Kenny Bell

Holiday Cotton Bowl

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Feit Can Write

Quotaggedon

The days following Nebraska’s blowout loss at Wisconsin have been anything but dull.  One of the prevalent themes I’ve noticed are fans and media reacting (or in some cases, overreacting) to things said by coaches and players.  Here are four quotes that have been triggered the most reaction this week:

From Josh Mitchell on if NU should wear their Blackshirts in practice this week*:

“Personally, no I don’t think we should (wear them).  I think they stand for something better than we put out on film. I think it would kind of just be a disgrace to the former players who earned the right to wear them if we went out and wore them at practice this week.”

*It is worth noting that Mitchell was one of a handful of defensive starters who wore their Blackshirt to practice later the same day, which certainly played a big role in this quote getting legs.

From Jake Cotton on why the offensive line tends to commit false start penalties in big games:

“You’re just so dialed-in to what you’re going to do during the play.  You gotta take this footwork, you gotta do this, you gotta do that. And so I think when you’re thinking about all that stuff, you kind of get tunnel vision, and that’s when it hurts you.

“The lack of concentration isn’t that we were just thinking about class or girls or anything like that. It’s that we were thinking about the play and should have been more dialed-in to the snap count.”

From Kenny Bell on talk that Pelini should be fired:

“Anybody who says (Pelini) needs to go is crazy.  It’s literally insane. If nine wins, 10 wins isn’t good enough for you, man, I don’t know who you should be a fan of, honestly.

“The guy can’t do much more but win. Obviously, we want conference championships. But sometimes it’s not in the cards. It’s not easy to come out and win every single week.

“Give me a break. It’s absurd. It’s like me telling the mailman since he missed my mail a day, or dropped one in the snow, he should be fired. It blows my mind sometimes, the way people think.”

And finally, from Bo Pelini responding to a caller to his radio who asked about the direction of the program:

“If that isn’t the right direction, then you have a conversation with Shawn Eichorst and they’re free to go in another direction.”

I’m sure you can imagine the amount of hot takes, Twitter rage, indignant calls to sports talk shows, and pontificating that resulted from those quotes.

I’ll freely acknowledge that I probably could opine for 2,000 words on each one of these quotes.

But that would make me a hypocrite considering what I’m about to write…

 *   *   *

It is completely understandable that after an ugly loss, fans and media will try to look for answers.  They’ll try to find root causes, seek evidence to support their theories, or try to find ammunition to further their agenda about the program and its leadership.  But reading too much into a single quote – especially when you may not know the context or inflection with which it was said – is dangerous territory.

The example I’ll give is the infamous “we don’t need him” quote from Pelini after the 2013 UCLA game – where the “him” in question was Husker legend Tommie Frazier.  When you read those four words, they smack you right in the face, and force you to take notice – which is why media outlets who are primarily concerned about clicks, page views, and web traffic used that quote in their headline.

But…

Did you ever hear the audio of Pelini saying those words?  He was not particularly forceful, not in Angry Bo mode, nor did it appear as if he had those remarks cued up and ready to go.*

*Which was a separate mistake that I discussed here.

In the audio, he pauses and stammers and it appears as if he momentarily searches for a way to better articulate his feelings before saying “we don’t need him”.  That’s not me being a Pelini apologist, that is factual.  (And if you really want to look at things from an impartial standpoint – instead of one that is reverent to an all time great – to a certain extent, Pelini had a point – but is a separate conversation)

The point is, blind reaction to quotes without knowing context is a fool’s game.  Yet, how often do we seek out the context of a quote or listen/watch it being said before we react?

*   *   *

One of the other things that stuck in my craw after Saturday’s loss was the tweets from a handful of Nebraska media members who made a point of noting that no defenders chose to speak to the media, nor did quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr.  The way these tweets came across, it felt to me like these players were being called out for ducking the media, with the implication being that by not talking they were failing as team leaders.

Certainly, I can understand this from a media perspective.  If I am relying on player quotes to round out my article or highlight package that has to be done on a tight deadline, it must be frustrating to not get any useful material.  I would want to be able to quote the quarterback or the captains – not the punter.

But as a fan?  I don’t lose sleep over a lack of generic noise (“we had a good week of practice”, “we need to go get ready for a very tough team next week”, “tip your cap to Wisconsin”).  For the most part, the sound bytes they get are filler with no nutritional value.

Unless those sound bytes contain something a little too honest, a little too juicy, or something that can be interpreted in multipe ways.  Then, that media member has suddenly stumbled on the foundation for a separate article, column, or radio segment,,,

*   *   *

If I were a college football player, I would really question what is the benefit for me to talk to the media.

Giving interviews isn’t going to help my grades, get me more playing time, help me win awards, or boost my draft stock.  I can’t (legally) make money off my name, likeness, or sales of my jersey number, so being active with the media isn’t going to make me more marketable.

I’ve already been a highly touted athlete for years, so seeing my name in the paper or my face on TV probably is not as big of a thrill as it once was.  Maybe a cute girl sees me on TV and hits me up on Facebook or Twitter, but as a big time college athlete, meeting girls is probably not a big issue for me.

Seriously, why should athletes talk to the media?

I’ve heard some fans and media members who say that players need to be “accountable” by talking after games.  Giving interviews shows “leadership”, “integrity”, and other inspirational adjectives that make middle-aged guys feel good.

When a player declines an interview request after a game (win or lose) some fans and media are quick to call him out and make thinly veiled swipes at his leadership and maturity (see also: Martinez, Taylor).  But when that player does speak, we’re all too quick to put his words under the microscope or run them through some super computer to filter out clichés and check for sincerity,  signs of dissent, or other hidden messages that may be lurking between the lines.

It is a ridiculous double standard.  Why should a player have to deal with that?

*   *   *

Wednesday morning, Mike Schaefer co-hosted the Sharp & Benning radio show.  During a discussion about Bell’s remarks, he Schaefer offered an excellent (and telling) opinion:

“We (the fans and media) elevate a spur of the moment quote from an 18-22 year old kid.”

“(As a professional who covers the team) I put too much weight on a kid that is 21 that is probably thinking when I’m asking him the question ‘I wonder what they have at the training table for dinner tonight?  I hope it’s this’ or ‘I can’t wait to see my girlfriend’.

“I don’t think they actively sit and think about the questions of which we ask them as much as we actively sit and rehash the 12 second quote that comes out of it.  Which is how you end up with players saying things like Josh Mitchell…And then you have people going on tirades on the message board.

“So much gets made of these quotes of in the moment situations for guys that are 18-22 that aren’t putting as much thought into it when they say it, as people are in evaluating every single line in that quote.”

*   *   *

My purpose in writing this is not to say that we should stop interviewing student athletes.  We do learn a lot about these young men through the interviews and profile pieces done by the talented journalists in the Nebraska press corps.  Likewise, I’m not saying that we ignore or discount the things student athletes say in their interview and press conferences.  There are important insights than can be gleaned and valuable pieces of information that can be ascertained – even if the messenger is thinking more about that hottie in Econ than he is on the impact his words may have when they hit the front page of the Sports section tomorrow morning.*

*And maybe, another action item is for the Athletic Department to make sure their student athletes have some media training / public speaking experience under their belt before they are released into the land of microphones and smart phones.  Teach them to think before they speak, consider the impact of their words, and help them understand the role the media plays – and how that can benefit the player and program.  

I would hope (if not assume) that the University is already doing this, but if you have senior captains saying things that make folks inside the program cringe, it might be worth increasing your efforts.

In my opinion, the pendulum on how we as fans and consumers of the Nebraska Football media machine has swung too far to one side.  We look for “gotcha” moments and words that support our pet theories instead of taking what a player says at face value.  It is a behavior that could ultimately threaten the type and amount of access and information we crave.  So stop over-analyzing every word to come out of a 20-year-old kid’s mouth.

You can quote me on that.

Husker Hot Takes – 5/28/14

The initial installment of Husker Hot Takes was fun and fairly well received, so we’ll do another round…

1.  The Athletic Department is advertising football season tickets for the first time in a long time.  Should we be worried about the coveted sellout streak?

Okay…technically, the ticket office is advertising the ability to join the wait list for season tickets.  You go to a NU Ticket Office website, select how many tickets you would like, pay a non-refundable $25 deposit, and…that’s as far as I went (I currently have tickets and don’t currently have a need for more).  My guess is in one of the next steps you’re asked how much you’d be willing to donate for season tickets.  My assumption is your response to that question plays a big role in where you end up in line.  (Feel free to correct me where my assumptions are wrong).

First off, does anybody remember the last time Nebraska was advertising football tickets for home games?  In my freshman year at UNL (1993) a letter went out to parents of students giving them the opportunity to buy season tickets, but I’m not aware of anything since then.  (Again, feel free to share information in the comments.)

Maybe this is nothing to be alarmed about, and the University is just restocking the backlog of requests (and seeing if they can generate some new donations).  Or maybe the new East stadium expansion coupled with the increasing allure of watching games at home is putting the vaunted sellout streak – the only thing still standing after the Solich and Callahan eras – in real jeopardy?  We all saw the empty pockets of seats in several home games.  Is that a sign of fan apathy?

I don’t know.  What I do know is the proposed changes for the game day experience coming this fall (better Wi-Fi, better tunes, etc.) should help swing the pendulum from Watch at Home to Watch In Person.  (I also think there is room for more improvements to game day, but that is a separate topic).  Regardless, I do have concerns about the streak.

But, I also think that if you were able to get in on that ticket offer in 1993, you got to see some amazing teams.

2.  Buy Beer in Memorial Stadium?

I recently read a column from Brandon Cavanaugh on HuskerCorner.com entitled “Beer Should Flow in Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium This Fall

With no disrespect to Cavanaugh, I have to say:  No.

It’s not just that conservative Nebraska would never go for it (although that should not be underestimated), it’s that the column doesn’t give me a lot of good reasons for why it should happen.

Cavanaugh cites information from Big Ten peer Minnesota that notes how the Gophers actually lost around $180,000 on beer sales last year (partially due to one-time expenditures), and will likely only see a relatively small profit ($15,000) this year.  Okay, so if we’re not doing it to make money, then why should we do it?

Cavanaugh points to the “fan experience”.  In short, fans who tailgate/prime/pick-your-name-for-pregame-boozing ride an alcohol fueled high for the 1st and 2nd quarters, but as they sober up, the second half is flatter than three day old keg beer.  Additionally, Cavanaugh says selling beer would help keep the students around longer, and give a much-needed boost to the “rowdy” factor.

Yeah…Let’s start with the “fan experience”.  I can think of several non-11 am kickoffs where the crowd in the first quarter has been fairly reserved.  And we all can remember many games where the crowd was deafeningly loud in the fourth quarter.  Were these things impacted by the fans sobriety – or lack thereof?  Nope, I think crowd involvement has more to do with the action on the field than the number of Jim Beam and Cokes I consumed prior to the game.  Obviously, opponents and kickoff times matter.  But even with beer being sold in the stadium, an 11 am kick against Illinois will never match the buzz of a night game against Michigan (pun intended).

As for the student section, Cavanaugh notes that the section is often littered with bottles of hard alcohol.  It’s been several years since I sat over there, but that sure sounds familiar.  Would selling beer in the stadium really make a big dent in those empties?  It says here that students are famously short on cash.  Spending $6 for a 16 oz beer is okay, but the thrifty student knows the bigger bang for their buck is sneaking in a half pint of booze and buying one or two sodas.

Bottom line: I think beer has a better chance of flowing at Pinnacle Bank Arena than Memorial Stadium.  Regardless, I think it will take more than “boosting the fan experience” to get alcohol sales past the Board of Regents.

3. Kenny Bell claims he cuts his hair.  Mass hysteria ensues.

On Tuesday, Kenny Bell tweeted that he “lost a bet” and had to “shave the fro”, accompanied by a picture showing Bell without his glorious head of hair.

I’ll go on record:  I don’t buy it.

I don’t know if the picture was altered, really old, or featured some sort of miracle head band*, but my first thought when I saw that tweet was “Kenny’s a little late with his April Fool’s joke”.

*And seriously, Kenny, if it does turn out to be a miracle head band, can you send me the details on where you got it?  My daughter can rock the ‘fro too, but sometimes we just need it out of the way.  Thanks.

If he truly did shave it, I’ll take it as a sign that he’s going to be locked in and laser focused for his senior season.  If not, I’ll continue to feel that Bell is a fun-loving guy who enjoys pulling a good prank on the media and fans.

4.  Where was BTN for Nebraska’s first round game of the B1G baseball tournament?

Games 1 and 2 (Illinois vs Michigan State and Ohio State vs Nebraska) were not shown.  Games 3 and 4 (Indiana vs Iowa and Minnesota vs Michigan) were shown live on BTN.  Adding to the injustice, instead of Nebraska – Ohio State, BTN viewers had a replay of the 2010 Insight Bowl (Iowa vs Missouri) and the 2007 game* between Purdue and Indiana.

*I get that BTN wants to showcase ALL of their schools, not just the marque brands like Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Penn State, but to consider any football game between Indiana and Purdue as one of “The Big 10’s Greatest Games”, is an insult to the intelligence of any BTN viewer.

I understand the disappointment and even some of the outrage.  That game, and especially the ninth inning comeback would have been fun to watch.  Heck, I even had some fun with it myself.  But at the end of the day, I’m not going to lose too much sleep about it.

Let’s face it:  BTN has spoiled us.  We expect that every football game, every basketball game, and every other key event from around the conference will be presented to us.  That is pretty cool.  Remember kids, we are not all that far removed from the days of paying $29.95 for pay-per-view (with those horrible Ticket Express ads) just to watch a home game.  Seriously, if this is the biggest event that BTN misses in 2014, we  have it pretty damn good.

5.  Who is the Most Disliked Person in Sports for Nebraska?

SI recently came out with a slide show of the “Most Disliked People in Sports” (Spoiler:  Donald Sterling wins easily).  No current Huskers made the list of 35 sporting figures (although Richie Incognito and Ndamukong Suh checked in at #4 and #13, respectively).  I saw a tweet from 1620’s Unsportsmanline Conduct asking who would top the Nebraska list.

Who would you pick?

The most common responses were rather predictable:  Bill Callahan, Kevin Cosgrove, and of course:  Steve Pedersen.  I’ll be honest:  my initial answer was Pedersen too.

But should it be?  I get it:  the man was grossly unpopular and is ultimately responsible for a lot of damage done to the football program and the athletic department as a whole.  “Gravitate towards mediocrity” is in the pantheon of infamous Husker quotes.  But c’mon.  It’s been nearly seven years since he was fired.  Since then Tom Osborne came back and helped us believe again.  We canned Callahan.  We joined a better conference.  The Lincoln campus is awash in beautiful new facilities, and teams in many, many sports are on the rise.  Football is as good – if not better – than it was when Solich was fired.

Shouldn’t we move on?

I’m not saying we should forgive and/or forget.  I’m saying we should move on.  Find somebody new to focus our collective dislike upon.

I just am not sure who yet, (but suggestions are welcome).

NCAA Pay for Play (P)

If you follow college sports – especially football or men’s basketball – there is one topic that continues to come up:  The notion of somehow compensating the athletes for the revenue they are bringing into their schools, their conferences, the NCAA, and all of the other entities who make a profit off of amateur athletics.

This compensation, be it in the form of stipends, income from the sale of their name/likeness, an actual “salary” from the schools, or anything else, would be in addition to the items student-athletes already receive (namely, a free education, room, board, and a healthy collection of athletic apparel).

I’ll be the first to admit there is a lot of hypocrisy in the current system.  I recently bought my daughter a replica Nebraska jersey with the number 80 on it.  Why number 80?  Let’s be honest:  it’s not because of Billy Haafke, Jamie Williams, Santino Panico, or any of the dozens of Huskers to have worn #80 over the past 125 years.  It’s because of the current #80, wide receiver Kenny Bell.  I like Bell as an athlete, and respect him as a person.  Plus, my daughter’s hair can do a spot-on impersonation of Bell’s glorious Afro.

That jersey cost me $24.99 at a store owned and operated by the University of Nebraska, located right across the street from Memorial Stadium.  That store had racks of #80 jerseys in home red, road white, and the black alternates from 2013 in every size from 12 months to 3XL.

This fall, I suspect there will be hundreds of fans in #80 jerseys at every home game.  I’m guessing very few of them will be wearing #80 to honor Husker greats Todd Frain, Jeff Jamrog, or Jermaine Bell.  They will wear those #80 jerseys because of Kenny Bell.

And as you probably already know:  Kenny Bell will not see a single penny from the sale of #80 jerseys.  That is just one example of a broken system.

*   *   *

Recently, one day before his University of Connecticut Huskies won the NCAA Basketball Tournament, guard Shabazz Napier told reports that “some nights I go to bed starving” because they don’t have enough money to buy food (and NCAA rules and the demands of in-season competition mean they cannot work) and they are unable to get extra meals from their school’s cafeteria/training table.

Yes, just last week the NCAA announced that all student-athletes, even walk-ons, will have access to unlimited meals and snacks, but Napier’s comments give credence to the notion that a “full-ride” scholarship may not cover things you and I consider basic.  For some, this is incredibly galling considering the NCAA Tournament brings in close to a billion (with a “B”) dollars in revenue, not including the billion (with another “B”) dollar TV contract with CBS.  Mark Emmert, the head of the NCAA, makes over a million dollars a year defending a system that – depending on your perspective – is either flawed or blatantly takes advantage of athletes under the guise of “amateurism”.

So should we give scholarship players a bigger slice of the pie, right?

*   *   *

Sure, it would be great if we could get some money for athletes, especially if we knew players were having to decide between paying the rent or eating dinner tonight.

But here’s the thing – and there really is no way of getting around it – for the majority of people, college is a time of poverty.  Tolerating a bunch of loud, obnoxious, dirty roommates so you can afford a place to sleep.  Subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches and ramen noodles.  Taking out hefty loans with horrible interest rates.  Busting your ass at a low paying, dead-end job.  And on and on.  Financially, the college years are brutal for most kids – especially those whose parents are unable to help out.

So why can’t we get some more money in the hands of the players – especially the ones who are creating the excitement and interest that helps the college sports machine print money for schools and coaches?  Forget the antiquated notion of “amateurism” or the Utopian ideal of the “student-athlete”.  The main reason schools cannot pay players is there is absolutely no way to do it fairly, evenly, and without opening up a Pandora’s Box of corruption.  Heck, the reason the NCAA rules are so bizarrely strict – where eating too much pasta is a potential violation – is largely to avoid improper benefits to players.  When you open the door to paying players, schools – and more appropriately, their boosters – will likely exploit whatever system gets put in place as they seek to pay the best players to come to College Town, USA.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s look at the popular suggestions for how we can supposedly better compensate players:

A flat stipend.  Every player at Big Football Tech gets X dollars per year in addition to their scholarship to cover the “full cost of attendance”.  The biggest question here is “How much?”, which spawns a list of follow-up questions:

  • Does everybody get the same amount?  Clearly, a star player like Johnny Manziel can have a pronounced financial impact on his school (even if the exact number is debatable).  So does Manziel get more than his fellow starting QBs in the SEC?  What about his teammates who helped Manziel earn those awards – the receivers who caught his passes, the linemen who blocked for him, the scout team defenders who helped prepare him for games?  Should they get the same amount?  And if not, how do you distinguish the levels/tiers?
  • Is there a cost of living adjustment?  Being a college student costs more in Los Angeles (UCLA, USC), Chicago (Northwestern), or the Bay Area (Stanford, Cal) than it does in Lincoln, Nebraska; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; or Waco, Texas.  Every wanna-be Trojan knows that $3,000 goes a lot farther in Troy, Alabama than it does in LA.
  • Does this essentially create a free agent system for incoming freshmen, where traditional recruiting is replaced by bidding wars?
  • What about athletes in other sports?  At schools like Duke and Kansas, the basketball team is more successful and can bring in more money than the football program.  Should those players get a cut?  What about the athletes competing in non-revenue Olympic sports, or teams like baseball where the equivalency of 11.7 scholarships are divided among a 27 man roster?  Surely those athletes face the same financial shortcomings as the football players.
  • How is it administered?  Does the NCAA dole out the cash?  Do the schools hand it out?  Or do we cut to the chase and let the stereotypical shady booster hand out envelopes full of unmarked bills?
  • Would this system make it harder or easier for additional under the table payments by “bag men“?

Own and sell yourself.  Next up, we give players the ability to market their name/image on jerseys, participate in paid autograph sessions, and promote products and local businesses while still a student-athlete.

In theory this makes sense – if somebody wants to pay $20 for Johnny Manziel’s autograph, buy their kid a #80 Husker jersey because they like Kenny Bell, or trade a tattoo for a Terrelle Pryor jersey, those players should get a cut, right?  But the potential for corruption abounds.

  • The defensive starters attend booster dinners where they sign autographs – at $100 a pop.
  • During recruiting, a coach promises Johnny Five-Star that if he comes to Football University, he’ll make $50,000 from jersey sales in his first two years.  If Johnny Five-Star is a bust, the citizens of some third world country will be wearing his jersey for the next decade.
  • Every car dealer in College Town USA has an endorsement deal with a star player who drives around campus in a new SUV for appearing in a couple of TV spots.

Make athletes paid “employees”.  Northwestern University players are attempting to organize a union that would make players “employees” of their schools, and make them eligible for medical coverage, four-year scholarships, and possibly compensation in addition to their scholarships.

Aside from the uncertainty over how this would impact public schools, the possibility for strikes/lock out, if the scholarship and other benefits would need to be taxed as income, and just what happens if a football player doesn’t want to be in a union, there is the minor hurdle of a prolonged legal battle before any college football union would ever truly start up.  Let’s circle back on this one in five to ten years.

 *   *   *

Where do I stand on all of this?

I don’t have a ton of sympathy for the Shabazz Napiers and others who bemoan how athletes are being taken advantage of and can barely afford to eat.

For tens of thousands of college students, college is a time of poverty, of working full-time while attending classes, of going to bed hungry, and waking up knowing that the things you do that day put more money in somebody else’s pocket than in your own.

But can we please stop with the notion that these guys are being taken advantage of?

First off, there are the things that scholarship athletes get that the general student population does not:  free education, books, housing, food, and clothing.  You can discount those things all you want, but they all have a very real financial benefit.

Secondly, there is the notion that guys are going hungry.  What is the real reason guys are going hungry?  Is it because they are being limited in the amount of food they can consume at the dining hall / training table?  Or that the cafeteria is closed when they’re done with practice, meetings, and study sessions?  Or is it because they’re not spending their money wisely*?  Regardless of the reason, all of those are things that can (and should) be corrected without the need to issue scholarship athletes a stipend.

*Yes, I am suggesting that some guys may be going to bed hungry because they are managing their money poorly.  Since I have no tangible proof, I won’t imply that players are blowing their food money on stereotypical extravagances (cars, tattoos, jewelry, designer clothes, etc.), but I will suggest that if players were better at managing and budgeting their money, they might have a full tummy at bedtime – even while recognizing that a 300 pound defensive tackle has greater caloric needs than the average college student struggling to make ends meet.

At the extreme risk of being hypocritical, I’ll concede that being financially responsible and fiscally conservative is a rare trait in most college aged kid – regardless of if they can dribble a basketball – but considering the laundry list of professional athletes who have blown through million dollar contracts and signing bonuses, maybe athletic departments should to do a better job of helping their athletes create and stick to a budget that allows them to eat and pay the rent.

The other thing that rubs me the wrong way about the paying players debate is the often alluded to notion that the athletes are indentured servants who are being taken advantage of by rich (white) men who sit in ivory towers unaware of the real struggles being faced.

While I am a (decidedly not rich) white man who may very well be out of touch, there is one that I’m pretty sure of:

Nobody is coercing these guys to go to college and deal with these harsh conditions.  I may not be familiar with the recruiting pitches being done by college football and basketball coaches, but I’m pretty sure none of them are forcing players to go to college against their will, or to remain at Big Time State University, starving, while their coach makes $4 million a year and the school’s TV deal brings in another 20 million.

For a basketball star like Shabazz Napier, there are ways to get to the NBA without ever stepping foot on a college campus.  Sure, it would be tough (if not impossible) for a guy to get to the NFL without spending a couple of years in college, but considering that most NCAA student-athletes go pro in something other than sports, the guys with NFL/NBA talent are the exception and not the rule.  The players with the next-level ability have to decide:  do they use college athletics as an unpaid stepping stone to becoming a high draft pick?  Is the potential for a big day pay worth putting up with a year or three of poverty?

For those of us who were not student-athletes, we likely faced a similar decision.  Do I work an unpaid internship over the summer, knowing that the experience and skills I gain should help land a better/higher paying job upon graduation?  Or do I work a paying job outside of my career field where the only benefit is a paycheck that allows me to buy name brand peanut butter?  The only differences between the athlete and the average student is the student’s internship likely will not lead to a six figure salary and it definitely didn’t come with your tuition paid for.

*   *   *

So where does all of this leave us?  What can the universities do to ensure their student-athletes aren’t going hungry or living in a cardboard box behind the stadium?  And what can the players do to help ensure they have enough spending money to put some gas in the tank, go on a date, or not have to live in a run-down dump with five other guys?  Here’s what I’d like to see:

  • Mandatory budgeting classes for all student-athletes.  You can argue that these are things high school graduates should know, but where is the harm in ensuring these kids know how to manage their money?
  • Make all athletic scholarships good for five years.  Many fans are familiar with the story:  Johnny Five-Star signs with big time SEC school, but after disappointing freshman and sophomore seasons, the coach decides to free up a scholarship by forcing Johnny to quit, transfer, or declare a bogus injury.  I propose that when a kid signs a letter of intent to play ball for your school, they are guaranteed five years of academic benefits, even if Coach decides that their athletic scholarship would best be used by another kid.  This stays in place even if the guy goes pro early and wants to come back to school after he washes out of the pros.
  • Provide full medical coverage for the full life of the scholarship.  Similar to honoring the “student” part of a student-athlete scholarship, allow  players to have access to team doctors and trainers while their five year academic calendar is ticking.  This would not be applicable for guys who have medical care from a professional league’s union.
  • Stop selling replica jerseys and shirts with the numbers of active players.  There is no plausible excuse for why school (and the NCAA) should make money off the uniform number of a current star player when the player doesn’t see a dime.  Instead, sell jerseys of guys who have exhausted their eligibility.  If I paid $24.99 for a #80 jersey with no name on the back this year, the odds are good that I would probably pay $29.99 for a #80 jersey that says “BELL” on it next year (Bell is entering into his senior season), especially if that extra five bucks is going to a guy who represented my school with talent and class.

 

 

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While you’re here, I’d appreciate a quick vote in my poll to see which Incomplete post I should finish next:  Vote here.

(Author’s note:  Wondering why there is a random letter in parentheses in the title of this post?  Not sure how this post corresponds to the daily letter in the April A to Z Challenge?  Like clicking on links?  These questions are all answered here.)

Greatest Huskers, by the Numbers: 89 – 80

This is my countdown of the greatest Nebraska Cornhuskers to wear each jersey number, 1-99.  For background on the project, click here.  We started at #99 and we’re working our way down to #1.  For each number, I’ll list the best player to wear that number, some of the other memorable Huskers to don that jersey, as well as a personal favorite of mine.

Next up are numbers 89 through 80.  There is a pretty even split between offense (split ends, wide receivers, tight ends, and a couple of wing backs) and defense (defense ends, rush ends, and linebackers).

89

Best Player:  Broderick Thomas, Outside Linebacker, 1985 – 1988
Other notables:  Frosty Anderson, Mitch Krenk, Junior Miller
Personal Favorite:  Thomas

Comments:  The Sandman was a player ahead of his time.  Big, fast, and brash he was a three time All Big 8 pick and two time All American.  Thomas was one of the first in Nebraska’s stretch of game changing pass rushers (including Mike Croel, Trev Alberts, Grant Wistrom, and others).  But yet, Thomas seems to be remembered more for what he said than what he did.  When you think about all of the trash talking players of today, making bold proclamations before games, its hard to believe that the Sandman was doing those things almost 30 years ago.  I liked the passion and swagger that Thomas brought to NU, and I can think of a number of teams since he left that could have used somebody with his personality (and talents).

88

Best Player:  Mike Croel, Outside Linebacker, 1987 – 1990
Other notables:  Eric Alford, Guy Ingles, Sheldon Jackson, Trevor Johnson
Personal Favorite:  Rod Smith, Split End, 1985 – 1988

Comments: Like Broderick Thomas, Croel was a pioneer in Nebraska’s run of disruptive pass rushers.  A stellar pass rusher, Croel helped anchor the defensive line.  I gave Croel the nod over Ingles mainly for the legacy he helped to create on the defensive line, but I’d gladly listen to a case for Guy the Fly as the best.

Rod Smith is a part of one of my favorite Husker memories:  Growing up, my dad would find tickets to one Husker game each year, which was a huge thrill for me.  I loved seeing the team, the stadium, the band, the people, the Sea of Red – the whole experience was amazing and electric for a small town Nebraska kid.

In 1987, we had tickets for the UCLA game – a big step from the games we usually saw (New Mexico, Iowa State, etc.)  Before one play, I was watching the huddle with Dad’s binoculars.  I saw Steve Taylor call the play, and as the huddle broke, he gave Smith a pat on the rear.  I announced “I think they’re going to Smith”.  Taylor took the snap, faked the option, dropped back, and hit Smith with a 48 yard bomb (one of Taylor’s five passing TDs that day).  A very cool memory for me, and one that helped to cement my love of Nebraska Football.

87

Best Player:  Bob Martin, Defensive End, 1973 – 1975
Other notables:  Tom Banderas, Mark Gilman, Nate Swift, Bill Weber, Tracey Wistrom
Personal Favorite:  Nate Swift, Wide Receiver, 2004 – 2008

Comments:  A three year starter, Martin was a force at defensive end earning All-Big 8 honors twice and All-America in his senior season.  As a senior, 13 of his 61 tackles went for a loss.  A native of David City, Martin was the high school athlete of the year when he graduated.

Swift never looked like a guy who should be at or near the top of many of Nebraska’s receiving records.  He wasn’t that big, wasn’t that fast, and didn’t look like a game changing WR.  (Personal aside – I was on a flight from Minneapolis to Lincoln when Swift and high school teammate Lydon Murtha came on their recruiting trip.  Murtha looked like a D-1 prospect.  Swift looked like his scrawny kid brother).  But what he lacked in physical gifts he made up for with toughness, knowledge, and the ability to get open and make a catch when his team needed him.

86

Best Player:  Johnny Mitchell, Tight End, 1990 – 1991
Other notables:  Dwayne Harris
Personal Favorite: 
Mitchell

Comments:  Another player that was ahead of his time, Johnny Mitchell was an electric pass catcher.  Possessing tight end size with wide receiver speed, he was arguably Nebraska’s biggest threat in the passing game since Irving Fryar.  Mitchell’s 1991 season featured some impressive numbers (31 receptions for 534 yards, and five TDs) considering he was a tight end on a run-heavy, option football team.

My friends and I coined the term “Johnny Mitchell Syndrome” due to his ability to make the impossibly hard, highlight reel catch while tending to drop balls that hit him right in the numbers.  Mitchell was one of the first Huskers to leave school early for the NFL.  Who knows what type of numbers he could have put up in his senior season.

85

Best Player:  Freeman White, End, 1963 – 1965
Other notables:  Jerry List
Personal Favorite: 
T.J. DeBates, Tight End, 1996 – 1999

Comments:  Freeman White is one of the greatest receivers in school history.  During his senior season (1965), he set school records in a number of single season and career categories including receiving yards in a game (139), longest reception (95 yards), career receptions (47), and career receiving yards (820).  Along the way, White also picked up All-America honors and back-to-back All-Big 8 recognition.

On the other end of the spectrum is T.J. DeBates.  Going into his senior year (1999), he had played in 28 games and had two catches for 23 yards and zero TDs.  I like DeBates because of the role he and others like him played during the 1990’s – when he came on the field you could almost guarantee that Nebraska was going to run, and DeBates was essentially going to serve as a sixth offensive lineman.  And yet, despite everyone from the opposing team’s defense to the kid in row 79 selling Runzas, few could stop what Nebraska was doing on offense.  I have a lot of respect for the receivers and tight ends who could have gone elsewhere and caught more passes, but chose to be a blocker first at Nebraska.  Plus, I’m guessing it made those three career receptions even sweeter.

84

Best Player:  Tony Jeter, End, 1963 – 1965
Other notables:  Willie Griffin, Donta Jones, Brandon Kinnie, Mike Rucker, Tim Smith
Personal Favorite: 
Mike Rucker, Defensive End, 1994 – 1998

Comments:  Jeter was a standout receiver on the first Devaney teams, earning All Big-8 honors twice and All-America his senior season.  To show how the times have changed, Jeter was the leading receiver on the 1963 team with 9 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown (but he also played considerable minutes on defense).  More trivia:  Jeter was the first black athlete in Nebraska history to earn academic All-America honors.

Although he never earned the accolades of Grant Wistrom, Jared Tomich, Trev Alberts and others, Mike Rucker is one of the best rush ends to ever play at Nebraska.  Possessing a dangerous combination of speed and power, he was a force on the edge – and not too shabby as a blocker on the punt return team.  On a personal note, we ran into his family at truck stop in Kansas on our way to the Oklahoma game in 1996, prompting my buddy to say “Hey, I think that is Mother Rucker!”

83

Best Player:  Kyle Vanden Bosch, Rush End, 1998 – 2000
Other notables:  Terrence Nunn
Personal Favorite: 
Terrence Nunn, Wide Receiver, 2004 – 2007

Comments:  The second of the six numbers without a first team All-Conference selection, this came down to a two man race between Vanden Bosch and Nunn.  I’ll be honest, I really wanted to put Nunn in this spot – he is the #2 guy in school history for receptions and receiving yards and was a very consistent (but not necessarily stand-out) contributor for four years.  And yet, I couldn’t pull the trigger (apparently, I am still bitter over the 3rd Down fumble in the 2006 Texas game).  Nunn gets my favorite nod for that consistency.  While he was never the biggest star on the field, I respect that you could always pencil in his production week in and week out.

That leaves us with Vanden Bosch.  Frankly, he is one of those players whose career left me wanting more.  I always felt that a player who had his combination of brains (the twelfth Husker to be a two time academic All-American), brawn (three time lifter of the year finalist), and speed should have played at a higher level than what he did.  I’m not at all surprised by his lengthy and successful NFL career.  I just wish there would have been more during his time in Lincoln.

82

Best Player:  Steve Manstedt, Defensive End, 1971 – 1973
Other notables:  Dennis Richnafsky
Personal Favorite: 
T.J. O’Leary, Long Snapper, 2005 – 2008

Comments:  Honestly, I don’t know too much about Manstedt’s career.  He doesn’t have a Huskers.com page, and the best thing I found a this brief bio from this summer when he was elected to the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame:  “(A) walk on from Wahoo. After playing a reserve role at defensive end on the 1971 national title team, he started on Bob Devaney’s last team in 1972 and Tom Osborne’s first in 1973. He made 145 career tackles and his 65-yard fumble return against Texas in the 1973 Cotton Bowl set up a field goal.”

Long snappers don’t get a lot of recognition either, and very little of the recognition they get is positive.  For the most part, they only time you hear their name is when they commit a penalty or send the snap sailing over the punter’s head.  That is why I liked O’Leary – he was a three year starter, but you rarely heard his name mentioned.  Sometimes anonymity is a good thing.

81

Best Player:  Willie Harper, Defensive End, 1970 – 1972
Other notables:  Ben Cotton
Personal Favorite:  Ben Cornelsen, Wingback, 1999 – 2002

Comments:  A standout performer on some of Nebraska’s (and college football’s) greatest teams, Harper was a two time All-American and a three year starter.  Twice he accumulated more than 100 yards in tackles for loss, including an amazing 9.2 yards lost per tackle as a sophomore on the 1970 championship team.  As a senior in 1972, he didn’t rack up as gaudy of TFL numbers, but he did anchor a defense that shutout four teams in a row.

Ben Cornelsen was not a standout performer (9 catches for 124 yards in his career), and never started a game at Nebraska.  While he did have some highlights (a 71 yard punt return for a touchdown against Kansas, averaged 11 yards on 15 carries), his career will be largely forgotten, another random kid who once wore a jersey.

80

Best Player:  Jamie Williams, Tight End, 1980 – 1982
Other notables:  Kenny Bell, Jeff Jamrog, Jim McFarland, Ray Phillips
Personal Favorite:  
Kenny Bell, Wide Receiver, 2010 – present

Comments:  Jamie Williams was a great asset for Tom Osborne’s option offense.  A big guy (6’5″, 230 pounds) he could be an effective blocker, but made his name catching passes.  I don’t have any memories of Williams playing at Nebraska, but I can picture him releasing off of a block as the quarterback sold the option fake, then dropped back and hit Williams in stride down the middle of the field, 10 yards from the nearest defender.  Williams averaged over 11 yards per catch and found the end zone seven times.

Let’s be honest with each other:  the first thing we all knew about Kenny Bell was his glorious old-school Afro.  Over the last few years, we’ve come to know him as a gifted receiver, a tenacious blocker, a team leader, and a prolific tweeter.  I love all of those things (especially the blocking) and the fact that he is a huge supporter of his fellow student athletes.  You can usually find Kenny at volleyball matches, gymnastics meets, basketball games, and probably all of the other 22 sports Nebraska offers.  My hunch is that if I were doing this list in 2015, Kenny Bell might surpass Jamie Williams for the “best” label.  Regardless, I think he’ll long be a favorite of mine.

I’d also like to mention another former owner of the #80 jersey.  He only played at Nebraska for one season, and never caught a pass, rushed the ball, or made a tackle.  Normally with that bio, most fans would have no idea who he was, especially where he played almost a decade ago.  But I’m guessing that when I say the name “Santino Panico” you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about.

Here’s the thing – we remember Santino more for his pedestrian performance (raise your hand if you referred to him as “Santino Fair-Catcho”.  I know I did) than his potential.  I’m no recruitnik, but from his bio, (Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois, Army All-America Bowl, etc.) he sounded like a kid with some talent and potential.

I bring him up not to bash on Panico, or get in a cheap shot at the failures of the Callahan Regime.  Instead I mention Santino Panico to remind us that sometimes Husker careers don’t turn out the way anybody expects – not the player, nor the coach who recruited him, or the fans who can recite his Rivals bio quicker than they recite their own kids’ birthdays.  And while that’s disappointing for all parties, I’m guessing its hardest on the player who couldn’t find the success they felt they could have.

Sorry to end this one on a downer, but fear not:  next up is the Seventies, with arguably the greatest collection of talent in the whole countdown.

Until next time…

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