropriately. For the most part, it was far and few between where some players got into trouble.

Q: Who was the first coach you had a lot of interaction with?

MC: The first guy I had a lot of interaction with was probably Dave Schramm, and I think he’s the recruiting coordinator and running backs coach at Utah now. He was a guy who played with my brother at Cornell of Iowa, of all places.

That’s what really started the ball rolling for me. I was already signed, sealed and delivered to Michigan. I had my roommate and had my tutor and the whole deal set up. And Coach Osborne called and my mom answered… and she read him the riot act, not knowing who he was. (laughs) He called my dad the next morning at 5:45 Eastern time and we were in Lincoln the next week.

I did have a little bit of a connection -Coach McBride had recruited Lawrence Cooley out of my home town, and the guy who I coach with right now, his younger brother played for Tony Samuel at Western Michigan. He was nose guard and a boxer, so he piqued Tony’s interest. So Coach Schramm and Coach Samuel knew where I was from, knew the area, and obviously Coach McBride & Lawrence Cooley, so we had that connection.

Q: You were really set to attend Michigan?

MC: Yes. I had my roommate set up and I had my tutor and the whole deal.

Q: What turned you?

MC: Just the visit alone. We made it in the spring time, it was early spring. The whole atmosphere, it was a family-oriented atmosphere. It was so different than what I was used to, and it was still a historic program I didn’t know much about. People here in Michigan still don’t know about it. I don’t know, I can’t put a finger on it, but the general interest was, “You’re going to come here, you’re going to get a fair opportunity, and we’re gonna take care of you.” That was enough.

Q: Was a certain player your chaperone?

MC: I met Matt Penland on my visit. He was visiting there, and then he stayed for that summer as a walk-on out of Florida. And I thought to myself, ‘Holy cow, this is a walk-on out of Florida?’ He’d skipped his own all-star game and stayed in Lincoln to work out, and he was the first guy I met in the weight room. And the first guys that I roomed with were Will Shields and Roderick Washington for fall camp. So that was a little bit of a culture shock for me, too.

And then Thanksgiving of my freshman year, we’re still in freshman football and I really wanted to go home -but the dorms close at noon and my flight didn’t leave ’til 4 pm, so I didn’t have anywhere to go. So I dug through the phone book and I called David Noonan, because I knew he lived in town, and I stayed there for a while, and his parents really became my parents. They ended up giving me keys to their home and they really took care of me out there. It was my home away from home. They took me out on my birthday, they took me out on his dad’s birthday. I became part of their family. I visit him every time I go back. I was in his wedding. I talk to him on the phone quite often.

Q: What was your parents’ first impression of Nebraska? I’m sure your father was probably a lifelong Michigan fan?

MC: My dad played at Michigan State, got hurt, and played at Toledo. He played for Coach Devaney, actually, at Michigan State. He said, “You’ve got to go meet him. He’ll know who you are.” And I’m thinking ‘there’s no way’. So we walk in to meet him and Bob Devaney says, “Am I gonna have to take you to class like I had to take your father to class?” And we all just started laughing. So that was part of that first visit. And just to see a guy who my dad played for in 1954, I thought, ‘Man, this is a special place.’

Memorial Stadium was nice. It was a lot like Ohio State’s stadium is, but wasn’t as big as it was. I wasn’t blown away by all that stuff just because I was around it since my dad was a coach. I knew Lloyd Carr since I was 6 years old, so I was always around those type of people and places a lot. So the facilities weren’t shocking, but what blew me away was how nice the people were: the people in the grocery store, the people who waved at you, the people who held doors open for you. Either I was an immature guy or just somebody who wasn’t very nice. (laughs)

Q: You played defense, so you were probably nasty to begin with…(laughing)

MC: I was a quarterback in high school!  I walked on. I was a walk-on at Michigan, too. It was just that I wanted to take a shot. I knew if it didn’t work out I could always go home.

Q: What did your friends and family members say about your going to Nebraska? That was probably the furthest thing from their mind, no?

MC: Oh, definitely. They were, “You’re going where?!” My dad was really excited because he knew about the tradition and the history, and thought it was neat that I was at least gonna take a chance. My friends said, “You can’t make it. You’re not gonna make it. You’ll come home with your tail between your legs.” And to be quite honest, that was probably part of the reason I stayed.

I remember sitting in my dorm room on my birthday, on August 23rd my freshman year. I came back from practice and there were no gifts at my door, no phone calls waiting for me. The State Fair was going on and I remember sitting there looking out the window of my dorm room in Schramm Hall. And I remember thinking, ‘Well, either I’m going home now or I’m staying here right now.’  And you know, they took an interest in some crappy walk-on from Michigan.

Q: You were a defensive back from the get go?

MC: From the get go. I played free safety on the freshman team. I was actually captain the first game there. We had a bunch of guys like Chad Hunter out of Texas, Marvin Callies out of Houston was a quarterback, Vernon Powell out of East St. Louis. But the thing that helped me out was nobody could catch punts but David Seizys and I. It was, “Hey, did you do any of this in high school?” And I was, ‘Yeah’, so, “Would you like to do it?” and I’m, ‘Sure. What the heck,’ and doors kind of opened.

And Matt Penland and I, when we first got to camp, we both made a deal that no matter what happened, that we would finish. If we could finish, if we could still walk… we shook hands and made a deal right there on the spot, that we were going to finish our careers at Nebraska no matter what. Unfortunately, his injuries stopped him, but he ended up the Nebraska Team Chaplain.

Q: When it came time to move from the freshman team and over to South Stadium, what role did you play on the team?

MC: At the end of that freshman season I practiced two weeks with the varsity. There was, I think, six of us: Mike Heins, Matt Penland, Lance Grey, and I believe Greg Fletcher, and Kevin Raemakers. Those are the guys that I knew, and then that spring I moved to strong safety and Reggie Cooper was banged up -like a forty-year old guy with bad knees in a 22-year old body- and then Curtis Cotton got injured, so here I stood after 5 games of spring practice and I got an opportunity to play. And linebacker Pat Tyrance kind of talked me through the whole deal, “You’ll be okay, you’ll survive.”

To be honest, things really fell my way. There were a lot better players there that left, there were better players there, athletically, that played in front of me, and I didn’t play in front of anybody who was better than me. I played behind a lot of great people, without question, but things just fell my way. I didn’t officially redshirt until the Friday night before we played Baylor that next fall, so I never spent a lot of time on the scout team. Maybe a couple of practices here or there. I was always just kind of a gold shirt. Just wavering in that area the whole time. So I never had to really suffer through the beatings with Richard Bell and Nate Turner and Morgan Gregory beating the crap out of me for a couple of weeks.

Q: Let me ask you, Zeke, for the uninitiated, what was a ‘gold shirt’?

MC: We were backups but we weren’t scout teamers. We were the second group. You know the Blackshirts? Well, we were the guys behind them, and the Goldshirts were like the threes and fours. And somehow I managed to stay in that void.

Q: So I’m thinking your position coach was Coach Darlington. Tell me about Coach D.

MC: History. He told stories. He used to say things like, “Back in 1983 we played Auburn and we did this to Bo Jackson.” And of course, being around guys like Marvin Sanders and Tyrone Byrd, well, as soon as he said that we would go dig the videotape out. And sure enough it was 8 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, and sure enough that play would happen, exactly.

Q: He wasn’t just pulling your leg?

MC: Oh no, he was a true historian of the game, without question. So yeah, that was the biggest thing that stuck me about him. Every time we tried to call his bluff he had the answer. You might want to call him now, because after college signing day, that’s when he’ll really get busy. When you’re not with the big boys, after signing day is when you pick up the scraps. That’s when you pick up guys like us who wander around. (laughs)


Tom Osborne and Frank Solich (Unknown/Uncredited)


Q: What was your main contribution?

MC: Boy, I don’t know. I was lucky enough to hang around and letter for three years. The guy I ended up living with was Troy Branch -who had no white guys in his high school- living with a white guy who had no black guys in his high school, from opposite ends of the world. But the one thing he used to say -and we’ve talked about this many times- it was just that you couldn’t ever take a break from going hard, because there was always somebody standing there waiting. And I took a lot of pride in always being the guy standing there waiting. There was Tyrone Byrd and Reggie and Steve Carmer, and we were there and we were ready and we were treated great.

And the things you guys did for us in the weight room? You took time with us. That’s how I knew I could compete, that’s how I knew I could get out on the field. So I got a chance to return punts, a guy who could do this or that. I was always waving my hand to go out there, even if it was just to be in a tackle on the field. And you know, maybe that was the coach’s son in me, but I knew my role. I knew where I belonged. I wasn’t bitter about it. I was really happy with the opportunity I got. I was pretty happy, to be honest with you.

Q: What are the most proud of?

MC: Surviving? (laughs) Lettering. You know, when I first got the notice that I’d lettered I about cried, to be honest with you. It just blew me away. There was just so many good people there athletically. I remember walking from the athletic office over to the bookstore, thinking, “Geez, I can’t believe this. This is really something.” To be able to do that for three years was huge for me, to step across that big, fat, white line on the field.

Like most people inside the Berlin Wall at that time, you had to get across that sucker, you had to find a way to get out there on the field. And I just absolutely refused to give in. And it never went my way, but that was okay. All these people were just, ”Hey, just keep doing this, keep doing that,” and that was awesome.

I participated in three championship teams, I went to bowl games, I traveled to Japan, I made 150 great friends that if something happened to me and I picked up the phone? I could call anyone and they‘d pick up the phone and they’d say, “What can I do to help?”

Q: Who do you keep in touch with?

MC: With Troy Branch, with David Noonan, Mike Heins, Ken Mehlin, both stars from out of state and walk-ons from in-state. Guys whose families, like the Heins family -when I couldn’t go home for spring break they made me work on the farm, but they fed me and they took care of me- and the Roger Anderson’s did the same thing. Those are people I’ve remained relatively close to. I talk to Gerald Armstrong, Doug Colman, who’s coaching (in Dallas for the Cowboys).

Q: After that ’90 season ended on a sour note, it seemed like things started turning around. Do you recall a vibe?

MC: I remember winter conditioning that year. It was pretty rough, winter conditioning was, and right before spring practice we had a full team meeting and we had a players-only meeting where you could stand up and say what you had to say. And I think that turned out to be about 3 hours long, and there were a lot of people speaking from the heart, whether it was good or bad, saying what they had to say, challenging some things that happened. We had some great players on that team, we really did. Look at all the guys that got drafted off that defense, guys who took me in that were great guys. We just fell apart at the end of that previous year.

And that was when the development of the Unity Council that came about. And I think that was really Coach Osborne and the rest of them: Coach Tenopir, Coach Brown, Coach Samuel, Coach McBride, putting it in our hands. They were like, “Okay, you complained, now here’s your opportunity. Well, now we’re giving you a voice.” And I really think that created a sense of trust, maybe, between players and coaches, a sense of ownership and a little bit of trust. It wasn’t something that was a drastic change, it wasn’t anything that you were going to see, but I think that started the ball rolling a little bit.

You know John Parrella, Kevin Raemakers in that group, the thing they said was, “Hey, give us a little ownership. Give us a little control, we won’t let you down.” And they did a great job with it. And players held players accountable. You know, I read Jason Peter’s book last spring and he talked a lot about players holding players accountable. And you didn’t dare give up on those guys and you didn’t dare get in trouble at that point. Nobody wanted to go sit in front of Coach Osborne. Whether you were 18 or 23, no one wanted to go sit there and say, ‘Geez, Coach, I let you down. I’m sorry.’ He just had the ultimate trust in you that you were going to do the right thing. And I don’t know if that group in ’90 felt that way. But that was a big impetus for the whole deal.

Q: What kind of interaction did you have with Coach McBride?

MC: You know, him screaming at me most of the time. “You freaking DB’s, you can’t catch a damn ball!” Chasing me back to the huddle when he got a chance.

But I remember talking to Adrian Karsten from ESPN before we played Colorado and it was just freezing in the stadium. And he said, “Wow, you guys are pretty tough out here in half-shirts.” And I said, ‘Yeah, but now we’re going inside in 15 minutes while the offense has to come out here and handle the ball.’ And he says, “Well, how come?” I said, ‘So Coach McBride can have his way with us while Coach Osborne is occupied out on the field.’ (laughs)

Then, of course, getting better players helped as we went along. You didn’t come to Lincoln to lay out in the sun or have girls all around. I remember when Troy Branch hosted Kevin Carter -who ended up playing for the Rams- on his recruiting visit, and I think the temperature was minus 13, and he was just at Florida State the week before. And what were we gonna tell the guy, “It’s great here”? It’s so cold the snot in your nose freezes!  It just got to the point that those teammates of mine were the kind of guys we were going to find. And Coach McBride’s favorite comment was, “Does your heart pump blood or Kool-aid?” He used to always ask that. Sometimes you questioned yourself. It was a whole mindset.

The other guys like Terry Conneally, Christian Peter -I mean, he grew up 10 years in the 5 years he was there- Ryan Terwilliger, Mike Minter, Tyrone Williams, all those guys. And then on offense it was the same scheme but different names, they just took ownership of it.

Q: I’m sure you mixed it up with Ed Stewart and the guys, too?

MC: Sure, sure, since I was a DB. I remember Kevin Steele came to the meeting room one day and he said, “We need a WILL linebacker. We’re running low. We’re running out of bodies. Does anybody want to come?”  All of us were like, “I don’t want to play for that guy.” And Ed, he was a tweener athletically at that point, so it was a good move for him.

Q: Ed didn’t come along very willingly though, did he?

MC: No, but I think people said, “Look, you’re not going to play in the secondary, now. You’re not good enough. But you can play here, we think you can play.”

Q: I remember one time a bunch of guys on the defense made up some shirts that said, “Hey, my name is Ed, too!” Do you remember that? What was that about?

MC: That’s right. That was the linebackers. Oh yeah, I remember. And I had the inside scoop, because I used to go bowling with Troy and Phil Ellis and Mike Anderson, those guys were my closest friends.

That was a shot at Kevin Steele. I know he had to smile a little bit, but I’m sure it stung. They all came in the first day of practice wearing those shirts. It was just Coach Steele. We’re talking about Coach Steele, a guy so neat that he wrote boilerplate on the chalkboard that looked like he typed it. He was so anal it wasn’t funny. He probably still is, I don’t know. He was a great technician. I mean, a lot of guys didn’t like him, but to a man if you want to teach somebody how to play linebacker he was the man. I’m not sure Doug Colman might have him on speed dial. Steele’d be the right guy to call to teach a kid how to play.

Q: Why wouldn’t some guys like him?

MC: He just wasn’t a real friendly guy. I mean, if you passed him in the hallway he wouldn’t even acknowledge your existence.

But it’s funny, me being a special teams guy? We’d argue with him. I was hard-headed enough to actually argue with him, which got me nowhere. (laughs) I can remember him chasing me off the field at UCLA, screaming at me, “That’s your block!” and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know that, as well as 60,000 people here and everybody else on TV.’  Here I am, some scrubby walk-on and he’s chasing me. We had a lot of times like that. He was just an interesting guy. He was a neat fellow first and then a good coach, very good at that part of the game. I played on the punt return team, a little on the kickoff team, enough to travel here and there. Some weeks I did, some weeks I didn’t.

Q: Any one play stick out more than other?

MC: Probably the first time I got to play in the UCLA game, just because being from Big 10 country that field was the Mecca, that was the Rose Bowl. I remember running around the field like a little kid that Friday when we got there, just like a knuckle-head. I remember the first play I played in that game. I almost threw up, I was so excited. And I had family there in L.A. That, to me, was something really special. It was a punt return. I was on the punt return team. I think I even lined up wrong. I remember Matt Turman making that road trip, because we were short at quarterback and they were asking guys, “Could anybody play QB?” ’Cause he was a receiver.

Q: That was Lawrence Phillips’ coming out party?

MC: Right, ’cause Calvin Jones had been beaten up in the first game against North Texas, and then I think we played Texas Tech next, maybe we went out there to play UCLA the next week. That was something to remember. He was the man. There’s something to be said for playing guys in their hometown. Lou Holtz was the master at it. He played all the guys when he was at South Carolina who were from Ohio. So when they played Ohio State in the bowl game they had a great game.

To be continued….

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Photo Credits : Unknown Original Sources/Updates Welcomed


Paul Koch