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Interview: Johnny Rodgers - What's Wrong with the Huskers

I interviewed 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers as part of his promotion for the Alltel HuskerFest Event being put on by Alltel Wireless tomorrow night. The event is Free from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm at the Ed Weir Track.  Big Red Network has an audio-based interview with Johnny, also promoting the Alltel event. I don't talk nearly as well as those BRN guys, so you get the text version.

The event will feature:

  • Free pizza and drinks from Valentino’s (while supplies last)
  • Live music from local favorite "Groove Puppet"
  • Appearances by the Cornhuskers cheerleaders, pep band and mascot
  • Drawings to giveaway 25 pairs of tickets to Nebraska vs KSU - November 10th
  • Football-themed games and giveaways
  • Giant inflatable obstacle course for the kids
  • First 300 people will get access to a VIP tent where they will receive autographed (by Johnny Rodgers and Mike Roziers) mini-helmets and mini-footballs

Before I get on to the interview, when Johnny made the point about mentioning the Alltel event, and that he wanted people to come down and see him and Mike Roziers, it struck me that we need to recognize that a major point of being in love with Husker football is the joy that it brings. It should be fun, and you should probably ask yourself if you want to have fun even if we're not winning all of the time. More on that in upcoming articles.

Okay, here's the stuff:

You've probably answered this question many times today, but what is wrong with this football team?

I don't know exactly what's wrong with it, but I know what's right with it. We're 4-2 so we haven't fallen off the deep end yet. I do still have a lot of faith in the offensive scheme. I try to tell people all the time that Coach Osborne was the creator of the Pro and Spread offense, which is pretty much the same thing as the West Coast Offense. That's enabled us to be able to recruit good athletes. I hope that we're recruiting the best ones that we can because that type of a system will enable a guy to get to the professional ranks. That's something that's very attractive.

Now, I don't know if the coaches are over-coaching or not getting their information through [to the players], but we just don't seem to be playing wtih confidence and intensity. But if we can pull that together I still think we're going in the right direction.

I think we definitely have the right offensive and defensive strategies we just have to get the correct personnel to implement those strategies.

You were an offensive player. Do you pay that close attention to the defense?

Yes, because being an offensive player I'm quite good at being able to read defenses. I would say that we have a lack of speed on the defensive side. Actually we could use a little more size too. Receivers these days are coming quite a bit bigger than they used to be and I don't think we've totally adjusted to that.

We have some good athletes and we're still in the building process. We really haven't gotten our program to the point where we want it to be. Just last year everybody was of the understanding that we were still building. We didn't say we built it, we said we're building it.

But It's four years in. Most people by now would have thought that the defense wouldn't be giving up historic numbers. Most people look at that and think that we're not getting anywhere. How do you respond to that?

Obviously we're not getting where we want to go fast enough. They said the same thing about Tom Osborne his first ten years. His first ten times out he couldn't beat a rated football team. His first ten years out he couldn't beat Barry Switzer to save his life. In '67, '68 they wanted to fire coach Devaney. I'm not panicking because after four years we don't have the program where we want it to be.

So you'd say it's more of an impatience on behalf of today's fans than anything else?

I think we have to be patient, and we have to be confident. I really hope that the coaches are trying to take it as seriously as they can to get us where we need to be as fast as we can. We've always been in the habit of having winning seasons and that's what we still really want to do. We're still at half a winning season at 4-2, so we're not 2-4, and we very well could have been 2-4.

If we were 2-4 right now, I'd have a whole different outlook, but at 4-2, if we win the next two games, we'll be 6-2. Win two more after that and we have a winning season.

What did you think of how poorly we played against Missouri?

The Missouri game was very embarrassing. We got spanked liked a four year old in KMart. They kicked our ass, period. It happens sometimes. I'm just fortunate it never happened to me during my time. I was more disappointed in the fact that we didn't have an offensive score than how many times their offense scored. If we could have scored eight touchdowns ourself, it wouldn't have made a difference how many they scored, but we couldn't score any.

Not scoring has me more perplexed than people scoring on our defense. They had our number, but had we been able score and rally back and forth, we would motivated our defense a little more and they'd have tightened it up. Everything got out of hand and we couldn't get anything going in our favor.

Steve Pederson is still the most hated man in Nebraska. I was at the Iowa State game two weeks ago where you did the half-time presentation instead of Steve because he probably would have been booed off the field. That attitude hasn't changed in four years. Where do you see that going?

Well, I don't know where it's gonna go, but the university seems pleased enough with him to give him a raise. They're pleased with him because some of the  progress he's made in building the overall program.  His legacy relies a lot on what Callahan does, but there are a lot of different things from a business perspective where I think the University of Nebraska is leading the nation.  Weight-lifting facilities and our stadium are second to none. There are professional teams that have the facilities we have.

We're not winning and he's not popular but the University believes he's taking us in the right direction as far as they're concerned because they've just given him a tremendous amount of money.

Let's switch gears for just a minute to one of my pet peeves. You got the Heisman Trophy in 1972. You've seen these guys that get on TV, the ESPN commentators or the College Gameday guys and they talk about how the guys of your generation could never play this game today. How do you respond to that?

I don't believe that at all. I believe that anyone who has learned the offense and defensive schemes can really play, whether it's then or now. Lots of players now don't read defenses or concentrate as well as we did. We were one of the first ones to use audibles. There is no way we wouldn't be able to do the same things that they're doing.

If we had better facilities, better technology, the same things they have now then we could do even better. We were doing the same things they're doing now with a lot less technology.

Technology includes weight training and nutrition, correct?

The weight lifting and nutrition were just starting, and we were still putting up good numbers as far as our wins were concerned. We know far more about these things than we did in those days. I can't believe that they'd think we couldn't play today. Great players are great players whether they came from the early 1900's all the way up to 2007.

Let's compare you to someone from this generation. How would you compare yourself to Reggie Bush?

That's a fair comparison, Reggie could do many things;  he ran the ball from the backfield, catch passes, and do kickoff returns. I don't think he returned punts, so he didn't do quite as many things as I did. Just recently ESPN picked the Top 25 College football players of all time where I was picked 23rd and Reggie Bush was picked 24th, so that's a comparison between now and then. Reggie Bush is about the closest guy to me now and they still rated me ahead of him.  

Defenses had to make those adjustments for him just like they had to make them for me which really made a difference in our team. His being able to do so many different things make defenses much more susceptible to making mistakes because they couldn't cover him in all the ways he played.

Do the guys today play as tough as you guys did then?

I don't think the [Nebraska] guys are playing nearly as tough as when I played it. If you look at our last games against Missouri and against USC guys weren't hitting or blocking or tackling nearly as well we did, nor with nearly the intensity that we did. The drive is not even close to what we had. The attitude is not really the same - it's too lax.

Our biggest claim to fame was that we made very few mistakes. In the Oklahoma - Nebraska Game Of The Century I think there was one penalty called in that whole game. That was an offsides penalty against one of our guys. Other than that we didn't have any mistakes. We played mental football as well as physical football and we played some serious physical football.

A lot of times our defensive backs right now are in trouble not because they're not good DB's, but because our defensive line is not putting enough pressure on the quarterback. It's a line thing, not a defensive back thing. We didn't have great defensive backs when I played, they were okay. Joe Blahak was probably the best one we had. We had other guys who weren't as good, but they didn't have to be as good because the defensive line was putting pressure on the quarterback. He never had time to throw an accurate pass.

You had Rich Glover.

Rich Glover, John Dutton, Larry Jacobson, we had Monte Johnson, you stack those puppies up and you get stuff done. You had any one of those guys I just named,  Willie Harper, Spider Adkins, any one of those guys could play now. They could start for anybody just like they did then.

And they knew the football game. They didn't just play football, they knew football.

Is there too much thinking going on on the field?

Well, you gotta get past thinking and get to reacting. You have to know what you're doing. My biggest complaint is probably over-coaching. Coaches are trying to teach guys different techniques but not letting the players work through them and they're making changes all the time. If everything you're trying to do isn't working, you can't just change it, you have to kind of flow with it.

I think the coaches are a little bit too rigid on getting the players to do things and they need to just let them play wide open and not over-coach. Guys have been intimidated by coaches. You can't be so afraid to make mistakes that you can't give your best effort.

From an overall stand-point when you look at today's football teams (not just Nebraska) is there an overall mental toughness missing from today's teams?  

I don't think it's a 'mental toughness' . I think it's a lack of mental focus. You've got to focus every single game and beat people down. By comparison, if I had to fight a midget, I'd beat him with a stick. I wouldn't take it for granted that just because he's a midget that he wouldn't beat me. Just because we're playing a team that's from a lower program doesn't mean those guys won't beat you on that given day.

You can't get too full of yourself. You've got to go out and play every single down of every single game and put your heart into it all - every time. You're only as good as your weakest link. If everybody's not thinking on that level, you've got some weak links and you can't really pull it all together because somebody's letting you down.

When USC got beat by UCLA, it wasn't because of all of the players, it was because a few of the players let down and let the rest of the guys down and that's how they broke down at the end.

It's a lack of mental focus. Not everybody is pulling their weight. Sometimes the better ones are the ones that go first because they're reading their own newspaper clippings. They want to talk about what they did last week instead of worrying about what they've go to to do today.

I have one more question for you, and it comes from a friend of mine who's a high school principal in Iowa. What was it that got you to turn your life around after you robbed that gas station?

Well, you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes. And when you learn something significant from a mistake then it helps you to get more successes. You know what not to do and what not to do is more valuable sometimes than what to do. You get to know the difference between right and wrong and the consequences you've got to pay and you make choices.

I'm 55 now, and I make different choices than I did at 19, don't you? (laughing).

(laughing) Well, yeah, but I have a 14 year old I'm trying to raise and this is the kind of stuff I worry about.

I'll leave the rest of the conversation about where kids come from offline, but I certainly thank Johnny Rodgers for his time and insight.