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March 29, 2009


Around the United States, many people have trouble understanding why more than 80,000 Nebraska football fans would show up at the Cornhuskers' spring football game. I suppose they're even more perplexed as to why so many are interested in each of the other spring football workouts that lead up to the game.

Not only are people talking about whether Zac Lee will emerge as the Huskers' starting quarterback, they're debating who will be the second-team left guard and whether there will be four new starters in the defensive secondary.

Nebraska football fans' fascination for news keeps sports writers like me busy, so it can't be all bad. Big Red diehards can find reports online at newspaper sites and blogs (updated daily) to satiate their Husker football hunger.

Believe it or not, some people shake their heads and look down their noses at such fixated behavior. But I say it's OK if you can point your finger at someone else who's even more fanatical than you are.

Now, if you look at it objectively, this sort of thing seems a bit unusual to folks who live in California, Oregon, New York, Colorado (unless you're talking about the Broncos) or the New England states. Then again, it's probably not so surprising to people who follow the Alabama Crimson Tide, who have broken the 90,000 barrier at their spring game. (Attendance at Bryant-Denny Stadium will probably be down this year, since Tide fans will be able to watch their spring game on ESPN.)

And according to an ESPN analyst, there are sports fans out there who are even crazier than Husker football fans, and many of them live in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

For decades, Nebraska has been criticized as a sports-obsessed state that would elect its head football coach governor – especially if he won a national championship or two. (That one turned out to be false.) But Nebraska is not alone in its sports obsession. According to ESPN college basketball analyst Jimmy Dykes, in Kentucky, North Carolina and Indiana, the head basketball coach is actually more important than the governor. Dykes, a former University of Kentucky assistant basketball coach, was a guest March 27 on the nationally-syndicated Tirico and Van Pelt radio show, and claimed that no college sports program matches Kentucky in its fans' insatiable desire for information about UK basketball and what goes on at every practice.

�You could close the doors for practice, lock �em up and black out the windows, and I promise you this: within 20 minutes after that practice is over, someone in that local media or on the streets of Kentucky knows exactly what was said in that practice, how it was said and what they're going over,� said Dykes. �There's too much pressure to get information out of that program for anything that goes on in that program to be kept private.�

Dykes reported that UK coach Billy Gillispie, a close friend of Nebraska's Doc Sadler, was fired partly because of his inability to grasp the state's �blueblood� basketball culture and his reluctance to embrace his public speaking responsibilities. It brought to mind the way Bill Callahan seemed to be caught off guard by the passion of Nebraska fans and their love for the traditions of the football program.

Callahan never really caught on to the Nebraska football culture, and in fact was perceived by a majority of Nebraskans as someone who deliberately avoided the subject. (Ironically, he was enabled in his off-putting behavior by former athletic director Steve Pederson, a Nebraska native.) Like Gillispie, Callahan is a �grinder� who prefers the Xs and Os of the job, including breaking down film and planning strategy, to being the face of the program. Gillespie appears to have more skills at dealing with his players than Callahan showed in Lincoln, but it wasn't enough to keep his job.

They're a little bit more impatient in Kentucky. Unlike Callahan, who was given four years at the helm of the Husker football program, Gillispie was fired after just two years at Kentucky. His winning percentage was .597, compared to Callahan's .551 at Nebraska.

Nebraska hired Bo Pelini, someone without head coaching experience, to take over its highest-profile coaching job. He had enough direct ties to the Huskers' storied history (he was a highly successful defensive coordinator in Lincoln in 2003 and, after all, he was hired by Tom Osborne) to satisfy the Husker Nation. Moreover, he showed an obvious respect and appreciation for the Husker football legacy from the day he was hired. He does not make a high salary compared to other Big 12 coaches, let alone national powers like USC, LSU and Florida.

In Kentucky, they won't be able to get by hiring a little-known coach. Not after getting burned by their choice of Gillispie, who had success at Texas A&M but was not a big name nationally. AD Mitch Barnhart will have to find a proven winner – in fact, a high-profile proven winner – to take over the UK program. He's already been turned down by Florida's Billy Donovan, and no doubt will send out feelers to former UK coach Rick Pitino, who went to the NBA and then back to the Bluegrass State where he currently coaches Louisville. Whoever is hired will have a base salary that makes Pelini's current $1.1 million look like chump change.

Something tells me Barnhart is going to be a lot fussier about this process than was Osborne when he hired Pelini, and that the Wildcat fans will be even more concerned through the whole ordeal than Husker fans were during Osborne's nine-day coaching search.

So Nebraska fans can continue to speculate this spring about whether the Huskers will have three redshirt freshmen starting at linebacker in September while secure in the knowledge that – relatively speaking – they're really not such fanatics after all.


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 [email protected]. | Archive