Al Zikmund played at the University of Nebraska from 1939 through 1943 and was a member of the 1941 Rose Bowl team. He also is the former Athletic Director and Head Football Coach at Kearney State College (now UN-Kearney) retiring in 1987. This interview was done on January 22, 2009 by David Max who was a student athletic trainer under Coach Zikmund from 1970-73.
DM: Where are you from originally?
AZ: I was born and raised on a farm two miles west of Ord, NE.
DM: Did you go to high school at Ord?
AZ: Oh yes, I went to high school there. Our football team was undefeated for four years and had only seven points scored against us in those four years.
DM: Gosh, that's amazing!
AZ: Well, it's pretty good. Interesting enough, when I was a senior, the biggest guy on the team was 6'1-1/2 and 175 pounds and I was that biggest guy on the team.
DM: What year did you graduate from high school?
DM: How did you choose Nebraska as your college?
AZ: Of course Nebraska was everybody's hope. I had been offered help at Peru and Wesleyan and Kearney, all those places, but the county agent came out to the farm and told my Dad, I'm going to take Al down to Lincoln and talk to Coach Biff Jones about going to the University. So he took me down to Lincoln and went to the athletic office and introduced me to Biff Jones and from there that was where it was. Of course, there were no scholarships in those days. They offered me a job to help defray expenses because in those years we had very little other than living on a farm and having plenty to eat. As far as money goes there just wasn't any money.
DM: What kind of a job did you have when you were attending school at Nebraska?
AZ: When I started, the first thing they had me do was send me to old Walt Renter in the maintenance department and I was shoveling raw fertilizer out of a wagon down on the intermurals fields. That was my first job that I had when I was a beginning freshman down there. And then later I worked at Hovland-Swanson, that's the ladies dress shop down on O Street. I was there for 3 1/2 years throughout my career and in a varied number of capacities. Running the vacuum cleaner, working in the shipping department, and in my senior year ended up doing a little window trimming getting a lot of laughs and finger pointing from other members of the team when I would be out in the window putting a dress on a model.
DM: Laughs. I'll bet that was funny. What positions did you play at Nebraska?
AZ: When I started out at Lincoln as a freshman, freshmen were not eligible in those years. You had to play a year and go to the varsity before you could play varsity ball. I was about a 180 pound fullback and what we got a chance to do as freshmen was run what they now call the scout club and run the opponents plays. Even though I was a sprinter in high school I think I learned to run faster in a football uniform because I was scared to death of those big guys on the varsity when I was a freshman running the plays against the varsity players.
DM: Did you just play offense or did you play both ways?
AZ: Then you played both ways. There was no free substitution which was kind of interesting. If you started a quarter you could be taken out and come back in that same quarter, but if you were a substitute in that quarter and you were taken out you could not go back in until the next quarter. It created interesting conditions. A lot of times you ran out of punters because they had been in and taken out and couldn't go back in during the same quarter. That was kind of a peculiar rule but that's the way it was and we freshmen did not play varsity ball, we played scout club and at the end of the year we had an intrasquad scrimmage on the main field which was the big thing of the season to get to be filmed and so on. The freshman game when I was there we had a horrible thing happen. One of our players was hit in the middle of the chest by headgear and he died from that hit.
DM: What did you like best - offense or defense?
AZ: I liked both of them. I just love football. I played halfback on offense and defense except for my freshman year when I played fullback.
DM: What kind of a coach was Biff Jones?
AZ: He was an Army man. Does that tell you anything?
DM: Sounds like it was very structured.
AZ: Very, very much. In fact, Claire Boroff (former assistant and later head football coach at Kearney after Zikmund) and I were talking recently. When we had a practice schedule, we were by the minutes. We ran 13 minutes of this and then we ran to the next drill and we ran 7 minutes of that drill and then we ran to the next one and so on. It was very, very time wise efficient. I've seen too many coaches that it's not going good so they run over into the next session and then forget what they should have covered and then that comes back to bite you. But he was very structured and very demanding.
DM: Fred Meier was your teammate and he was a center on the offensive line. What do you remember about Fred?
AZ: Fred is a good friend of mine. Good friend. He was an engineer. Lot of spirit. Lot of laughs. Hard worker. Very intellegent. We were just kind of buddies and after the Rose Bowl he came back for his senior year and I was in my junior year. I was just a sophomore when we went to the Rose Bowl.
DM: Another teammate was Forrest Behm. What do you remember about Forrest?
AZ: Oh, Forrest, what a guy. He was too little to be a tackle in today's regimen. He was about 6' 4" and about 215. Tall, angular man. Very, very intellegent. As you think about Forrest Behm I think about the military ball and he was the king of the military ball in his uniform and everything and was really something. Then, of course, he was a great success in his professional life (with Corning Glass). Very, very friendly, nice person. Both he and Fred were. In fact, that whole Rose Bowl team, we were very close. I don't think we had the differential that some teams had with the upper classmen and lower classmen. We were all intermixed.
DM: Do you remember a regular season game that sticks out in your mind?
AZ: Yes, I will never forget that first one of the year when I was a sophomore. We went up to Minneapolis to play Minnesota. The Golden Gophers. On the way, of course we traveled by train, I didn't play pitch with the other players. I looked out the windows and was amazed when we got to Minnesota to see all the dairy farms and the dairy cattle and everything. When I got back I wrote my parents a letter and told them about all the farms and the silos and the dairies that I had seen up in Minnesota. We got up there and stayed in a small town outside of Minneapolis 20 miles away. When it came time to go to the game we went in by bus. They had police sirens in front and police sirens behind and rode those 20 miles behind them to Minneapolis to get ready for the game. We got there, got dressed and went out on the field. I remember I was practicing punting during warmups and the crowd roared and the team dressed in solid gold, gold headgear, gold shirts, gold pants, gold socks came running out on the field. I looked at them and said "Wow, they don't look so big to me." Then another team ran out. And another team. Then another team. They ran 8 teams out on the field. By the time the 8th team got out there I would swear that the ground shook. They were so big. So huge. At that time if I could I would hide behind a blade of grass. What were we against. Well, they were the national champions.
DM: How many players were on the Nebraska team?
AZ: I would say probably around 100. The varsity was usually around 40.
DM: Tell me about the Rose Bowl game. Do you remember how long that trip was?
AZ: Yeah, from here to there.
DM: Laughs. Did it take 2-3 days to get there?
AZ: We went about a week ahead. Of course we went by train. We stayed at the Camelback Inn outside of Phoenix, AZ. We worked out at Wilcox Union High School and stayed at the Camelback Inn which was a fancy place for us farm kids to say the least.
DM: Did you do any sightseeing or go to the movie studios?
AZ: Beforehand we went to a dude ranch. After the game we had a big banquet. I can't remember the name of the hotel but it was a pretty fancy banquet. Of course, I was on crutches because I had my left leg broken. I laid my crutches down behind my chair and a waiter came by with a big tray of food and tripped over them and spilled food all over everybody. I wasn't without pain so after I ate I went to the elevator to my room on the 5th floor. I had not been told how to use crutches. I put all my weight in my arm pits on the top of those crutches and it was just killing me. I didn't know that I was supposed to support my weight on my hands. I said "This is for the birds." and I got down on my hands and knees and hooked my crutches over one arm and I was crawling down the hall to get to my room. Suddenly there was a voice that said " OK fella, we're going down stairs." It was a policeman. Hotel security. I said "What for?" He said, "It's obvious that you've been drinking too much and we're going to take you down stairs and probably take you to the station." I said, "No sir. I've got a broken leg and these crutches are killing me." I had to explain to him how I had suffered a broken leg and then he helped me get to my room and into bed. At first I thought I was going to be arrested and hauled to the police station for crawling down the hall. The next day Robert Taylor, the movie star from Nebraska, took us on a tour of the movie studios and I rode in a big stretch limo and he had dates for some of us. He had a starlet that accompanied me on these tours and so on. We had other things. At Christmas we had a Christmas party at the Camelback Inn. It was far different from what you might expect now but you must remember back in those days nobody had much if any money. I remember that the Controller at the University, his name was John Selleck, and he gave each player 50 cents to buy another player an exchange gift. What I got was a comb. For the Rose Bowl parade we were ordered to stay in our rooms. From my room if I stuck my head out I could see a little bit when they turned the corner a couple of blocks away.
DM: What do you remember about the game itself?
AZ: The shock of big time football went away with the Minnesota game. Playing the national champions in front of 60,000 or so, I had gotten over the shock of big time football. It was mainly being in that Hollywood Rose Bowl area with the fancy things around and the size of the Rose Bowl because they had 91,000 people there for that game. The shock of seeing the opponent didn't bother me a bit. I was an 18 year old sophmore after all.
DM: I believe you scored the only touchdown, right?
AZ: No, the first touchdown, Vike Francis scored on a fullback half spinner. We were playing the single wing and the fullback was also the spinner back. The ball would be snapped to him and he would either hand it to the wingback coming around or half spin and full spin and go into the line. Vike scored the first touchdown and I still remember this. Vike was a pretty big guy for then, you know. Probably about 215. Fullback and power runner but Vike was never in the greatest physical condition. He was on the starting unit and I was on the alternate unit. We had two units. The first unit would play half of the quarter and the next unit would come in and play the rest of the quarter. That's the way Biff had it planned and I was on the alternate unit that played the second half of the quarter. Well, ole Vike was out there and his personal conditioning caught up with him and he turned to the sideline and gave the signal to Coach Jones tapping himself on the top of the head which meant "Get me out of here. I'm tired." I still remember Jones saying "The Hell with you. Stay in there. We're about to score." Then about the next play he scored a touchdown. That was the first touchdown. Then I had the second one.
DM: Tell us about that play.
AZ: We had made a tremendous stop of Stanford and punted to them and they returned the punt for a touchdown and the score. I think was tied at the time. Hermie Roehrig was the tailback and passer. We were the alternate unit but we scored more points during the year than the starting unit. We were more versatile in a sense because we did a lot of passing. The first unit didn't do as much passing as we did. The play was called in the huddle and Willard Bunker was the end and I was the wingback. When we went up there I said "Let's change routes. I think I can get behind these guys." Well, the end was supposed to run the deep route and the wingback was supposed to run the shallow route. So we changed routes and he ran the shallow route and I ran the deep route and got behind them and Hermie threw me the ball and I went 33 yards for the touchdown. I have to laugh. I said to Herm one time "You know, I had to jump up and catch the ball over my shoulder and lean back a little bit. If you would have led me just a little bit it would have been easier to catch." He said, "Hell, I just threw the ball as hard as I could." But anyway, got that for the touchdown.
DM: What was it like when you came back to Lincoln after the game - were there any fans there to meet you?
AZ: Oh yes. Oh yes. There was a big group of people there meeting us. It was really neat. Really neat. All in all, I think it's a different type of fan now then it was then. Those people were so, close friends and so on and was not the type of fan that we tend to see that hardly know the names of the players. The train station was packed with people waiting to greet us. I was on crutches and they took a picture of me and there were two of the cheerleaders standing by me and my girlfriend at the time said "You didn't even look at me. You had all those hussies there!" They were friends that I had known for a long time. People in classes with me. It was a great thing but it was low key compared to what they do now.
DM: What year did you graduate from Nebraska?
DM: What did you do after graduation?
AZ: I went home, packed my bags and headed for New York. I was taken by the United States Navy for a period of time when they had me and I had them. After Pearl Harbor in 1941 my roommate and I came out of a movie and the news boys were yelling "Pearl Harbor attacked. The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor." I can still remember my roommate and I looking at each other and saying "Where in the heck is Pearl Harbor?" We didn't know. When we found out we both said "Well, we gotta do something or we're going to be drafted." Neither one of us wanted to be drafted so we both joined the Naval Reserve and the officer training program which meant I had to take two more years in college and take certain courses like Physics and Math. When I graduated, I think it was on May 8th in 1943, and on May 16th I was in New York reporting to Columbia University for officer training for the Navy. I took my officer trainer there at Columbia University and got my commission in October of that year. (Note: he was also drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1943.)
DM: How many years were you in the Service?
AZ: Active duty about 3 1/2 years. Total duty, this is kind of funny, I got a statement here a couple of years ago outlining my entire service line. They gave me credit for ROTC at the University in the field artillery. They gave me credit for the reserve training I had for the Navy taking these courses I had to have. They gave me all my active duty and then when I had enough points to get out of the Navy I was a Senior Lieutenant. When I got out of the Navy I was told "You are being placed on Ready Reserve." Ready Reserve means anytime we want you we can take you. That's for 8 years. I remember when I came back to the University and got my Master's Degree and went to my first coaching job in Alliance the Supt. said to me, "What's this Ready Reserve thing on your resume?" I said "That's just what they mean." He said, "That just puts me in kind of jeopardy doesn't it?" I said "Well, I hope not." Buy anyway, I was on Ready Reserve for 8 years and then I got another letter that said "You are on Standby Reserve for 8 years." If there was war, of course I would have been taken right back. In the Navy you would go back at the same rank you came out as so I would have gone back as a Senior Lieutenant and probably advance pretty quickly to Lieutenant Commander and on up the chain. Anyway, it said I had 23 years of military service.
DM: After Alliance you had a long career as football coach and athletic director at Kearney State College. What years were you at Kearney State?
AZ: After I got out of the service I went back to Lincoln and got my Masters. I signed a contract at Alliance, NE High School and I coached there for seven years and had real good success there. Then I went to Grand Island for one year. At that time President Cushing from Kearney State College called and said I want you for my football coach. So I went over to see President Cushing and he hired me right on the spot. So I resigned at Grand Island at the end of the school year and in May I started at Kearney State College and taught a class that summer.
DM: What was your first year at Kearney?
AZ: 1955. I spent 32 years at Kearney State. I retired in 1987. Football coach for 17 years and Athletic Director for 17 years.
DM: I remember the years that I was there (1969-73) that you were able to get a recruit away from Nebraska by the name of Tom Kropp.
AZ: Laughs. Yeah, right!
DM: Tell us that recruiting story.
AZ: Well, it's kind of like Claire Boroff (assistant football coach for several years, then head coach after Zikmund retired from coaching). I had Claire at Grand Island High School and he was an All-State player for me there at Grand Island. He went down to Lincoln and they shaved his head. Made him sing the high school song and stuff like that. It didn't set right with Claire and he called me and said "Can I still come to Kearney?" So he came to Kearney. Well, Kropp was somewhat the same thing. I don't think he was put through some of those same things, the hazing type things at all, but he knew that he wanted to play more than one sport. It was pretty difficult at Nebraska to play more than one sport at that time. Now when I was there you could play other sports. I played both football and track and Tom wanted to play football and basketball and track. (Tom was later drafted by both the NBA and NFL). He could have played baseball if there had been time. Our programs were pretty good at that time. In fact one year Fort Hays, KS had beaten Kansas University, we beat Fort Hayes, Kansas beat Nebraska, so by a little calculation we were about 40 points better than Nebraska if you want to look at it that way. But we had a pretty solid program going. You remember that. Of course Kropp came and was a big part of it.
DM: When Tom came to Kearney did he call you?
AZ: I really think he just showed up and said "I want to go to school here." just like another player Rich Ostenkowski. Do you remember Rich.
DM: Yes, I remember that name.
AZ: Well, he was an All-American in baseball and a great quarterback in football and was all set to go to Arizona State. And one day I was looking out my office window in the summer and here comes Rich Ostenkowski and his mom. They were from Ord and I knew them being from Ord. They came in very apologetically and asked if it was too late to come to Kearney. Rich didn't like Arizona State. So I said with open arms and with teary eyes "We will find a place for you!" and was he great!! He could have lettered in all seven sports without a doubt.
DM: I remember another long time coach there that you might make a couple of comments about, Charlie Foster.
AZ: Charlie was the AD. I gues at one time Charlie coached football, basketball and track. When the school started to grow a little bit he became the Athletic Director and track coach. He was known for playing the numbers game just like I did in football. He would have 150 kids out for track. I played the numbers game in football and you remember having been in the training room that we would have 120 to 150 football players also. I always said that we played the numbers game there because we knew that some of these guys from the smaller schools that developed into wonderful players. If you don't give them a chance then you're biting off your own nose so I always played that. Well Charlie played that game too. We always remember, I think it was the conference track meet, and it came to the 220 yard dash and Kearney got the first seven places in the 220 yard dash.
DM: Tell us a little bit about your family. I know you have a son Jim, and I'm going by bad memory but I think you have a daughter as well.
AZ: My oldest daughter is Sue and she graduated from Kearney State College Magna Cum Laude and was a cheerleader. She married Paul Pocock and they were out at Chappell for about 20 years coaching and teaching. Then Jim was next. Of course, he played football for me. That was kind of an interesting thing because people said "Coaching your son isn't very easy." The year before Jim was to come to college as a freshman and he chose Kearney State over Nebraska and the other state colleges. The reason that he turned Nebraska down was he was down there for some games and there was some bad feelings between the blacks and the whites on the team. He saw an example of that and decided he didn't want any part of that and came back and went to school here. Before that I said it would be alright. I was down at the national NAIA meeting in Kansas City and I had a chance to visit with Eddie Robinson, the great coach at Grambling. We were talking football and he had three sons that played for him. I said "Well good, you can give me some advice. My son is going to play for me next year." He said "I'll tell you this. Number 1, don't expect more from him than you do from any other player. Number 2, don't make it any easier for him than any other player. Number 3, let him make his own break." You know, that just worked out real good for me too. He made his own break and as a senior was the captain of the team and had all those records for interceptions and played both quarterback and free safety. Then my youngest daughter, Sally, also attended Kearney State and was a cheerleader and all of that and she was married and coached and taught at small high schools now lives in Grand Island. She's married to a doctor there. All of my children have their own children. Sue lives in Lincoln, Jim in Kearney and Sally in Grand Island. So they're close enough to get to see them quite often. My wife passed away a little over five years ago.
DM: Coach, thank you for sharing your Husker and Kearney memories with us. We really appreciate it.
Comments about this interview can be left at this email. Also, please send any pictures of Coach Zikmund that you may have and I will add a photo gallery to the interview.
You can listen to the audio version (wma format) at this link.