Telltale signs suggest Nebraska football will travel bumpy road – a rebuttal

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Last year, Omaha World-Herald columnist Lee Barfknecht opined about how a “lack of toughness” within the program and athletic department was responsible for holding Nebraska back.

Instead, it was little more than a platform for Lee to go through his big list of grievances about Shawn Eichorst, Mike Riley, and ‘kids these days.’

I had some fun taking Lee to task for some of his curious takes and flimsy logic, (which you can read here).

Apparently, a Barknecht screed is now a preseason rite of passage, because the 2017 version dropped on Monday.  This time, instead of railing on a vague concept, Lee is cherry-picking events from the offseason to build a narrative of tough times ahead.

As we did last time, Lee’s words are in bold.  Mine are not.

*   *   *

Hi, Husker fans. Long time no football.

Hi Lee!  For as much fun as I like to have with your columns, I truly do respect you as a journalist – even if you blocked me on Twitter for no good reason.*

*As near as I can tell, I was blocked because the replies to a tweet I was on were cluttering his mentions. At the time, I had not tweeted anything derogatory about him or his work.  

Admittedly, I have probably earned that block since then – with some more to come on this page.  That said, I would humbly ask for a second chance.  

Fortunately, that ends this week, which makes it time for my Big Ten prediction column focused more on Nebraska than my usual conference-wide observations.

Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but I don’t see any Nebraska predictions in here.  Drop a comment if you see one.

With The World-Herald’s extensive coverage of Husker football, there isn’t a lot left unreported. So every year I “gather string” — tidbits, observations and impressions through the offseason — to weave into a preseason column without getting in the way of our beat writers.

Let’s call this what it is:  Lee is looking through an offseason’s worth of articles and moments hoping to find vinegar to pour in the state’s Big Red Kool Aid.

I’d also be curious to know what his beat writer colleagues at the World-Herald think of him doing these drive-by columns about NU football that they have to respond to on their various chats and radio appearances.


As you saw in our Sunday football spectacular, I’ve pegged Nebraska fourth in the West Division and seventh overall in the 14-team league with records of 7-5 and 5-4. No profanity, please, as you respond.

No profanity from me. I haven’t done my Big Ten predictions yet, but I don’t anticipate having them fourth in the West.  However, third is definitely an option.

Seven wins is also a very real possibility given the changes and inexperience.

What follows isn’t a direct explanation of why I picked those records. A lot of that was in the special section.

No, this is definitely NOT a direct explanation.  It’s more of an exercise to make 2 + 2 = 5.

But this look back offers big-picture clues as to why Year 3 under Mike Riley — and it is Year 3, not some bogus reset to a first-year situation as some try to claim — won’t be easy.

Are there media members or bloggers out there who are trying to reset the clock?  Yes, the offense, defense, and special teams will all be different than they were a year ago, but I haven’t seen anybody try to make the case that this is not Year 3.  If so, that person is wrong.

Let’s rewind the calendar.

Dec. 30

We’re in the tunnel beneath Nissan Stadium for interviews after the Music City Bowl, which Nebraska lost 38-24 to unranked Tennessee.

That fourth loss in six games guaranteed that NU — once as high as No. 7 last season — would fall out of the final rankings. It also marked the third straight season the Huskers were a Top 25 no-show at season’s end. They haven’t been higher than 14th in a final poll since 2001.

Those are some ugly, painful stats.

You might think getting your butt kicked and tumbling out of the polls would demand some quiet reflection.

Not for some Nebraska players.

Hollering, laughter and clowning around were noticeable. During an interview with receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, a teammate — I’ll save him the embarrassment this time by not identifying him — began messing with Pierson-El, then grabbed a TV cameraman’s microphone and asked goofy questions between bursts of laughter.

I’ll concur that this is not the reaction I want to see after any loss – even if more and more people are coming to the conclusion that bowl games outside the playoffs and “New Year Six” are mostly meaningless exhibitions with a gift bag and trip to Sea World.

I love Lee’s implied threat of “I’ll save him the embarrassment this time”.  Listen here, you dang kids. If you don’t give 110% and punch a wall after a loss, I’m gonna make you wear this scarlet letter.  Now get off of my lawn!

Look: if the player in question did his “clowning” in front of a TV camera, I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s not all that concerned with being called out by a columnist.

Seeing such goofball behavior from a losing team was a first for me in 37 bowl trips. If it matters more to the fans than the players, that’s an issue. Average teams are led by coaches. Players lead great teams.

You may recall that the last time we did this exercise, we played a game of “Lee Barfknecht Bingo”, marking our cards whenever Lee uses some of his favorite recurring bits.  If you’d like to play along, start off by marking “Lee references the length of his career” and “Lee passes a cliche off as sage wisdom”.

And it is definitely worth noting, as Mike Schaefer reminded us on Twitter Monday night, that after that loss he “(w)atched as Mick Stoltenberg, Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis stood in Nissan Stadium and swore to each other 2017 would be different…”

Maybe Lee didn’t witness that scene.  Maybe he didn’t read about it in the World-Herald. Or maybe it just didn’t fit his narrative.  I don’t know.

Jan. 11

Riley fired defensive coordinator Mark Banker, a move with a lot of layers to peel back.

Riley and Banker were close friends for 20 years, yet Banker was fired over the phone. And Banker never got a heads-up, otherwise he would have been at the national coaches’ convention looking for a job instead of visiting family in Oregon, then leaving to recruit for NU.

Certainly, the circumstances of Banker’s firing were unfortunate.  In a perfect world, Banker and Riley could have met face to face, discussed why the change was being made, shook hands, and maintained their friendship.

But big time college athletics doesn’t always provide the time for perfect world scenarios. In the press conference to introduce Bob Diaco, Riley said he had to move quickly to get Diaco to Lincoln:   “You can understand how hard this was for me, knowing Mark and working with him for as long as I have.  I can understand why he is (mad). That is not the way I would have done it. Like I said, I ran in to a logistical problem that, I think you guys can figure it out just the timing of everything. To get done what we did, I had to do it.”

Besides, tell me how the logistics work to avoid firing Banker over the phone.  Does Riley tell Banker to cut his vacation short?  Or maybe he tells him to forget about the recruiting trip and come back to Lincoln. Do you think it is more respectful to your friend of 20 years to leave him dangling and wondering just so you can say it to his face?

Makes you wonder how good that friendship was, or if other fingerprints coated the trigger.

There it is!  We made it almost halfway through the column without the patented “veiled shot at Shawn Eichorst”.  Mark those bingo cards!

As for the change itself, it was needed.

Banker and special teams coach Bruce Read, also let go, reminded me of assistants we used to see at Missouri or Kansas or Iowa State on our Big Eight Skywriters tours of the 1980s and early 1990s. Those schools had good, earnest people working hard at their jobs, but not projecting the “it factor” you saw with aides at the championship-contending programs.

That’s harsh, but there is a difference. In football, with nine full-time assistants and soon to be 10, it’s essential to assemble a staff with no weak links.

So to recap, according to this column: Riley botched the firing of Banker, disrespecting his friend of 20 years – if they were even friends at all.  Or maybe you believe an evil puppet master orchestrated the entire thing.  Look at the drama!  The scandal!  The conspiracies!  How deep does it go???

But, oh by the way, firing Banker was absolutely the right call because it was obvious to Lee that Banker didn’t have what it takes to be on a championship caliber staff.

Give me a break.

Despite what your critics say, you are better than this Lee.

Jan. 14

Bob Diaco, fired as coach at Connecticut after 26 losses in 37 games, gets hired as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator.

Football is filled with men who are strong coordinators but wobbly head coaches.

Anybody else completely shocked that Lee passed on the chance to cite Bo Pelini as an example?  If Lee is going to not swing at a fastball grooved down the middle of the plate, we may not get our bingo today.

Diaco has sparkling credentials as a defensive coach — he won the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in 2012 at Notre Dame — and now is back in what looks like a more comfortable role.

His passion, enthusiasm and jump remind me some of when Kevin Steele joined Tom Osborne’s staff in 1989 as linebackers coach.

Steele’s lively personality and toughness quotient was notable.

Sorry, the bingo square is for “Lee questions toughness” not toughness quotient.

He influenced Osborne after the stale end to the 1990 season to increase the amount of “good-on-good” scrimmaging — something past players often cite as important to the championship years that followed.

Diaco gets a lot of attention for zipping around at practice and interacting with players. He has a ways to go, though, to catch up to Steele, who once jumped into a live scrimmage pile at practice and broke his collarbone.

I would love to read the OWH column after Nebraska’s $825,000 coordinator breaks his collarbone diving into a scrum at a practice.

Steele also was a good enough conversationalist, cook and card player during home visits with a mom in Florida to convince her that Nebraska would be the best place for her son to play college football. So save the total hero worship of Diaco until he signs a Tommie Frazier.

Sorry Bob. You need to recruit one of the greatest players in college football history before we can appreciate you.

A final note: Some of the smartest football people I know say it almost always takes a full year to transition well from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4.

This cautionary anecdote is delightfully vague.  What constitutes a transition of “well” from “good enough for Big Ten West offenses” or “better than what Banker did”?  What happened in the cases where it did not take a full year?

April 18

Riley named Tulane transfer Tanner Lee the starting quarterback for 2017. It was a good move. Lee has experience, talent and a personality that draws respect.

Now, Lee must perform, which we really have no idea how he will at this level week in and week out.

Without digging through his archives, I’d guess makes Lee the first Nebraska quarterback to draw praise from Lee since Joe Ganz, or maybe Zac Taylor.

But Husker fans now have a job, too. Give the guy a chance without smothering him with expectations. The hype machine has veered out of control on this deal.

I’m thinking we should add a Bingo space for “Lee asks Nebraska fans to do something he knows they are not capable of doing”.  Of course, NU fans are expecting the world from Tanner Lee.  The Tanner Lee Hype Train left the station a long time ago.

May 2

Nebraska football fans, as The World-Herald knows, are the beast that must be fed. So one of our writers, Evan Bland, called Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson for an offseason story on NU’s opening opponent.

Normally, such foes offer thanks for the chance to play in Memorial Stadium (while cashing a seven-figure check) and discuss how it will help their program grow.

Not this time.

“They’re beatable,” Anderson said. “They’re really good, but if we play our best and we don’t turn the ball over … it’s a game that’s winnable. We’re looking for that ‘signature win,’ and playing Nebraska at their place gives you that opportunity.”

Let that soak in.

This is what happens when a once historically significant football program slowly accepts less and less while gravitating toward mediocrity. You get trash-talked by Arkansas State. Not Arkansas, but Arkansas State.

Lots to cover here, so let’s do some bullets:

  • I can understand why Lee thinks Nebraska fans are a “beast”, but show a little respect for the “beast” that has kept you gainfully employed for almost 40 years.
  • I hardly think “They’re beatable…if we play our best and we don’t turn the ball over” qualifies as “trash-talk”.  It’s a generic statement that applies to 99% of college football games.
  • Does anybody still expect opposing coaches to genuflect at the altar of Nebraska Football before taking their big check and 48 point loss back to their mid-major conference?  College football is in an era of unprecedented parity where FCS schools beat Power Five teams, and teams like Boise State, Northern Illinois, and Western Michigan put together 12-0 seasons.  So forgive me if I don’t get my undies in a bunch because a PJ Fleck wanna-be is instilling confidence in his team.
  • I’ll need a ruling on if phrases like “a once historically significant football program” and “gravitating toward mediocrity” are considered trash-talk or trolling.  I have my opinion on this.

June 9

Freshman wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson Jr. was cited by campus police for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana and drug paraphernalia in a dorm room.

Johnson, from Calabasas, California, and his father — Keyshawn Sr. — helped start the “Calibraska” recruiting movement that led to multiple signings and commitments from that area. Riley was the offensive coordinator at USC in the mid-1990s when Johnson Sr. was an All-America receiver for the Trojans.

Johnson Sr. drew national praise for removing his son from school and sending him home.

“One thing you will not do as my son,” he said, “is you will not embarrass Nebraska, you will not embarrass Mike Riley and you will not embarrass this family. If you mature and you’re ready to resume your football career and academic goals, then Nebraska will be ready to embrace you.”

That’s beautiful.

I agree.  I loved Keyshawn Sr.’s strong stance and his willingness to step in to keep his son on the right path.

But then Johnson Sr. kept talking.

During an interview with ESPN about the incident, he included this message to his son:

“If you want to smoke weed when you’re 30 years old, do all you want. In fact, I’ll buy you a forest if that’s the case.”

That leaves me speechless. Is that the hood-ornament Nebraska wants on its recruiting machine?

The first time I read this column, the phrase “hood-ornament” stopped me in my tracks. I am in no way making any claims or suggesting any ill intent, so let’s just say I found that to be a poorly phrased metaphor.  May I suggest a more direct approach: “Is that the message Nebraska wants from the very public face of the Calibraska movement?”

While we’re on the subject of marijuana, it’s interesting that in his timeline of dubious offseason events, Lee does not mention the arrest of Stanley Morgan, Jr. and Antonio Reed.

July 5

Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez promoted Chris McIntosh to deputy athletic director. McIntosh, 40, was a Badgers starting offensive tackle from 1996-99 and has risen rapidly in the department since being hired in 2014 as director of business development.

Why should Nebraska fans care about this?

Answer:  you shouldn’t, but it gives Lee an excuse to talk about Eichorst.

As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, McIntosh is in full grooming mode to replace Alvarez, 70, whose contract runs through 2019-20.

So if you were worried about former Wisconsin associate A.D. and current Nebraska A.D. Shawn Eichorst going back to Buckyland — or hoping he would — that looks like a no-go.

Lee, you have my sympathies on this. Here’s hoping that with Wisconsin apparently off the table, Eichorst will finally grant you those regular all-access interviews you so desperately want.

By the way, Eichorst has 750,000 reasons for Nebraska to have a really good football season.

That is the dollar amount of his deferred compensation agreement — according to an Oct. 3, 2012, document — payable “if you continue to be employed as UNL athletic director until Dec. 31, 2017.” He gets a pro-rated amount if he isn’t.

It’s always a big year in Nebraska football. With Eichorst and Riley stitched together at the hip, it’s really big for them.

I know it didn’t go down like this, but I absolutely love the mental image of Lee pouring over Eichorst’s contract with a magnifying glass looking for ways that he could be ousted and replaced with an old-school guy who invites all the “old scribes” up to his office for a weekly “bourbon and bull___” session that is equal parts on and off the record.

Aug. 11

Nebraska announces that the athletic department, starting in 2018, will contribute $5 million annually to a scholarship fund to NU students who aren’t in athletics.

Husker athletics already has been donating yearly to the school, with the amount to be used at the chancellor’s discretion “toward the academic mission.” In 2016, the total was $5.2 million.

Eichorst said in the university’s release that the new scholarship program “is made possible by the Huskers’ dedicated fan base and partners.”

But a sprinkling of “dedicated fans and partners,” according to my phone messages and emails, are far from onboard with this gift.

Who the heck is calling Lee Barfknecht to bitch about the athletic department giving scholarship money to UNL?  And why?

I’d love to see/hear the messages Lee gets from Husker fans. I’m positive it would be an eye-opening experience in many ways.

These Big Red fans want the money they spend on football to go to football. They want relief from what they say are too-high season ticket prices. And they question what they perceive as out-of-touch donation levels while athletic department money is spent elsewhere.

Between the seemingly obvious notion that football funds the rest of the athletic department to the likelihood that “fan base and partners” refers much more to TV money than fan donations, we could spend 1,000 words exposing the ignorance in these statements.

But here’s the thing:  Lee is smart enough to already know these things.  Which leads me to (again) conclude that he’s passing on a couple of emails and voice mails as the voice of donors and season ticket holders.  Much like his thoughts on Banker’s firing, Lee is willingly throwing things he doesn’t believe against the wall, hoping they’ll stick enough for him to make some larger point.

I’m with Chancellor Ronnie Green and Eichorst on this one. NU is an educational enterprise first and foremost. A scholarship program that goes to regular Janes and Joes on campus deserves praise.

Of course it does. Other than giving legitimacy to the cranks who think tickets should be the same price as they were when the stadium held 76,000 people, this topic item has done nothing constructive.

Yet the university’s “front porch” — athletics — must be maintained, too. We hear regularly from Eichorst about the “Student-Athlete Experience.” Reports on the happiness level from the “Donor/Ticket-Buyer Experience” don’t seem as readily available.

Of course, we hear regularly about the “Student-Athlete Experience”.  I’d argue it is a big component of Eichort’s job.  Even if you want to be cynical and say that he only talks up the Student-Athlete Experience to help recruiting that is still a good thing in my opinion.

As for the reports on the “Donor/Ticket-Buyer Experience”, I would point Lee towards the sign inside Memorial Stadium that says “354 Consecutive Sellouts”, Nebraska Volleyball’s sellout streak in an 8,000 seat arena, and the 12-19 basketball team he covers that was eleventh in the nation in attendance.

I’d argue if the “Experience” was not good, fans would not be buying tickets and especially donating for the privilege.  Obviously, I’d love it if my football tickets cost what they did as a student in 1993 ($56 total for seven home games), but I’m realistic.

If Lee wants to make a point on the lack of championships by NU programs, he is definitely welcome to beat that horse again (and probably will this fall).  But it still doesn’t really fall under “Donor/Ticket Buyer Experience”.

You’d hope more than a few of the 22 people in NU athletic administration paid more than $100,000 annually — topped by Eichorst’s $1,108,877 for 2017-18 — are truly monitoring how the supporters feel, too.

Keep in mind, Lee’s basing his theory of supporters being unhappy on some emails and voice mails he received because the athletic department had the nerve to give money to UNL for scholarships – a move that Lee heartily endorsed.  So can we just ignore this entire section?

Finally, a pet peeve:  Is there a lazier way to make an argument than to cite somebody’s salary? Let me try it out:

You’d hope more than a few of the people involved the World-Herald’s Nebraska athletics coverage paid more than $50,000 annually – topped by Barfknecht’s $100,000 – are truly monitoring how the readers feel about rambling, rabble-rousing columns aimed at garnering clicks.


I agree with Dave…Lee is worthless reporting!?

Dave I enjoyed reading your rebuttal and your other articles. Honestly I don’t put much stock in Lee’s article. I don’t read his stuff. Always feels like a downer. Anyway, thanks for the article and keep up the good work.

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