Anatomy of an Era: Matt Vrzal, Part 1
Excerpted from Chapter 26, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
“Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even.”
-Horace, Odes. Book II
Matt Vrzal, investor & entrepreneur, has forever been a buy & holder of Cornhusker Class A shares. Perhaps today he uses the technical analysis tools of Bollinger Bands and candlesticks and all that other high tech-hoopla, but I have a feeling that he also goes by what he knows. Joining the Nebraska squad as it was breaking out of its 1990 bear market, his prudent investment of time, money, sweat and blood at the age of 18 years paid off handsomely in the student-athlete experience, as he now continues as owner of Piezon’s Pizzeria in Omaha.
The twenty-first century’s most well-known investor/advisor also lives in Omaha, and he, too, is a Husker fan who goes with what he knows when it comes to building a portfolio. Warren Buffet is fond of a little game that he introduces to various business school classes concerning investing acumen, and I believe it gives crucial insight into the intangibles of success -be they football or investments or otherwise. On the subject of the great stock-picker, Author Roger Lowenstein wrote in Buffet: The Making Of An American Capitalist, “(Warren) said (investing) did not require formal education or even a high IQ. What mattered was temperament.” Mr. Buffet sometimes poses this question to young students he engages, asking, “From this roomful of classmates, whom would you most likely choose to invest your money?” Lowenstein goes on to write, “The students would start to scrutinize one another intently. They weren’t looking for the smartest, Buffet would observe, but for someone with the intangibles: energy, discipline, integrity, instinct.” Matt -or ‘Verz’ as he is affectionately called- brought those same qualities of energy, discipline, integrity, and instinct –not to mention, humor- to the Cornhusker squads. Let’s listen in as he serves up a slice along with a hearty side-helping of Husker heart.
Notable quote #1:
“(Bryan) Bailey said, ‘Well, you’re no longer national champs.’ And we’re like, ‘What do you mean? Yes we are.’ And he’s like, ‘Nope. It’s over. Now you’re trying to defend your national championship. This is a new deal.’ It may not have registered as much as the time-on-the-clock thing, but we thought at that moment, ‘Hey, he’s right! We’re not anymore. He’s right!’ ”
Walk-on, Center, Grand Island, Nebraska
Where are they now? Omaha, Nebraska, Wealth Advisor/Entrepreneur
Question: Let me ask you, Matt: when was your first fall camp?
Matt Vrzal: Fall of ’92.
Q: What was your first impression of those first days?
MV: Well, I walked on. And it’s actually documented in my high school yearbook where a friend wrote, “I don’t know why someone would go to college and pay to play football.” (laughs) It was probably one of the best, most initially intimidating things I’d ever been a part of, because for all my life, it was all I knew: from Saturdays to that really long stretch of bowl heartbreaks.
I remember my father and watching the ’84 Orange Bowl game at a friend’s house. Everybody was having a good time and my old man went to grab an adult beverage. He sat down without opening it and they were getting ready to go for two, and he said, “We got this, we’re gonna win. All these years of hard work is gonna pay off.” Then Turner Gill rolls out and throws the ball and it gets tipped and gets knocked down. And an unopened can of beer -my father, in his hand- crushed it! There was beer shooting out, and at the time I was sitting there and thought, ‘Wow!’ Then later on when I was in high school and I thought I was really strong I tried doing it with a can of Coke, and I couldn’t do it! I thought, ‘If it means that much to people, it must really be special. I want to be a part of that and play whatever role I can play.’ It was, at the beginning, unbelievably intimidating, but by the end I could say it will be like my home for the rest of my life.
Q: Any of the coaches make an impression on you right away?
MV: I had gone to the football camps so I had met a lot of the coaches and knew them. And maybe it’s my smart aleck nature, but Boyd (Epley) was always a trip to me. Because he was always worried about Boyd. I don’t know how he was to work with, but he was always like Jimmy Johnson: not a hair out of place. (laughs) And he was always flexing. I walked by him one day in the weightroom and said ‘Do you ever breathe? Do you ever fully exhale and just let it out?’ He just smiled and said, “Verz, when you’re in as good a shape as I am, it never goes out.” I was like ‘O-kayyy….’ (laughs)
And Coach Osborne, it took me probably a year. I knew what color his shoes were, but finally after about a year I could tell you what color his eyes were. We would meet while coming down the same hallway and I’d just look at his feet. And the guy was amazing: he knows your name, he knows everybody’s name. He’s like “Verz?” and I’m like, ‘Adidas size 11, how are you doing?’ (laughs) It was just nice to be in the presence of him.
Q: Any teammates you befriended right away?
MV: You know, for some reason, everybody for the most part -and I mean nothing bad, because we knew Tommie was kind of on a different level- but everybody in our recruiting class kind of clicked. Ben Rutz was a great buddy of mine right out of the gate, (Chris) Dishman, (Kory) Mikos, (Adam) Treu, (Jeff) Ogard, (Scott) Saltsman, we kind of had that bond. We knew by looking at each other that we weren’t the most athletic guys around, but were gonna have some fun and beat some people and win some games. It was just great camaraderie.
And I was lucky I had Phil Ellis, who I played with at Grand Island, he kind of showed me the ropes. The first time I met Aaron Graham I thought he was as dick. He was just Graham. But once you get to know him, he’s fine. I still talk to a lot of those guys. I often block out an hour a day and just talk to those guys: Clinton Childs, Damon Benning, Johnny Vedral.
Q: So you show up in ’92 and there was no more freshman team. Were you working with Milt from the get-go?
MV: Yep. Him and Coach Young, yeah.
Q: Can you describe that experience? Your impressions of the coaches?
MV: Well, when I came in I got to know Ogard pretty well, and Dishman and Mikos, (because we played together in the Shrine Bowl), and when we came in we had freshman two-a-days before all the older guys came in. And for some reason the system Milt had devised just clicked with me. We’d put three or four plays in every day, and I would have them ready to go before the practice started. And he’d ask what the center does and I’d know. And then he’d ask what the guard does and I’d know. So that made me feel good. The system wasn’t gonna be so confusing to me that I couldn’t keep up, but his style and his demeanor about things, it was just what I was used to coming from high school where Ken Fischer was my high school coach. So I knew it was discipline, it was “Yes, Sir. No, Sir.”, it was “hustle to everything and do the best you can all the time.” So in that aspect it worked out well. And having a great group of guys made it all that more fun.
Q: What about Coach Tenopir’s coaching style?
MV: He was intense. You would go through some classroom stuff and you would find out what you were going over that day in practice, what plays you were gonna install, and it was just technique. And every day you knew what you were gonna do. In the end, that footwork, it really paid off. I go on (Matt) Hoskinson and (Joel) Makovicka’s radio show every now and then, and one week a guy called in and said “No offense, but you guys were never in that really great of shape.” And I said, “I was in shape!” (laughs) He was saying we were fat, and I was, ”Hey, we were fat, but we had really good feet, we were strong, and we could move. At the end of the day an offensive lineman only has to be fast for 10 yards. If we’re having to run 30, 40, 50 yards we’ve gone way too far, other than to celebrate. (laughs) You better be high-fiving somebody.” You learned technique and the technique translated into the games.
The whole staff was just so great at preparing for the game. You’d get to a game and there wouldn’t be anything that you hadn’t seen multiple times in practice. The amount of preparation that the coaches put in, we just had supreme confidence going into the games, especially the ’95 team. I was a second teamer, but there were games where we were pretty sure and said, “Hey, let’s start the second team and go at it. We can win.”
Q: I heard there was a time where the second string started the second half while a bunch of the starting offensive linemen bought some hotdogs and were eating them on the sideline?
MV: Yeah, that was Wiegert. That was against Pacific. That was a Zach-ism, they played in the first series of the second half. But yes, he was trying to buy hotdogs. (laughs)
Q: What about Coach Young?
MV: If ever there were two polar opposites from a personal demeanor standpoint, there was Coach Tenopir and Coach Young. Coach Young was just so laid back and talked so slow and quiet. You know, if you got him fired up you knew something was really, really wrong. But again, another guy -with the passing schemes that we ran?- he knew them inside and out. It was good because with lineman, you have so many linemen, you try to get everybody reps, and it was nice to have a pass station and a run station, even in your individual sessions. So half would go with both coaches and you would learn both sides. Just the attention to detail: new blitz packages, new personnel, Coach Young probably knew personnel better than anybody. Coach Young was just so laid back (laughs) and had that slow way of talking. Despite those mannerisms he was a great coach.
Q: Were you a town kid or farm kid?
MV: I lived in town in Grand Island. My grandma owned a farm up by Norfolk, in fact she still does.
Q: What about the grading, the feedback process?
MV: Okay, there was 1 point for the mental aspect of the game, “Did you do your assignment correctly?” There was one point for the physical part, “Did you execute the block as determined?” And that was it. A 2 point grading scale. If you didn’t do any of them you got a zero, if you knew where you were going but didn’t get there you got a one, if you did them both well you got a two. That’s how it went. Then you have an average. And an average for the game was a 1.98, something close to that. Then he’d (Tenopir) tally pancakes in another column. Those were a separate monster.
Q: Sort of like a cherry on top?
MV: Yeah, you had your overall score, then you had your pancake total.
Q: Were there any particular types of motivational methods? Rah-rah? Or just job focused?
MV: Usually they’d do that when you went through your warm ups, they’d bring you up and Coach would say, “I love all of ya.” Then the last thing they’d say was, “The hay’s in the barn.” Essentially, “Let’s go to work now. Let’s just go do it.” With that group of guys it was just a mentality, a mindset. We knew what we did in practice, we knew we probably worked harder than anybody else we played against. You could sit there and worry about it, and ‘Oh gosh, did we do everything to get ready?’ But with our staff, to have that peace of mind, you knew your position, you knew they didn’t outwork us, they didn’t out-gameplan us. They might have more talent than us, but they wouldn’t beat us.
Q: Any other motivations for you or for your teammates of the time? I know its hard staying ‘up’ for a whole season, week after week…
MV: For me, being a Nebraska kid and getting a chance to kind of know, just to maybe look at it instead of, “Hey, we won. We won the game again.” I’d always talk to the guys from Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas, wherever. I’d say, ‘Hey, look at the people, look at the fans…’ I remember my parents and Wistrom’s parents tailgated together, and we’d walk over to the tailgate and I’d say, ‘Look at the people. Look what it’s done for these people. Look outside yourself and just think about it: This is Nebraska, this is important to the people. This is all we have. We don’t have pro teams, we don’t have major metropolises. We have this, and you guys are part of the reason this state has so much pride in itself.’ At the end of the day we hang our hat on a few things, and one is Nebraska football. And I think a lot of the Nebraska guys had the same mentality, just that sense of pride. “We’re winning, people feel pretty good about themselves.” Sometimes you’d have 40,000 people at an away game, like at Kansas one time. Eighty percent of the people were Nebraska people. That was part of the reason we were able to win so many games, that pride factor it brought to the people.
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Q: So Matt, what was your last game?
MV: Virginia Tech, Orange Bowl. ’97 Orange Bowl to the ’96 season.
Q: Had it not been for the flu virus versus Texas for the Big 12 Championship game, how would you have rated that ’96 team compared to the previous two?
MV: I think the one thing that my class probably did lack was a vocal leader. You had a lot of guys like Jared Tomich, who would always lead by example. He was gonna go out and he knew, we knew that he was gonna get double-teamed, but we also knew it was gonna free up Wistrom, it was gonna free up Kelsay, it was gonna free up Jason Peter. So maybe that one vocal leader, that one guy you could look at. (And I’m not calling out Jared or anything like that, don’t get me wrong. That wasn’t his demeanor.) But we just didn’t have that Christian Peter who was going to get up and give a rah-rah speech before the game. You know, maybe that. That would have been what was lacking.
Q: Anything about developing team unity? What stands out to you?
MV: You know, the big thing for me that at times gets overlooked? You had a lot of Nebraska guys. And maybe not even that, but Nebraska fans. You can get guys from out of state and you’d ask them, ‘Why did you come here?’, and they’d say, “We had a great tradition, great history.” I’d say, ‘But did you ever cheer for the team?’ “Uh-uh, no, it’s not my area.” But you had those Midwestern guys. The majority of the Pipeline -outside of Stai- were Nebraska/Midwestern kids. (And you pretty much imported your skill positions, something Nebraska just has to do because Nebraska high school just doesn’t have that speed yet.) But the guys in the machine were Nebraska kids. On the defensive side you had Phil Ellis at linebacker, and Mike Anderson before him.
It was almost a mentality for us where we just said, “That’s enough,” for those 7 or 8 years we’d watch our team’s butts get kicked in the bowl games, “We’re gonna win the thing.” It was just that mentality. As I said before, everybody was on that page. It was just that feeling like we all said, “Hey, that’s enough. We have the best staff, we have the best work ethic, we have the best fans. Let’s do it. No more being scared.” And the very scary part about it was the ’93 Orange Bowl against Florida State, there are a lot of things that should have turned out differently in that game. And then the transition in ’96, with Scott Frost taking over at quarterback? We had a couple of freak things happen that really prevented us from just dominating. But the guys that got it all started, the Mike Andersons, the John Parrellas, the Kevin Raemakers, we owe a lot to those guys. They taught us how it needed to happen.
Q: Were those guys vocal about it?
MV: Oh yeah. Ramaekers and Parrella, at some point in my life I hope I’m able to financially do it, I want to get those guys a ring made. Because those guys are the ones that really, really laid the groundwork. Of course, Nebraska has had the tradition forever, but they were focused on getting to that title game, and then, “Hey, we’re gonna win them. We’re going to make everyone pay on these teams, and they’re gonna know that they played a football game.” And that was a great thing for me. We had a bunch of guys who bought in, and we were dumb enough to be dangerous, was about it. (laughs) You just went about your business, and then you brought in your ‘freak’ talent. Guys like Wistrom and the Peter brothers, and Chris Dishman (a phenomenal college player), and Aaron Graham showed up, Stai, Wiegert (a homegrown kid), Joel Wilks (a kid that probably shouldn’t have been playing but worked his way into it). He’d eat 7,000 calories a day to get up to 275 lbs. If he told you he weighed an ounce more than that he was lying. (laughs) You had that where it was just right for us, it all kind of blended. You had your Alpha as Coach Osborne and everybody bought into that…
To be continued….
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