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Jon’s PostLife Crisis: Dr Roger Aden - Is There Really No “Place” Like Nebraska?

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This episode on Jon’s Postlife Crisis I talk with Dr. Roger Aden, Professor of Communication Studies at Ohio University AND one of my college roommates.

Roger wrote a book called “Huskerville: A Story of Nebraska Football, Fans, and the Power of Place in which he talked about the relationship between the people of the state of Nebraska and its football team.

Roger and I talk about:

  • Is there really no place like Nebraska?
  • Why the ground game and the walk-on program mean so much to Nebraskans
  • What happens when you run into someone wearing a Nebraska t-shirt outside the state
  • UNL’s Speech and Debate program
  • Frank Solich and what he means to Ohio University

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About the Transcript

Keep in mind that the following is a transcript. . I use a service that automates the first draft. As much as “artificial intelligence” is included in the description of every bit of technology these days, it’s clear that computers understanding human speech is more artificial than intelligent. The transcript has been edited to take out human speech bites, you know, um, okay, uh, but it’s not been edited to be an “article”.

Transcript

Jon Johnston Welcome to Jon’s Postlife Crisis. I am your host Jon Johnston, founder of CornNation.com, your Nebraska Cornhuskers site that’s trying really hard right now. Today we are talking with Dr. Roger Aden, Professor of Communication Studies at Ohio University and in the interest of full disclosure, one of my college roommates. How are you doing today, Roger?

Roger Aden

I lived with you for a number of years and I’m still here to talk about it. So I’m doing well.

Jon Johnston That’s that’s a different Intro that I usually get,

Roger Aden

You usually don’t talk to people who live with you, right?

Jon Johnston Well, that’s that’s true. You know, I wonder how many of them would be this willing to come on the podcast and because you did living with me during college will avoid those days because we both have enough dirt on each other it could get really nasty.

Roger Aden

Mutually assured destruction.

Jon Johnston Agreed. Okay, you wrote a book called Huskerville, a story of Nebraska football,fans and the power of place. This book came out in 2008.

Roger Aden

Right.

Jon Johnston So it’s, I don’t want to say it’s dated because it’s got a lot of history in it, and it’s got a lot of background on Nebraska. But here’s what I want to ask and this is what we’re going to start out with a theme. The state slogan or a common state phrase is “There is no place like Nebraska.” We hear this everywhere we go. Nebraska events, whatever anything to do with Nebraska, that phrase comes up. Is that an advertising slogan? Or is it reality?

Roger Aden

I think it’s reality. I had a number of people question me about that when I was working on the book, because a lot of places have really rabid fan bases really dedicated fans, really invested fans who show up and participate and all kinds of ways so Nebraska is not unique in that respect. What I think makes Nebraska unique is a couple of things. First of all, the depth and breadth of that passion, the number of people in the state because the state’s football team is the state’s sports team makes it different than I think any other place in the country. So you see that depth of commitment and the breadth of commitment at all kinds of ways, from the sellout streak to the number of places that air the games to the number of people that follow the games when they’re going on. But also, the way that you see it outside of the state of Nebraska to one of the things that I wrote about in the book, and I think this is probably still the case, although I haven’t checked lately, is the number of watch parties that are held outside of the state of Nebraska. We, in terms of per capita, I guess, residents and transplanted residents of Nebraska have a much stronger participation and watch party sites than any other school in the country. And I think that’s remained the case even in these what I guess we would call lean years. In recent times as well, the other thing I think that makes Nebraska different than other places is how much the identity of the football team is rooted in the history and cultural geography of the state. I think the homesteading history of the state and the hard work associated with that gets reflected in how much Nebraskans embrace the walk on program, because I don’t think you see the walk on program and other places like you do at Nebraska. And one of the reasons is because I think it’s tied to the state’s historical identity. So for those reasons, I think Nebraska is still a unique place. Although other places have their strong fan bases. There are a couple of things that make Nebraska unique.

Jon Johnston You went zooming right into those things. We got, like 40 minutes, dude. You have a chapter or a section in your book on rooting. Or is it routing? You know how lousy I am pronouncing things.

Roger Aden

For this word we can say either way.

Jon Johnston Rooting: sugar beets, family and friends, fans cheering around the world, anchored in Nebraska. winds of change and the threat of being uprooted. Obviously I have your book right here in my hands. It is not however, signed. What the heck?

Roger Aden

Yeah, send it to me.

Jon Johnston So as people who don’t live outside the state don’t understand this concept. But when you’re like, walking around and you see somebody with a Nebraska shirt on, you assume that they are native Nebraskan and years ago, I was at the Mall of America, saw a guy wearing a Nebraska Huskers t shirt, walked up to him and I said, Hey, man, what town are you from? And he looked at me and he was kind of annoyed. And he said, it’s just a T shirt. And I looked at him, I said, you realize you need to take it off. Otherwise this is gonna happen over and over and over. And he can’t he looked at me gave me a really dirty look. And I said, you know, I’m just trying to help you, man because that’s how it’s going to go. People in Nebraska don’t get that concept. You talked a little bit about roots expand on it, because you know, we have time.

Roger Aden

Absolutely. What and I? That’s kind of a strange thing. But I guess for people outside of Nebraska, or who are Nebraska football fans living outside of the state of Nebraska, that we don’t think twice about seeing somebody wearing something that says Nebraska, no matter where we are, and going up and talking to them like of course we should know one another. I’ve done that at Disney World on a trip with my family and they will Look at me, like, what are you doing? And who was that person? Then I will respond. Somebody from Nebraska. And they said, Did you know them? Well, not until I started talking to them. But we have this assumption that, especially if we’re outside the state’s borders, and I think even more so when we’re not in a neighboring state, but we’re in some place that’s nowhere near Nebraska, that when we see somebody with something Nebraska ish about them, that we know that we can talk to them and that they will reciprocate, right we we don’t expect the sort of response that you got from the guy with just a T shirt because obviously he needed to learn his lessons about wearing proper attire and you only represent when you can represent with knowledge I guess.

Jon Johnston Yeah, do you do you think this is true at all for like Iowans?

Roger Aden

I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so. I see people wearing all kinds of school and state oriented shirts, and sweatshirts and hats, whatever around the world, but you don’t see them happening or running into each other and having conversations. And it happens here. I do it in my classroom. Even though I’m here in southeastern Ohio, on occasion, I will run into students who are from Nebraska or who have Nebraska connections. And I don’t think twice about saying something to them. One one time that the student was a little bit embarrassed because she really wasn’t from Nebraska, but her boyfriend was and so she was wearing his sweatshirt. And I said, well make sure that you tell him that, you know, your professors from Nebraska. Couple weeks later, I got an email from him. And he was on campus as well and said, Yeah, I’m from Nebraska. Could we get together and talk sometime? Sure. So we sat down and had coffee and talked about the book.

Jon Johnston Really cool. Okay, this section on homesteading. We know that. I mean anybody that knows Nebraska’s history knows that it was incredibly difficult place to settle. I am going to read you a passage from your own book. Hopefully you remember it. I believe you quote historian Roger Welsch. Yeah.

Jon Johnston

Imagine the despair of traveling 10,000 miles or even 1000 miles to make a new start. At least the Pioneer reached the selected land on the Nebraska planes. He had a wagon drawn by two horses, a few supplies an axe, a plow, a shovel a barrel or two, a canary, a wife and three kids. With this he had to build a home there was not a tree to be seen. In fact, none had been seen for three days. There were no rocks no stone outcroppings. There was absolutely nothing but sky and grass. That’s bleak.

Roger Aden That’s a good word for it.

Jon Johnston

It is I mean, you know, can you That is where we began the state. When I was young I always I love the tales of King Arthur right. There’s always this concept in King Arthur’s books about the sword and the king and how they had to be together to make the land. Now take that concept and homesteading and how hard it was to work and settle this land. Does that directly translate to anything to do with Nebraska football? Is it mythology? Is it legend? Am I reaching too much like I used to in college when I had all those conspiracy theories.

Roger Aden I don’t think you’re reaching too much I can guarantee that other people won’t think you’re reaching too much because they might think I’m reaching too much when I make that argument that, to me, the fact that homesteaders had to make their homes because there were no trees out of the dirt out of the ground building dugouts or sod houses. That to me, I think emphasized the strong connection between people and land, ground in particular. And today, I am absolutely convinced that not just the hard work required to do that gets reflected in how much we love the walk on program at Nebraska. But I think it has a lot to do with how much many fans still, not everybody, but many fans still love to see Nebraska run the ball successfully. Because the ground game is what keeps has kept us rooted historically, we had to keep ourselves connected to the ground to prosper not just to be safe and secure in the shelters that we developed from the ground or our ancestors developed from the ground, but also because the state’s agricultural base requires people to work the ground successfully. So I think that that has something to do with the fact that for many Nebraska fans, the running the ball is still important and will always be important. And as as much as I enjoy seeing large chunks of land gobbled up through the air with passes at the same time, to me, and again, I might be talking way too much like a professor here, flying over something, even if it’s the defense, to me isn’t quite as appealing as running through them, you know, going head to head with them and defeating them that way. Because part of it too, right, we’re in what’s called flyover country. And I don’t like the fact that Nebraska kids get dismissed as flyover country. So why should we have our success and football flying over everyone? Now, part of what we need to do, I think, and again, I know I’m not speaking for every Husker fan, but for a lot of Husker fans. Part of what we really relish is working the ground and advancing that way and being determined and making the most out of the situation through hard work.

Jon Johnston

You know, run the ball guy is hyperventilating right now if he’s listening to this.

Roger Aden I you know, I appreciate reading run the ball guy because I don’t post that often on CornNation, but I am definitely a run the ball guy.

Jon Johnston

I am, I guess, publicly I’ve said, I’m okay with wing zinging the ball all over the place. You make a convincing argument that there is some kind of connection. I I’m not as eloquent or not as articulate as you are. But that there is this connection with the ground and the way that the football team actually operates. I think people would think you’re some kind of a lunatic sometimes if he actually said that, but you said it very well.

Roger Aden

Yeah, I probably shouldn’t sit around in bars talking about that way. A lot of people then would get up and leave I’m sure.

Jon Johnston

I don’t know. That’s not true. I am guessing that you could go in front of a Nebraska crowd and they would, there would be plenty of people who loved you. Last year, I remember. I think one of the big red breakfasts featured a guy who played 1965 or under Bob Devaney,and he said, Why can’t we just have a full back and line up on fourth and one and run the ball right at ‘em? And the crowd cheered. So you’re not you’re not out of your league in any way, shape or form.

Roger Aden

Well, I have to figure out how to get to a big red breakfast as a speaker then I don’t know how I do that.

Jon Johnston

Well, maybe this will help. Who knows? Is it bad that the Nebraska football team feeds the ego of the state? As was implied years ago by Bill Jennings?

Roger Aden Yeah, one of our infamous Bills in the coaching tree.

I don’t think it’s entirely bad. I think. I think he missed stated it or misrepresented it. In that it’s not a one way reflection that we are so as Nebraskans in Nebraska football fans insecure that the football team has to feed our ego Yeah, I think instead what we see when the football team succeed is a very public, not just for ourselves, but for people around the country who are watching a very public performance of what matters to us. And that’s not necessarily feeding the ego, because I don’t think Nebraskans are insecure. I think what Nebraskans are, if I’m speaking really generally here in overgeneralizing like crazy here, what we are is frustrated that people don’t understand what it’s like to be in Nebraska, that there’s a lot to value in Nebraska, roots, traditions, ways of living, and that gets manifest in the football team. Now we can’t, as an individual person or a family or even a community most of the time, demonstrate that to other people outside of Nebraska so that they can recognize what’s really Cool about the state and what has long been cool about the state and its people. But when the football team can enact that on a national stage and show people in performance, we love that because that’s them performing us for other people. So I don’t think it’s a matter of insecurity. I think it’s a matter of public pride, and making those things that we take for granted and do on an everyday basis accessible to everybody in the country.

Jon Johnston You could be if you are a public speaker, right? I mean, you guys. Yeah, yeah. So you do articulate this stuff very well. So what do

Roger Aden

you think? practice? Yeah. What do

Jon Johnston you think’s going on with the football team? Let’s turn it to football.

Roger Aden

Yeah. Well, I don’t consider myself an expert on that by any stretch of the imagination, but I I’m hopeful I’m optimistic. What I see happening I think it matters a lot that Scott Frost is coaching, or all of the reasons not just that he knows the program and that he said success in the program. But I think that he gets Nebraska and what being a Nebraska is, and I think he’s gets cut a little bit more slack because of that, which I think is absolutely fine because bill Callahan had no desire to learn what a Nebraskan was both blini I think treated the idea of the state and its residents with a little bit of disdain. Not as much as Callahan and Mike Riley talked a good game, but he’s a West Coast guy. He’s not a Nebraska guy. And having a Nebraska guy in charge, makes a difference in terms of the commitment to particular ways of doing things and I think we will see Are to see more of that payoff, but he’s got a lot of work to do. I think he’s, he’s been challenged by wanting to say how much work he has to do without making it seem like he’s throwing everybody who preceded him under the bus. But there’s a big culture change. I’m sure that’s going on within the program. And that takes a lot of time to make happen.

Jon Johnston

You talked about the walk on program earlier. He’s wants 150 players on the roster. I think that’s a little crazy. And the reason why I think it’s crazy is because if I were a head football coach, that means I would have 35 to 40 more people who I have to worry about getting arrested at a bar on a Saturday call that just seems like way more management to me, but why do you I mean, the walk on program, I think we get the idea that the guys from Nebraska are going to play harder. Hopefully because they’re native Nebraskans. But does it really make that big a difference in terms of success of a football team? Because in the end, it all comes down to the wins and losses?

Roger Aden

Yeah, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think 150 years a lot, as well. But I have no experience running a football program at that level. So I can’t say for sure whether that’s too much for him to handle or not. The The idea behind having more competition, I think, is absolutely vital. The more competition you have internally, the more that the people in the program are driving each other to be the best. I think the better program you’re going to have as a result, are we going to have lots of walk ons who end up getting scholarships compared to what it was in the past? I don’t know. I think The nature of high school football has changed enough in the past 20 to 30 years that players with a lot of ability and a lot of experience and strong reputations who show up on campus are going to be tough to beat out no matter how determined that walk on player is because they’ve had the reps, they’ve had the coaching and they’ve had the experience that they may not have got 2030 years ago with seven on seven competitions everywhere these days. I I don’t know that the walk on program will make as much of a difference that it made in the past. But I think having people who are working hard and trying to do their absolute best and to beat other people out that elevates competition within the program changes the culture of it. I think it’s important to what extent it makes a difference and only time will tell on that one

Jon Johnston Do you think that there’s any? When you when you have a kid who gets a walk on offer, you know what he walks on Nebraska. And let’s say he’s from? Well scottsbluff, where you grew up as a little bit bigger, but let’s say Curtis, Nebraska where I grew up,

Jon Johnston

Is it really strengthen that connection with the University of Nebraska that much further? Or is it already strong enough that it doesn’t need that?

Roger Aden

Oh, I have strong to begin with, but having that kid on the team from a smaller community in Nebraska, and let’s face it, most every community in Nebraska is a small community. having that connection makes a world of difference. I think it’s fantastic that Garrett Nelson was playing as a freshman. I don’t know the kid I don’t know his parents, but he’s from my hometown. And that made me pay more attention to him and made me feel more invested in the program living in Ohio for the past 30 years. So yeah, I think it makes a difference.

Jon Johnston

Okay, your book Huskerville, it’s still in print. Correct?

Roger Aden

Correct.

Jon Johnston

So people can still go to Amazon and I’ll provide a link to it, they can still go out and get a copy. And I’m biased because I wrote a story in it. But it’s a it’s a really great book. And it’s the offseason and you want to find out more about Nebraska football. So there you go. Have you ever thought of updating it?

Roger Aden

I would love to update it, if I had time to do so. But I don’t know that I’m going to have time in the near future. The part that that really needs updating is toward the beginning and the winds of change chapter because I wrote that at the time that Callahan had just taken over from sandwich. And obviously we’ve gone through a lot since that time. So that particular moment in time, I think was a particular set of winds of change. I think there’s some, some different stuff going on. Now given that we’ve gone through three coaches since the Lich was fired and, or three in between so legend frost, and so that, that the winds of change are a different sort of wind right now more more of a sustained breeze that that creates some uncertainty and some anxiety. And having frost back in there, as the head coach, I think, would make me write a different chapter in that regard. The rest of the rest of the book could potentially have some updating, but I think those themes in the rest of the book are those are things that have been around for a while and I think will continue to be around for a while because when I when I talked to people for the book, I talked to people from many different generations and and states all over the country and a couple of people outside the US as well who are Nebraska fans and I think those things are pretty enduring themes. And with what Scott for us to try to do within the program, I think the the strength of those things is reappearing. So I don’t know that that stuff requires updating, I think more of the the framework for the book would benefit from updating but I think if somebody picks it up and reads it now the the second two thirds of the book will seem, I think, pretty timely, even if the first part maybe isn’t quite as timely as it was when I first wrote it.

Jon Johnston

Frank Solich - you teach at the University where he coaches.

Roger Aden I do.

Jon Johnston

What does he mean to Ohio University?

Roger Aden

Well, not nearly the same that any coach means to the University of Nebraska. Football here was awful, absolutely awful for decades before he was hired. Since he’s been here, he’s done a really good job with the program. They have never won a Mac championship in his years coaching, even though they’ve had good years, year after year, but the investment in football here is not nearly what it is elsewhere. I mean, think about how many division one programs that are in the state of Ohio and even then, I think in Athens, where Ohio University is located, I’m sure that we have more Ohio State fans then we have Ohio University fans because Ohio State kind of rules the roost here unfortunately. So I he has doesn’t mean as much in that regard. But the stability that he’s brought to the program I think has helped the football program she is not seen as a legend or iconic or anything. like that around here. And that, I guess to give you the best example of how invested people are in the football program here is that a lot of people, not most, but a lot of people will leave after halftime of football games even now when the team is performing well, because they stayed to watch the band perform. Because the band is legendary. In terms of his performances, it’s halftime shows they they’ve had a number of halftime performances go viral. So you I think you will have more fans of the band, then you have fans of the football team at Ohio University.

Jon Johnston

All right. Is it? Is there anything else that I haven’t thought of that you would like to add?

Roger Aden

Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know. What do you think about Bo Pelini is hiring at LSU. My turn to ask the question.

Jon Johnston

Wow, nobody, most people never do that. You know, yesterday, I wrote an article and I wished him luck. And I really wish him luck to see what kind of responses I would get. He’s still a very polarizing person. I think most people have moved on from what happened in Nebraska with him. I guess I’m it’s about time he got back into power five. I don’t think he belongs as a head coach of any power five program anywhere. Although it’s interesting that he goes to LSU because LSU... Ed Orgeron was a guy who coached at Ole Miss, he was too gritty. He was to just to Ed or to “Coach O” and he failed miserably. And what he did was he people have heard me say this on the other podcast, but he realized he had to change his life and change his approach and change how he did things. And he did that at LSU. And he now went on to win the The national title get a massive huge extension with tons of money thrown at him. And I think it’s it’s interest it’s going to be interesting to see if Bo Pelini has done that himself. I do I honestly I think he was way too narcissistic. I think he was way too explosive. He let his temper get the best of him a lot of times I we’re all going to, we’re all going to watch if you watch college football at the level I do, we’re going to watch LSU games to watch Bo Pelini’s behavior on the sidelines. And it’s gonna be like, it’s gonna be like in that movie Unforgiven, with Clint Eastwood, when you’re just waiting for that moment when he first takes his first drink of alcohol, and all of a sudden you go here, this is going to become an explosion. So I could watch that and it’ll be interesting to see See how Bo Pellini handles his next gig? I mean, college football never stops being interesting. It’s just how much depth you want to have.

Roger Aden

Yeah, I’m really curious to see what happens there. I, I was stunned that they made the offer to him, given what had happened at Youngstown in terms of his competition and to pay him what they were paying him as well. That really caught me off guard so I you know, I hope things go well for them. They’re the the team the program and Pelini personally don’t ever want to wish ill will on someone. But I am curious to see how things turn out.

Jon Johnston

Yeah, it’ll well, it’ll be interesting. I think of the past Nebraska coaches. He’s the one that probably has more of a connection to us. And I’m not sure why that is maybe because he was the last relatively successful coach we’ve had in a while or whether it was because people wanted him to be more and he just wasn’t. I’m not sure.

Roger Aden

Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, it just, it’s one of those things where you think, you know, this guy seems to have so much potential, but he doesn’t seem to realize what he needs to do to make it happen.

Jon Johnston

Bill Callahan. You mentioned him earlier, he just, I think you could just end this sentence you had with he didn’t care and I’d really honestly think he didn’t care that much.

Roger Aden Yeah.

Jon Johnston

Mike Riley, really nice guy. But whatever. I, you know it Mike Riley was a placeholder. And I said this when he was hired. I didn’t understand why he was hired other than the fact that he was going to be there. If he was going to be successful, then fine. But if he wasn’t going to be successful, he was going to be fired in three years. And there wouldn’t be that big a buyout and we move on to the next thing. And that’s really what Mike Riley was. He was just a three year placeholder. I think he did a lot of damage to our program in those three years. But you know, it’s going to be wait to be seen how much patience we’re going to have with Scott frost and how high we think the ceiling is and, and really well, you’ve lived outside the state around the big 10. I mean, this isn’t the old big eight, and it’s certainly not the big 12. I mean, the big 10 is spent its entire history eating each other alive. And yeah. I wonder if 10 years later in this conference, and people really realize how tough the conference is, you know.

Roger Aden

And it is it is a tough conference, not just in terms of competition, but in terms of type of play to you. You’ve got to bring it every week in the big 10 or you’re losing.

Jon Johnston

I do have one more question for you. Nebraska Speech and Debate program keeps winning the big 10.

Roger Aden Uh huh.

Jon Johnston

You’re kind of an alum of that.

Roger Aden

I am, I am very proud of the success that they’re having. They are doing great stuff there and has been for a number of years. They have as a university and as a department. They’re invested money in an academic pursuit that also has a competitive element to it. And I think that’s a great place to throw money, when you can have competition that’s academically oriented. And you’ve got people in charge of the program, which they do at Nebraska who know how to make things happen. That’s great for the university. It’s great for the students involved. And it’s, it’s absolutely a program that everybody in the state as well as the university should be really proud of. They’re doing great work.

Jon Johnston

Okay, you know, we’re gonna end there.

Jon Johnston All right. I think That’s a positive note to end on. And I always like to end on a positive note. Anything else you want to finish with?

Roger Aden

Well, I am very I’ll mention this because we didn’t talk about this. But the thing I should mention at the end here is how proud I am as a longtime Athens, Ohio resident to see Joe burrow have the success that he’s had. He’s still got the Nebraska connections. He’s still got the Nebraska element to him. And so I was really happy to see him succeed at LSU. My only regret was that they didn’t get to play Ohio State and show them how the wrong they were about him.

Jon Johnston

That’s that’s a good point. Okay, this has been Jon’s Postlife Crisis. Thank you for listening. Go Big Red.