Lindsey Moore didn’t hear them. When the Nebraska women’s basketball guard turned into the most vicious screen of her life in the Big Ten championship loss to Purdue — it resembled a car crash and left Moore’s head bouncing off the floor — her teammates were screaming at her to watch out. That’s what teammates do. But the acoustics of Banker’s Life Fieldhouse were funny, she said. Echoes bounced around the place.
“You couldn’t hear a thing in there,” she said.
All the better for Doc Sadler, to not hear those courtside murmurs sure to percolate about his job. He’s quite probably down to his final hours as the Nebraska men’s coach after a whimper of a season, a campaign so underwhelming and pitiable that nobody culls up much rage for it. After that technical foul he got in the Creighton game for showing a little panache, Sadler’s media profile has turned subterranean. He’ll hang his hat on a rash of injuries and leave it there.
Danny Nee didn’t go so quietly into the night. Not at all.
Nee jabbed his critics. He tossed out some gallows humor. His last win — in his last home game — also made him the winningest coach in NU history. Just 12 years ago, Nee made considerably less money than Sadler did or will. But he went down like the local celebrity he was, fighting to the last.
Combing through my own memories — I was sports editor at The Daily Nebraskan in spring of 2000 — the memories of the DN’s beat writer — Matthew Hansen, the excellent, award-winning military reporter at The World-Herald and ardent basketball follower — and some of our own archives featuring Lee Barfknecht and Tom Shatel, I thought I’d walk down memory lane. Because Sadler’s Green Mile — if indeed there is one — won’t be nearly as interesting.
* * *
The story really starts with the end of the 1998-1999 season. Nebraska missed the NCAA Tournament by a game or two, and I’d say deservedly so, considering the Huskers had losses of 15 (Villanova), 37 (Wisconsin), 26 (Colorado State), and 23 points (Missouri) before Jan. 3. Nebraska flipped an unexpected switch, swept the regular-season series with Kansas, Venson Hamilton won Player of the Year in a weak Big 12, and Nee pushed the story that Nebraska had been jobbed. Especially since Oklahoma had made the Big Dance as a bizarre No. 13 seed, then unexpectedly went on a Sweet 16 run.
Spurred on by that near-miss, Nee played carnival barker in the spring of 1999, proclaiming a six-player recruiting class as his best ever. Kimani Ffriend. Steffon Bradford. Danny Walker. Kenny Booker. Brian Conklin. And George Mayzck. Hoop Scoop rated it best in the Big 12, and 18th nationally.
The 6-foot-11 Ffriend was particularly fascinating, more gifted — and this is true — than a recruit Barry Collier and Doc Sadler ever landed. He also left his junior college team because he fought with the coach and was living in a Panama City, Fla., Econo Lodge when he committed to NU.
Over that summer, he and Bradford got in fights. Nee admitted to it. This was a day and age when coaches admitted kids fought.
“I’d rather have a talented team with problems than an untalented team with a bunch of nice guys,” Nee told Lee Barfknecht. “Some of these guys are high-maintenance. But with talent, at least you have a chance to win.”
On Oct. 14, 1999, Nee was buoyant in a preseason press conference. As Hansen wrote in a DN column published after that season:
“He looks downright joyful. You half expect him to break out in a jig, big feet and bony elbows flying, at any second.
He has reason to be radiant, he tells the reporters assembled. The recruiting class he signed in the offseason — junior college transfers Kimani Ffriend, Steffon Bradford and Danny Walker and high schoolers Kenny Booker and Brian Conklin, slated to redshirt — is his best ever.
Ffriend is potential largely untapped, Nee says. He compares Steffon Bradford to Charles Barkley. He claims Danny Walker will be a star at the point guard spot. He even gives Booker a plug as an athletic talent.”
Then the season begins and NU needs overtime to survive Eastern Illinois.
The linchpin to that season was senior Cookie Belcher. But he’d hurt his right wrist. He had floating cartilage in his left wrist. He couldn’t really shoot. He gave it a go for a few weeks anyway, trying to will NU to a mid-December win at Creighton, in the midst of five straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
“The Civic Auditorium is rocking; the two teams are battling it out in a well played half. Although unable to shoot because of his injured right wrist, Belcher is all over the place.
Nee is electric, too. The jacket is off, the tie is loosened. He scowls, cajoles, pleads, spews forth venom at officials. And on this night, for one half, Nee coaches brilliantly, fooling the Bluejays with a variety of full-court presses, zones and zone traps. He gets his rag-tag bunch of players functioning as a single unit. For 20 minutes, he is truly masterful.
In the second half Nee’s team falls apart. Creighton coasts to a double-digit win. The coach, and his players, deflate. Just another lopsided road loss in a season full of them, albeit with a little taste of what used to be.”
Belcher took a medical redshirt after that. The season fell apart and yet, in nearly every game, Nebraska showed flashes. Ffriend fancied himself another Kevin Garnett, taking fadeaway baseline jumpers, but he could have dunked his way to 16 points per game. As it was, he averaged 12.2 points, nine rebounds and nearly three blocks. Quiet Larry Florence led the team at 13 points per game. Walker and Cary Cochran bombed away from downtown as 3-point shooters. Matt Davison joined the team for a semester, and wasn’t half-bad. This was, again, a more talented team than Sadler ever put on the floor.
It just wasn’t winning a lick.
In January the DN, which poked fun at Nee since forever, ran a cartoon by Neal Obermeyer. It was a play off of that Paul Sanderford billboard that compared the shape of the Nebraska women’s coach’s head to that of a basketball. Neal compared Danny’s face, to, well, a horse’s behind.
Hansen had to interview Nee the day after.
“When I approach Nee that day, and quietly, very quietly, ask to talk to him about NU’s coming game, Mount Danny erupts. The ensuing tirade is entirely unprintable. Let’s just say he wasn’t a big fan.”
I got the tirade earlier in my college writing career, when Nee falsely believed I’d called him a slickster. He pulled me into his office –- bigger and nicer than Tom Osborne’s was, as I recall –- and asked me: “So what is this (expletive) slickster (expletive)? Huh? You think I’m a slickster, Rag?” Nee occasionally called me “Rag” or “The Rag” as in, “Whaddya want, Rag?” Then he insulted my Georgia Tech hat. I digress.
So the relationship with Nee got testier with the media. Tom Shatel wrote on Jan. 12, 2000:
“He’s stayed too long, delivering the same lines but not an NCAA win and only one season close to a conference title. For Nebraska fans, Nee’s program has become a tired lounge act. They’ve heard all the songs, all the jokes. They know how it ends every year.
It’s not just that, after 14 years, folks don’t even expect Nebraska to compete for a league title or win an NCAA game. It’s not just his colorful language, or the Rutgers affair or that many fans see Nee as the class(less) clown of Nebraska athletics.
It’s deeper. It’s become personal.”
Nebraska lost its first four games of February. In the meantime, Nee began crafting a letter for boosters. It’d be his argument for staying. He handed out copies at a Feb. 15 booster luncheon at Anthony’s Steakhouse. Lee was there. So were 1,200 boosters, if you can imagine it.
Nee’s opening words: “I’m not quitting. I’m not even thinking about giving up. So all you sons of bitches who want me out of here, I’m not leaving.”
Barfknecht called Byrne, who audibly gasped after hearing Nee’s comments. I can imagine that gasp. Byrne had the capacity to gasp and huff.
Nee explained that his mistakes wasn’t bad coaching, but bad recruiting.
“Nee distributed to the Omaha boosters a letter that recently was sent to men’s basketball season-ticket holders on university letterhead.
The letter notes that Nebraska has averaged 20 wins each of the past nine seasons and has qualified for postseason play each of those years, adding that “in today’s college basketball world, those are impressive numbers.”
The letter goes on to compare Nebraska’s basketball record with those of the nine other schools that won national football championships from 1991-99, along with Notre Dame, Texas and Texas A&M.
The figures show that NU ranks in the upper half among the 13 schools studied in overall record, postseason tournament appearances and NCAA graduation rates. Also, the Huskers were the only team with winning records each year for the time period studied.
One figure not totaled in the letter is that the other 12 schools won a combined 44 NCAA tournament games in that stretch, while Nebraska was 0-5. Also, each of the other schools underwent a basketball coaching change in that time.
“I know the big flaw in there is that we haven’t won an NCAA game,” Nee said about the letter’s research. “The thing we have done is we’ve had consistency winning, and we’re winning at a very high rate.”
Nee’s career record at Nebraska is 253-185 (.577) overall, and 87-112 (.437) in conference play with four winning records in 14 league seasons.
After Tuesday’s luncheon, more than half of the letters remained on chairs or were left next to the plates of leftover chicken-fried steak and gravy.”
The reaction beyond Byrne was not particularly good.
”It’s over because while Nee is great copy for us writers, he’s become an athletic director’s nightmare. What he did on Tuesday was embarrassing to Nebraska and Bill Byrne. So, too, to a certain extent, was his letter to boosters saying that, as football schools go, Nebraska basketball isn’t the worst. I didn’t know the NCAA had a ‘Football School’ Division.”
A letter to the Voice from the Grandstand read:
“I’m proud to be an “S.O.B.” at this juncture in the life of Danny Nee. I only hope that there are enough of us to cause the departure of Dear Danny from his present position.”
The last four weeks were ugly enough. Nee made his case consistently in public.
“If they’re going to fire me, they’re going to pay me,” he told Barfknecht. “And you can take that to church.”
He won his final home game over Colorado, eclipsing Joe Cipriano’s record for most wins at Nebraska. Asked to comment on his tenure at NU, Nee launched into a final defense of his time.
He ended with this line: “I pity the next son-of-a-bitch in here.”
Nebraska went to the Big 12 Tournament, blew a big lead against an awful Baylor team, and ended the season 11-19. I’ll leave you with this fine work again from Barfknecht, who describes Nee’s final game:
Danny Nee’s 14-year career as Nebraska men’s basketball coach is only an official announcement away from ending.
In his postgame radio show Thursday after the Huskers lost to Baylor 63-55 in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, Nee cut off a question from color analyst Nick Joos about next season with three words:
“Nick, it’s over.”
The radio interview took place 10 minutes after Nee and Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Byrne declined to comment on Nee’s future in interviews with print and television reporters.
Byrne, who moments after the game paced the hallways of Kemper Arena with a reddened face and a deep frown, listened to Nee’s formal postgame interview and then waited behind a draped walkway.
Nee and Byrne spoke behind those curtains for about two minutes, making few gestures.
Nee emerged and told a Sports Illustrated writer, “I know what’s going to happen.” He earlier had told a Kansas City Star writer: “It’s inevitable.”
In his formal postgame interview, Nee said:
“I have no comment now. I’m going to meet with Bill. We’ve had good dialogue. A decision will be made. We’ll go from there.”
We’ll see how Sadler’s team fares against Purdue tonight. A decision will be made. And we’ll go from there. It won’t look like Nee’s departure.