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Review: No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy Of An Era

No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy Of An Era consists of two volumes of over 1,500 pages of interviews with 100 players, coaches, media personalities and athletic department employees from the Tom Osborne teams that went 60-3 over the course of five seasons in the 90s. If you want to know everything about those teams, buy the books.

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Paul Koch was a strength & conditioning specialist for the Nebraska Athletic Department from 1987 to 1995. He released No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy Of An Era in two books near the start of the 2013 football season. The volumes encompass interviews with around 100 players, coaches, media personalities and athletic department employees from the Tom Osborne teams that went 60-3 over the course of five seasons in the 90s.

Koch's stated goal is to discover how and why those teams were so successful.

He interviewed just about anybody connected to the program; the interviews include everyone from Tom Osborne, Charlie McBride, Milt Tenopir, and Boyd Epley to players such as Zach Weigert, Brenden Stai, Trev Alberts, Jason Peter, Kevin Raemakers, and Corey Schlesinger. Tom Osborne's secretary Mary Lyn Wininger makes the book, as do media personalities Kent Pavelka, Lee Barfknecht, and Mike Babcock. He even interviews a fan. There seems to be only one notable absence - Tommie Frazier.

The books contain a total of over 1,500 pages of background information on the most successful era in Nebraska football.

Koch is not a writer. He says as much himself. The interviews have barely been edited and are in a question and answer format, with rough subjects and language included (as if you didn't already know that Charlie McBride was capable of throwing some f-bombs around).

The interviews are thorough. To give you an idea of the extent of the interviews - George Darlington's interview covers 12 pages, Calvin Jones covers 14, and Ed Stewart's covers 16. Most of the interviews are 10 pages long and a short interview might be six. There are plenty of "glory stories" as most of the players are asked about their most memorable play or game.

Koch emphasizes quotes from each interview to make his point about what made those 90s teams so successful.

While there is plenty (really, a massive amount) of discussion about games and plays and how they turned out, there are near-constant themes that run through most of the interviews. First is the amount of respect that everyone has for Tom Osborne - that should go without saying. The most prominent theme can be summed up in a single word - leadership. That theme comes through in discussions about individual players and the impact of the Unity Council.

I found Jack Stark's interview particularly interesting (as if you could pick one that stands out). Stark was the team psychologist, starting in '89, and at a point where (according to Stark) only three or four teams in the country had a team psychologist. It was Stark who started the Unity Council, along with assistance from Kevin Raemakers who encouraged Osborne to try it.

It's clear from Stark's interview (and others) that strong leadership as emphasized by the Unity Council was as important as having great athletes. Stark singles out Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter as being exceptional leaders, along with Terry Conneally, Chad Kelsay, and Aaron Graham. Stark states that "All the way through the ‘90's it seemed each year there would be 2-3 guys out of 16-17 guys were great leaders...", the point being that a few players out of maybe 140 could make a huge difference in team performance.

As fans we tend to focus on athleticism with a video game mentality, i.e., how fast a running back can run, the accuracy of a quarterback, or how quickly a defensive end can come off the line. Koch's books make it clear there is more to the success of a team than what anyone outside the team can define outside of wins and losses; that the ability of just a few players who assume responsibility and hold others accountable is what gets an above average team over the hump to greatness.

There are plenty of revelations in the book. The book starts out talking about the 18-16 loss to Florida State in the 1994 Orange Bowl, complete with Florida State players yelling at Osborne to get the eff of the field after they thought the game was over and Weigert's equally profane response. David Seizys, a walk on wingback from Seward talks about blocking defensive backs by punching them in the thighs and how the walk-ons were as relentless as the starters because they didn't want to be downgraded.

There are several references to "the pit", run by McBride and offensive line coach Milt Tenopir where one-on-one combat between offensive and defensive lineman would take place, and as Adem Treu states "Some guys learned ‘nastiness' a little bit". Kevin Raemaker's interview includes a description of "The Girthing" that is may be the most disgusting thing I've ever heard of in a sports book (I'm not going to give away details, you need to buy Koch's book).

There are two main problems with the books. There seems to be no organization with regards of order to the interviews and the books are not indexed. The result is an overwhelming amount of information that after a while is difficult to digest. (Late update: Koch responded to my complaint about the index stating that an index would have pushed the content to three volumes and he didn't want to do that.)

There is also the difficulty of having released the books at the start of the football season. That's the normal cycle for football books (whether college or NFL) although in this case I have to believe it worked against Koch. There is so much information that it takes quite a while to get through them. I've had them for a few months already and I still haven't gotten through all the interviews. To do that will take an offseason. Is that nitpicking? Yeah, probably.

Who are these books for?

These books are for any Husker fan who wants to learn more about the teams of the most successful era of Husker football. Having said that, I might hesitate to give it to a young person because of the rough language (that's a complete lie, my children survived the 2007 football season and there's nothing any adult could say that would surprise them) and some of the stories are a little over the top.

Bottom line - if you ever wanted to know everything about the teams of the 90s, buy Koch's books. You will not find a more detailed account of any football program than this. Koch has preserved an enormous amount of history.

If you don't feel like buying both at once, get the first one and see how it goes.

Koch's books are available at Amazon where you can get them in hard copy or for your Kindle, and at Createspace. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Team Jack Foundation regardless of where you purchase.