Every summer, the Nebraska football program has hosted "Football 202" in recent years; a chance for fans to interact directly with the program. It's always been on my list of things I really wanted to do, but it seemed I always had an issue that kept me away. Typically it was work, and I simply couldn't get away for a weekday event.
This year, it was scheduled on a Saturday, which meant that I no longer had an excuse. So rather than sleep in this morning, I was up before dawn to drive to Lincoln. Unlike an 11 am game day, traffic was nice and light, and I made it with a few minutes to spare. But the room at the Champions Club across the street was already filled with other Husker fans. Good thing I had grabbed a couple of Pop Tarts to eat while driving; the early arrivers had already gobbled up all of the continental breakfast.
Jeff Jamrog, associate athletic director for football operations, opened the day with a discussion of recruiting at Nebraska. Some fans might be surprised to learn that Jamrog compared recruiting to be like shaving: it's something you need to do everyday. Nebraska is committing more and more resources to recruiting, but there is one thing that is sorely needed: private planes. Anybody who flies regularly knows the hassles of airline travel, and the Lincoln and Omaha airports are, quite frankly, limited on where you can fly to directly. Connecting in Dallas, Houston, Denver, Minneapolis, and Chicago to get where you need to go is a major disadvantage for the Husker coaching staff. Remember that idea about focusing on the 500 mile radius around Lincoln to reduce the need to fly? It sounds good, but if Nebraska wants to be a national power, Nebraska has to recruit nationally, because there simply aren't enough prospects within 500 miles.
Add in the rise in early commitments. Many Husker fans lament how far behind Nebraska seems to be in recruiting, and wonder why Nebraska can't get recruits to commit sooner. One big reason is that prospects cannot take an official visit until he starts his senior year of high school. Sure, they can take an unofficial visit to Lincoln, but that means paying their own way. In Michigan, Ohio, and Texas, an unofficial visit usually means a tank of gas for the family to come. In Nebraska, it means a family needs to buy airline tickets...and that's a luxury some families simply cannot afford. Could opening up official visits to the summer after the junior year of high school? Absolutely.
You know what would help more? The NCAA allowing the school to pay for both the prospect and a parent to visit. Right now, the Nebraska football program can only pay for the prospect to fly to Lincoln. Parents have to buy their own tickets, and that typically means that Mom or Dad have to stay home. Nebraska loves to tout their academic support programs for athletics, and that's a message that sells well to parents...but not if they aren't there. This isn't a problem with basketball; NCAA rules allow a school to pay for a parent of a basketball prospect to accompany their child. That simple change could be a huge gamechanger for Nebraska recruiting. Austen Everson, who leads Nebraska's high school programs, provided statistics that shows that 62% of prospects commit when a parent is along for the visit, versus just 29% when the prospect visits alone.
After the recruiting talk, former coaches Milt Tenopir and George Darlington entertained fans with stories of their days at Nebraska. Milt joked that he didn't get tired of coaching, he got tired of recruiting and long meetings. Darlington joked about a recruiting trip with Tom Osborne, where the two couldn't find a hotel room until finally finding a rather seedy hotel that they later learned was of ill-repute.
Big Ten referee Tripp Sutter discussed this year's rule changes in a somewhat contentious discussion. Many fans disagree with the new targeting rules (aka the Kenny Bell Rule), and tried to argue the point with Sutter. Only problem is, Sutter merely enforces the rules. He doesn't make them. He's only explaining how the rules will be enforced. Bottom line is that football is changing to reflect the reality of concussions. Josh Mitchell's personal foul penalty against Michigan last season is even used as an example of a hit that could result in an ejection this season. The onus is on coaches to teach players to aim well below the chest when hitting a player; aiming for the shoulders, neck, or head is going to put the player at risk of ejection.
The highlight of the day was something new: watching practice. At the start of the day, attendees were told the ground rules. Absolutely no cameras, and if fans want this opportunity again, do not post information on the internet. Since I don't want to ruin this event for the future, I won't share anything new. Fortunately, Bo Pelini discussed a few things afterwards with the media:
Just from Bo, it appears Josh Banderas and Nate Gerry are pushing hard for a lot of early playing time. #huskers— Samuel McKewon (@swmckewonOWH) August 17, 2013
Defensive end updates: Randy Gregory was back practicing Saturday. Greg McMullen will return on Monday, Pelini said. #Huskers— Brian Christopherson (@HuskerExtraBC) August 17, 2013
(Confidential to anybody reading this in One Memorial Stadium: if Bo said it first, it's OK... right? :-)
The day finished up with the usual tours. Fans got to see the locker room, take the "Tunnel Walk" (sans Alan Parsons Project and 90,000 fans), and step out onto the new FieldTurf. We also heard from Chris Kelsay, who retired from the Buffalo Bills after last season) and Jack Pierce, who's back with the athletic department as a fundraiser.
All told, it was an interesting day. Watching practice was an interesting experience, though it will be interesting to see if my observations today will hold true in two weeks when the Huskers take on Wyoming.
That being said, I'm not sure if I wouldn't have enjoyed last season's edition more. Last year, the coaches had much more time to sit down and discuss football with the audience, and really got down into X's and O's. This year, with fall camp underway, preparing the team took precedence. And rightfully so. We did hear a brief presentation from John Papuchis, and some post-practice comments from Barney Cotton, John Garrison, and Rich Kaczenski. But my inquiring mind would have liked more discussions.
Would I attend again? Perhaps. It would depend on the agenda and whether it fits my schedule again. But yeah, I'd lean towards yes.
(For more pictures of my day at Husker Football 202, check out the photo gallery.)