Anatomy of an Era: Phil Ellis, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 62, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch
Anatomy of an Era: Phil Ellis, Part 3
Q: Any practice event that sticks out in your mind?
Phil Ellis: Oh, there was one night. I remember, it was dark, you couldn’t see anything. And coaches were all fired up and we were all fired up and there was a big game coming up, and I remember, I think I knocked Brenden Stai out. It was like 7 on 7, our front four and linebackers. There was blood, tears, cussing, fighting… it was unbelievable. The coaches were right in our face and the offense is yelling at the defense, the defense was yelling at the offense. It was unbelievable.
Then later we’re all in the showers and were like, “Hey, that was a good practice.” I remember there was a trap play and I read it perfectly, and I just blew up Stai. He still claims to this day I didn’t knock him out, (laughs) but it was like one of those deals where we were like, “What the hell were we doing?” It was a Wednesday. (laughs) But the next game there was something we had to get fired up about. Christian got into a fight with some guy.
Q: Christian was always ‘fighting some guy’, wasn’t he? (laughs)
PE: Oh yeah, but it was hard not to. And I remember Mike Petko, he had a cold one day and drank like a whole bottle of Nyquil or something before practice. Oh my God, I never laughed so hard in my life. And Coach Steele was like, “You’re an idiot,“ right in front of everybody. As freshmen we’d love to hit Petko and make him bleed before practice was over. We’d just make it a point to jack him up.
And do you remember Aaron Penland? He wouldn’t back down from anybody. And Penland, he’d get into a fight with Ed Stewart every day. Every day. And Ed was Steele’s boy -I don’t know if you remember that- Coach Steele loved Ed Stewart. Everything was, “Ed, Ed, Ed.“ Remember those t-shirts they had made, “My name is Ed, too”? We counted in a meeting one time how many times he said Ed’s name and it was like 55 times. He said Mike Anderson’s name 4 times and Darren Williams’ name one and Troy (Branch) maybe one. It was all “Ed, Ed, Ed.” It was no one else. It was Ed Stewart and no one else. Anyway, one day Penland just jacks Stewart, just about knocks him out in individual drills and they get into a fight. So it’s all Penland’s fault, of course, so Steele makes him run stairs.
And it had to have been 110 degrees that day and Steele forgets about Penland. So individual drills were over and he must have been running for 20-25 minutes and Steele’s like, “Okay, let’s go do team drills.” And somebody was like, “Hey Coach, what about Penland?” And he goes, like, “Oh, yeah. Penland get your ass down here!” Penland’s on a dead ass sprint coming straight down the stairs, down the field, and Steele was walking with the team, and Penland was so f***ing steamed! He must have had tears in his eyes, he was so mad. But he made a bee-line for Steele and he was going to kill him. We all tackled him. We physically tackled Aaron. He was screaming and cursing. And Aaron didn’t ever cuss, but he was so mad. He was calling down the wrath of God. And Steele didn’t look back behind himself. He knew something was going on and he didn’t say anything, but he knew…
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Q: (laughs) Any memorable off-field occurrences?
PE: Off-field? Oh no, I try to forget. You get hit in the head too many times. (laughs) You know what, I never really got into trouble.
Q: You never got caught, anyway?
PE: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it, I never got caught. (laughs)
Q: And what do you recall about the specific coaches? Anything unique?
PE: Well, Dan Young. He was our punt and kicking instructor. (I don’t know if he even knew how to kick.) (laughs) My senior year he was 0 for 12 on the coin flip. He was like, “Call heads.” So we’d call it. It would end up tails. Every away game. It was funny. You remember that.
Coach McBride, he would chew your ass and chew your ass and he was on our ass. One day I turned around and just said, ‘You know what? Just f*** off.’ (Now, you normally don’t ever say that to a coach, but I was mad.) And he gets this big old smile on his face and he goes, “You finally get it.” (laughs) After that he didn’t yell or scream. Well, maybe a little bit, but after you figure out, ‘I’m not afraid of him.’ He kind of just laughed and said, “It took you a while, but here you go.”
Q: Boy, that took some brass balls to say that to Charlie McBride…
PE: I know it was. It was just one of those practices.
And Coach Steele? You didn’t want to piss him off. He was an ass, you know? The first day we met he said, “I’m not here to be your dad. I’m not here to be your friend. I’m here to be your coach. If you don’t like it get out of my room right now.” That’s a true story. Truest line he ever said. It was true: you wanted to kill him but you respected the hell out of him because he was a great coach.
Q: Any other coaches stick out to you?
PE: Darlington was always funny, because the coaches would always leave to go recruiting… after the Colorado game or the Oklahoma game the coaches would always go leave for a week or a week and a half, and Darlington, every year for five years, would implement his own defenses. He’d put in his own stupid-ass defenses each year for an entire week. It was just him coaching the whole defense. He’d have them drawn up and everything and he’d implement this defense, then McBride and Steele would get back and they were, “What the hell is this stuff?” (laughs) We didn’t once use one of his defenses. We just did whatever we were told, but it was funnier than hell. For five years we’d implement the stupidest defenses in the world and we wouldn’t run one.
Phil Ellis (lower right)
Q: Do you recall anything special about these defenses?
PE: Oh, you’d laugh. They were so idiotic. They wouldn’t work. (laughs)
Q: He was like a mad professor with a lab all to his own?
PE: Yeah. It was like no one would give him any respect or something, so he’d implement these crazy defenses. He was probably years ahead of his time. They’re probably using them in the NFL right now. (laughs)
Q: And I’ve got to ask, would there be anybody behind the scenes who played a huge role for you and the team in general?
PE: Dr. Stark was pretty big. I guess you’d call him our personal shrink. Jack would just talk to us. We were 19-20 years old and there were people shooting at people and getting shot, we had the Lawrence deal, we had rape accusations. I didn’t actually talk to him personally, but he would just talk to us as a team, just getting up and explaining what the hell was going on. He would do his psychological thing.
Another big deal for me, and I think people might take this for granted, too, was Dave Ellis. Just the food he brought in to us. You could correlate that with our winning, too. We always won, but eating right. Sullivan, previously he was in charge of our meals every game. It was the same every day: a real bad steak and spaghetti. That’s what we had before a game. Then Dave came in and we had tenderloin and a nice salad. We just ate right. (laughs) Something to give us fuel for the next day, you know? Before him it was, “That’s what we did in the ’70’s and that’s what we’re doing now.” (laughs)
Q: If I recall, Dave Ellis came in the week before the Kickoff Classic game versus West Virginia.
PE: I remember that first spread he put out. It was like, “Are you kidding me? We’ve been eating crap the whole time and we could have been eating this?!” (laughs)
Q: Was the difference in foods evident in your play?
PE: I think it was. It was better than a big old rock in your gut. I don’t know, maybe it was psychology, but I felt better. It beat the heck out of the same old stuff we’d been having. George was, “We’ve been eating this way for 50 years. Eat it, dammit!” Maybe he was getting a kickback from the Steak Booster Club, I don’t know what the hell was going on. (laughs) But behind the scenes, the trainers, with Doak and Jerry, and even George? Poor George, he’d tape you up and you’d have to get re-taped again. You couldn’t say no to him.
And the guys that are often forgotten are the guys who washed your clothes, too. It’s kind of hard, kind of unfair to put your finger on just a couple of people. They all were a big part of it. I liked everybody. I didn’t have too many favorites, just hung out with people. You always liked McBride and Tenopir. I still hang out with them every now and then.
Q: What do you feel has transferred to a larger degree into your present life? The lesson learned?
PE: Well, for one, I’m never late for a meeting. That’s always a good thing, I guess, and not a bad trait.
You just don’t fail at anything, I guess. You just want to win at everything. It’s not a win at all cost mentality, but you get a sense of pride and a sense of, ‘If I can do that I can do anything.’ It’s kind of cliché, but, “if you put your mind to something and work hard enough at it….,” I don’t know. Does that make sense? I’ve been places and I’ve seen other people work. Been to New York and I’ve been to California, and I’m not gonna say they’re lazy… but, yeah, they’re lazy. But people from the Midwest? When there are job interviews going on and you throw a Midwesterner there in the mix they’re gonna get the job, because the employers all know they have the work ethic right away. They know that they’ll do ten times the work. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s what I’ve heard.
A word with the packed Devaney Center crowd post-Miami victory
Q: You’ve got a point there, Phil. And as a parting shot, is there anything I haven’t touched upon that made those teams great and so successful in their time?
PE: Well, you may call it luck, you may call it being at the right place at the right time, I don’t know. And people have all these polls about the best team here or there. And I tell people about that time, we had 100 scholarships -and now they have like 85 scholarships and the parity in college football is so much more competitive- I don’t know just what it was. I wish I could bottle it up and sell it.
Me, personally? It was ’93. Bottom line, being so close to getting there. And I do tell people that if we’d won in ’93 I do doubt we’d have won both of those other ones.
Q: Which is why I had to ask about doing it again in ’95 after winning it all the ’94 season.
PE: That’s a good point. It’s hard for me to say that, because I guess we worked so hard that spring and summer going into ’94. And I don’t know if we were a better team than Miami, but by God we were that day. Talent wise, was it apples to apples? I don’t know. I mean, they had The Rock on their team. How do you beat The Rock? (laughs) It was just that we worked so damned hard and I just don’t think we would have worked that hard had we won in ’93. We had been doing some conditioning three years, four years before that, I just don’t think it would have happened.
Q: So you think the ’95 season may actually have been a carryover of the hard work from as far back as ’94’s offseason?
PE: Yeah, definitely. Once you get the recipe for success, I don’t think you change it. I think ’96 was kind of a fluke, bad timing, you know? We had a good team there. And ’97, they still had a good corps of players from ’95 there. That’s why they came back, because they knew what to do and how to do it. If you know what to do and how to do it and get the right leaders involved? And you have to have the right people involved, too. But call it luck, call it whatever you want, I just think you reap what you sow.
Q: Speaking of, what was your impression of Tommie? Your remembrance of him and his leadership?
PE: Tommie was a great quarterback. He’ll probably go down as one of the greatest college quarterbacks ever. Personally? That’s beside the point. We were teammates and that was good enough. I got along with Tommie just fine.
Q: Tommie was pretty much all business, wasn’t he?
PE: Oh yeah, outside of the realm of Nebraska Football? Yeah. He was a good dude, though. He got it done and enough said. Everyone got it done. That was the beauty of it. You knew your job and you showed up and you’d do it. We didn’t put him on a pedestal, if that’s what you mean.
Q: He seemed like he had a good share of ‘fight’ in him, not that Brook or Matt Turman didn’t.
PE: Oh yeah, he was good. Definitely the best. And Brook was Brook. He was a different style of quarterback. They were just two different types of quarterbacks. Brook was a great quarterback. He would have been a good NFL quarterback. And Tommie? At that time the NFL wasn’t looking for that type of quarterback. If he would have played now with the Wildcat and all that stuff, he would have fit perfectly. Tommie was all business, I’ll give you that.
Grand Island-born Glenn E. Wallichs at one time owned the largest record store in the nation in Los Angeles, and in 1942 he helped found recording giant Capital Records. Making records of his own style was Phil here, who won the last twenty-five games he played as a Husker, playing a part in the early 36-1 stretch that evolved into the great 60 & 3. Of considerable note, it seems that the hard work in the summer of ’94 actually played a lasting role in the success of ‘95’s team, by all rights. The carryover set a standard and a focus that I don’t think has ever been equaled… on any campus, because these guys also endured more distractions than any team ever has, and they still came out on top. Think about that for a moment.
It was very refreshing to hear Phil echo exactly the same sentiments that I ended with in the chapter previous. And it was telling to hear of his reasons for the 36 & 1 stretch that he was a part of: 1) Erasing ‘93’s failure and 2) Leadership. I found it particularly enlightening in his mention of the summer conditioning sessions: “if you can follow Christian Peter through a summer you’re gonna be a better man by end of summer.” I’ll be following up with Christian later, because it’s clear to me that his example was a point of light for the defense while Tommie Frazier was a key to the offense.
Also, he spoke of the torturous ’95 season, with Lawrence Phillips in the news and the evident toll it took on Coach Tom Osborne.”..you don’t want to be the team that had Coach Osborne quit.” If every player’s dream was to be a part of the class to win Tom Osborne his first national championship, then the converse of that would be the nightmare of being a part of the team that drove him to retirement. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and I think it’s a mark of their incredible focus and maturity that they took the measures they did. The zero tolerance alcohol rule was a bit extreme when you come to think of college kids, but look what the sacrifice helped them to achieve, if for nothing else than the mental health of their coaching staff. I often wonder what that team would have achieved had Lawrence not gotten into the mess that he did. By all rights, he would have been a Heisman Trophy winner and the debate over the greatest team of all time would not even be up for debate. There’s one thing I do know: The fall of 1995 was not a good time to be a liquor store owner, because there was a lot less drinkin’ in Lincoln.
Notable quote #2:
Phil Ellis talks about Wednesdays, when they played the toughest game of the week: “There was blood, tears, cussing, fighting, it was unbelievable. The coaches were right in our face and the offense is yelling at the defense, the defense was yelling at the offense. It was unbelievable. Then later we’re all in the showers and were like, ‘Hey, that was a good practice.’”
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