Beyond the hideous offense, past the losses that are now piling up for the Nebraska basketball program, is an instructive moment that NU fans, coaches, players and administrators should notice. Stick with me, because there’s a point, and it’s not a small one.
Illinois looks to be ready to fire coach Bruce Weber.
The new athletic director, Mike Thomas, answered questions on a local radio show, most of them pointed at the Illini, who are 16-8 overall and 5-6 in the Big Ten. Some of his quotes:
“When you’re looking into the NCAA postseason play, it’s not a question of whether you’re in the tournament, now you’re sitting there saying, ‘Where are we going to be seeded?’”
“For us, we have to compete at the highest level with our men’s basketball program. There’s no doubt about it. We have to be in the higher ranks of the Big Ten Conference. Let’s face it, in the Big Ten, not just men’s basketball but for anything, if you’re in the upper crust, you’re a top team nationally.”
In nine years, Weber’s been to six NCAA Tournaments. He’s had just one losing record. He made the NCAA Championship game — albeit with Bill Self’s players – in 2005. Illinois has been pretty good. Beyond respectable. In possession of a decade that Nebraska fans would fall on bayonets to have.
“Even Bruce Weber’s biggest supporters now say it’s time for the Illini to fire their coach. That includes me in both camps, both one of his biggest supporters and one who thinks it’s long past time the Illini changed directions…He’s a good man, a great quote and a good Xs and Os coach. But he can’t recruit. Not worth a lick.”
And Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times:
“From time to time, Weber has lamented his Illini teams have lacked toughness. But he hasn’t recruited that toughness. While Illinois has been running in place, other Big Ten programs have upgraded. Indiana and Michigan are revived, and Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin already are rock-solid. And Purdue is in good shape, too.
“Where does that leave the Illini? With a coach who hasn’t produced the hard-nosed teams he craves and who hasn’t recruited well enough to overcome other competitive flaws.”
Maybe you notice the parallels of those criticisms to the ones you might levy at Nebraska coach Doc Sadler. Good guy. Good coach. Great coach. Recruiting? Meh.
But I’m not arguing that, because Illinois may fire Weber, that NU should indisputably dump Sadler. Don’t make this that. We have writers covering that. Nor am I suggesting that Weber would ever be a good candidate for the Huskers. I’m illustrating something.
These are the stakes in Big Ten basketball.
If the Illini, a mid-level power in the league, is ready to flush Weber’s record down the toilet, how much more of a vision does Nebraska have to have to consistently reach the NCAA Tournament?
Minnesota might make the NCAA Tournament without its best player. Iowa’s “Butler coach,” Todd Lickliter – more accomplished than Barry Collier ever was in Hinkle Fieldhouse – got half of Collier’s six-year stint in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes didn’t sit around on it. They’ll sit around on Fran McCaffery for at least two more years because Roy Marble’s kid is there, four of the five best players are underclassmen and he can recruit a little bit. Penn State coach Patrick Chambers just landed a top 100 recruit. These are lower-tier Big Ten teams. The dock workers.
This is what Nebraska’s battling just to get out of the basement. What will be the Huskers’ total response? Not just the coaches. Not just the facilities. The whole culture. What will it look like? Is there a total response?
I hear a lot about a new arena. I’ve seen the practice facility and its giant stone basketball floating on water in the foyer. I’m supposed to regard it as the Liberty Bell, I guess. This is Nebraska’s sun chair, where it signs a declaration of independence from ponderous mediocrity.
Without clear vision – not some blurry “well, we built it” mindset – the Hendricks Center risks being a gilded lily. The new arena, too.
Does NU expect kids to just emerge in Lincoln at the scent of these buildings? Is that the idea?
That’s not real commitment. That’s all guns, no butter. Not a lick of nation-building. That’s the guy who buys his girl a $10,000 engagement ring and says, “There. See? I love ya.” That makes for a two-month marriage. Then some snow falls on the Pinnacle Bank Arena, temps dip below 20 degrees, nobody wants to drive on the streets the City of Lincoln plow like it’s 1879, and whaddya know? We’re back to a half-filled joint with warmer, more expensive cups of pop in our hands. We’re headed to Houlihan’s or Sizzler or the Twee-Themed Haymarket Restaurant for the second half.
A new arena isn’t worth the bounce you think it is. Creighton hasn’t won a single NCAA Tournament game because of the Qwest/C-Link. Since the place opened, CU’s been to more NIT/CIT/CBI shindigs than Big Dances. Attendance is through the roof, the games are an event, the sports bars down in NoDo sure love it. It’s good for the city. It’s had no bearing on the program’s success, unless you presume Creighton was heading into a slow nosedive when it left the Civic Auditorium. That’d be a tough sell, of course, considering 2002-2003 – the last season in the Civic – was Dana Altman’s best team.
No. CU is what it was in 2003. Maybe it could have been something else. But three of the team’s four best players right now are the coach’s kid – who was otherwise headed to Northern Iowa – and two transfers from Rutgers and Gonzaga. The other, Antoine Young, is from Omaha. I don’t know if the Qwest/C-Link played into his decision-making process.
What’d Quin Snyder do in newly-opened Mizzou Arena? Lose nine home games in two years and get fired. Texas Tech’s United Spirit Arena may have helped lure Bob Knight there in 2001, but it didn’t transform the Red Raiders’ basketball program. Will Matthew Knight Arena boost Oregon to a Final Four? Not with that basketball court – and probably not anyway. Maryland opened the Comcast Center in 2002 – the year after the Terrapins won the national title – and haven’t done better than a Sweet Sixteen since. Penn State opened the Bryce Jordan Center in 1995 – and have been to exactly three NCAA Tournaments in 15 years.
A structure isn’t a culture, folks. These kids – the good basketball players – have been in about 235 arenas in their life. They’ve seen every kind of gym. They’ve played outdoors, in parks, streets, driveways, basements, sidewalks, elementary schools, you name it. They’ve played in places with ceiling rot and moldy cinder-block walls, frankly. Basketball is not football – and even there, the facility bounce is overrated.
Commitment isn’t really measured in stuff you build or things you buy. You’ll be told that, sometimes, by the people who build the stuff and buy the things, but that’s often for their own self-assurance. Nah. Commitment is culture. It’s vision. Vibe. Passion. Time spent.
It’s building a grassroots basketball program in this state that works. It’s investing hours, days, weeks – whatever it takes – in Omaha, figuring out why the well annually springs at one school – Central – and virtually nowhere else. It’s understanding that a rivalry with Creighton is the one good thing you’ve got going, and dousing it with visions of Duke is a dodge and a mirage. It’s pushing for a shot clock in Nebraska high school basketball so kids learn to play with a little tempo and conditioning. It’s building to last, not chisel out one NCAA Tournament bid that writers and fans wax poetic over for a decade.
Notice this debate isn’t about Sadler. We have enough people working the Doc angle. It’s really about everybody else but him, in fact. Many of the key stakeholders in the success of this program – fans, ex-players, money folks, local high school coaches – have nothing to do with NU’s current 11-13 record. They just kind of regard it. Someone needs to engage them at a big ol’ table and hammer out a vision. And perhaps consult Darin Erstad for a little advice.
Erstad may not succeed at Nebraska. But it won’t be for lack of leadership and vision. Since his hiring – and the firing of Mike Anderson, who manufactured more “good reasons” for Nebraska’s mediocrity than his offense did runs – Erstad’s struck every right note. He declared a recruiting strategy that says nobody gets south of Lincoln. He hired an ex-Dave Van Horn tough guy (Will Bolt) to run his offense. He hired a terrific pitching coach (Ted Silva) out of California. Both have great recruiting ties. He scoured the state this summer for prospects. He ran the heck out of guys in the fall to get them faster. He beefed up the non-conference schedule with plans of making it downright brutal in 2013. He aimed to drag the Big Ten into the 21st Century instead of being more pragmatic about the limitations of the league.
He’s set a tone, made a plan, and created a goal. But the goal is just part of the vision. The worldview. In a league where mediocrity alone might win a conference title.
In February, Erstad began running a commercial for the program. You’ve probably seen it at the Bob Devaney Sports Center. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s pointed, and it works. At the end, it’s clear that Erstad’s talking about a revival. The last words he speaks serve as the tagline:
“We will fight for every pitch, every hit, every base. This is our team. This is your team. Welcome back to the ballpark.”
That’s vision. A clear one.