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Requiem for a Dynasty

July 28, 2011 8 comments

This will likely be my last word on the demise of the University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program. As some of you may know from reading this blog or from following other media reports on the story, the program did nothing to contribute to its demise. Quite the contrary, it did everything right and then some. UNO wrestling reached the pinnacle of NCAA Division II competition and maintained its unparalleled excellence year after year. Yet university officials disregarded all that and eliminated the program. The action caused quite an uproar but the decision stood, leaving head coach Mike Denney, his assistants, and the student-athletes adrift. In a stunning turn, Denney is more or less taking what’s left of the orphaned program, including a couple assistants and 10 or so wrestlers, and moving the program to Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. The following story for the New Horizons is my take on what transpired and an appreciation for the remarkable legacy that Denney, his predecessor Don Benning, and all their assitants and wrestlers established at a university that then turned its back on their contributions. It’s a bittersweet story as Denney closes one chapter in his career and opens a new one. It is UNO’s loss and Maryville’s gain.

 

 

Mike Denney exhorting his troops to keep the faith

 

 

Requiem for a Dynasty: 

Mike Denney Reflects on the Long Dominant, Now Defunct UNO Maverick Wrestling Program He Coached, Its Legacy, His Pain, and Starting Anew with Wife Bonnie at Maryville University

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in the New Horizons

The For Sale sign spoke volumes.

Planted in the front yard of the home Mike and Bonnie Denney called their own for decades, it served as graphic reminder an Omaha icon was leaving town. The longtime University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling coach and his wife of 42 years never expected to be moving. But that’s what happened in the wake of shocking events the past few months. Forced out at the school he devoted half his life to when UNO surprised everyone by dropping wrestling, he’s now taken a new opportunity far from home — as head coach at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo.

The sign outside his home, Denney said, reinforced “the finality of it.” That, along with cleaning out his office and seeing the mats he and his coaches and wrestlers sweated on and achieved greatness on, sold via e-Bay.

On his last few visits to the Sapp Field House and the wrestling room, he said he couldn’t help but feel how “empty” they felt. “There’s an energy that’s gone.”

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for the golden wrestling program and its decorated coach.

But this past spring the winningest program in UNO athletic history, fresh off capturing its third straight national championship and sixth in eight years, was unceremoniously disbanded.

Denney’s teams won two-thirds of their duals, claimed seven national team championships, produced more than 100 All-Americans and dozens of individual national champions in his 32 years at the helm. At age 64, he was at the top of his game, and his program poised to continue its dominant run.

“Let me tell you, we had a chance to make some real history here,” he said. “Our team coming back, I think we had an edge on people for awhile. We had some good young talent.”

 

 

UNO celebrates its 2010-2011 national championship

 

 

A measure of how highly thought of Denney is in his profession is that InterMat named him Coach of the Year for 2011 over coaches from top Division I programs. In 2006 Amateur Wrestling News made him its Man of the Year. That same year Win Magazine tabbed him as Dan Gable Coach of the Year.

Three times he’s been voted Division II Coach of the Year. He’s an inductee in both the Division II and UNO Athletic Halls of Fame. UNO awarded him its Chancellor’s Medal for his significant contributions to the university.

“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness”

Yet, when all was said and done, Denney and his program were deemed expendable. Suddenly, quite literally without warning, wrestling was shut down, the student-athletes left adrift and Denney’s coaching job terminated. All in the name of UNO’s it’s-just-business move to Division I and the Summit League. The story made national news.

Response to the decision ranged from incredulity to disappointment to fury. To his credit, Denney never played the blame game, never went negative. But as print and television coverage documented in teary-eyed moments with his wrestlers, coaches and wife, it hurt, it hurt badly.

“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness,” he said.

The closest he comes to criticism is to ask accusingly, “Was it worth it? Was the shiny penny worth it? Or are people worth it? What are you giving up for that? Your self? Your soul?”

Referring to UNO officials, Bonnie Denney said, “They’re standing behind a system that treats people very disrespectfully. You just don’t treat people like that, — you just don’t. We’ve got to put it in God’s hands and move on. We’re not going to let it pull us down. We’re going to keep our core and take it someplace else.”

Nobody saw it coming. How could they? Wrestling, with its consistent excellence and stability, was the one constant in a topsy-turvy athletic department. The decision by Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts to end wrestling, and along with it, football, was inconceivable in the context of such unprecedented success.

Unprecedented, too, was a university jettisoning the nation’s leading program and coach without a hint of scandal or mismanagement. No NCAA rules violations. No financial woes. It would have been as if University of Nebraska-Lincoln higher-ups pulled the plug on Husker football at the height of Tom Osborne’s reign of glory.

An apples to oranges comparison? Perhaps, except the only difference between NU football and UNO wrestling is dollars and viewers. The Huskers generate millions in revenue by drawing immense stadium crowds and television audiences. The Mavericks broke even at best and drew only a tiny fraction of followers. Judging the programs solely by winning and losing over the last half-century, however, and UNO comes out on top, with eight national titles to NU’s five. Where UNO won minus sanctions, NU won amid numerous player run-ins with the law.

Noted sports psychologist Jack Stark has said Denney’s high character makes him the best coach in any sport in Nebraska.

 

 

Denney and Dustin Tovar

 

 

USA Wrestling Magazine’s Craig Sesker, who covered Denney for the Omaha World-Herald, said, “He is a man of the highest integrity, values and principles. He’s an unbelievably selfless and generous man who always puts his athletes first.”

“He has a unique way of treating everybody like they’re somebody,” said Ron Higdon, who wrestled and coached for Denney. “He physically found a way to touch every guy every day at practice — touch them on the shoulder, touch them on the head. I learned so much from him. I have such incredible respect for him.

 

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 Ron Higdon after NU Board of Regents approved cutting UNO wrestling, ©photo Omaha World-Herald

 

 

“One of the reasons I never left is I felt it was a special place. I felt such a connection that I felt this was the place for me. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it.”

The influence Denney has on young men is reflected in the 60-plus former wrestlers of his who have entered the coaching profession.

“They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did”

Denney created a dynasty the right way, but what’s sometimes forgotten is that its seeds were planted a decade earlier, by another rock-ribbed man of character, Don Benning. In 1963 Benning became the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university when he took over the then-Omaha University Indian wrestling program. Having already made history with its coach, the program — competing then at the NAIA level — reached the peak of small college success by winning the 1970 national title.

Once a UNO wrestler or wrestling coach, always one. So it was that Benning and some of the guys who wrestled for him attended the We Are One farewell to the program last spring. The UNO grappling family turned out in force for this requiem. In a show of solidarity and homage to a shared legacy lost. wrestlers from past and present took off their letter jackets, vowing never to wear them again.

“Wrestling is kind of a brotherhood. It was my life, and so I had every reason to be there,” said Benning. “There was a lot of hurt in seeing what happened. It was devastating. We felt their pain.”

Benning said the event also gave him and his old wrestlers the opportunity to pay homage to what Denney and his wrestlers accomplished.

“It was a chance for us to say how much we appreciated them and to take our hats off to them. They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did.”

Benning left after the 1971 season and the program, while still highly competitive, slipped into mediocrity until Denney arrived in 1979.

 

 

Don Benning

 

 

For Denney, Benning set a benchmark he strove to reach.

“When we came one of the first things I said was we want to reestablish the tradition that Don Benning started.”

A farm-raised, Antelope County, Neb. native, Denney was a multi-sport star athlete in high school and at Dakota Wesleyan college. He played semi-pro football with the Omaha Mustangs. He became a black belt in judo and jujitsu, incorporating martial arts rituals and mantras into his coaching. For example, he called the UNO wrestling room the “dojo.” He has the calm, cool, command of the sensei master.

He taught and coached at Omaha South and Omaha Bryan before joining the staff at UNO, where in addition to coaching he taught.

With his John Wayne-esque swagger, wide open smile, genial temperament, yet steely resolve, Denney was the face of an often faceless UNO athletic department. In a revolving door of coaches and ADs, Duke, as friends call him, was always there, plodding away, the loyal subject faithfully attending to his duties. You could always count on him. He modeled his strong Christian beliefs.

Under Denney UNO perennially contended for the national title and became THE elite program at the Division II level. He led UNO in organizing and hosting the nation’s largest single-day college wrestling tournament, the Kaufman-Brand Open, and a handful of national championship tournaments.

He was particularly fond of the Kaufman-Brand.

“I loved that tournament. It was a happening. Wrestlers came from all over for that. It was a who’s-who of wrestling. I mean, you saw world, Olympic and national champions. Multiple mats. Fourteen hundred matches.”

“We were a positive force…”

With everything that’s happened, he hasn’t had much time to look back at his UNO career. Ask him what he’s proudest of and he doesn’t immediately talk about all the winning. Instead, it’s the people he impacted and the difference his teams made. His guys visiting hospitals or serving meals at homeless shelters. The youth tournament UNO held. The high school wrestling league it organized. The clinics he and his coaches gave.

“We were a positive force in the wrestling community. I think its going to hurt wrestling in the area. We provided opportunities.”

Then there was the annual retreat-boot camp where his wrestlers bonded. The extra mile he and his coaches and athletes went to help on campus or in the community. The Academic All-Americans UNO produced. All the coaches the program produced.

Then, Denney gets around to the winning or more specifically to winning year in and year out.

“I think one of the most difficult things to do in anything is be consistent. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. I think that consistency, year in and out, in everything you do is the biggest test.”

In its last season UNO wrestling went wire to wire No. 1. “Staying up there is the toughest thing,” said Denney.

“People don’t realize how difficult what they did really is,” said Benning, who knows a thing or two about winning.

Benning thinks it’s unfortunate that local media coverage of UNO wrestling declined at the very time the program enjoyed its greatest success. “They kind of got cheated in regards to their value and what they accomplished.”

“Whether it was on our terms or not, we went out on top. No one can ever take away what we accomplished,” said Ron Higdon.

Highs and lows come with the territory in athletics. Win or lose, Mike and Bonnie Denney were surrogate parents to their “boys,” cultivating family bonds that went beyond the usual coach-player relationship. Parents to three children of their own, the couple form an unbreakable team.

“When you do anything that takes this amount of time, you gotta have a partnership,” said Denney, who said he often asks Bonnie to accompany him on recruiting trips and invites her to get to know student-athletes.. “She’s a recruiting asset. She’s kind of a second mother to them. They get to know her.”

Bonnie said she learned long ago that “if I wasn’t going to join him in this I was going to lose him –  wouldn’t have a husband.” Therefore, she said, “it’s a shared mission.”

There’s been hard times. She survived a multiple sclerosis scare. They endured the deaths of UNO wrestlers Ryan Kaufman, R.J. Nebe and Jesse Greise.

Next to all that, losing a program pales in comparison.

“We kept this in perspective because we’ve been there when the parents of former wrestlers had to pull life support,” said Denney. “To be in a hospital room and to see a former wrestler take his last breath, to be there with the parents and the wives, this (wrestling getting cut) is not in that same category.”

That didn’t make it hurt any less. The coach and his boys didn’t go down without a fight, either. Denney, his assistants, his wrestlers and his boosters held rallies and lobbied university officials to reconsider, but they could not sway NU regents to reverse their decision.

 

 

Denney keeping things positive

 

 

What cut deepest for Denney is that no one in a position of power took wrestling’s side. No decision-maker spoke up for the program.

“There wasn’t anybody that thought we were valuable enough to fight for us,” he said. “There wasn’t anybody that cared. At Maryville, they care, they value us.”

Two men Denney counted as friends, Christensen and Don Leahy, who hired Denney at UNO and whom Denney regarded as a father figure, were not in his corner when he needed them. It stings, but Denney’s refrained from name-calling or recrimination.

Following the lead of their coach, UNO wrestlers took the high road, too.

“One of the things that made us really proud of our group is how they handled all this,” he said. “They really, I thought, did a nice job of showing dignity and class and poise.”

Just like he taught them.

“We always talk about teaching and building …that we’re teachers and builders. Immediately when this went down, I thought, How can we use this? Well, it starts with the family-the team pulling together, supporting each other, picking each other up, and then modeling and displaying character under adversity. It’s easy to do it when everything’s going good. But things are going to happen in life.

“Obviously, we got hit. we got blindsided. We had no idea this was going to happen, no indication. It was a cheap shot.”

On the mat or in life, he demanded his guys show grit when tested.

“I created a family with high expectations for how you acted. You demonstrated character under adversity. You had to be tough. You had to demonstrate moxie. You had to bounce back. If you got knocked down, you had to get up.”

“I kept saying… to expect a miracle”

His boys didn’t let him down. But as hard as they were hit with their team and dream taken away, they were crushed. Naturally, in the aftermath, they looked to their coach for answers. Denney said, “They gave me this look like, ‘Fix this coach.’” Starting the very night the team got the heartbreaking news, right on through the regents sealing its fate, Denney kept his troops together.

“We tried to meet every day and just talk about things,” he said. “It was a significant kind of thing, really.”

In the process, he tried to give his guys some hope.

“I kept saying — and I don’t have any idea why, except I was just trying to keep them up I think — to expect a miracle. First of all, I said, it’s a miracle that we’ve been able to do this for all these years.”

Denney admittedly walked a fine line between keeping things positive and offering false hope, but he wasn’t going to rest without exhausting every opportunity to maintain his program — whether it be at UNO or somewhere else.

“Our whole thing when this first happened, our prayer was, let there be some way that we could somehow continue this thing,” he said. “So, I kept telling them, ‘Expect a miracle.’ They’d kind of look at me like, What are you saying that for? I was kind of having fun with it, keeping things light. You know, we’ve hit some adversity, but we can still laugh, we can enjoy each other, we’re going to make the best out of this deal.”

But it wasn’t only about staying upbeat. Even before the regents made it official and unanimously endorsed UNO’s decision to cut wrestling and football, Denney sent out feelers to other universities to try and find a new home for his program.

Creighton University, it turned out, might have been able to add the program if the timing had been different, but as it was CU was in a budget cutting mode. There were also tentative discussions with Bellevue University and Benedictine (Kansas) College.

Denney and wife Bonnie consoling each other after the Regents vote; photo from Lincoln Journal-Star

Just when it appeared all might be lost, Maryville University approached Denney. After much soul-searching and many exploratory visits, now he, Bonnie, a couple assistant coaches and 10 former Maverick student-athletes, plus some new recruits, are taking what’s left of the UNO wrestling brand to inaugurate that small private school’s first entree into varsity wrestling. It’s the only time in NCAA history one university has essentially adopted another university’s athletic program.

“This is a miraculous kind of story really,” said Denney. “That’s why we have to go there. Because of all the things that have happened to set this up, it’s almost like we’re divinely guided to go there. So, I guess, be careful what you ask for.”

 

 

 

 

Thus, at a time when most couples their age prepare for retirement, the Denneys find themselves starting all over again, at a new school, in an unfamiliar city. Except, they have been made to feel so welcome and wanted there that they expect the transition to calling Maryville and St. Louis home will be easier than they ever imagined.

Recently, the Denneys shared how the Maryville option came into focus and what it’s like to be moving onto this new, unexpected chapter in their lives.

It all began with a phone call, which is ironic because once the news broke about UNO wrestling being cut, Denney’s office phone was so deluged with calls neither he nor the message system could keep up. He hardly ever caught a call.

One day, he’d just finished meeting with his team, he said, “when I walked into my office and the phone was ringing and I thought, Well, at least i can get this one. So I picked it up and it was someone saying, ‘I”m Jeff Miller from Maryville University in St. Louis. I’m representing Maryville president Mark Lombardi.’” Miller told Denney that as part of Maryville moving from Division III to Division II it sought to add wrestling and saw UNO’s orphaned program as a ready-made fit.

Denney was skeptical at first. “I said, ‘If this is one of my friends, this is a cruel joke.’ About four times during the conversation, I said, ‘Who really is this?’”

The more Miller, a Maryville vice president, laid out his university’s interest, the more convinced Denney became this was no joke. Miller came right out and said Maryville wanted not only Denney but as many of his coaches and student-athletes as he could bring to come there and start a wrestling program.

“I was like, ‘Really?’”

The clincher, said Denney, was when Miller told him he was flying “up there” — to Omaha — to talk things over.

“So he flew up and we spent time talking at Anthony’s (the venerable southwest Omaha steakhouse that’s long been a UNO hangout). He said this opportunity has presented itself.”

“From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us”

The more Miller talked, the more Denney was convinced this was a one in a million chance come true to salvage a bad situation with something clear out of the blue.

It soon became clear to Denney Maryville had done its due diligence.

“This Jeff Miller studied our program,” he said. “They actually looked at some other things but they just didn’t feel like they fit. They felt like this fit for them somehow. From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us.”

After the rejection at UNO, it felt nice to be appreciated again.

“Since the new AD (Alberts) came, these last couple years we really felt we weren’t being embraced, let’s just put it that way. We just kind of pulled back into our own area,” said Denney. “But they (Maryville) did embrace us. It was kind of a great feeling. It felt really good, actually.”

In terms of facilities, Maryville can’t match UNO, at least right now. When the deal was struck with Denney, Maryville didn’t even have a wrestling room. A meeting room is being converted into one. By contrast, UNO had a state-of-the-art wrestling room built to Denney’s specifications and that he was justifiably proud of.

Bonnie said what Maryville lacks in tangibles it makes up for with intangibles.

“It is a change to go from UNO to that environment, but there’s something about that spirit and environment that makes you feel valued.”

Besides, it’s not so different from when Mike started at UNO. The facilities were so bad his first several years there he purposely avoided showing them to recruits. Over time, things improved. Bonnie sees the same thing happening at Maryville.

“I think it will be kind of fun to see it grow and change,” she said.

For a UNO wrestler or recruit to buy in to a start-up program in a new locale, “it took some imagination,” said Mike, to visualize what things will look like in the future.

Committing to wrestling is a big thing for Maryville. First, the school already had a full complement of sports. Next, as a D-III school it offered no athletic scholarships and its coaches were part time. Now, in D-II, it’s granting partial scholarships to student-athletes and its coaches are closer to full-time.

“They’re making a real step and you can feel the energy on campus,” said Denney, who’s been impressed on multiple visits there by the buildings going up and the programs being added. “They’ve got a little money and they’re looking for every way they can to build their university. It adds to their campus, it adds exposure for their university.”

Besides, he said, an athletic program can be a revenue producer simply via the out-of-state tuition it generates.

“It actually can be a profitable thing for them. They’re figuring out this is a good business venture. If you look at it business-wise, if you bring in 30 scholarship student-athletes, with an annual out of state tuition of $31,000 each…”

 

 

Denney’s miracle was delivered in a most unexpected way

 

 

Still, Denney said he wasn’t prepared to accept Maryville’s offer unless Bonnie wholeheartedly agreed to the move.

“First of all, I had to recruit her,” he said. “She’s the one who’s going to give up everything. She’s gotta leave everything — all of her friends, our church, our house of 35 years.”

Bonnie knew Mike wanted it, but everything was happening so fast she wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do.

“I didn’t want him to rush into anything,” she said. “We were still in shock, and they (Maryville) were coming on so strong. It’s like it had a life of its own. He took me down there and you get to this campus and the people down there are warm and nice, and I thought, You know, this is possible — I know it’s going to be difficult, but I feel it.”

And so she consented to the move with a philosophical attitude: “You have to say farewell to have that new beginning.”

“‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’”

Denney liked the idea of playing the Pied Piper, but first he needed assurance enough of his guys were willing to follow him there to make it worthwhile.

“I kept telling Jeff (Miller), ‘We’re willing to go, we’re willing to do this thing, we feel like we’re called to do that. But I’m not going to do it if it’s just my wife and I. I’m not doing it just for us.’ I mean, really, we could just ride off into the sunset. We could make it. There’s a lot of things I could do, and we got offered some things to do, but none that I felt called to do.

“It’s not like I was looking to build up my resume.”

His passion to teach and build good people still burns bright, however.

“He’s no where ready to retire,” said Bonnie, adding he outworks assistants half or a third his age.

The Pied Piper next had to re-recruit his own wrestlers and their parents, or as many as he could, to make this leap of faith with him.

“We kind of sold them on it,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’ I had to sense our guys wanted to help start the fire. I don’t know if you call it an obligation, but I want us to do well. They’ve been so good to us. I want us to make an impact on campus.

“We always said, ‘Let’s be a positive force.’ We’re going to do the same thing down there.”

 

 

After 32 years at UNO, Denney now heads the Maryville Saints wrestling program

 

 

Denney led several UNO contingents to visit Maryville, whose officials always took time to express how much they wanted them there.

Many factors went into determining whether it made sense or not for a UNO student-athlete to take the plunge. For example, geography. St. Louis would put some athletes an even longer distance from home and family. Too far in some cases. Then the academics had to mesh. One of UNO’s best returning wrestlers, Esai Dominguez, decided to bypass his final year of eligibility in order to remain at UNO and finish his engineering degree. And then there was cost. Maryville tuition is higher than UNO’s.

Transplanting the program is historic and given how stringent NCAA rules are, Denney said, “we’re starting to figure out why” it hadn’t been done before. UNO officials worked closely with their Maryville counterparts to make it work.

“Now get this, Maryville sent a whole team of admissions/financial aid people to Omaha,” said Denney. “We met at Anthony’s, and all day long our guys came in with their transcripts, and we tried to get all this to match up.”

“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization”

While Denney tried retaining as much of his wrestling family as possible, “the vultures” — recruiters from other programs — circled about, pouncing on UNO strays who were uncommitted or undecided. He finally had to release his wrestlers to talk to other schools and to make visits. Some of his best returnees left for other programs.

Most of his assistant coaches couldn’t justify the move either between career and family considerations.

In the end, Denney’s brought fewer with him than he would have liked, having to say goodbye to about two-thirds of his former team.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s hard, but you’ve just got to let them go,” said Denney. “Here’s what we feel good about though — we offered everyone of them an opportunity to go.”

Still, he’s brought with him a a stable of wrestlers and coaches who have competed at and won at the highest levels. It’s a transformational infusion of talent, attitude, standard and expectation at a school whose teams have mostly endured losing seasons.

Denney expects to win right away but is enough of a realist to say, “We’re back into a building process here.” It took years to build UNO into D-II’s preeminent program and it won’t be done overnight at Maryville.

He leaves no doubt though he’s committed to making the Maryville Saints wrestling program an elite one. And he seems to be giving himself eight years to do it, saying he’s always envisioned coaching and teaching 100 semesters or 50 years (high school and college combined), a figure he would reach at age 72. Beyond that, nothing’s for sure.

“As long as we can handle it,” said Bonnie. “As long as we don’t fall over at some tournament.”

Ron Higdon can hardly believe what his close friend and old boss is doing. “I have a whole new respect for what he’s taking on and the way he’s handled it and the energy he’s putting into it, because it’s unbelievable.”

Make no mistake about it, Denney’s heart still aches over how UNO did him and his program in, but he has moved on. He does, however, offer a cautionary note for those who so cavalierly discarded the legacy of UNO wrestling.

“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization,” he said. “You must keep it, you must do everything you can to keep it. You’re going to see the long term effects of this later on. That culture won’t last.

“What happens when you lose your tradition, your history, and you forget about it — then you don’t recognize it. You lose something, and sometimes you’ll never get it back.”

Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero

July 4, 2011 4 comments

I am a moderate baseball fan at best, but I am drawn to the stories behind the game and to the figures who animate it. One of the all-time great players, Roberto Clemente, made millions take notice of his baseball skills, which earned him a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown, but what he did off the field may be what he’s ultimately best remembered for. This little story for El Perico newspaper in Omaha takes a cursory look at the impact the late Roberto Clemente still has on people nearly 40 years after he tragically died at age 38 while attempting to carry out a humanitarian mission. The occasion for the story was a touring exhibition of his life that landed at El Museo Latino, and I simply asked a few folks in the local Latin community what Clemente’s legacy means to them. The exhibition continues through July 17.

 

 

Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

With baseball season in full swing, El Museo Latino hosts a touring exhibition from Puerto Rico celebrating National Baseball Hall of Fame legend Roberto Clemente.

Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente continues through July 17 as part of a 20-city tour.

It’s curated by Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with the Carimar Design and Research studio and organized for touring by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The Smithsonian Latino Center is a sponsor.

When Pittsburgh Pirates great and Latin symbol Roberto Clemente died December 31, 1972, his native Puerto Rico wept. He was only 38. The grief extended throughout the Americas.

The first great Latino star in the big leagues, Clemente was a trailblazer who opened pathways for other Latin players to follow. He’s remembered as more than a magnificent athlete, but as a man of the people, devoted to his countrymen and Spanish-speakers worldwide.

He died when a plane he was aboard delivering relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims went down in the ocean. His body was never recovered. It was not the first time he acted as a humanitarian — he helped needy people in the United States and Central America and held free baseball clinics for children in Puerto Rico. After his death his wife and children have continued his work.

In recognition of his brilliant play in the outfield, at the plate and on the base paths, the usual five year waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration was waived and he was elected by an overwhelming majority into Cooperstown. The Roberto Clemente Award was established to salute Major League Baseball players who combine outstanding play and community service. The award, given annually since 1973, made Clemente the inaugural honoree.

His homeland is replete with stadiums and streets named after him. As a national hero, his image adorns homes of Puerto Ricans there and everywhere.

With Clemente’s legacy so strong, El Perico asked members of Omaha’s Puerto Rican community and others for lasting impressions.

Antonia Correa vividly recalls the news of his tragic death on the island, where Clemente’s aid mission to stricken Nicaraguans was well known. His sudden loss cast a pale over holiday celebrations.

“It was a major emotional thing,” she says. “It was sad twice because we lost him, someone everybody was passionate about, and because of his trip to help victims.”

 

 

Correa’s memory of Clemente is forever fixed in context of what he died doing. “I remember him as this face of humanity. I keep in my mind the face of this humble man eager to help others.”

Maria Valentin remembers “days of mourning Roberto” after his death. In life he was beloved because he never forgot his roots. “He was very proud of being a Puerto Rican,” says Valentin.

Beyond baseball success, his charitable work endeared him even more.

“He was young and he wanted to help, and he did it and we loved him in the process,” says Valentin. She notes that he’s revered as “a champion for human rights” and “a role model for kids, adding “He was ours. He created a legacy not only for him but for all of us Puerto Ricans, carrying the country along. His talent, his energy, his commitment to help people still remains within us.”

She says his example of overcoming discrimination to excel when he and other Latin and black players were treated as “second class” citizens is inspiring. “He broke barriers for the younger generation. The language, the color, the strange territory should not stop you once you have a dream, once you have a talent.”

Hector Santiago says Clemente is a rare figure who transcends eras to still inspire.

Acclaimed jazz artist Miguel Zenon, who played Omaha May 21, says Clemente’s place in history “really surpasses anything that has to do with sports or fame. He just took it to another level in terms of what he achieved as a human being.”

University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says Clemente “presented for us the archetype of what we wish all humans do when given the immense gifts and skills he possessed…His dignified presence was equivalent to that of the icons of his age and his too-soon passing only served to remind us of what had been taken from us. He would have been the penultimate ambassador for sport and humanity to the Latin world.”

Special programs in conjunction with the exhibition include a lecture series, a baseball clinic and a celebration of Puerto Rican culture.

El Museo Latino is located at 4701 South 25th St. For details, call 402-731-1137 or visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.

Chancellor Harvey Perlman Passionate About the University of Nebraska, its Future and NU Joining ‘Common Friends’ in the Big Ten


A few years ago, during one of the endless news spasms about the University of Nebraska football program, New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt floated the idea of our profiling the school’s chancellor, Harvey Perlman, who at the time was adroitly handling the latest firing and hiring. As the musical chairs continued playing out it became clear that Perlman was more than the public point man speaking on behalf of the university about these changes, but the orchestrator of these moves. Below is the profile os this man at the top who speaks softly but carries a big stick.

Harvey Perlman
Harvey Perlman

Chancellor Harvey Perlman Passionate About the University of Nebraska, its Future and NU Joining ‘Common Friends’ in the Big Ten

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Most of you probably first laid eyes on University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman in October of 2007.

That’s when his face was all over the media in the wake of his firing Steve Pederson as Nebraska athletic director and hiring Husker coaching legend Tom Osborne to rejoin the Big Red family as the new AD.

Even though by then Perlman had already put in six years as the university’s CEO, chances are his name, much less the position he filled, barely registered with the average Nebraskan. You might have known he was a top NU administrator, but it’s unlikely you could have picked him out of a lineup or identified anything he put his stamp on.

You also probably didn’t know he’s an NU alumnus, as is his wife Susan and their two daughters and their husbands.

“We like to keep it in the family,” he said of this legacy.

It’s unlikely you knew he was previously the longtime dean of NU’s law college. Or that he joined the NU law faculty in 1967 after being mentored in the profession under the legendary Robert Kutak, who cultivated in his protege a love of art.

In 1974 Perlman left NU to teach at the University of Virginia Law School. He returned to NU in 1983 to head up the Nebraska Law College, a position he held for 15 years. He served as the university’s interim chancellor in 2000 before being named chancellor in 2001.

Obviously, much of his life is bound up in the university. Because the chancellor’s job continues to engage him he doesn’t have any plans to step down soon.

“I’m still excited about the possibilities. I care a lot about the university so it’s not an abstraction to me, it’s a passion,” he said from his office in UNL’s Canfield Administration Building

Being a native son, he said, probably opens some doors he might otherwise find closed.

“I think the fact I’m a Nebraskan gives me entree into some circles easier than an outsider would find.”

Perlman kept a low profile until the merry-go-round of athletic directors and football coaches the past 10 years. That’s when he became a focal point of attention. Perhaps for the first time then the power he wields was apparent for all to see. There he was intervening in what had become a circus of speculation and vitriol involving the topsy turvy fortunes of that precious commodity — Husker football. He acted as both architect and messenger for a sea change in NU athletics that continues making waves today.

The added scrutiny  doesn’t much phase him. He knows it comes with the territory, though it can be a bit much.

“I’m used to it by now I guess. I think in part lawyers are trained to handle those kinds of circumstances, so that doesn’t give me any discomfort. The discomfort of being a public figure is probably not when you’re in public but the fact that you’re always in the public eye. I can’t go to the grocery store without people giving me advice about the football team and things like that.

“I never thought I’d be on the sports pages. I didn’t have the athletic talent to get there”

It’s not as though Perlman was invisible before the beleaguered Pederson was let go and the beloved Osborne brought back as the athletic department’s savior. Perlman had, after all, been involved in the machinations that followed Bill Byrne’s departure as AD and the much hyped arrival of native son Pederson. But when Pederson fired head football coach Frank Solich and replaced him with Bill Callahan Perlman was in the background while Pederson was out front. Critics of Pederson would assert it was just more grandstanding and arrogance on display.

Ironically, the unprepossessing Perlman took center stage when he gave Pederson the boot and brought Osborne back into the fold. It’s worked out that Perlman’s returned to the public spotlight since then. First, there was the housecleaning he began with Pederson’s ouster and that Osborne finished by axing Callahan, replacing him with fan favorite Bo Pelini. After the Callahan debacle, it’s certain the Pelini hire didn’t happen without Perlman’s approval.

Then he pushed for the Nebraska State Fair to make way for the Innovation Campus.

More recently, as NU’s Big 12 Conference affiliation grew shaky in the midst of possible league defections and the specter of Texas dominance, Perlman and Osborne teamed up to take NU in a dramatic new direction. Last summer the two men announced the stunning news NU was leaving the contentious Big 12 and joining the solidarity of the Big 10. It turned out the pair had worked feverishly behind the scenes with Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany to petition the conference for NU’s admission. Everything fell into place quicker than anyone anticipated. The switch took many by surprise and the bold move made national headlines.

So it was that the pensive, pin-striped Perlman once more found himself splashed in print and television stories, this time spinning the news of how the Big 10 would be a better cultural fit for NU than the Big 12.

Perlman, a lawyer by training, is expert at parsing words in order to be diplomatic and so he’s careful when explaining why the Big 10 is ultimately a better home for NU.

“Well, at the most fundamental level it’s a feeling on the back of your neck that you’re among common friends, not to suggest we weren’t friendly with the Big 12,” he said.

Perlman feels the Big 10 alliance is a cohesive match because like NU the conference’s other schools are Midwestern public research universities with similar institutional histories and goals when it comes to both academics and athletics .

“When you talk about the Big 12,” he said, “you can’t say that because you’ve got some Midwestern institutions, you’ve got some agriculturally-based land grant institutions, you’ve got Texas, which in many ways is an institution all of its own, with widely divergent reputations. You’ve got Texas Tech, which is different…The schools up and down that corridor are very, very different, so there is not a common culture. And it’s not a bad thing — I mean, they’re all fine institutions — but they’re very different. It’s just that in the Big Ten we just kind of felt that it was (a common culture).”

He acknowledges that NU “will be, next to Northwestern, the smallest institution in the Big 10,” adding, “But we’re still a public research university that fits that environment and that has a good history and tradition of intercollegiate athletics.”

There’s a prestige factor in all this that cannot be discounted because all 11 schools NU is joining are rated among the top academic and research institutions in America, along with most having strong athletic programs.

“Well, I mean you are who you associate with in some respects,” Perlman said, “and so there’s a stature of the Big 10…there’s a kind brand it has in common…”

He said those high standards give NU new avenues for excellence.

“It elevates the opportunities you have. Now we’ve got to take advantage of them, but at least it opens those opportunities. The Big 10 has traditionally had broad institutional cooperation in which it’s focused to provide collaborative activities within the Big 10, which the Big 12 does not.”

When it looked like the Big 12 might lose Texas and other anchor schools, suddenly the conference appeared fragile, which left Nebraska in a vulnerable spot. With things up in the air, Perlman and Osborne were not about to let NU hang in the wind, subject to an uncertain fate, and so they sought a stable new home for the school should the league dissolve.

Nebraska and the Big 10 had always shared a mutual admiration. Bob Devaney thought it a natural marriage years ago, before the Big 8 morphed into the Big 12, and before the Big 10 added Penn State. Then, in 2010, circumstances arose that soon made the prospect of NU being in the Big 10 relevant, even logical. For NU it meant security. For the Big 10 it meant another major player in its family.

“Yes, stability was critical for us because we didn’t have any place to go,” said Perlman. “I mean, we’re here, we have a good brand, that seemed to be clear. I think we could go in many directions, but if we were playing in the Big East for example the burden on our kids and our fans would be terrible. So you sit here and you look and you say, What are your options? There weren’t very many.”

At least not many that made sense or that were congruent with NU’s profile, whereas the Big 10 was a mirror image of the school and offered close proximity.

“Again, the culture fit,” said Perlman. “We seem to be a comfortable fit with the Big10 institutions. There’s some geographic adjacency, and that’s important.”

Perlman’s quest for a more secure footing in the athletic-academic arena was not unlike his wooing back Osborne, the winningest coach in NU history, from retirement to provide a calm center amid a storm of discontent.

“It was a very disruptive time for the program. We had to make a change. I had no hint that he was available or would be interested,” Perlman said of Osborne.

It turned out Osborne was both available and interested. The result was just what Perlman hoped.

“The value Tom brought clearly was stability,” the NU chancellor said.

Perlman said Osborne benefited from having “the confidence” of NU regents, administrators, coaches and student-athletes as well as university-athletic department supporters.

The experience of changing head football coaches and pursuing entry in the Big 10 brought Perlman and Osborne in close contact.

“We’ve built a working relationship that we didn’t have before,” said Perlman. “I think we have respect for each other. We’ve gone through a number of issues together and I think we both recognize we each contribute to getting those issues resolved. He has become a very fine athletic director. He has a good sense of the program beyond football, which was a concern of some, but he’s been very supportive of the range of athletic programs and he’s done a good job of managing the finances” the facilities, the coaches.

Osborne returns the compliment, saying, “I find Harvey Perlman to be someone who is a very bright person who thinks things through and does not say much until he has formulated his thoughts very carefully. He is able to be firm when the situation calls for it and is a good communicator.”

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Some suggest that NU and other schools with big-time athletic programs find themselves in the equivalent of an ever escalating arms race that requires more and more expenditures on sports. When is enough, enough?

The two men, both raised in small Nebraska towns in post-World War Ii America — Perlman in York and Osborne in Hastings — share similar values and experiences based in humility and frugality. Yet they find themselves overseeing mammoth expansion programs and budgets.

“There’s clearly excesses in intercollegiate athletics,” Perlman said. “The idea that we’re competing with other schools and that you have to make investments in order to compete is not one I’m upset about. We’re doing that on the academic side all the time. It’s just not as visible. We’re competing for facilities, we’re competing for faculty. If you’re going to go out and attract top talent you’ve got to pay their price. You have to invest in the facilities.

“It’s a very competitive world in higher education across the board. Athletics is just where the numbers are larger. We’re fortunate here that the athletic department is self-supporting (thanks to enormous football revenues and generous booster donations). We don’t have to use tax dollars or tuition revenues to subsidize the department. In fact, they subsidize the academic side in a variety of different ways, so to that extent it’s hard to say, Let’s not compete. I mean, Nebraska has a position within the constellation of athletic powers, and as long as we’re successful we ought to try and compete.”

Some also question if in building a great university a great athletic department is really necessary.

“You can do it without one,” said Perlman. “In our circumstance I think we’ve achieved a lot of synergies between academics and athletics. Moving into the Big 10 is the clearest example. We wouldn’t have got into the Big 10 were it not for our brand on the athletic side, but we also wouldn’t have got into the Big 10 if we hadn’t had made the progress on the academic side that we’ve made in the last 10 years.”

Perlman points with pride to several advances the school’s made during his tenure, including more research grants, greater international engagement, improved educational programs and a growing enrollment that now exceeds 24,000.

Seal of the University of Nebraska

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He said NU’s influence and reach in areas such as agriculture and engineering extend across the globe.

“We may be small but we’re still a force in the world in terms of our presence in China, India, Africa…”

Sometimes the gains made in academics get obscured by what’s going on with athletics. He said the challenge is that the imprint of athletics “is so loud and prominent every day. The significance is clear — you win or you lose. A lot of the great things that happen on the academic side are not as clear, it’s more indirect, it’s more long term.” He favors “trying to even out the voice within the institution” to create more of a balance between academic and athletic achievement and recognition.

While football revenues and private donations keep NU athletics in the black and competitive with other elite programs, the university’s state-allocated academic operational budget has been subject to almost annual cuts as the state’s coffers have suffered in recent years. In a public address Perlman compared the budget slashing to the torture-execution method known as lingchi or death by a thousand cuts, saying, “I do not think a university can constantly cut its way to greatness.”

He neither wishes to sound like an alarmist nor an unbridled optimist. Instead, like the attorney he is he provides a considered pro and con analysis of the situation.

“I think there are significant cuts we’ve made that have not damaged the university for a variety of reasons. Every businessman will tell you every once in a while a budget cut is not a bad idea, just to be more efficient. Most of our cuts probably haven’t made the university worse off, some probably made it better, but as I’ve said you can’t do that continually and expect to be successful.”

Asked when diminishing returns set in and he answered:

“I don’t know, but there is a point at which quality does suffer. Our policy has been not to reduce the quality of all programs and cut across the board. We have in fact narrowed the scope — we’ve eliminated programs. I’d much rather eliminate a program then mandate, for example, a 4 percent across the board budget cut. You can’t get anywhere doing that. At some point I think you start to do real damage to your university, and more significantly real damage to the state of Nebraska.

“To the extent I cut programs that means the students and graduates of high schools in Nebraska who want that program are going to leave the state. Obviously one of the key needs for the state of Nebraska is to keep young people here, and you’re not going to do that if you continue to cut.”

As a small population state, Nebraska’s particularly impacted by the so-called “brain drain” that’s seen many of its best and brightest high school grads leave to attend college out of state. Perlman said NU’s “doing our part” to reverse the trend.

“I think for the most part we’re meeting that challenge. If you look at the top percentage of high school graduates in Nebraska who stay in the state and come to the university we’ve seen a significant increase in the last 10 years. If you look at non-resident students that are being attracted to the university that’s on a significant increase.”

He said these gains are due to “a lot of hard work by a lot of people across the whole university,” including faculty engaged in the recruiting effort.

Just a few months after NU’s entrance in the Big 10 Perlman noted the school’s enrollment spiked with more enrollees from Big 10 country than ever before.

“Coincidentally we’ve been very successful in trying to build pipelines for undergraduate enrollment in cities that happen to be in the Big 10 (Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, et cetera), and we see an uptick there now that we’re in the Big 10.”

Being in a tradition-rich power conference and having high profile, elite football or basketball teams that consistently win and net national media exposure can and does help in recruiting students.

“It’s not so crazy,” said Perlman. “It has an impact. I think what most people don’t think about is that intercollegiate athletics, particularly football, has such a kind of central place in the culture of America. We shouldn’t be surprised if students looking for a place to get their undergraduate education consider the entire environment that they’re in and one of those would be the success of the athletic programs.”

Recruiting top students and faculty is a priority for NU but there must be sufficient rewards in place to secure and retain them. Perlman suggests that just as NU must prepare students for careers, employers must ensure there are enough jobs to keep young people here once they earn their degree. He sees gains there too.

“For our college graduates there is a better chance they will stay in Nebraska for the jobs that are available,” he said. “That’s why Innovation Campus is so important, because we’re trying to do our part in terms of creating the kinds of jobs that college graduates would find attractive.”

Perlman has been a promoter of UNL’s Innovation Campus — envisioned as a multi-million dollar initiative on the sprawling former state fairgrounds site. It’s hoped a mix of public-private enterprises, both established and start-up, will do business and research there. The goal is that a critical mass of stimulus actviity will generate economic development through the products and services companies offer, the jobs they create and the taxes they pay.

“What we want to accomplish out there is clear,” he said, “and that is we want to leverage the research activity in the university to bring greater economic growth to Nebraska by getting private sector companies to locate on the property and to be adjacent to that research effort. That’s the idea. Can we fill up almost 200 acres with that kind of activity? I don’t know. We’ll try.”

In terms of what types of companies might locate there, he said “food, water and energy are the most likely attractives because that’s where our strengths are and that’s where Nebraska is, but we see other areas that could have potential. Software development is not out of the range of possibility. We don’t have any limits on what (might work).” He said NU hasn’t yet aggressively pursued potential companies “because more planning needs to be done to address the site’s infrastructure needs…” A faculty advisory committee is looking at the best ways to combine public-private efforts there.

By any measure, Innovation Campus will take time to develop.

“You look at the Research Triangle in North Carolina, it took them 50 years to get where they are,” he said. “I think we’ll move faster because the world is turning faster. Private sector companies are looking for universities” as partners and facilitators and hosts for incubation and innovation. “That process is ongoing. Fifty years ago that probably wasn’t true. I would hope that it would move quickly, but we’ve said to 20-25 years.”

The project is a stakeholder’s dream or nightmare depending on what happens.

“Some of us who were ardently in favor of getting the land and moving the state fair probably have a lot more personal reputation at stake on its success,” he said. “Realistically the university could be a great university without Innovation Campus but we wouldn’t have taken advantage of the opportunities that are available.”

Recruiting and keeping top faculty is a priority and there UNL could do more, Perlman said, to make it difficult for teachers to say no or to leave, though he says the school’s held its own in this regard.

“I think faculty salaries are not fully competitive with where they should be. With most other public universities incurring significant budget reductions over the last two or three years Nebraska’s been in relatively good shape, so we haven’t seen a lot of attrition.”

Recruiting and retaining good people is “key,” he said. All the innovation and efficiency in the world doesn’t matter, he said, “if you can’t attract talent.”

Despite some disadvantages NU has compared with its Big 10 brethren in terms of the state’s small population and the school’s smaller enrollment numbers and proportionally smaller alumni base, Nebraska finds ways to remain competitive. Perlman said the same work ethic and generosity that the state is imbued with permeates the university’s faculty and staff and supporters. That commitment, he said, gives him “not only a sense of pride but a great sense of relief.” “It is incredible,” he said, adding, “There’s a set of issues that other university presidents have to deal with that I don’t.”

If anything, he faults NU and Nebraskans for being too modest and reticent.

“I think it’s our traditional Midwestern reluctance to set really high goals and ambitions and to celebrate our successes.”

With opportunities come challenges, and vice versa. For example, based on the metrics that go into rating academic and research performance NU sits at the bottom of the Big 10. And while Perlman has said it’s not such a bad thing to be last among such prestigious company, he’s quick to add, “We’re not content to be last either — we’re not going to be last 10 years from now the way I see it.”

Perlman reminds skeptics that as much as NU courted the Big 10 the conference coveted the school. In other words, it wasn’t only a case of what NU could gain from being in the conference, it was what the league could gain from NU’s presence.

“I think it’s the brand,” Perlman said by way of explanation. “You know all the speculation was that Nebraska wouldn’t have a chance to get in the Big 10 because of the number of television sets was low relative to other schools that were mentioned (as prospective Big 10 additions). And that comes back to the assumption that all that university presidents worry about is the money, and it’s not true. Money’s significant, it’s a competitive thing, but it isn’t everything. In fact it wasn’t everything in the Big 10 when the school presidents voted (to accept NU as a new member).

“We’re a school with a good brand. We might not have a lot of television sets but we’ve probably got a lot of eyeballs across the country. We draw well” (both in the stands and in TV ratings).

Unlike the AD and coaching changes that sparked controversy and sometimes harsh attacks, the conference change was almost uniformly embraced.

“We have gotten almost no criticism within the state of Nebraska for this move,” said Perlman. “My wife continues to remind me that we can go 6-6 next year (in football), but right now everyone is pretty pleased. I’m surprised by the number of comments I get that recognize this was a major step for the academic side of the university as well as the athletic side.”

He forecasts the university’s leadership role will be ever more crucial for the state. He said the fact that NU is a close reflection of the industrious people it serves positions it to be an influential player in Nebraska’s economic growth.

“You would think its major institution would be that way and you wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “It also gives you an opportunity to lead. I mean, that’s the thing, especially in this economy — if you don’t have a strong research university taking a strong leadership role moving forward I don’t think we’ll be successful. I believe that. President Obama believes it, the minister of China believes it, the prime minister of India…The countries that want to be competitive are making major investments in higher education.”

He feels confident the University of Nebraska is poised to lead the way.

“I think it is coming into its own. The quality, the productivity, the ability to be competitive across the country is significant.”

Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’

April 1, 2011 27 comments

Architectural detail on East Side of Central

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It was two years ago when I first heard about Steve Marantz‘s then in-progress book about racial tensions in late 1960s Omaha – our shared hometown – through the prism of basketball. I knew then I would have to write about it.  Fast forward to my getting a copy of the book earlier this year and finding it a compelling read and then my filing the story below for a local publication that is still looking for an editorial hole to drop it in. Those editorial holes are getting harder to come by as papers literally shrink, but that’s another story. I highly recommend Marantz’s book for its glimpse at the convergence of racial, cultural, social, and political streams that came to a head in 1968 in Omaha and a lot of other places. He was there when it played out and now more than four decades later he revisits the story with the perspective of time.  The four battlegrounds where the events of his story blow up are stand-ins for larger forces: there’s the staid old school, Omaha Central High, with a diverse student body and out-of-touch administration in an era when interracial friendship, especially romance, could only happen on the down low and when expectations for black and white student achievement contrasted sharply; there’s the Omaha Civic Auditorium where George Wallace’s appearance set off violence; there’s North 24th Street, the black business hub with its mix of black and white owners, that became the target of outrage; and there’s the state basketball tournament in Lincoln, Neb., where black teams from Omaha historically got the shaft from all white officiating crews. But what elevates Marantz’s book is its occasional intimate glances at the personal costs exacted by the contradictions and the turmoil.

Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in his New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’

©by Leo Adam Biga

(Awaiting print publication)

America’s social fabric came asunder in 1968. Vietnam. Civil rights. Rock ‘n’ roll. Free love. Illegal drugs. Black power. Campus protests. Urban riots.

Omaha was a pressure cooker of racial tension. African-Americans demanded redress from poverty, discrimination, segregation, police misconduct.

Then, like now, Central High School was a cultural bridge by virtue of its downtown location — within a couple miles radius of ethnic enclaves: the Near Northside (black), Bagel (Jewish), Little Italy, Little Bohemia. A diverse student population has enriched the school’s high academic offerings.

Steve Marantz was a 16-year-old Central sophomore that pivotal year when a confluence of social-cultural-racial-political streams converged and a flood of emotions spilled out, forever changing those involved.

Marantz became a reporter for Kansas City and Boston papers. Busy with life and career, the ’68 events receded into memory. Then on a golf outing with classmates the conversation turned to that watershed and he knew he had to write about it.

“It just became so obvious there’s a story there and it needs to be told,” he says.

The result is his new book The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central: High School Basketball and the ’68 Racial Divide (University of Nebraska Press).

 

 

 

 

Speaking by phone from his home near Boston, Marantz says, “It appealed to me because of the elements in it that I think make for a good story — it had a compact time frame, there was a climatic event, and it had strong characters.” Besides, he says sports is a prime “vehicle for examining social issues.”

Conflict, baby. Caught up in the maelstrom was the fabulous ’68 Central basketball team, whose all-black starting five earned the sobriquet, The Rhythm Boys. Their enigmatic star, Dwaine Dillard, was a 6-7 big-time college hoops recruit. As if the stress of such expectations wasn’t enough, he lived on the edge.

At a time when it was taboo, he and some fellow blacks dated white girls at the school. Vikki Dollis was involved with Dillard’s teammate, Willie Frazier. In his book Marantz includes excerpts from a diary she kept. Marantz says her “genuine,” “honest,” angst-filled entries “opened a very personal window” that “changed the whole perspective” of events for him. “I just knew the vague outlines of it. The details didn’t really begin to emerge until I did the reporting.”

Functionally illiterate, Dillard barely got by in class. A product of a broken home, he had little adult supervision. Running the streets. he was an enigma easily swayed.

Things came to a head when the polarizing Alabama segregationist George Wallace came to speak at Omaha’s Civic Auditorium. Disturbances broke out, with fires set and windows broken along the Deuce Four (North 24th Street.) A young man caught looting was shot and killed by police.

Dillard became a lightning rod symbol for discontent when he was among a group of young men arrested for possession of rocks and incendiary materials. This was only days before the state tournament. Though quickly released and the charges dropped, he was branded a malcontent and worse.

White-black relations at Central grew strained, erupting into fights. Black students staged protests. Marantz says then-emerging community leader Ernie Chambers made his “loud…powerful…influential” voice heard.

The school’s aristocratic principal, J. Arthur Nelson, was befuddled by the generation gap that rejected authority. “I think change overtook him,” says Marantz. “He was of an earlier era, his moment had come and gone.”

Dillard was among the troublemakers and his coach, Warren Marquiss, suspended him for the first round tourney game. Security was extra tight in Lincoln, where predominantly black Omaha teams often got the shaft from white officials. In Marantz’s view the basketball court became a microcosm of what went on outside athletics, where “negative stereotypes” prevailed.

Central advanced to the semis without Dillard. With him back in the lineup the Eagles made it to the finals but lost to Lincoln Northeast. Another bitter disappointment. There was no violence, however.

The star-crossed Dillard went to play ball at Eastern Michigan but dropped out. He later made the Harlem Globetrotters and, briefly, the ABA. Marantz interviewed Dillard three weeks before his death. “I didn’t know he was that sick,” he says.

Marantz says he’s satisfied the book’s “touched a chord” with classmates by examining “one of those coming of age moments” that mark, even scar, lives.

An independent consultant for ESPN’s E: 60, he’s rhe author of the 2008 book Sorcery at Caesars about Sugar Ray Leonard‘s upset win over Marvin Hagler and is working on new a book about Fenway High School.

Marantz was recently back in Omaha to catch up with old Central classmates and to sign copies of Rhythm Boys at the Bookworm.

Filmmaker Charles Fairbanks, aka the One-Eyed Cat, Makes Lucha Libre a Way of Life and a Favorite Film Subject


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When I read about filmmaker Charles Fairbanks for the first time last year I was immediately taken by his story: how a rural Nebraska student-athlete turned artist become enamored with and immersed in the world of Mexican professional wrestling known as Lucha Libre, which he’s made the subject of some of his short films.  Then when I delved further into his story, by exploring his website and watching some of his work, I knew I had to write about him. We met last summer, when his disarmingly sweet personality and thoughtful responses made me immediately like him.  The following story I wrote about Fairbanks and his work appeared just before this year’s Omaha Film Festival, where one of his Lucha Libre films, Irma, was shown. Fairbanks is a serious artist whose work may or may not ever find a wide audience but is certainly deserving of it.  I plan to follow his career and to see much more of his work as time goes by.

Filmmaker Charles Fairbanks, aka the One-Eyed Cat, Makes Lucha Libre a Way of Life and a Favorite Film Subject

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

In the space of a few years Charles Fairbanks has gone from conventional prep and collegiate wrestler to one of the few gringo performers of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s equivalent of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).

Amid a world of masked figures with exotic alter egos, Fairbanks performs as the One-Eyed Cat. It’s not what you’d expect from this cerebral, soft-spoken, fair-skinned rural Nebraska native. Then again, Fairbanks is an adventurous artist and art educator, which explains why he’s devoted much of the last nine years to Lucha Libre’s high-flying acrobatics and soap opera melodramatics.

Fairbanks, whose pretty boy face and chiseled body are in stark contrast to Jack Black in Nacho Libre, is a photographer and short filmmaker who loves wrestling. Naturally, then, he combines his passions as self-expression. He’s gone so far as affixing a video camera to his mask to record the action.

“Oh, I look silly,” he says of his third eye. “Other wrestlers laugh out loud but they’re always very welcoming. I make sure to establish a relationship before I walk in with a camera on my head.”

His documentary short Irma, an Omaha Film Festival selection, lyrically profiles Irma Gonzalez, a hobbled but still strong, proud former wrestling superstar and singer-songwriter who befriended him at Bull’s Gym on the outskirts of Mexico City.

Last fall Irma won the Best Short prize at the Coopenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. It’s shown at festivals worldwide, as have other works by Fairbanks, some of which, like Pioneers, have nothing to do with wrestling.

Intense curiosity brought him to Mexico in the first place. Oddly, he’d just abandoned organized wrestling. He was a state champion grappler at Lexington (Neb.) High, where his artistic side also flourished. His mat talent and academic promise earned a scholarship to Stanford University, where he wrestled two years before quitting the team.

He was touring Mexico on a rite-of-passage mission of self-discovery and enlightenment when he saw his first Lucha Libre match. He soon started shooting and practicing. He made still images that first trip and has since used video to capture stories.

“I just fell in love with this spectacle,” he says.

Bull’s Gym, located on an upper floor of a hilltop building, is his main dojo, sanctuary and set. It overlooks a cinematic backdrop.

“There’s something powerful for me in looking out at the miles of humble cinderblock housing spread out and up the ridges around Mexico City,” he says. “That view is very beautiful. With all the pollution the sunsets are very colorful. The airport is nearby and so you see the airplanes taking off.

“For me all of this magnifies and modulates the gym’s energy, which is really pretty fervent. There’s often boxing and wrestling going on at the same time in the same room. With all the activity, the ambient noise is really a roar.”

Lucha Libre has a near mystical hold on him now but he admits he originally regarded it as a lovely though bastard version of the wrestling he grew up with.

“At the time, as most competitive wrestlers in the U.S., I denied the connection,” he says. “I said, This is totally different. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I can accept the real links between competitive wrestling and show wrestling.”

Fairbanks, a Stanford art grad with a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan, takes an analytical view of these kindred martial arts.

“There is a lot of overlap but at the same time I think they have very different philosophies embedded in them.”

Asking if Lucha Libre is fake misses the point. The visceral, in-the-moment experience is the only reality that matters.

“In my experience of Lucha Libre the matches themselves are not staged — you don’t know who’s going to win. You still maybe want to win, but it’s not just up to you,” he says. “You can’t just go for a pin. You really have to try to entertain. It’s very much like a dance. There’s a certain repertoire of moves my opponent and I know how to do together, and if I start to do one move you recognize this move and you actually respond in a certain way to help me do it more spectacularly.

“And then there are variations, where you’re doing something defensive that’s changing me, so it’s not my move anymore. As we go through this back and forth we establish these sort of rhythms.”

The unfolding dance, he says, is also “an improvised drama” marked by “waves of tension” and “a building of energies. One wrestler is dominating but then the tides turn and the other wrestler comes back. It’s not something scripted but you feel your way through.” The improvisation, he adds, extends to the referee, who “plays his part,” and to the crowd, “who play their part.”

Reared in the no-frills tradition of amateur wrestling, he says “it’s been really hard to learn this completely different way of thinking or feeling reality. I’m the first to say I haven’t mastered Lucha Libre. I’m not trying to make it big as a wrestler in Mexico. I’m trying to learn about wrestling.” He’s also a practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

He’s learned about Lucha Libre’s  “built-in codes of honor” and “certain ways people present themselves publicly or don’t.” The wrestlers aren’t supposed to reveal their identity outside the ring. He’s made himself an exception.

“I feel OK transgressing this because I’m already marked as Other.”

Irma Gonzalez

In his Flexing Muscles some native wrestlers half-kiddingly harangue this outsider.It’s very important to me they’re calling me gringo and saying, ‘Go back to your damned country,” he says, as it makes overt his interloper status. As deep as he’s tasted Mexican culture he knows he remains a visitor and observer.

“I’m really conscious of my differences from most of the people there in terms of nationality and economics,” he says.

He’s acutely aware too of his privileged “ability to come in and do this and then leave and go back to the States and make art out of this experience,” adding, “With my movies in a certain sense I try to build in the story of my being there and my relationship to the subjects.” He’s struck by how generous his subjects are in opening their lives and homes to him even as they struggle getting by.

Stranger or not, he engages the culture head-on.

“I do try to immerse myself very much in that world I’m living in, but without losing who I am. I never try to pretend to be Mexican. I try to get as close as I can and I try to understand, but from my point of view.”

Despite the obvious differences between Fairbanks and his fellow performers, he feels a reciprocal kinship, adding, “there’s a certain kind of camaraderie I feel with wrestlers anywhere.” Wherever he’s traveled, including Europe and Asia, he’s wrestled.

Fairbanks has seen much of Mexico but is largely centered in Mexico City and Chiapas, where he teaches filmmaking. He says, “I love to stay with families, I love to have local people to learn from and to interact with.”

Moments of zen-like meditation and magic realism lend his work poetic sensibility and cultural sensitivity. Irma‘s tough title character sings a ranchero in the ring while her circus performer granddaughters romp. In Pioneers Fairbanks lays hands over his father’s ailing back in a shamanistic healing ceremony. Enigmatic stuff.

“I like to make movies that invite more questions,” says Fairbanks, who participated in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School and cut his chops working with veteran filmmakers in Brussels, Belgium. “I like to have the films be a process of discovery for the viewers — to not tell the viewers how to see this world — but also a sense of discovery for me as I’m making the films.”

Authenticity is his goal.

“For me it’s important I’m making movies in Mexico that convey a part of experience not covered by our news media.”

As for the future, he says, “I have very specific stories I want to tell in Mexico and in other countries, some related to wrestling, other types of wrestling, some not at all related to wrestling.”

Irma‘s Omaha Film Festival screening is 6 p.m. on March 3 at the Great Escape  Theatre as part of the Striking a Chord block of Nebraska documentary shorts.

Dean Blais Has UNO Hockey Dreaming Big

January 29, 2011 6 comments

Hockey puck

Image via Wikipedia

My alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is not known for making waves in college athletics. The school competes at the Division II level in all its athletic programs, except one — ice hockey.  UNO’s D-I hockey program is about 15 years young now and while it’s enjoyed a smattering of success it’s been a long way from being a championship threat. Perception and reality changed in 2009 with the hiring of Dean Blais as head coach.  He’s a living legend  in the game and his team has already done enough a little more than half way through his second year on the job to have fans and alums like me thinking this could be the start of something big that puts UNO on the map.  I recently interviewed Blais for the New Horizons story that follows.  While UNO may still be a year or two or more away from competing for a WCHA or national title, UNO hockey is increasingly in the conversation as a tough draw and potential contender.  If UNO can keep Blais through the run of his contract in 2014-15, then my old school might finally have the breakthrough success in a major team spectator sport that it’s always dreamed of having.  Yes, UNO has a powerhouse wrestling program, but it’s a D-II program and decidedly off the general public’s and national media’s radar. Hockey doesn’t have the broad appeal of football, basketball, or baseball, but when UNO can beat the best of the best in college hockey, as it’s already done this season in defeating Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, then you’ve done something.

UPDATE: After a mid-season slump the UNO hockey team has rebounded with a late season surge that’s included a second series split with North Dakota, this time in Grand Forks, where Dean Blais coached all those years, and more recently a sweep of Top Ten power Wisconsin in Omaha.  Along the way Blais earned his 300th career college victory and UNO, which had risen to a Top Ten ranking early in the year before sliding down the polls, saw its stock boosted back to No. 12 in one poll and No. 13 in another.  More and more observers are feeling this UNO team has what it takes to be a significant factor in the postseason.

 

 


 

 

Dean Blais Has UNO Hockey Dreaming Big

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the New Horizons (http://www.enoa.org/)

When UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts named Dean Blais the school’s new hockey coach in 2009, it marked a rededicated commitment to a still young program with big dreams.

It was the kind of marquee hire one doesn’t expect from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. What makes Blais marquee material? As a coach, he’s achieved success at every level of the sport — from high school to college to the junior national ranks to the Olympics — all the way to the National Hockey League.

His longest D-I stint was at the University of North Dakota, an elite hockey school where he was an assistant for nine years and head coach for 10, twice leading the Fighting Sioux to national titles and twice winning national coach of the year honors.

To put it in perspective, his coming to UNO would be akin to Roy Williams taking over an upstart basketball program or Bobby Bowden being tabbed to lead the South Florida football program.

The move suddenly made UNO, whose program only dates back to 1997, something more than a potential contender on the hockey landscape. UNO must now be taken seriously, if for no other reason than it went out and got a coach who’s proven he can deliver the goods by recruiting and developing talent that produces all-conference, all-American performers and championship trophies. Dozens of his players have gone on to play professionally.

Even though UNO’s yet to even sniff a conference title, it’s not like Blais walked into a shambles. After a rough couple years, UNO acquitted itself well from 2000 to 2005 before plateauing in 2007 and 2008. There was grumbling the program had run out of steam even though attendance remained steady and the team managed being competitive most nights.

Still, an impending change was in the wind. Hockey revenue was down and UNO long ago fixed its financial wagon to its lone D-I program. As hockey goes, so does Maverick athletics. Alberts put it succinctly:

“Success in hockey in non-negotiable. Creating and sustaining profitability in hockey is a mandate we will hold ourselves accountable to.”

Not long after Alberts arrived as AD Mike Kemp, who founded the program and served as its only head coach for 12 years, stepped aside to be associate athletic director. He recommended as his successor Blais, an old friend then coaching the Fargo Force, a United States Hockey League team. Kemp and Blais knew each other as assistant coaches with the University of Wisconsin and the University of North Dakota, respectively.

 

 

 

 

“His ability, background and history made him an incredible fit for our program,” Kemp said. “He brings championship experience, attitude and focus that will help propel and direct our program to the next level.”

Because they go back a ways, there’s been no feeling-out process necessary.

“We know each other, we respect each other, and we’ll do whatever it takes to help each other work toward the same common goal,” said Kemp. “It’s one thing to get a program up and going, it’s another to make the next step to national prominence. I think every year we inch closer. My job is to help give Dean the resources he needs in order to be successful.”

News of the Blais hire reenergized UNO hockey fans.

“I truly believe the hiring of Dean Blais signaled a dramatic shift in our approach to excellence,” said Alberts. “With Dean Blais on board, I believe we sent a very strong message about our commitment to hockey…”

Blais’ first year on the job was UNO’s last in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. The team finished in the upper division of a league with perennial powers like Michigan. Under Blais UNO recorded only the third 20-win season in program history at 20-16-6, finishing an impressive 8-3-1 down the stretch.

In the off-season UNO joined the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, D-I’s premier league and one Blais both played and coached in. UNO’s baptism of fire in the WCHA this season saw its young squad, including a highly touted freshmen class, become the talk of college hockey by sweeping an early road series against heavyweight Minnesota and then taking one of two games at Michigan.

Getting that first WCHA victory at his alma mater, Minnesota, Blais said, was “pretty special,” adding, “It was huge to go in there and win.”

He liked that UNO made an impression on Gopher followers.

“They said our team plays like a bunch of piranhas, can you imagine that? Hungry, fast, tenacious, ferocious. We were proud of them.”

It’s his brand of hockey alright.

“We do everything at top speed, but to do the shooting and the passing and the stick handling at top speed takes a long time to get good at. That’s my thing. Anyone can play hockey at a slow down pace. To play at our level of speed takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of conditioning.”

Then he said something that revealed how he expects, no, demands his team play the fast and furious style he coaches:

“When they don’t play that well then I can get a little nasty.”

He said the relentless, fluid approach is a reflection of how he played the game.

“My feeling is the less restrictions you have the more they improve. The best discipline is self discipline. But I want to give them freedom to improve, and the only way you can improve at times is with your decision making. Do I go in and forecheck or do I just play my position? You can have rules and say you can’t go beyond certain spots on the rink, and that’s coaching, but the more freedom you give the more accountable they are.

“It’s totally against some coaches’ philosophies. Some guys will tell you you’ve got to be this, this and this, like in football. We don’t have that much structure in hockey. We have it during practice. Once they play in games we (coaches) could be drinking coffee and eating popcorn on the bench at times because there’s not a lot we can do. Now, if a player isn’t playing you’ve got to recognize that and warn ‘em or sit ‘em.”

Don’t assume his practices are loose. He and his staff put in many hours preparing and organizing to ensure the team gets the most out of the high energy sessions. From the opening puck drop in November, the Mavs have flown around the ice. An 8-1-1 start this season landed UNO in the Top 5, its highest ranking ever.

‘The guys came in this summer, worked hard, they went to school and they got some of their classes out of the way. They bonded quicker than I thought,” he said.

While the team slowed after that torrid first month, going 4-7-1 in its next 12 games, UNO enters the last third of the season well up in the conference standings and positioned to qualify for the postseason.

The success has only confirmed Blais was no ordinary hire. Indeed, he’s a legend in amateur hockey circles. His pedigree, almost unmatched. From an early age he knew he was destined to play, teach and coach the game he loved.

He grew up with the proverbial stick in his hand in hockey crazy International Falls,  Minn. He and his wife frequent a lake cabin there in the summer. He played for top youth coaches and for the iconic Herb Brooks at the University of Minnesota, where Blais was a standout. His seasoning continued in the professional ranks with the Chicago Blackhawks developmental team in Dallas, Texas.

Then came his assorted coaching stops and championships. His latest title actually came during his first year at UNO, when as U.S. Junior National coach he took a mid-season break from his Maverick duties to lead the American team to a gold medal-winning upset over host Team Canada in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

That victory was so monumental and Blais is so respected in those hockey-obsessed northern reaches that, he said, “every kid in Canada watched that game when we beat ‘em for only the second gold medal in 35 years for the U.S., and when I walked through the Saskatoon airport at 7 in the morning there were a hundred Canadians there that shook my hand.”

That’s right, Blais is a rock star among hockey coaches, When announced as UNO’s coach some wondered why a man pushing 60 who’s been to the game’s pinnacle would want to try and get a mediocre program to that same mountaintop.

“I believe Dean is a man that enjoys challenges and is willing to invest the time and energy to bring our dream to fruition,” said Alberts. “Dean’s legacy in college hockey is secure, I’ve challenged him to create a new legacy of building a championship caliber program on the national level that is sustainable.”

“Trev (Alberts) was a big reason I came here,” Blais said from behind his desk in the UNO athletic offices. “I think he’s just done an outstanding job. He’s given us all the resources we need to be successful. He gives us a lot of support daily. He makes it fun to come to work every day.

“He’s a big time guy. I just hope they can hold him as long as I’m here.”

 

 

Players after a goal
Players after a goal
Matt Ambroz goal vs Michigan Tech

 

 

Even though UNO’s never come close to the Frozen Four (college hockey’s equivalent of basketball’s Final Four), Blais saw a program with essential pieces already in place: a charismatic and supportive boss in Alberts; strong university backing; a rabid fan base; and the presence of Mike Kemp, who provides institutional history and a rich hockey background in addition to having established a solid foundation for Blais to build on.

Blais said he’s benefiting from the hockey culture Kemp put in place.

“Everything was done the right way with Mike. I didn’t have to change the culture. It was a pretty well run machine when we got here. He’s got a good hockey mind and a good common sense mind.”

Having an athletic administrator in Kemp who’s a hockey guy makes Blais sleep better.

“He’s looking out for hockey. All the detail stuff at the Qwest, the politics of some of that, Mike deals with, all the behind the scenes stuff with scheduling that takes time and effort, Mike takes care of, so he’s meant a lot to me in the transition. I haven’t had to slug it out with all of that. This is the kind of stuff I hate right here,” Blais said, slapping his palm down on a desk full of paperwork.

In assistants Mike Guentzel and Mike Hastings he has experienced help with strong Omaha ties. Guentzel coached the Omaha Lancers to back to back Clark Cup titles and later worked as an assistant at Minnesota. Hastings succeeded Guentzel with the Lancers and became the winningest coach in USHL history.

UNO hockey seemingly has everything in place to be a force to be reckoned with. Except a decided home ice advantage. It’s no secret UNO, whose home matches are at Qwest Center Omaha, is beating the bushes to elicit support for construction of a South Campus arena designed specifically for hockey.

“That’s the only thing we need here — we need an arena on campus,” said Blais.

While he concedes UNO draws exceedingly well — “fourth in the country in attendance tells me we have the hockey fans in Omaha” — the Qwest is a multi-purpose facility shared with Creighton and other users. That means scheduling conflicts sometimes compel UNO to practice at the Civic Auditorium or the Motto McLean Ice Arena. UNO must also share revenues with the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority (MECA), which operates the Qwest.

“You talk about an arena on campus you own and all the marketing and concessions and everything else — people tell you it’s $3 or $4 million a year in revenue. Down at the Qwest we don’t get all that revenue, so it’s hard to treat hockey as number one.”

As nice as the Qwest is, it’s too large for the fan base. Even when the Mavs draw their average turnout of 7,500 or 8,000 the cavernous venue is only half full, thus negating the edge a jam-packed intimate space affords. The goal is to make UNO hockey a hard ticket to get.

Then there’s the fact it’s a 10-15 minute drive from UNO, which requires players travel back and forth.

Blais doesn’t want to come off like sour grapes. He actually appreciates having the Qwest — for the time being anyway.

“Now the Qwest is working, our recruiting is working,” he said.

It’s just that he’s been spoiled by the ultimate hockey palace — the Ralph Engelstad Ice Arena at North Dakota, a luxurious $100 million hockey-only facility. A modest version of it is his dream for UNO.

He feels UNO hockey deserves “its due.” He knows it will always play second or third fiddle to Nebraska football and Creighton hoops. He doesn’t begrudge them their support. But he also sees NU can find donors for a planned $50 million Memorial Stadium expansion without batting an eye. He hopes just as Husker boosters are committed to returning NU to elite football status Mav supporters are prepared to put their resources behind making UNO hockey an elite program.

 

 

 

 

“If we’re going to have the best hockey program in the country we need the best commitment out of this community of Omaha and the whole university. Now, we don’t have to be the king here. I know Lincoln’s football program is the king, but UNO has to be committed as other WCHA schools, and part of it is an arena.”

So how sure does Blais feel UNO will secure the dollars for its own arena?

“I think it’s going to be pretty much a done deal,” he said. “Timeline, I have no clue, and funding, no clue. When money seems to be no object out of the other bench, they’ve got to find a way, and Trev Alberts will deliver and (UNO chancellor) John Christensen will deliver. But it’s not this year. By the time I leave here hopefully there’s a new arena here on campus.”

Last year Blais signed a contract extension to coach UNO through 2014-15.

Some observers speculate Blais is not long for UNO — that it will be hard-pressed keeping him if a Minnesota or another big-time hockey school offers the moon.

“I certainly hope that Dean concludes his coaching career here in Omaha,” said Alberts. “It’s my job to live up to the promises that I made to him and create and maintain an environment that is comfortable.”

For his part Blais betrays no hint he’s itching to leave. Rather he sounds like a man wanting to take UNO to the summit and feeling he has the goods to get there.

“We’ve got I think the most outstanding recruiting class in NCAA hockey this year,” he said.

He’s confident UNO can compete with Michigan and Minnesota for the best talent.

“We’re getting our kids. Are we there yet? Not yet, but I would say the freshmen this year feel they have a better chance of getting into the NHL right here than anywhere else.”

He likes the character of his kids too, saying that flight attendants, bus drivers, waitresses and event staff remark how well his players conduct themselves.

“Everything is please and thank you. Their average grade point average is over 3.0. These student-athletes are going on to be big-time something. It’s about more than wins and losses. Now believe me, they’ll compete, and we’ll train ‘em to win, but they’re being trained for the future.”

More than half his freshmen were captains last year on their high school teams.

“Leadership is huge. Leadership starts at the top. As coaches, we’ve got to conduct ourselves right. You wont hear us swearing.”

Speaking of leadership, there is a bit of every coach he’s worked under in him. He’s grateful to have been influenced by some of the game’s greats.

“Well, I’ve been blessed,” he said.

His first mentor was legendary International Falls High School coach Larry Ross. Then Blais came under the wing of Glenn Sonmor and Herb Brooks at Minnesota. He said Sonmor “taught me to have fun every day coming to the rink.”

Brooks, the enigmatic coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Miracle On Ice team was hard to know but he produced unquestioned results.

“He’d love you to death when you moved on, but to play for him he was tough. Herbie did not have any friends in hockey. But as far as a coach there’s none better.”

Blais played for college and pro coaching guru Bob Johnson on the U.S. national team and for the respected Bobby Kromm, a one-time NHL coach of the year.

Then there was UND’s Gino Gasparini, whom he said “taught me how to coach up at North Dakota,” where he was Gasparini’s assistant before succeeding him.

All these coaches are inducted in various halls of fame. Blais is right there with them. Only he’s still coaching. At 60, his players are young enough to be his grandchildren. Does he have trouble relating to this generation?

“They probably think I’m nuts anyway,” he quipped. “I don’t treat my players any different now than I did 20 years ago. The bottom line for them is they want to win. They’ll do anything within reason to win, just like kids 20 years ago. I don’t see a whole lot of difference.”

Blais appears satisfied. But things can change. They did at North Dakota. He seemed content there but when the program’s biggest booster, Ralph Engelstad, passed, “things weren’t the same there,” said Blais. Rather than be unhappy, he moved on.

He left to pursue a long-held dream — the NHL, serving as associate head coach and director of player development with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s glad he tried it, but it didn’t fulfill him the way working with high school and college kids does. It’s why he returned to the junior ranks before UNO came calling. It’s why he feels at home at UNO.

“Here practices are for preparing kids to get better and get to the next level. In these kids you can see dramatic improvement, you can see their skills develop. That’s what I like. I like going on the ice every day. They know they’re going to develop. It’s a given.”

When UNO broke out of the gate with its dynamic start this season fans and media wondered if this was the year the program would truly break out and claim its place among the juggernauts. Not so fast, said Blais, who better than anyone else knows just how steep a climb it is to college hockey nirvana. He’s been there and back, but with programs much older and steeped in tradition than UNO. It takes time to build a championship club and UNO is still in the growing pains stage.

Jumping to conclusions that this UNO team is Frozen Four worthy right now, he warns, is premature. He sounds every bit the wizened hockey sage when he lays out just how daunting the task is:

“Well, to say we’re competing for a national title, we’re absolutely not, get real.

Michigan Tech hasn’t won a WCHA or national title in 30 years. St. Cloud’s never won the WCHA. Duluth has never won a national title. Colorado College, it’s been 40-50 years. Alaska has never won a WCHA title. Mankato’s never won the WCHA.

“Right away there’s six teams that have never won a WCHA title. Could Omaha? Yep. Is it this year? We’ll see.”

As far as being an elite program, he said, “we’re not there yet. The other thing is, we’ve got to be patient — we’ve only had hockey for 14 years.”

Then again, he saw something in that great start that told him UNO’s ahead of schedule. He knows people are watching now to see if they’re just a one-month wonder or a team to be reckoned with.

Assistant Mike Guentzel echoes Blais by saying the program is moving in the right direction. They remind observers UNO is competing in the toughest conference in the country and more than holding its own.

Dean Blais won’t accept anything less.

Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’ Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality

October 15, 2010 1 comment

01-18-08 Red Gala 015

THE LATEST: Requiem for a Dynasty will be the headline, if I get an assignment to write the story that is, for what transpired as expected with the UNO wrestling program.  As anticipated and despite the most heartfelt efforts of the program’s coaches, student-athletes, alums, and supporters the NU Board of Regents approved UNO’s proposed move to the Summit League and NCAA Division I competition and with it the elimination of the wrestling and football programs.  It’s a sad day for UNO when its administrators can discard history and tradition so easily for the sake of convenience. In this disposable culture two programs were thrown out as if they were useless refuse. Losing football hurts, but the rationale for excising it ultimately makes sense because it was never going to come close to making money. Dumping wrestling though to purportedly be in better alignment with the Summit League is pure hogwash. It’s really UNO and NU leaders saying that they don’t give a rat’s ass about wrestling, that they don’t really care about all the championships, the scores of All-Americans, the prestige, the community service, the lessons learned, the character built, the incredibly strong and tight family bonds built up across generations. They don’t care that UNO hosted multiple national championships and the largest single day annual wrestling tournament in the country. Why not give a damn about those things universities are there to provide its student-athletes and constituents?  My take is that no matter how much UNO wrestling achieved, and it achieved so very much, it was never accorded the respect or due it deserved.  Not by the regents, not by administrators, not by major university donors, not by the media, not by the general public.  It was always considered marginal and therefore expendable. When things got tight, UNO wrestling was an easy target despite being a dynasty.  That sends a disturbing, dysfunctional message to anyone really paying attention.

Getting rid of wrestling was painless for the regents because it was done in the abstract.  By the time the UNO wrestling community appeared before them to plead their case that the program be retained, by the time all the appeals and messages had been made via email and phone, the regents had already made up their minds. The March 25 hearing was perfunctory.  It was a show to merely let wrestling vent and have its say in an open forum. If the regents had bothered to actually visit the UNO wrestling room and to see first-hand the sweat and blood and tears and love and joy that went into making the dynasty, then the program might have had a fair day in court, so to speak. If the regents had seen for themselves the championship banners and the roll calls of All-Americans and soaked up the atmosphere of excellence imbued in that room, it might have been a different story. Or not. This was a business decision made by UNO and given the thumbs up by the regents. Cold, calculated business. The administrators and the regents simply didn’t get it or didn’t want to get it. They would not be moved by emotion or history. To the end, the UNO wrestling family fought gallantly, never breaking ranks, always showing class, the bonds that hold them together more powerful than any bureaucratic decree, extending beyond the now ended program. UNO wrestling may be gone, but its spirit lives on. The relationships between the men forged in that room and in those duals and tournaments and in all the time spent on the road and cutting weight and hanging out will endure.

 

 

 

 

NEW UPDATE: With each passing day any window of opportunity for UNO wrestling to be saved grows smaller. Unless something dramatic should happen between now and March 25th, it appears likely then that the NU Board of Regents will approve the plan advanced by University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts for UNO to move to Division I and to drop football and wrestling in the process.  As a graduate of UNO, as a former Athletic Department staffer, as a UNO sports fan, and as a writer I have a perspective to offer many don’t.  Football certainly has a longer tradition than wrestling at the school, but when it comes to sustained success there’s no comparison.  Don’t get me wrong, I will miss UNO football.  I variously kept stats at and cheered at probably a hundred home games over the years.  Caniglia Field is a great venue to watch a game at and UNO consistently plays at a high standard .  UNO football’s been one of the best entertainment bargains in the city.  But the sad truth is the program rarely drew well and even if IUNO football came along for the ride to D-I there’s little reason to expect it would draw any better at that level.  UNO football has had its share of winning but it’s never won a national title and generally failed in the post-season, on the biggest of stages.  UNO wrestling is a whole different story.  It has been an elite program for more than 40 years.  It’s won multiple national titles, produced scores of All-Americans, and basically been the best D-II program over the past 20 years.  No, it’snot  a big draw, although by wrestling standards it does quite well, but in terms of national prestige UNO is one of the best things the university has going for it, period.  The crazy thing is that the UNO administration makes clear it’s not finances driving the proposed elimination of wrestling and football, which gets at the heart of it:  UNO administrators don’t care about the excellence that UNO football and particularly UNO wrestling represents.  It’s inconceivable it is prepared to walk away from something so successful, but that is what is about to happen.

 

 

 

 

Therefore, it seems like a good idea to look back at the wrestling program’s early years in order to gain an appreciation for where it came from and the significance it had at a tempestuous time in the university’s and  in the city’s and in the nation’s history.  The story of what Don Benning and his wrestlers did to put UNO on the map and to make UNO wrestling a champion is one of the great legacies of the university, and one it has never really embraced or celebrated to the extent it deserves.  Sadly, wrestling at the school has always been viewed as marginal and expendable, and the words and actions of the UNO administration today bear that out.  So check out the story below — it’s my take on the tide of social change that UNO’s glorious wrestling program is built on. I wrote it early last year for The Reader, as UNO prepared to defend its national title, which it did, and did again this year.   It’s sad to think the story may now be the Requiem for a Dynasty.

UPDATE:  Trev Alberts has been putting his stamp on the University of Nebraska at Omaha Athletic Department since his from left-field arrival in the job of athletic director two years ago. Chancellor John Christensen hand-picked Alberts to lead a revitalization of UNO athletics and Alberts has surprised many by just how bold his moves have been — from hiring Dean Blais as head hockey coach to getting major donors whose support had waned to ante up big again for capital improvements.  And now as the Omaha World-Herald is reporting Alberts and Christensen are about to shake the foundation of the school and the athletic department by moving UNO into Division I competition across the board — pending University of Nebraska Board of Regents approval — by joining the Summit League. The news of going D-I isn’t that big a surprise in and of itself, as UNO has made clear for more than a decade that is where it wanted to go, but what is is UNO doing it so soon and its decision that in order to make it work long-term it must sacrifice the school’s two winningest sports — football and wrestling.  Alberts and Christensen say they and others have worked the numbers and the only way UNO can justify the leap into the big-time is by dropping the heavy financial burden of football, whose weight would only increase with the increased scholarships and improved facilities D-I necessitates.  Besides, where football is a revenue generator at many schools it is not at UNO and even the prospect of D-I would likely do little for the program’s mass appeal given the shadow of Big Red.  But the real shocker is that UNO is prepared to jettison its shining star, wrestling, whose program just captured its eighth national title over the March 11-12 weekend. UNO could choose to go independent in wrestling but the school is opting not to do that, which is odd because it’s perhaps the least financially onerous men’s program in terms of scholarships, equipment, travel, facilities.  But more to the point — how do you just dismiss the incredible success that UNO wrestling has achieved?   I would hope that UNO finds a way to preserve the wrestling program.  For a look at some of its remarkable history, see my stories on this blog about Don Benning and about how the UNO wrestling dynasty is built on a tide of social change.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of the update I misidentified the new conference UNO is looking to join as the Horizon League, when it is in fact the Summit League.  My bad.  I was in too much of a hurry posting the update and failed to check the league name.

ANOTHER UPDATE: It may be a moot point in the end, but the UNO wrestling program is not going down without a fight. Coaches, student athletes, alums, fans, and boosters gathered at UNO Sunday, March 13 in the wake of the startling announcement that the wrestling program will be disbanded.  Coach Mike Denney was seen calmly addressing the gathering and coalescing support. In an interview he gave a local TV sports reporter he pointed out that some schools in the Summit League that UNO has been invited to join do have wrestling programs.  Denney asked the question a lot of people are asking: If they can be in that league and keep wrestling, then why can’t we do it?  UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts apparently came to this decision without consulting Denney or the UNO wrestling community or UNO student leaders.  The two men are undoubtedly acting out of good intentions and in the long term interests of the school but to spring this decision without warning and without giving Denney and his assistant coaches and student-athletes the opportunity to weigh in and argue against it is cruel and ill-advised. I would not be surprised if Don Benning adds his voice to the chorus of disapproval over Christensen’s and Albert’s decision to throw away the history and tradition that UNO wrestling represents.

 

 

 

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Like most Nebraska football fans I watched Trev Alberts play on some very good Husker teams in the early 1990s without ever seeing him in person, by seeing him play on television. I’ve been a Big Red fan since just before the dawn of my teens but I’ve only attended a couple games at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln in all that time.  So, my relationship with Alberts remained a virtual one until I interviewed him for the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader,com). Alberts was a high draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts but repeated injuries cut short his NFL career before he could ever really establish himself.  Then, the telegenic Alberts embarked on a successful career as an on-air college football analyst with ESPN.  He left the network in a dispute that received a fair amount of attention.  The, totally unexpected, he wound up as athletic director at Division II University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he’s in his second year on the job trying to right what had becomes a wayward department. Although some have speculated he took the post as a way to season and position himself for eventually replacing his old coach, Tom Osborne, as NU athletic director, an assertion by the way that both Alberts and Osborne deny, he seems genuinely satisfied to be doing a very unglamorous job at a very unglamorous institution.  But as he reveals in my story, he is all about work ethic, seeing a job through, and teamwork, which I believe will keep him at UNO for the foreseeable future, not that I would rule out him one day moving over to NU.

 

 

 

 

Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’  Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

UNO athletics has always been the overlooked step-child on the area sports scene.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha is still primarily a commuter school, making athletics a hard sell to students and alums. Most have a distant relationship with UNO, whose athletic success rarely translates into fans in the stands save for Maverick hockey, a few football games and a couple wrestling meets.

Things got tenuous four years ago amid revelations the school hushed up athletic budget shortfalls and secretly funneled general university funds to make up the difference. Then-chancellor Nancy Belck came under fire for loose department oversight. The cash cow UNO’s tied its wagon to, Division I hockey, sputtered.

UNO quickly went through three athletic directors. The budget and staff absorbed cuts. Some major boosters criticized school leaders and pulled support. Things stabilized when John Christensen became chancellor in 2007. His April 2009 hiring of Trev Alberts, the former University of Nebraska football All-American (1990-93), Indianapolis Colt and ESPN analyst, turned heads. Getting the chiseled, charismatic Alberts was a bold, outside-the-box move to pump life, credibility and pizazz into a floundering, faceless enterprise.

Some questioned Alberts’ lack of sports administration experience. Not Christensen.

“I wasn’t looking for an administrator, I was looking for a leader, and those are very different things,” said Christensen.

The two have big plans for UNO, including new campus facilities for baseball, softball, soccer and hockey. There’s talk of one day going D-I across the board. UNO is being touted as “Omaha’s Team.” By all accounts, confidence is restored in the department. Alberts’ hiring last year of iconic Dean Blais as hockey coach signaled a sea change in how UNO brands itself. The pretender’s now the contender.

Alberts set the tone at the press conference introducing him as AD, saying, “I believe the potential for UNO’s athletic programs is unlimited.” He hasn’t backed off on that. He sent a message with the Blais hire.

“We wanted to make a statement we weren’t going to mess around anymore, we were going to get into the arena competition and we were going to win and we were going to win the right way. I have never been a part of anything that didn’t attempt to do excellence.”

The rub is that while UNO’s located in a much larger metro than most D-II competitors, it must contend with many more divided loyalties and attractions than, say, a Northwest Missouri State, which is the only game in town in Maryville, Mo.

Husker mania looms large here. Creighton athletic programs are fan favorites. The College of St. Mary, Bellevue College and Iowa Western Community College have their followings. High school athletic contests regularly outdraw UNO’s. The Royals, the Beef, the Lancers, and now the Nighthawks, have committed fan bases, too.

Still, UNO is convinced it can capture more fans and revenue through upgrades, a must anyway if the school’s to ever seriously entertain going D-I, said Christensen.

“Right now, are we Omaha’s team? No, not the way we’re currently structured,” said Alberts. “No, not when you ask your baseball fans to drive to Boys Town to watch a game, you drive your softball fans to Westgate, you drive your hockey fans to the Qwest (Center). Think about it, we’ve been doing everything we could to make it extraordinarily difficult and inconvenient to support UNO athletics. You’re supposed to bring people to your campus.

“Imagine if we had facilities that were convenient, that met market expectations and were on or near the UNO campus.”

 

 

 

 

Alberts can sound like a pitchman, and that ability to spin things, to charm, to energize, to win hearts and minds, is why supporters like David Sokol are back in the fold. For Alberts, though, the heavy lifting’s just begun.

“We’re still a burden on campus until we’re able to realize that revenue from hockey. Do we have the kind of players, coaches, teams representative of what the market demands? We’re getting closer. I mean, it’s about winning. You gotta win, you gotta win consistently. The moniker ‘Omaha’s Team’ is really a reminder to our staff and coaches of what we aspire to become.”

Alberts said UNO must meet “market expectations of excellence of Lincoln and Creighton and the College World Series.” In some respects, he said, UNO’s done so by winning 11 national championships, adding that feedback from the community, however, indicates UNO’s fallen short in most ways.

Then there’s the awkwardness of dual NCAA membership. Yes, UNO has a D-I hockey program, but it’s a D-II, school, making for a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario.

“At strictly Division II schools, their (athletic) budgets are about three-and-a half to four million. Our budget’s approaching nine million with one Division I sport. When you have dual membership one of two things happens: you either treat all of your programs like their Division II, which is problematic to NCAA compliance. or you end up running your whole department like you’re Division I. That’s equally dangerous, because now in our budget we have all the support units of a Division I department and our Division II programs are benefitting from it.

“We’ve got strength and conditioning staff, compliance staff, three full time sports information staffers, a marketing department –  you don’t need a marketing department when you’re Division II. We have a ticketing office.  A five-person athletic medicine staff I’ll put up against anybody. The point is, we’re a Division I athletic department whether we like it or not, but we compete at the Division II level. It’s naturally divisive. That’s why the NCAA views dual memberships as problematic.

“That’s why Dean Blais was so important. His personality, his humility — he doesn’t walk around here like…He’s just a Midwestern guy, he’s one of us. Now, he has expectations, don’t get me wrong.”

If other UNO coaches are upset by hockey’s anointed status, Alberts said they haven’t said so. Regardless, there’s no turning back.

“We’ve tried hard to communicate from the day I took the job that that’s the way it’s going to be. You can be frustrated, but if hockey is not successful, we are not successful.”

For now, he said UNO must balance the trappings of its lone D-I sport with the low corporate sponsorships and game guarantees of a D-II school.

“We simply didn’t have the ability and maybe still don’t to deliver the product this market demands, and that’s why this job’s so hard,” he said.

Much of his job is creating a culture of integrity that’s about “making the right decision, not the convenient one.” It’s why he and Christensen talk regularly and why Alberts seeks counsel from his old coach/mentor, Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne. He also keeps former UNO athletic director Don Leahy close by as advisor and watchdog.

“It’s transparency,” Alberts said. “You know, Nebraskans are a common sense group. Trying to fool people is simply not going to work. First of all you have to be honest with yourself, understand your limitations, your strengths, and show enough humility to welcome the input of others. The first thing we had to do was create a belief. A lot of our coaches have been promised things for years. I would never promise somebody something I couldn’t actually keep.”

He’s impressed by “the passion for this place” that’s kept several veteran coaches and staff members at UNO when they could have bolted for other opportunities. He feels UNO athletics is poised for growth despite a tough economy and NU system-wide cuts.

“We’ve never been in a more difficult position than we’re currently in. What’s encouraging to me is a lot of our problems are self-inflicted and they’re solvable, and we’re committed to finding solutions.”

Houston Alexander, “The Assassin”

August 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Fighters have always had a certain appeal, whether doing their fighting in the street or in the ring or, since the advent of mixed martial arts events, in the octagon.  Houston Alexander of Omaha has pretty much done it all and he’s turned his talent for fisticuffs, combined with his good looks and charisma, into a bit of a run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, although he ended up losing more than he won.  He’s also a radio DJ, graffiti artist, self-styled hip-hop educator, and man-about-town, making him more than the sum of his parts.  The following story I did on him for The Reader (www.thereader.com) hit just as he was on his way up, and even though his star has since dimmed, he’s a survivor who knows how to work his image.  He and his family didn’t like some of the things in my story, but he also knows that comes with the territory.

 

 

 

Houston Alexander, “The Assassin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Ultimate fighter Houston “The Assassin” Alexander of Omaha is being a good soldier for the photo shoot. Stripping down to his trunks, he poses in the middle of a south downtown street one late summer afternoon. He’s asked to look menacing, hardly a stretch for the chiseled, tattooed, head-shaved graffiti artist-street thug turned Ultimate Fighting Championship contender. He remarks about “those guys looking out those windows” at his half-naked ass, meaning inmates at the Douglas County Correctional Center peering out the razor-wired windows of the facility just down the block. He once peered out those same windows upon this very street.

“I was inside the cage in ‘97. I just got through beating up a cop and they took me down,” he says matter-of-factly. “The cop tried to grab me and I swung back and hit the guy. It was illegal what he was trying to do to me in the first place. He was trying to beat me up. I didn’t get charged for hitting a cop. I got charged for something else. I did like six months.”

It’s not his only run-in with the law. He alludes to “a whole bunch of domestic,” referring to disturbances with a woman that police responded to.

The fact he has a record only seems to add to his street cred as one tough M.F..  His fans don’t seem to mind his indiscretions. Passersby shout out props. “What’s up, Houston Alexander?” a guy calls out from his sedan. Another, on foot, invites him to a suburban sports bar where, the homey says, “they all love you out there.”

Now that Alexander is a certified UFC warrior, he’s handling all the hoopla that goes with it like a man. He seems unfazed by the endorsement deals, sponsorships, personal appearance requests, interviews, blog appraisals and fan frenzy demands coming his way these days.

Increasingly recognized wherever he goes, he eagerly acknowledges the attention with his trademark greeting, “What’s up, brother?” and firm handshake, giving love to grown men and boys whose star-struck expressions gleam with admiration for his fighting prowess. The African-American community particularly embraces him as a home boy made good. A strong, hard-working single father of six who came up an urban legend for his scribbing and street fighting. He’s one of their own and it’s them he’ll most be representing come next fight night.

Barely three months have passed since his furious UFC debut on May 26, when the  light heavyweight put an octagon whupping on contender Keith Jardine at UFC 71 in Las Vegas. After getting knocked down in the first 10 seconds, Alexander quickly regrouped. His relentless pressing style backed Jardine against the fence, where he unleashed a flurry of knees, elbows, uppercuts and hooks to score a technical knockout. Now Alexander’s primed for his next step up the sport’s elite ladder.

He and his local coaching-training team led by Mick Doyle and Curlee Alexander, the same men who got him ready for his dismantling of “The Dean of Mean Jardine, left for Great Britain on Monday to make final preparations for a September 8 clash with Italian Alessio Sakara on the UFC 75 card at London’s O2 Arena.

Doyle, a native of Ireland, is a former world champion martial arts fighter. His Mick Doyle Mixed Martial Arts Center at 108th and Blondo is the baddest gym around. He’s trained and worked the corner of several world champs. Curlee Alexander, a cousin of Houston’s, is a former NAIA All-America wrestler at UNO and the longtime head wrestling coach at North High School, where he’s produced numerous individual and team state champions.

Houston Alexander when to North, but other than brief forays in wrestling and football, he didn’t really compete in organized sports, unless you count weight lifting and body shaping. He was a two-time Mr. North. There was never enough money or time, he explains. By high school he was already a burgeoning  entrepreneur with his art and music. Besides, he said, “I always had responsibilities at home.But everyone knew he was gifted athletically.

The way Doyle puts it, Alexander’s “a freak” of nature for his rare combo of power and speed. The 205-pounder can bench press more than twice his body weight, yet he’s not muscle bound. He’s remarkably agile and flexible. Alexander came to him a “raw” specimen, but with abundant natural talent and instincts. Alexander knows he has a tendency to resort to street fighting, but Doyle recently reassured him by saying, “Everything we’re showing you sticks because it’s brand new. It’s not really replacing anything that anyone else taught you.” A blank slate.

“He wants to learn,” Doyle said. “He’s very confident, but he’s grounded. It’s a joy to coach someone like him.”

Curlee Alexander, a lifelong boxing devotee, has rarely seen the likes of his cousin, who’s made this old-school grappler a UFC convert. He, too, tells Houston not to change what’s worked, street fighting and all, but to harness it with technique. When Houston came to him eight months ago asking that he condition him, Curlee was dubious. Houston’s work ethic won him over. “He’s certainly determined.” His dismantling of Jardine convinced him he was in the corner of a special athlete.

“It was the most amazing night as far as being a coach I’ve ever had. All the things we had worked on were coming to fruition. He was doing it. He put all this stuff together at that moment. Incredible.”

For his part, The Assassin credits his coaches with getting him to the next level.

“Without Mick and Curlee, there’s no me. I had the raw skills, but they’re fine tuning what I have to turn me into this champ I need to be,” he said. “I love those guys. They’re the real deal. No joke. They know what they’re talking about. I do whatever they tell me to do. There’s no getting away with anything, brother, believe me. But I wouldn’t want to cheat myself anyway.”

With their help, he said, “I’m more technical and all the power and strength I have is programmed a whole different way. More controlled. But don’t get it twisted. If I need to turn it up and go hard in the paint, it can easily change.”

 

 

 

 

A win Saturday night should put the fighter in the Top 10 and that much closer to what some anticipate will be a world title challenge within a year. Doyle told Alexander as much after an August meeting to breakdown the tape of the Jardine fight. “I told you this would be a two-year process. We’re only three months into this deal and look how much better you’ve gotten. Just think in another year where you’re going to be. You’ll be able to get in the ring with Wanderlei Silva (the legendary Brazilian world champ, late of the PRIDE series, now a UFC star).”

“We understand the window of opportunity on this thing is short,” Doyle said. “We want to get it there.” Asked if Alexander’s age, 35, is part of the urgency, he said, “Maybe some of it. If he gets an injury he’s not going to heal like a 25-year-old. He’s got some years left, but let’s get him the money. He’s got six kids.”

The Sakara-Alexander tussle is key for both fighters. Doyle calls Sakara “a stepping stone” for his fighter, whom he said must “prove the Jardine thing wasn’t a fluke.” He describes it as “a make or break fight” for Sakara, who’s coming off two straight losses at 185 pounds. “He’s gotta win to stay in the UFC. Sakara’s in the way of bigger and better things, so he’s gotta go.”

Cool, suave, laidback, playful. Quick to crack on someone. Alexander’s extreme physicality manifests in the way he grabs your hand or brushes against you or delivers none too gentle love taps or engages in horse play. When he needs to, he can turn off the imp and attend to business. He’s all, ‘Yes, coach…‘Yes, sir,’ with his trainers, putting in hour after hour of roadwork, skipping rope, weight lifting, calisthenics, stretching, grappling, sparring and shadow boxing under their watch.

For months he’s trained three times a day, up to six to eight hours per day, six days a week, devoting full-time to what not long ago was just “a hobby.” He’s disciplined and motivated enough to have transformed his physique and refined his fight style. After years of itinerant club fighting, all without a manager or trainer, only himself to count on, he began formal, supervised training less than a year ago. He worked with Doyle a few weeks before the Jardine clash, which also marked the first time he prepped for a specific foe and followed a nutritional supplement regimen. By all accounts he followed the strategy laid out for him to a tee.

“I have no problem working,” he said. “I’ve been working all my life.”

Doing what needs to be done is how he’s handled himself as an artist, DJ, father, blue collar worker and pro fighter. Whatever’s come down, he’s been man enough to take it, from completing large mural projects to getting custody of his kids to donating a kidney to daughter Elan to breaking a hand in a bout yet toughing the injury out to win. “Most people don’t know I’m fighting with one kidney,” he said. He’s paid the price when he’s screwed up, too, serving time behind bars.

The UFC is all happening fast for Alexander, which is fine for this dynamo. But the thing is, he’s come to this breakthrough at an age when most folks settle into a comfortable rut. No playing it safe or easy for him though. The truth is this opportunity’s been a long time in the making for Alexander, who enjoyed local celebrity status way before the UFC entered his life.

The veteran Omaha hip hop culture scion, variously known as Scrib, FAS/ONE and The Strong Arm, has always rolled with the assurance of a self-made man and standup brother. All the way back to the day when he protected the honor of his siblings and cousins with his heavy fists, first on the mean streets of East St. Louis, Ill., then in north O, where his mother moved he and his two younger siblings after she left their father. Alexander was all of 8 when he became the man of the family.

“I’m the oldest, so I was always expected to be the leader of the whole bunch. See, I’ve fought all my life, and that’s no exaggeration. It was always a situation where I couldn’t walk away, like somebody putting their hands on my girl cousins. I got into a lot of fights because of my brother,” he said. “I don’t interfere with no one’s business, but if you put your hands on my family, then it becomes my business. A lot of people got beat up because of that.”

Respect is more than an Aretha Franklin anthem for him.

“I don’t go around disrespecting people unless they disrespect me. There’s always a line you can’t cross.”

Growing up in a single-parent home, he started hustling early on to help support the family. What began as childhood diversions — fighting and music — became careers. When he wasn’t busting heads on the street, he was rhyming, break dancing, producing and graffiti tagging as a local hip hop “pioneer.” His Midwest Alliance and B-Boys have opened for national acts. He had his own small record label for a time, His scrib work adorns buildings, bridges and railroad box cars in the area. He mostly does murals on commission these days but still goes out on occasion with his crew to scrib structures that just beg to be tagged.

It wasn’t until 2001 he began getting paid to fight, earning $500-$600 a bout. He estimates having more than 200 fights since then, of which he’s only been credited with seven by the UFC, sometimes getting in the ring multiple times per night, on small mixed martial arts cards in Omaha, Lincoln, Sioux City, Des Moines. These take-on-all-comers type of events, held at bars (Bourbon Street), concert venues (Royal Grove), outdoor volleyball courts, casinos, matched him against traditional boxers as well as kickboxers, wrestlers and practitioners of jujitsu and muay thai.

“I fought everybody, man. I fought every type of fighter there is,” he said. “Fat, short, tall. I fought a guy 400 pounds in Des Moines. Picked him up from behind and slammed him on his neck and beat him senseless. I’m a street fighter, man. When you street fight you don’t care what size and what style. It don’t matter.”

There were times he’d MC a rap concert and fight on the same venue. “Dude, it was funny, man, because first people would see me on stage saying, ‘Hey, get your hands in the air,’ and then five hours later I’m kicking somebody’s ass in the ring.”

MMA promoter Chad Mason, who promoted many of Alexander’s pre-UFC matches, confirmed the fighter saw an inordinate amount of action in a short time.

“Sometimes he was doing two-three fights in a night. He’d do ‘em in Des Moines and then turn around two days later and go to Sioux City and fight a couple more times there. So there were times he probably had six fights in a week,” Mason said. “Of course everybody he fought wasn’t top of the line competition, but he was beating Division I college wrestlers, pro boxers, pro kick boxers, guys that had years of experience. They could come out of the woodwork to just try against Houston, and he’d beat ‘em. I mean, he’d knock ‘em out.”

By Alexander’s own reckoning his personal record was fighting and winning five times in one night in Sioux City.

“I was feeling it that night. It was just crazy, man.”

He began fathering kids 15 years ago and now has custody of his three boys and three girls, by three different mothers. Four of the kids are from his ex-wife of 10 years. He, his kids and his hottie of a new girl friend, Elana, share a three-room northwest Omaha apartment until he finds the right house to buy. He has the perfect crib in mind — a three-bedroom brick house with wood floors.

As a single daddy he has a new appreciation for raising kids. He makes it work amid his training and other commitments with some old-fashioned parenting.

 

 

 

 

“My kids have structure. It’s all military style. We have to do everything together. We all have breakfast together. We all sit down at the table together for dinner. It can’t work any other way,” he said.

Between school and extracurricular activities, he said, “I try to keep them as active as I can.” He helps coach his boys club football team, the Gladiators. One girl’s in ballet, another in basketball. “I’m always moving, so they’re always moving.”

He vows his children, ranging in age from 15 to 4, are his prime motivation for making this fight thing pay off.

“I want to win to secure a financial future for my kids’ college education. Again it always goes back to the kids.”

To makes ends meet he worked on highway construction crews for nearly 10 years. Until the UFC discovered him, he was perhaps best known locally for his radio career, first at Hot 94.1 and now at Power 106.9, where he does everything from sales to promotions to engineering to hosting his own independent music show on Sunday nights.

He’s also an educator of sorts by virtue of his long-running School Culture Shock Tour that finds him presenting the history of hip hop to students.

Whatever it takes to put food on the table, he does. “I’m a hustler, man. This is true. That’s why I have Corn Hustler on my forearms,” he said, brandishing his massive, graffiti-inked limbs. “That’s a street term. I stay busy. I have always kept busy.”

He strives to be “well-rounded” and therefore “I’m always in that mode to where I’m doing something to better myself.”

Always looking for fresh angles, a pro sports career is right up his alley with its marketing possibilities and mix of athletics and entertainment. Besides catching on like wildfire, the sport is a crowd-pleasing showcase for men wishing to turn their cut bodies, mixed martial arts skills, macho facades, charismatic personalities and catchy names into national, even international, brands. Having built to this moment for years, he leaves little doubt he’s ready to take advantage of it, confident he will neither lose himself if he succeeds nor crash should he fail.

“I give myself five or six years, maybe more than that if I keep training and don’t get hurt. (Randy) Couture is 43 and he fought a younger guy and whupped his ass. If it doesn’t work out with the UFC, who cares? I was never a UFC fan anyway.”

Would he ever return to those $500 paydays in Sioux City? “Yeah, in a hearbeat. Why not? I love fighting, man. That’s the whole thing — I love fighting.”

What is it ultimately about fighting that’s such a turn on?

“I think it’s the rush,” he said. “I know have the ability to beat the guy, but it’s still the rush of not knowing. You’re out there to prove to this guy that you know how to whip his ass. You think Jardine had remotely in his mind he was going to get done like that? I don’t think so. But I knew. Because I know deep down in my heart what type of abilities I have.”

As he says, the UFC was never really his goal until promoter and friend Chad Mason hooked him up with fight manager Monty Cox. What little Alexander’s seen of the competition out there doesn’t impress him. No high octane attacks like his.

“I never really watched the UFC. When I started watching it all I saw was this assembly line of guys. I really haven’t seen anyone come with it or bring it. Maybe the guys they bring in are not as passionate about it as I am. I really love fighting. When I get in the ring I love doing it, so I’m going to bring it to the guy 110 percent. If a guy’s trying to slack off on me and he wants to me wear me down, nu-uh, we’re going to pick up the pace a little bit and we’re going to go at it.

“If you want to try to wrestle and do all that, OK, that’s fine, but you’re going to get kneed and you’re going to get elbowed and you’re going to get disrupted.”

 

Mick Doyle’s Kickboxing and Fitness Center

 

 

Disruption could be his alter ego name inside the octagon. It’s a mantra for what he tries to do to opponents. “Always disrupt, man, always disrupt,” he said. “To where they can’t think, because if you can’t think, you can’t react. That’s been my concept through the years,”

He said a quick review of the Jardine fight will reveal “I had hands in his face all the time. I was so close to him to where he couldn’t use those long arms, and I kept applying the pressure. Like my coaches said, ‘Always apply the pressure,’ and that’s what I did with that guy. I kept him disrupted.”

Alexander puts much stock in his “explosiveness.” “Once a guy tries to attack me,” he said, “my counter moves are so swift and fast and powerful, that definitely we’ll take the guy out. They’re all in short bursts.”

Doyle doesn’t even want Alexander thinking about leaving his feet. He wants him to dispatch Sakara on Saturday night the same way he did Jardine — standing straight up, his trunk and feet forming a triangle base, throwing blunt force trauma blows with knees, elbows and fists. Back in July Doyle told his fighter, “Just like in the Jardine fight, you don’t need to go to the ground. We’re going to knock the guy out or make the referee stop it. That will get you a title quicker. He’s gotta go.”

“That’s our motto for 2007 — he’s gotta go. He’s in the way. The Italian guy has got to go. Chow, baby,” Alexander said of Sakara. “I really want to go in and knock this guy out or really do something bad to him. I want people to be scared when they look at the footage. I want to show them what I’ve got.”

In his soft Irish brogue Doyle explained to his fighter how keeping an element of mystery is a good thing.

“Dude, if you go out there and knock this guy out, people are still going to wonder, What else can Alexander do? You know what, let them try to find out. If we can finish this guy on our feet, let’s do it. You don’t need to show people any more of your game than what is necessary to get the job done — until you come up with an opponent who makes you show more,” he said. “Keep it simple.”

Doyle, a Dublin native who came to America in ‘86, has tried to prepare Alexander for any technical tricks opponents might try to spring on him. He’s had him go toe-to-toe with athletes skilled in boxing, wrestling, kicking, you name it, bringing in top sparring partners from places like Chicago and sending him to Minneapolis to work with world-class submission artists good enough to make him tap out.

The fighter will have seen everything that can be thrown at him by fight night.

“They’ll get that move on you one time, and that’ll be the last time,” Doyle told Alexander. “That way when you step in the ring, and a guy goes to make his moves, you’ll feel ‘em coming, you’ll see ‘em coming, you’ll know what to do.”

Doyle and his team have spent much time honing Alexander’s footwork and stance, making sure his weight is balanced. It’s all done to harness his natural power, which becomes “more dangerous” when leveraged from below. The uppercuts that devastated Jardine were practiced repeatedly. The force behind those vicious shots, Doyle reminded him, comes from “using your legs,” which is why he harps on Alexander to maintain the foundation of a solid base.

To improve his quickness, Alexander often spars with lighter, faster guys and wears heavy gloves, so that when fight time arrives his hands and feet move like lightning.

The gameplan with Sakara is to pepper him with double jabs, then push off or slide step in to follow up with an arsenal of kill shots. For all his bravado and bull-rush style, Alexander is all about “protecting myself,” which is why a point of emphasis for the Sakara fight has been to keep his hands up against this classical boxer.

“As long as you keep your hands up you’re not going to get hurt,” Doyle said after an August sparring session. “None of the guys out there are just like that much better than you. But if you give them a mistake, they are more experienced and more technical to capitalize on it than you are right now. In a year, it’s all going to be different. Just like this guy Sakara, we’re going to make him give us a mistake.”

Sakara’s habit of keeping his hands low is one Alexander expects to exploit.

One thing Alexander said he’ll never be is intimidated.

“It’s important to inject fear. Everyone gets scared of the way a guy looks. I truly believe that half these people get scared by looking at the guy in the ring. I think Jardine beat a lot of people by the way he looked,” he said. Not that it was ever a possibility in his own mind, but Alexander said Jardine lost whatever edge he might have had when he heard him give an interview and out came a voice that didn’t match the Mr. Mean persona. “There’s no way I’m going to get my butt kicked by a guy that sounds like Michael Jackson,” he said.

Jardine’s comments leading up to the fight led Alexander and his camp to believe the veteran UFC fighter took the newcomer lightly. Alexander warns future foes not to make the same mistake.

“If anybody approaches me the same way to where they’re not taking me serious, that’s what’s going to happen. Every time. I’m going to be passionate about it. I’m going to be right or die with it. That means I’ll die in the ring before I actually lose. That’s how I feel about winning. Winning is everything, I don’t care what nobody says. If I hadn’t of won…you wouldn’t be talking to me,” he told a reporter.

It’s not hard to imagine Alexander gets an edge, both by the ripped, powerful figure he projects, and the calm demeanor he exudes. His serenity is no act.

“I’m mentally prepared for this thing,” he said. “I’ve always been mentally strong…tough. Make no mistake about it, the mental game I have down. No one’s going to out-mental me. No one’s going to deter me left or right, forward or back, because I have it down. Guys ask me, ‘Are you going to be nervous going out in front of 50,000 people?’ No, because I’ve done it before. I’ve done it with concerts. I’ve hosted concerts with 10,000 people. I do the school thing every week with 700-800 kids. Kids are the worst critics ever. If you can’t get kids’ attention, you’re garbage, and every week I get those kids’ attention. My working in radio, having 30,000 people listening every time I crack that mike, that’s pressure. So for me being in front of a crowd is nothing.”

Like all supreme athletes, Alexander exudes a Zen-like tranquility. His senseis — Mick and Curlee and company — have brought out the samaurai in him. It’s why he’s such “a calm fighter” entering the octagon.

“What it comes down to, you just have to play it out all the way and see where the chips fall,” Alexander said. “Everything happens for a reason. It is what it is.”

Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

 

 

In the constellation of University of Nebraska football legends, Johnny Rodgers is probably still the brightest star, even though it’s been going on 40 years since he last played for the Huskers.  So dazzling were his moves and so dominant was his play that this 1972 Heisman Trophy winner , who was the one big play threat on the 1970 and 1971 national championship teams, remains the gold standard for NU playmakers.  The fact that he was such a prominent player when NU first reached modern day college football prominence, combined with his being an Omaha product who overcame a tough start in life, puts him in a different category from all the other Husker greats.  The style and panache that he brought to the field and off it helps, too.  He’s also remained one of the most visible and accessible Husker legends.

 

 


Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

“Man, woman and child…the Jet has put ‘em in the aisles again.”

Viewing again on tape one of Johnny Rodgers’ brilliant juking, jiving broken field runs, one has the impression of a jazz artist going off on an improvisational riff and responding note by note, move by move, instant by instant to whatever he’s feeling on the field.

Indeed, that is how Rodgers, the quicksilver University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy winner known as The Jet, describes the way his instinctive playmaking skills expressed themselves in action. Original, spontaneous, unplanned, his dance-like punt returns and darting runs after catches unfolded, like riveting dramatic performances, in the moment. Poetry in motion. All of which makes his revelation that he did this in a kind of spellbound state fascinating.

“I remember times when I’d go into a crowd of players and I’d come out the other side and the first time I’d know anything about what really happened was when I watched it on film,” he said. “It was like I was in a trance or guided or something. It was not ever really at a conscious level. I could see it as it’s happening, but I didn’t remember any of it. In any of the runs, I could not sit back and say all the things I’d just done until I saw them on film. Never. Not even once.”

This sense of something larger and more mysterious at work is fitting given Rodgers unlikely life story. In going from ghetto despair and criminal mischief to football stardom and flamboyant high life to wheeler-dealer and ignominious failure to sober businessman and community leader, his life has played out in surreal fashion. For a long time Rodgers seemed to be making his legend up, for better or worse, as he went along.

Once viewed as an incorrigible delinquent, Rodgers grew up poor and fatherless in the Logan Fontenelle projects and, unable to get along with his mother, ran away from home at age 14 to Detroit. He was gone a year.

“You talk about a rude awakening. It was a trip,” he said.

He bears scars from bashings and bullets he took in violent clashes. He received probation in his late teens for his part in a Lincoln filling station robbery that nearly derailed his college football career. He served 30 days in jail for driving on a suspended license. Unimaginable — The Jet confined to a cell. His early run-ins with the law and assundry other troubles made him a romantic outlaw figure to some and a ne’er-do-well receiving special treatment to others.

“People were trying to make me out to be college football’s bad boy,” is how he sums up that tumultuous time.

 

 

 

Embracing his rebel image, the young Rodgers wore shades and black leather and drove fast. Affecting a playboy image, J.R. lived a Player’s lifestyle. By the time he signed a big contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, he was indulging in a rich young man’s life to the hilt — fur capes, silk dashikis, fancy cars, recreational drugs, expensive wines and fine babes. Hedonism, baby.

Controversy continued dogging him and generating embarrassing headlines, like the time in 1985 he allegedly pulled a gun on a cable television technician or the two times, once in 1987 and again in 1998, when his Heisman was confiscated in disputes over non-payment of bills. Then there were the crass schemes to cash in on his fame.

Rodgers, whose early life could have gone seriously astray if not for strong male figures around him, said, “I really wish I would have had mentors in mid-life like I had coming up so I could have been prepared for a lot of things I found myself getting into and out of, whether good or bad. I really don’t have any regrets as far as whatever has happened, one way or the other, because I’ve grown on both sides. I’ve learned probably more from my mistakes than from my successes.”

It is only in recent years he has settled down into the kind of calm, considered, conservative life of a reborn man who, in conversation, often refers to his Creator and to giving back.

As he was quoted in a 2001 Omaha World-Herald story, “I’m a little boring now. I make people nervous these days because they have to put their drugs away now.”

Not that this inveterate risk-taker and spotlight lover still isn’t capable of surprises, just that his escapades are less brazen. In the late 1990s he went back to school to finish his degree and added a second degree for good measure. In 1996 he started a sports apparel, bedding and accesories business, JetWear, located in the Business and Technology Center at 24th and Lake, that got him named entrepreneur of the year. He and his wife Jawana own and operate it  today. Then, cementing his lofty status as a sports hero, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and named Husker Player of the Century.

These days, Rodgers, looking fit with his shirt-popping muscular physique and jaunty with the gold bling-bling draping his every appendage, seems comfortable in his role as venerable legend. The media seeks his opinions on the state of the Husker Nation in the aftermath of last season’s debacle.

However much he plays the role of wizened old football warrior, he is forever seen as the dangerous artful dodger whose unique combo of strength, quickness and intuitiveness let him do the unexpected on the gridiron — leaving people grasping thin air with magical now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t moves. In an interview from his office, adorned with images and clippings from his glory days, he spoke like a man still in touch with the electrifying, enigmatic athletic genius that left fans breathless and opponents befuddled. Still every inch the star, he’s finally come to terms with himself.

When viewed in the context of a rather rash fellow who follows his instincts, then his punt returns — the plays where he improvised the most, displayed the most creativity and took the greatest chances — make more sense just as some of his reckless off-the-field antics can be better understood if not excused. For better or worse, his let’s-wing-it, go-for-broke attitude explains his life inside and outside of athletics.

“When you’re a risk taker you do make mistakes because you’re going for it all the time,” he said. “You don’t always make the right move. You can fake yourself right into harm’s way or you can shake yourself right through it. But you have to be willing to take a chance. In a lot of ways I should have been more conservative about things but it’s just not my nature.”

Just like calling a fair catch or lining up behind a wall of blockers was not about to happen when fielding a punt.

“You don’t think, you just react. You don’t know, you just feel,” is how Rodgers describes what it’s like for an impulsive person like himself to feed off whatever is happening around him at any given time, including the chaos swirling about when running back a punt in a preternatural daze. “It’s not like being in what athletes call a zone. You get yourself ready in a zone so you can think about what you need to do and you can get it done. Being in a trance is a whole other level. It’s not a planned thing. You don’t know what’s going to happen. If you make a plan, you’re already wrong because it hasn’t happened yet. The plan is, there is no plan.”

Because of Rodgers’ unusual, innate gifts, then NU head coach Bob Devaney gave him great latitude.

“I had a green light returning punts. I just did whatever came natural,” Rodgers said. “I’d call a punt return right and I’d go left in a heartbeat. When I saw everybody going left, I’d change direction. I never would know. I was never ever told to fair catch the football, even in dangerous situations. There were never any rules for me. I was given that freedom. It got to the point where the only thing I could tell my guys is, ‘Get that first man and meet me down field’ because I didn’t know myself what I was going to do.”

Some of his most famous returns illustrate Rodgers at his extemporaneous best. Take the famous 72-yard touchdown versus Oklahoma in the 1971 Game of the Century.

“It was a right return and I started off right but the whole darn thing happened on the left. On that return my guys didn’t get the first man. I had to shake the first man, who was Greg Pruitt. Joe Blahak broke one way and I went the other way, but still he circled all the way back around the field to pick the last guy off my back and that was because we always agreed to meet down field.

“Where most players would be satisfied getting one block and be jogging the rest of the way my guys, like Blahak and (Rich) Glover, were still fighting until the whistle blew. They knew to meet me down field and that attitude really panned out.”

 

 

 

 

Call it a sixth sense or a second set of eyes, but Rodgers possessed an uncanny ability to elude defenders he couldn’t possibly see. “I watch myself returning punts on film and I see guys reaching at my head and I’m ducking and you can see clearly that I can’t see them, but I can feel them. At the exact right time I make the move. It’s an instinct. A spiritual thing. Unconscious.”

In a remarkable series of sideline returns against Colorado in 1972, Rodgers executed some fancy arabesques and tightrope maneuvers that defied logic and balance as he repeatedly made sharp cuts, spins and leaps to escape trouble.

On offense, he also enjoyed a degree of freedom. When the Huskers needed a play, he and quarterback Jerry Tagge would collaborate in the huddle. “When push came to shove we called plays ourselves. Tagge would ask, ‘What can you do? What can we get?’ because I was setting up the guy covering me for something. I’d be running down-and-outs all day long just so I could run the post-and-go or whatever we needed. ‘Is he ready yet? Tagge would ask. ‘He’s ready,’ I’d say. I always had the attitude if we were in trouble I want the ball because I could get it done.”

He got things done to the tune of setting numerous single season and career school marks for catches, yards receiving, punt returns and total offense. Amazingly, Rodgers isn’t sure he could be successful today in NU’s highly regimented schemes.

“I was fortunate enough to come along when I did. I don’t know if I could make it now,” he said. “Coaches don’t let you be who you are. They try to coach you to who they are. They’re not letting the great ones be great. You can’t teach this stuff. If you have to think, you’re already too slow. It’s reaction. You have to react. You have to be free and open to sense it and feel it.”

Precociously talented from an early age, Rodgers first made headlines at age 8 by diving over a human pyramid his Lothrop Grade School tumbling teammates formed with their interlaced bodies in tumbling shows. Despite being much younger and smaller than the youths playing at Kountze Park his athleticism gained him entry into sandlot football and baseball contests there that included such future greats as Gale Sayers, Marlin Briscoe and Ron Boone.

“I was ‘too small’ to play but they let me play ball with them because I was good enough.” He honed his repertoire of fakes playing flag football and, later, tackle with teams sponsored by the Boys Club and Roberts Dairy. By the time he starred at Tech High in football, baseball and basketball, Rodgers had a sense of his own destiny. “I noticed I seemed to be special. I saw these older guys go on and do something nationally and I felt if they could, I could, too. It was almost supposed to happen.”

 

 

 

Rodgers wasn’t always comfortable with his own prodigious talents. He said early on his gift, as he calls it, was “definitely a burden because I didn’t know why I was so good and whether I was chosen or something. I didn’t know if I even wanted to have that type of a burden. I was almost upset because I had it. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I really wasn’t spiritually grown enough to really appreciate this gift, which it really was.” Then there was the fact his prowess caused grief off the field. “My gift was getting me in fights every single weekend…and for no other reason than I was popular, I had notoriety and people were jealous. Girls were telling their guys we were together or whatever. I had people coming down where I lived trying to beat me up. I remember having to crawl out the gall darn window.”

Things got so bad during junior high school he took extra precautions walking to and from the home of his grandmother, who’d taken him in after his brash runaway stunt. “I’d walk in the middle of 25th Street so that if anybody came after me I could get away,” he said. “And it would never be one on one. It would always be several guys and they could never catch me.” If nothing else, being chased helped him develop his broken field moves. One day, Rodgers wasn’t so sure he’d make it past the gauntlet facing him. He and his pal Leroy had just left a friend’s house when they were surrounded by a gang of boys.

As Rodgers describes it, “I had a dog chain and he had a knife and I said, ‘Leroy, you ready?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ So, I’m looking around to check out the situation and when I turn back around Leroy is turning the corner up the street. He ran off and left me. So, I started swinging my chain until I got me a little opening and I broke. In those days, when I broke I was going to be alright because I had it covered. Well, those guys started chasing me, except they sent one guy out while the rest of them stayed back jogging.” That’s when he got a sinking feeling. Not long before the incident he’d watched a Western on television about a lone settler chased by Indians, who sent a series of runners out after the man until they wore him down and caught him.

“I remember thinking, They saw the same movie. I couldn’t believe it. They had me scared to death because I saw what happened to that cowboy. Luckily, I escaped down the street and ducked into an alley and dove in a car. I laid down on the floor in back and they went on by,” he said, laughing and flashing his best Johnny “The Jet” smile.

 

sportsillustrated.cnn.com

 

 

Growing up in The Hood then didn’t pose quite the same dangers as it does now, but there is no doubt Rodgers narrowly skirted the worst of its ills thanks to the influence of some black men who nurtured and guided him.

“I see how easily I could have went totally in the other direction and what it really took came from my athletic background.”

There was George Barber, his gym coach at Lothrop, who got him started in athletics. There was Josh Gibson, his baseball coach at the Boys Club. The older brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Josh was a legendary baseball coach and “a hard disciplinarian.”

Rodgers, a good enough baseball prospect to be drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers, credits Gibson with teaching him to switch hit. His basketball coach at Horace Mann Junior High, Bob Rose, taught him to shoot layups with both hands. Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from Gibson and Rose, Rodgers said, was that “we weren’t there just to play the game, we were there to win. Of course, we lost some games but we learned you never quit. You went back and worked harder and got better.”

And at the YMCA there was Don Benning, still years away from coaching UNO to an NAIA wrestling title, a man whom Rodgers said “has been like a father to me.”

By the time Rodgers emerged as the star of NU’s 1970 and 1971 championship teams and as the 1972 Heisman front runner he was befriended by two more key men in his life — the late community activist Charles Washington and high living attorney Robert Fromkin. A friend to many athletes, Washington helped Rodgers out with expenses and other favors.

But, Rodgers said, what he really gleaned from Washington was “a responsibility to help others. I learned a lot from him about helping out the community.” According to Rodgers what he got from Fromkin, who represented him after one of his arrests, were free lessons in style.

“Bobby was responsible for me having maybe just a touch of class. He always had an elaborate place and a brand new El Dorado. He would invite me to the fights and to shows. We’d have the whole front row. Then we’d go out to the French Cafe and he’d pick up the whole tab. That was stuff I looked forward to at an early age. That showed me how to do it. How to live right. It added to my flamboyance. The thing he taught me is the only shame you have is to aim low. You’ve got to aim high. You’ve got to go for the gusto. It only takes a little bit more to go first class.”

When, on the advice of Fromkin, Rodgers surprised the football world by spurning the NFL for the CFL, he found a perfect fit for his garishness in cosmo Montreal and its abundant night life. “I loved Montreal. It was the city of love. There were some great times in Montreal. The French people and I got along great. We were flamboyant together.” The dash he exhibited off the field complemented his flash on the field, where Rodgers again dominated. After four banner years, it was time to meet his next challenge. “The only thing left to do was to go to the NFL and prove myself there.” He signed with the club that originally drafted him — the San Diego Chargers — and worked like he never had before.

“Because I had so much natural ability I never pushed myself as hard as I really could have. When I got to San Diego I was really determined to go to the next level. I wanted to see just how good I could be. I made sure I was in the best condition I could be in.”

He was coming off a monster preseason showing against Kansas City when his dream fell apart. A series of torn muscles and hamstrings severely curtailed his rookie NFL season. He came back ready the next year only to suffer an ugly, career-ending knee injury. “That was it,” said Rodgers, who after surgery spent much of the next year in a wheelchair and crutches. For him, the biggest disappointment was “never really getting a chance to showcase what I could do. It hurt me, but I’m not bitter about it. I mean, I could have gone crazy but instead I grew from it.”

A perpetual optimist and opportunist, Rodgers has bounced around some since his retirement. For several years he made San Diego his home, starting up a cable TV magazine there that had some success. He returned to Nebraska in the late ‘80s to help support his son Terry during an injury-shortened NU career. Over the years he’s announced several business-community projects that have not come to fruition and some that have. In addition to JetWear, which he hopes to expand, he owns a sports memorabilia business and a promotion arm organizing events like his Husker/Heisman Weekend and public speaking engagements.

Rather than slow down in his mid-50s, he’s poised to make a big move.

“I feel like I had a rejuvenation on life at 50 and so I feel I’m just getting started. I think the best is truly still ahead of me. I have only touched on a small part of the potential I have. Because of my history and my visibility I can create a better future for myself, for my family and for my community.”

Eying Omaha’s riverfront redevelopment, he looks forward to being part of a north Omaha rebirth to match his own. “I think north Omaha’s future is so bright you have to wear shades.” Burn, Jet, burn.

Omaha Black Sports Legends Featured in My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Omaha Black Sports Legends Featured in My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

I am now posting installments from a series I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Omaha Black Sports Legends entitled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness.

The 13-part, 45,000 word series profiles the remarkable gallery of athletes who came out of essentially the same inner city neighborhoods during a brief period in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s:

Bob Gibson
Bob Boozer
Gale Sayers
Roger Sayers
Ron Boone
Marlin Briscoe
Johnny Rodgers

In addition to these well-known names, there are many more figures, including Marion Hudson, whose stories and feats deserve more recognition, and my series, originally published in 2004-2005, is an attempt to put all these athletes’ accomplishments in proper perspective. Athletes of more recent vintage are also profiled. I will be adding a few stories that didn’t officially appear as part of the series but that fit thematically within it and help to provide more context.

Some series posts are currently featured on my home page. You can find the series in the categories Omaha Black Sports Legends or Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. There’s half-a-dozen stories posted right now, but many more soon to come.

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