All season during this Husker Throwback series, I’ve tried to post these blogs the day or two before the story has aired on KETV. There have been a few exceptions.. Monte Anthony had an ‘encore’ post thanks to Pearl Jam in Lincoln, and in our final week, legendary coach Milt Tenopir took a backseat to a terrible head cold. (No one puts Coach in the corner!) I fully intended to sit down at my desk Sunday and give Coach Tenopir the write-up his storied career at Nebraska deserved.
Then we all got the email that changed everything.
‘University of Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst has dismissed Head Football Coach Bo Pelini effective immediately.’
I’ve been sitting here, contemplating what to type next. The truth is, as I’ve written before, I don’t KNOW sports. There are journalists, commentators and analysts who make a living sharing the whys, the what ifs and the could bes. They research and study programs and team histories; they KNOW the game. One of the things Pelini told me himself in our interview last April was that there were sure a lot of people outside of his program who THOUGHT they knew everything.
Yes, that’s part of the job, and Pelini was the first to say that in our interview. Yes, he got paid a good salary, a GREAT salary, for that job. Still, quite an unenviable position to have tens of thousands of people criticize your EVERY. MOVE.
I KNOW I don’t know. Does ANYONE have all the answers for the success of Husker football?
From 1974 to 2003, Offensive Line Coach Milt Tenopir sure knew a lot.
“Here’s an example, the offensive line had zero, ZERO penalties,” said Tenopir of his 1995 team.
ZERO PENALTIES. ALL SEASON.
Milt Tenopir was the man behind that original Pipeline of sheer, impenetrable muscle. The coach who was often off camera, calling plays upstairs, looking down at the field inside Memorial Stadium. The role model who turned out hundreds of young men he says became beloved friends.
The 1994 Pipeline, an unbreakable Husker offensive line. 4 of the 5 starters that year went on to play pro ball. (Photo Courtesy Brenden Stai Golf Classic)
“I never demanded respect. I felt you had to earn respect whether you were a coach or whomever,” Tenopir told me last week. “If the kids believe in you and you believe in them, you’re going to develop a friendship. And we had a friendship, you know. There’s not many that would come through that door today that we wouldn’t hug, maybe shed a tear, because there was just a bond set up there.”
Tenopir was a players’ coach (“I beat ’em up if they didn’t say that,” he joked), but it wasn’t because he went easy on them. Tenopir says today’s players run 50-70 snaps, MAX, at practice. His players ran 110. ALL of his players, starting or not. THAT, he says, is how his Huskers dominated their opponents on the field.
“The reason for that success was we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot. We didn’t have a bunch of jumps offsides, we didn’t have a bunch of chop blocks. We didn’t have a lot of holding stuff,” said Tenopir. “We beat everybody we should’ve beaten and a lot of times we beat people maybe we shouldn’t have beaten. We never lost a game that we were supposed to win.”
There were losses, of course, but not many. Tenopir credits his longtime head coach, Tom Osborne, who suffered two of those losses back to back at the start of his head coaching career.
“Coach Osborne was in our locker room before you could even get your clothes off to shower, he was not a happy camper,” remembers Tenopir. “He wanted change, and he got change. We ended up winning nine that year. The following game we played Colorado and we thumped ’em pretty good.”
That is one of the things Tenopir says bothers him about so many programs today; the inability to make adjustments, especially during a game. He says in 95% of Coach Osborne’s games, he brought a team back after halftime that performed better than in the first two quarters.
“When you look back at coaching 25 years, 255 wins, that’s an average of ten games a year. That says something,” said Tenopir. “Being in Coach’s presence made you all better people. He was just that type of a guy.”
There are other things Tenopir would like to see done differently at Nebraska. He’d like to see the Big Red get back to a run-first mentality. He says his coaching strategies, practice and consistency were not perfect but were proven.
“If they have repetition and the ability to make it second nature to them, then they’re going to be better. I see that as an area of change that needs to be done,” said Tenopir. “You’ve got a red N on your hat and that means something. It means you don’t ever give up. It means you try to be a perfectionist in everything you do.”
That red N might as well be tattooed onto Tenopir’s heart; though the 74-year old’s coaching days are over, he is still living by that Husker motto to keep fighting. Tenopir battled cancer and won, twice. (He is currently in remission, hoping he’ll be able to continue therapy at home in January.) This latest bout with leukemia, diagnosed in May, and the treatments that followed, drained Tenopir of his strength. When the 1994 National Championship team was honored during this season’s Nebraska vs Miami game, his fellow coaches pushed Tenopir onto the field in a wheelchair. On his lap, he held the ’94 trophy.
“It was heavy,” said Tenopir, smiling. “It was a thrill to me to be with those kids and the fact so many of them showed up. Rob Zatechka, Brenden Stai, Aaron Graham, Joel Wilks, Zach Wiegert, those were some pretty special kids.”
As for Tenopir’s favorite?
“Can’t tell you that, I coached so doggone many,” said Tenopir. “There’s not a kid I coached that I didn’t fall in love with.”
And from all accounts, the feeling is mutual. Even during our interview, Coach Tenopir stopped to wave back at people passing by, even hugging a woman working in the athletic department. 11 years out from his retirement from coaching and he’s still beloved in Husker Nation.
Something has been verified for me time and time again putting together these Throwback Thursday stories. To be a Husker is something very, very special, both to the players and to the fans. It’s not just a game in Nebraska. It’s tradition, it’s prominence, it’s a dynasty. It’s hard work, it’s adrenaline, it’s victory. It’s something we collectively look forward to and join together for. It’s more than the games, yet it IS the games, the players, the coaches that make all of this happen.
Will we ever have another coach like Milt Tenopir, like Tom Osborne, like Bob Devaney? Will Nebraska ever win another national title? Will ANY program see another team become a legacy like the 70-71 Huskers, or the 90’s powerhouse Nebraska teams?
Less than a week before Coach Bo Pelini would be dismissed, Coach Tenopir told me every head coach will take the blame for what goes wrong with his team. He added, you can’t put it all on one guy. In my interview with Coach Pelini, he was honest, down-to-earth, and seemed grounded by the things that are truly important; his family, and helping young men develop as players and people. KETV Sports Director Andy Kendeigh said it best tonight during our 10pm newscast: “He’s truly a good man.” Coach, I wish you the best.
For all of you who have followed this new Throwback Thursday Husker series, THANK YOU–I’ve really enjoyed following up with these players and coaches and sharing their stories. Ironically, as I close the door on this blog post and on the 2014 season, we are pursuing another developing story. Tomorrow, Husker Nation will welcome in new Head Football coach Mike Riley.
A new era of Nebraska Football is about to begin.