I started this post a week or two ago as a “Fire Doc Sadler” piece. At the time, there was still some doubt* on if Nebraska would fire their basketball coach**.
*Yes, as of this post, Doc Sadler still has a job, but the near universal opinion from the media is that he will soon be out of a job. I suspect that to be the case too (and I hope so, because I’d really rather not have to use this space to rip Tom Osborne a new one). But Doc needs to go. The results have not come. It is time.
**Fact – NU has not fired a men’s basketball coach since 2000. Twelve years. Let’s put that another way: Nebraska has fired two football coaches since they have fired a basketball coach. Yikes.
So instead of making a case for why Sadler should be fired this year instead of giving him another year, let’s discuss what Nebraska Basketball is, and what it could be.
First, what it is. Right now, Husker hoops is teetering between neglected afterthought and statewide joke. Attendance is horrible, fan apathy is rampant, and there is zero positive buzz about the program. Yes, there are some things you can count on: the month of December will be spent playing teams you have never heard of (Maryland Eastern Shore???), at some point, there will be speculation about Nebraska making the NCAA tournament (only to have it come crashing down like the proverbial lead zeppelin). On a positive note, it is all but guaranteed that once a year Nebraska will upset some ranked team they have zero business beating (see also: Kansas, Texas, Indiana). Of course, to find that amazingly fun and exciting game, you have to suffer through a half-dozen blowout losses where the talent gap between NU and the ranked teams is painfully evident.
And I firmly believe it does not have to be that way.
Nebraska basketball could be the second most popular team in the sport in the state*, and a major source of excitement and conversation.
*The 10 most popular sports in Nebraska:
- Nebraska Football – Duh.
- Nebraska Football Recruiting – an entirely separate beast from what happens on Saturdays
- Nebraska Volleyball – the most successful team over the last decade
- Creighton Basketball – A solid program, but their popularity has as much to do with NU’s poor performance as it does with their success (and the beer doesn’t hurt).
- UNO Hockey – A good mix of hockey fans and people who enjoy drinking beer while watching sports.
- Nebraska Baseball – In the CWS years, they were a strong #3 on this list.
- Omaha Lancers/Lincoln Stars/Tri-City Storm – The games are fun, but let’s be honest: this is glorified high school hockey.
- Lincoln Saltdogs/AAA team formerly known as the Omaha Royals – For both of these teams, it really is more about a night at the old ballpark than the game, but they still do well. Just don’t ask me to dignify the stupid new name of the O Royals by typing it here.
- Nebraska Women’s Basketball – a winning program. In a best of seven series with the NU men, it wouldn’t surprise me if the women won a game or two.
- Nebraska Men’s Basketball – The number of empty seats is rapidly gaining on the number of full seats.
Let’s be clear – I’m not saying that Nebraska can become a program to rival Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, or North Carolina. But there is absolutely nothing standing in the way of Nebraska being a team that can regularly finish in the top half of the conference, make the dance 6 or 7 times a decade, and make it to the Sweet Sixteen (or farther) every so often. I think that is a fairly reasonable expectation.
I can hear some of you laughing right now. You’re thinking “Nebraska? In the Sweet Sixteen? The same Nebraska that could barely score 34 points (in 40 minutes) at Michigan State?”
I get it. I hear you.
And yes, it can be done.
* * *
Let’s take a little trip in the WayBack Machine to 1997. Given our hoops focus, you might think we’re going to go check out Danny Nee’s basketball team*, but instead we’re going to talk baseball.
*That 1996-97 team featured two Huskers who played in the NBA – Tyronn Lue and Mikki Moore – and another Husker who was drafted by the NBA – Venson Hamilton. No Husker player has been made it to the NBA since.
Nebraska Baseball in the late 90s was a joke. Yes, they produced the occasional good player (Darin Erstad), but under head coach John Sanders, NU had not reached the postseason in 12 years. Games at rickety old Buck Beltzer Stadium were usually played in front of friends and family members. Nebraska was in a new league (the Big XII) where the baseball talent was much better than what it used to be, and it was clear that Nebraska was falling behind. So if you went up to the average person in 1997 and told them that Nebraska would be playing in the College World Series within 5 years, they would have you committed on the spot.
But in 1997, John Sanders was fired. Dave Van Horn turned the program around, brought in talented players, excellent assistant coaches, and made Nebraska Baseball a force to be reckoned with.
It could happen again with basketball.
And it likely could be easier.
* * *
What I know about basketball would probably fit inside of a basketball, but I do know this: basketball is one of the few sports where a single talented player can make a huge impact on a team and their success. And if you were to list the single biggest failure of the Collier and Sadler teams, it would be a severe lack of talented players.*
*I will be the first to acknowledge that NU has had some horrible, horrible luck with their recruits – injuries, eligibility issues, admissions screw-ups, transfers, heck, I think one promising player was abducted by aliens. But even if all of those players who received so much fanfare never missed a game, the talent level at Nebraska would still lag behind most of the other Big XII/B1G schools.
In short, Nebraska has struggled (if not failed outright) to recruit players who can make a difference. Recruiting is the key to building the program.
And it starts with the next head coach.
* * *
There are a couple of different directions that Tom Osborne can go for a new basketball coach:
- The up-and-comer. The guy who coaches a mid-major team, wins his conference, and/or coaches a Cinderella team in the tournament. Since most coaches are hired at the end of the tournament, these are usually the hot names on the annual coaching carousel. While these mid-major guys can be high reward (remember when Bill Self was at Tulsa?) they can also be high risk (Doc Sadler and Barry Collier both ran successful mid-major programs).
- The top assistant. Look at the bench of any top 20 basketball team. Next to that household-name coach is an assistant who likely wants to run their own program. What they lack in head coaching experience they hopefully make up for in recruiting expertise, hunger, and knowledge gained by sitting next to a big time coach for several years. Again, there is a risk (Matt Doherty and Quin Snyder) and a reward (Roy Williams).
- The reclamation project. This is the guy who was an established head coach, but was fired or walked away from the game. You’re trading name recognition and buzz for the potential of baggage and negative feedback. Think Bob Knight at Texas Tech, Bob Huggins at Kansas State, or Rick Majerus at St. Louis.
Even though it is Tom Osborne making the hire, I think you can rule out the reclamation project. Osborne still stings over the negativity received from giving Lawrence Phillips a second chance, and I don’t think he’s in a rush to put his reputation out there again at this point in his career.
I’d recommend avoiding the up-and-comer like the plague. Why? Again, it comes down to recruiting. Barry Collier could recruit players to win in the Horizon league. Doc Sadler got 27 wins in the WAC. Both are considered brilliant coaches. But neither could recruit the talent needed to win in the Big XII/B1G.
Coaches can win in the low and mid-major levels on their basketball intellect alone. A good coach can use the X’s & O’s to overcome a lack of talent. But in the power conferences, a mastery of X’s & O’s isn’t enough. Most of the top programs have coaches who know all the tricks, and how to defeat those tricks. You might be able to out-coach somebody once or twice, but over time the tricks stop working and the athletically superior teams will win. It is the players who make the difference.
That leaves us with my preference – the top assistant. I want a guy who knows what a successful, power conference program looks like. I want a coach who has recruiting ties to the AAU programs and big-time schools where the talented kids play.
* * *
What to look for in a new coach:
- Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. Folks in this state make a big deal about football recruiting, but the simple truth is that a single blue chip basketball player can make a bigger impact than a single football recruit. The current recruiting strategy of “he’s over 6’9″ and he has a pulse” isn’t working. Who is going to have better access to top flight talent: a guy who has sat at the right hand of a legendary coach through several Final Fours, or the guy who coached Middle Major Polytechnic to the Sweet 16?
- Play the AAU game. Michigan’s coach said that preparing for NU was tough because he doesn’t know anything about the Nebraska players – notably “I’ve never seen them in any AAU games”. Look, I’m not saying that you must have AAU guys to win, but it is definitely tougher to win without them. Yes, pulling kids out of AAU programs is shady at best, and morally corrupt at worst. But it has to be easier than scouring the globe looking for tall guys who can get into college. I’m hoping our coach (or at least one of his assistants) has some good AAU ties.
- A dynamic personality who can sell the program and inspire the fans. The program needs somebody who can start some buzz, and energize a fan base that has had their hearts stomped on by every basketball coach Nebraska has employed. In other words, the anti-Barry Collier.
- Somebody who can coach. Newsflash – Nebraska has little talent and even less depth. It will be key to find a coach who can get the mules to play while he gets the horses ready to run.
Whomever Tom Osborne hires is walking into a potentially great situation. Nebraska has a practice facility that is widely considered the best (i.e. newest and shiniest) in the country. The new downtown arena should be a great replacement for the Devaney Center (a.k.a. the Lincoln Library). The Big Ten is one of the best basketball leagues in the country (another good reason why avoiding a one year wonder mid-major coach is a good idea).
And most importantly, the Nebraska fans who will support a winning team and an entertaining product. Remember, the football team has sold out every single game since 1962. The volleyball team has a sellout streak of over 11 years. Now – tell somebody that you are a basketball season ticket holder. You’ll get a look that is equal parts disbelief and pity.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
* * *
Fast forward five years: Nebraska’s basketball program is on the rise.
The first year was rough – graduation, injuries, and poor recruiting left the roster in shambles. But the new coach managed to finish 9th in the conference and eek out an NIT bid.
From there, things got much, much better.
The Pinnacle Bank Arena opened, and Nebraska enjoyed its first consistent home court advantage* since Danny Nee’s glory days. Sellouts become the norm – not just an exception when a good team comes to town. There is a buzz in Haymarket when Nebraska plays and the restaurants and bars are full of fans dressed in red.
*Put the students on floor, behind both baskets, and behind the other team’s bench. Let the students sit court side. Let the big money fans sit in their suites and their club seating. Make it uncomfortable for teams to play here.
Recruiting picks up. A true blue chip prospect decides that he wants to be the one to turn the program around. Sure, he left for the NBA after two standout seasons, but he proved that Nebraska can be a winner, and the talent follows him to Lincoln.
And the results come. After that rough first year, the second wasn’t much better: 19-14, with a late run sparking talk of the NCAA bubble.
But from there it takes off. Year 3 – Nebraska finishes 6th in the conference, and makes the championship of the Big Ten tournament before losing. They get into the dance as an 8 seed, but get clipped by a hot shooting team that goes on to upset the #1 seed in the second round.
In Year 4, it finally happens. Nebraska gets back into the tournament as a 10 seed and knocks off a 7, earning the first tournament win in school history. Nebraska loses in the second round, but now we have the taste.
Year 5 – Nebraska finishes 2nd in the conference, is ranked in the top 25 all year, and makes the tournament as a 4 seed. They roll in their first round game, and look amazing in making it to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history. Their chance to get to the Elite 8 is derailed by buzzer beating three.
* * *
I know some of you are dismissing that last section as the naive dreams of an ignorant fan. Basketball can never be successful at a football school, and especially not at Nebraska.
I know. I get it.
But it has been done before.
And it can happen again.