Anatomy of an Era: Mike Babcock, Part 1
Excerpted from Chapter 46, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
For any journey other than the usual neighborhood streets and thoroughfares of daily life, we typically face a choice of the oft traveled highway for speediness’ sake or alternately kicking up a plume of dirt on the rolling, graveled backroads for a bit of adventure and a chance at whimsy. As you are well aware, for this trip into the Why and How of the 60 & 3 era I’ve chosen to turn off of the more beaten path a time or two, sometimes to interject an unknown figure, others to reintroduce you to individuals hidden or long forgotten, and still yet a few who I felt might hold a more colorful, revealing, or excessively insightful viewpoint to the collection of our acquired kNowledge. In this particular case I found myself taking a pit stop at a figurative roadside convenience store embodied in sportswriter Mike Babcock.
A living, breathing vault of Husker lore and the man many consider the preeminent biographer of Tom Osborne -especially through his 1996 work Heart of a Husker– Mike has spent a majority of his adult life covering Nebraska Football for both the Lincoln Journal-Star, Huskers Illustrated, and finally Hail Varsity in these latter years. You should know that beat writers are a contrast in styles and personalities, sometimes playing the cheerleader and ‘homer,’ others the mocking jester or even the muckraking radical. The key, it appears, is walking the fine line in choosing what info goes to print and what is not quite fit for public consumption (or at best, maybe to be divulged years long gone when less harm is done to relationships and/or reputations). If successful organizations are -as some suggest- driven from the top down, I wanted to gain a view from a man with access and years as an insider at the top, yet also detached enough to look at Husker Football from outside the sphere. (I say this as a check against myself, just in case my own personal experience has been too close to the situation and might find me lacking objectivity) Here is just the man for the occasion, Hail Varsity’s Mike Babcock…
Notable quote #1:
“…I remember one of those earlier Orange Bowls when Nebraska played Miami and the Coaches Luncheon after that, and (Tom Osborne) said, ‘Maybe the game has passed me by.’ ”
Hail Varsity Magazine
Question: So, Mike, It sounds like you’re pretty busy at the moment with announcing Legion baseball there in Lincoln..
Mike Babcock: Yes, they have a hard time finding volunteers. So I guess the bottom line is I’m available rather than good. And it pays well: nothing. (laughs) My wife has to be pretty understanding when tournament time comes, because it’s pretty much every night.
Q: It’s amazing: the more a guy is around sports, the more you find that everyone’s wife has to be pretty understanding, no matter what you do.
MB: Yeah, and when I was at the newspaper, The Journal-Star, like any reporter who covers the beat (obviously, it’s a lot harder on the coaches with the recruiting and everything they do), but there are some similarities in a minor way with the travel demands and such. For example, when Nebraska was going to a bowl game for 35-some consecutive seasons, you’re gone during the holidays every year. You can just kind of figure on that. And the way we’d do it at the newspaper was we’d be there a week before the bowl, as well, so you’d often spend Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve on the road.
Q: Did you ever take your family along on those trips?
MB: You know, it became a function of whether or not you could afford it. I remember once as a family we went to the Fiesta Bowl together, and after the bowl game we went on to Disneyland. But typically, not. It was kind of an expense thing, that was the bottom line. (laughs)
Q: Well, again Mike, I appreciate your time in talking a little about those ’90’s years and giving me your unique perspective from your position covering the beat for the Lincoln Journal-Star. I’ve spoken to many and varied people thus far, from Al Papik to Trev Alberts, from Boyd Epley to the Schmadeke brothers…
MB: Oh yeah, Darren and Damon Schmadeke, those guys were both walk-ons from… I can’t remember the town off the top of my head, but yeah, I remember those two guys.
Q: And I speak with Coach Osborne next week before things really get super-busy for him…
MB: Yeah, that’s important. He has his own book coming out, Beyond the Final Score. It is kind of his views and experiences post-football. I heard him talking about it. The way I heard about it was when the publisher called me and said Tom wanted to quote some things from the Heart of a Husker book and they needed permission to do that, so that’s when I first heard about the book.
And I don’t mind at all. When I did that book I said that the only way I would do it was if Tom was okay with it. And the publisher said, “That’s okay, you’re not going to interview him. It’s just going to be about him.” And I said, ‘Well, I understand that. But personally, I won’t do the book unless, a) Tom is aware that I’m doing it, and b) he is comfortable with me doing it.’ And so they said, ”Well okay, we’ll contact Tom and make sure he’s okay with it.” So two weeks went by and I called ’em up and said, ‘Have you talked to Tom? I’d like to get started on this.’ And they said, “You go ahead and get started on it. We’ll contact him and we’re sure that he’ll be okay with it.” And I was, ‘How about I just call and ask him?’, and I talked about 10 minutes with him and he said, ”Yeah, that’s fine. I don’t have any problem with your doing the book. We’ve known each other for a while.” So I told the publisher I would do it, and actually had several players who said the same thing as I did: they’d do it “if Tom was okay with it.”
Q: Where did you grow up and what got you into sportswriting?
MB: Well, I was born in Beatrice but I grew up in York, forty miles down the line. My first year of school I went to York College there in town because I could afford to do that. I wanted to go to the University but I could afford to go to York College because I got an academic scholarship. I’d hoped to play basketball and ended up playing a semester of basketball and played baseball in the spring. My second year I transferred to the University of Nebraska, and my folks moved to southern California in the summer of ’67, and as soon as they moved I was a non-resident in Nebraska and I just couldn’t afford the tuition, so I went to California with my folks. And after nine months out there you established residency, so I got my undergraduate from Chico State in English and then I came back to Nebraska and went to graduate school and got my Masters Degree in English and started out teaching at a community college in Illinois for seven years.
When I was teaching at the community college I hooked onto a newspaper there in town (I always wanted to be a newspaper guy, but I didn’t want to be a journalism major because sports was my only interest in it). So I was teaching and worked half-time for the newspaper; one of those guys who calls up coaches after a Friday night and writes up little deals. Then they assigned me a high school beat: Champaign Central High School. So I went to football, basketball games, volleyball, and Saturdays I did locker room stories at the home games at the University of Illinois. And they always gave me the visiting locker room, so it was Michigan, Ohio State and that sort of thing. A friend of mine who worked for the Champaign-Urbana Courier (which is no longer), he was from Hebron, Nebraska and his name was Lou Engel, and he said there was an opening at the Lincoln Journal-Star and said, “I’m gonna apply for it. You ought to apply for it, too. Why not try?” And I tell you, Paul, if I could have live anywhere I wanted, it would be in Nebraska. And if I could live -and I thought this at the time- I thought, ‘If I could do anything I wanted to do, it would be to work for the Lincoln paper and live in Lincoln, Nebraska.’ So applied for the job sight unseen, and they hired a guy from either Florida or Louisiana and he was here for two days and didn’t like Lincoln and left. (laughs) So they called and told me I was their first choice, but I knew I was their second choice. (laughs) They said, “Are you interested in this thing?” I said, ‘Yeah!’ At my own expense I came back to interview and they said they’d pay me mileage…but they never did. (laughs)
And they gave me the Nebraska beat. This guy took off and opened up the job on the Husker beat, so I went from basically covering the high school beat half-time and working full-time as a teacher in the community college to working full-time on the Husker beat. I started on August 5th. And four weeks after, Nebraska opened the ’78 season against Alabama in Birmingham.
And my journalism background? My high school journalism teacher was great, that’s where I really learned a lot about it in high school. When I was at Chico State I think I had a couple of courses like “African-Americans in Cinema.” (laughs) Maybe thinking I’d be a film critic. (laughs)
Q: Thumbs up, thumbs down, huh?
MB: (laughs) Yeah. I was a little unrealistic in my expectations, but that’s what I thought at the time, you know? I always felt I could do anything I wanted to do, but if ever possible I’d be a sportswriter and were I to live anywhere it would be in Nebraska.
Q: So after spending some time out in California and then Illinois, Nebraska was still close to your heart?
MB: Oh yes, and to some extent my parents were the same way. We moved there in ’67 and my father hated it in California. He wanted to come back. It was probably a tougher thing on him than it was on me. But I felt that I was probably going to come back at some point and if I were ever going to retire (which I probably wouldn’t), but if I were ever to retire I just can’t imagine myself leaving Nebraska. I don’t know if that’s a character flaw or what, but Nebraska is where I always figured was my home. I’m probably a ‘Nebraska hick’ to some. (laughs)
Q: So let me ask you: those early nineties years building up to the Florida State, Miami, & Florida national championship games, as a sportswriter what was your main aim? Was it to inform, to entertain, to set policy? How did you envision the main gist of your role as writer?
MB: I’ll probably make this sound like I was more organized or had a clearer sense than what I did…
A couple things I learned early on -and I might have known this even before I got back to Nebraska- but during the early years when I got here, when I took the job in 1978, it was like most people would perceive that job as, “Oh my gosh, this guy has the opportunity to sit in the press box every game and watch this stuff. It’s just a great deal, everybody would want to do that.” But if they knew more they would change their mind about it. Because when the game is over with you have to sit there and put together an article and they’re out partying.
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And let me preface this by saying one other thing: my uncle was the Equipment Manager at the university. I don’t have the exact year, but early on when Tom was the coach. His name was Gibb, and Gibb was basically a retired farmer. My dad’s family was up near the North Loup-Scotia area and when he finally retired they moved to Lincoln, and I think he started as assistant groundskeeper with Bill Shepard. I knew Shep really well, Walt Johnson, Glenn Abbott, all those guys. (When Gibb stepped aside Glenn replaced him)
But I can remember when Nebraska, I believe it was while I was a sophomore at the university -which would have been in ’67 or ’68, in the fall of ’67 when I was a sophomore- Nebraska put the N on the helmet for the first time. I can remember the first semester. (I lived in the second floor of my uncle’s house -he lived right across the train tracks there on Y Street). There wasn’t any room in the dorms so I lived with my aunt and uncle for probably the first half of the first semester and then moved into temporary housing in Abel Hall.) But I remember my uncle going into the locker in the field house there and taking all the helmets out and putting the strips on them and placing the N’s on the side. So I always had a little bit of an insight into it since my uncle was there. And it was a big deal to be around there. When they’d collect the shirts, ones the guys didn’t pick up or threw on the floor, he’d wash them and he always had a bin full of those things. And I had a Colorado Buffaloes t-shirt that somebody had left there. (laughs) But I had a tenuous connection there.
Q: So one could say that, in certain respects, that Mike Babcock was partly responsible for putting the infamous N on the Husker helmets?
MB: My recollection was that we may have cleaned them or something, but I just remember taking them out of the lockers and putting some N’s on them. And you know, the N’s were initially a little bit smaller. There was a sequence there: first they were smaller, then they were bigger. So I think they played around with it for a while.
To be continued….
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