January 22, 2009
Warm-weather schools have an advantage over cold-weather schools. Schools located in tourist-attraction cities have an advantage over schools in more ordinary locales. Schools in sparsely populated rural states have no business competing for national championships in major-college football. Those are the rules.
With an exception or two.
Want to be an exception? You have to somehow manage to overcome your natural disadvantages and recruit talented athletes who have a team-first attitude and a burning desire to be winners.
Over the decades, Nebraska has been an exception to the rule. The Cornhuskers have made their living on being an exception. In fact, they have to work hard to continue to be an exception, or there's no way they will ever play in another BCS bowl. Or go to another College World Series, for that matter. Everybody knows that the college baseball season starts way too early for the northern schools to have a fighting chance. Right?
Great coaching is essential. Tradition is important. A passionate fan base helps. But in Division I-A football, you've got to get some athletes – a whole bunch of them. Athletes like Jerry Tagge, Rich Glover, Mike Rozier, Ed Stewart, Trev Alberts, Aaron Taylor, and Grant Wistrom – athletes who may not have been five-star prospects coming out of high school, but are highly motivated to work hard enough to change the nation's minds about their ability.
Nebraska is not a top-level college football power right now – at least not according to the national media. Even though the Huskers are No. 4 on the all-time Division I-A win list, you don't hear them talked about much when you listen to the big talk shows on ESPN Radio. Who knows why? Maybe they think the run of success at Nebraska is over, and it's time for nature to take its course on the prairie once again.
That brand of thinking is a bit premature, but you can't blame the national media for falling into the trap. The Huskers need to earn back some respect, and with a couple of good recruiting classes, they'll be doing that very soon.
The Cornhuskers' natural disadvantages in recruiting – some actual (like population and climate) and some grossly overstated (like a perceived lack of cultural attractions) are well documented. For example, "Who would want to spend four years in a snowy, remote town with no night life?" That's a line that opposing coaches have used since Bob Devaney turned Nebraska into a national threat on the gridiron. (Funny, a lot of those same people have always been quick to talk about the trouble that Husker players got into after enjoying Lincoln's night life a little too much.)
There's an element of truth to the cultural attractions argument, just as there was an element of truth when East Coast writers referred to Denver as a "cow town" before it hosted last year's Democratic National Convention. But there's really no shame in being a cow town. It sure beats being known for political corruption.
Or there's the one about Lincoln being 1,500 miles away from the nearest beach (I guess Notre Dame and every Big Ten school have one). Even so, there's no denying that Southern Cal will continue to get a lot of the nation's best young football players simply because of its location (plenty of beaches and mountains nearby) and the charm of Hollywood. Recruiting for the Trojans is like a union job – guaranteed salary and benefits even if you have a bad year or two. It's not that way in Lincoln; you've got to perform year-in and year-out to keep your spot at the big boys' table.
"Have you seen Lincoln? Have you seen Boulder?" That's what former Colorado coach Bill McCartney used to tell recruits who told him they were interested in playing for the Big Red. There's no word on whether Tom Osborne countered McCartney's strategy by asking those same recruits, "Well, have you seen Colorado play football? Have you seen Nebraska play?"
If your focus is on skiing and mountain biking, then CU is probably a better school for you. Or if you like being halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City, then go be a Missouri Tiger. (Don't look now, but Lincoln is a much larger city than either, and ranks No. 2 behind Austin of all the Big 12 cities in population.) Lincoln is a great combination of small/town and big city atmosphere with very few traffic hassles.
Since the 1960s, Nebraska football has managed to recruit enough great athletes to contend for conference and national titles on a regular basis. The Nebraska way has been to sign kids who are more serious about playing football than they are about surfing or kayaking, and it has worked well. And it probably doesn't hurt to remind recruits that if you're really interested in the NFL, you'll need to get used to playing in cold-weather locations like Chicago, Green Bay, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York and Foxboro.
The University of Nebraska has been a flourishing destination for decades for athletes who want to focus on a good education and have a decent chance at playing for championships. It can be that way again.
Nebraska continues to have a near lock on its best in-state football players. But to force its way back into the national conversation again, it needs to recapture its success in getting a few great players every year from all over the nation. Players like Turner Gill, Will Shields, Johnny Mitchell, Travis Hill, Barron Miles, Aaron Graham, Mike Brown and the Peter brothers.
The current coaching staff obviously understands this. It has made unexpectedly quick progress in Texas and is trying to re-establish footholds in Florida and California, while holding onto traditionally strong recruiting areas in the Midwest and Plains states. Bo Pelini and his assistants know that recruiting is the lifeblood of a college football team.
They also know that there are no guarantees when you're coaching at Nebraska, a cold-weather school where you've got to work hard to out-recruit the opposition. No exceptions.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. | Archive