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The Nebraska Way

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One year ago, the phrase "The Nebraska Way" burst into the scene in the title of a little golf outing before the spring game.  The outing was organized by former Husker football players to honor Doak Ostergard, the long-time Husker football trainer who had been terminated by Bill Callahan a few months earlier.  It became controversial since it was scheduled simultaneously with another golf outing organized by the athletic department for former Huskers.  It was the most visible, public example of the schism in Nebraska football.

Last fall, shortly after Steve Pederson was fired, "The Nebraska Way" became the title of a book by UNL student Jonathan Crowl on the changes in the program, leaning extensively on the perspective of Ostergard.  The book was extremely negative towards the changes Pederson and Callahan had made in the program, and became a rallying point for Callahan's critics (if the 5-7 record wasn't enough).

But what is "The Nebraska Way"?  I read Crowl's book earlier this winter, and still wasn't quite sure.  So then I went and read "Diary of a Husker" by David Kolowski.  Kolowski's book has been portrayed by some fans as proof that Frank Solich needed to be fired and that Steve Pederson absolutely needed to totally rebuild the program at the end of 2003.  But once again, that case wasn't quite made either.

But somehow put together, read back-to-back, a working definition of "The Nebraska Way" started to emerge in my mind.  The Nebraska Way isn't running the option.  It isn't running the ball, or running a certain defense.  Really, it has nothing to do with X's and O's.

It has more to do with how the people interact with each other:  players, coaches, alumni, administrators, support staff.  There's one word that comes closest to defining that relationship:  Family.

It's not a biological family, to be sure.  Some people might prefer to use the term "fraternity", but that's not really strong enough.

Crowl's book details the evolution of the Nebraska family through the Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne, and Frank Solich years.  The continuity in the program throughout the years is a unique case at Nebraska.  Devaney picked Osborne, who in turned picked Solich. 42 years, three coaches.  There were bumps along the way: a couple of bowl-less seasons in the late 1960's, Osborne losing seven bowl games in a row, a 7-7 season in 2002.  But it became clear that when the program adjusted to one of those bumps, the foundation of the program remained the same.

Kolowski's book is a conflicting book in many cases.  It's a diary, so you see the evolution of a walk-on into a somewhat disgruntled contributor.  He felt that his contributions to the program weren't meaningful; frequently wished he would have been cut.  (Solich critics frequently point out Kolowski's comments that the roster size was simply too large to manage.)  But in the foreword, Eric Crouch writes about the importance of the walk-on program.  So which is it?  That's the conflict.  Kolowski didn't think he was getting much of an opportunity, that the roster size was too large to manage.  Certainly, he didn't view his position coaches as family...and that almost appears to be at the heart of his problem.  As I read Kolowski's story, I started to realize a disconnect from the "Nebraska Way" that had been alluded to over the previous year.  And as I thought about it, suddenly the retirements of Kolowski's position coaches (whether completely voluntary or not) started to make some sense.  Then when you read the comments from teammate Andrew Wingender in the afterword, it starts to become a little clearer:

Here's the greatest compliment I can give Coach Solich, he had to change what we did, not who we were.

There's no doubt in my mind that Solich's changes in the coaching staff, while painful in that several long-time members  of the Nebraska family were pushed out, revitalized the program in part by bringing back in passionate former players to replace them, as well as a dynamic assistant coach as defensive coordinator who came highly recommended from a legendary member of the Nebraska football family.

So where did things run afoul?  The 2003 firings caused a lot of internal turmoil within the program.  Everything changed.  Change is not inherently bad, but in this case, it was as if the team had been uprooted and sent to live with foster parents.

Add in a new way of doing things around the Athletic Department.  Steve Pederson grew tired of criticism and decided to isolate the athletic department.  While former players weren't told to stay away, there was a non-verbal "go away" message that permeated the program.  Everybody's been somewhere where they didn't feel welcome.  Nobody told them to go away, nobody told them they couldn't stay.  They may have even had an invitation.  But little, subtle things told them that they weren't welcome anymore.  In this week's Sports Illustrated, Phil Taylor pinned it down:

Some say that Callahan and his boss, athletic director Steve Pederson -- an alum and a Nebraska native who should have known better, for goodness' sake -- built a fortress where a cozy family home used to be. Old players who had always been welcomed back like returning heroes whenever they wanted to look in on practice or visit the football offices suddenly had to go through layers of security just to gain entry to the athletic complex. "You couldn't get through the gate in the parking lot," says Eric Crouch, the former quarterback and 2001 Heisman Trophy winner. "You could never talk to Steve in person. People in Nebraska are good, old-fashioned people who want to see you face-to-face."

That was Nebraska from 2003 to 2007.  Whether it was broadcasters (Gary Sharpe, John Bishop, Kevin Kugler), sportswriters (Tom Shatel), former coaches (Tom Osborne), or Nebraska high school football players... nobody told them they necessarily couldn't come, but they all got the vibe they weren't welcome.  Former players especially.  Oh, they could come if they REALLY wanted to.  But they weren't welcome.  Crowl recounts numerous stories of disaffected former players who were ignored by Pederson's athletic department, except for public relations opportunities.

That sad chapter in Nebraska football is now behind us.  Many of the assistants from that 2003 squad that made such a connection with the players are back.  Bo Pelini is head coach, bringing the legacy of his LSU national championship back with him and a mindset that seems to be a natural fit with the Nebraska Way.  Tom Osborne is athletic director. Former players are actively encouraged to return to the program and offer their contributions.  The downsized walk-on program is being restored to earlier numbers.

There's a real change in attitude towards Nebraska football these days.  The Spring Game is actually sold out; $10 tickets are even being scalped for as much as $95.  In many respects, this spring game has become a cathartic release for a football program and fan base held hostage for the past four years.  It's not just a scrimmage this year; it's actually the rebirth of a program that was lost four years ago.

Welcome back Nebraska Football.  We've missed you.