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Published Thursday, March 8, 2012 AT 12:22 PM / Updated at 4:25 PM
The Last Days of Danny Nee
Sam McKewon Omaha World-Herald

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.

Hansen again:

“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.

Barfknecht writes:

“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.

Shatel wrote:

 ”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.

About Sam McKewon

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him at sam.mckewon@owh.com. And follow him on Twitter at @swmckewonOWH. And call him at 402.219.3790.

Comments

  1. macjones says:

    “I pity the next son-of-a-bitch in here.” The City Slicker from Da East AKA Danny Boy Nee

    Y’all Lil’ Herbie Good Ol’ Boy Roy’s absolutely DON’T UNDERSTAND the occultic, machinations of KARMA. Eh

    And one Daniel Nee UNDERSTOOD, oh so very well what was going to happen to Lil’ Herbie MCB. Especially after y’all small town/suburban Good Ol’ Boy Roy’s RAN HIM OUT of your bland, boring, stoic, rigid, rustic, Hayseed enclave. lol

    Again, y’all Good Ol’ Boy Roy’s are bloody well REAPING WHAT YOU collectively SOWED! And I say too bloody bad!!

    1. kevin says:

      Yeah Mac he sounds like a great guy..

    2. UNL Grad says:

      Gibberish savant?

  2. Greg says:

    Excellent work Sam. Really fantastic writing.

    1. Greg says:

      Who is the woman Danny Nee is staring at in the picture?

      1. UNL Grad says:

        Uhhhhh. That’s Tyronn Lue.

  3. Nick says:

    Good read. Im a lil young to remember Coach Nee. Sounds like a colorful fella.

  4. Andy says:

    Great story, Sam. I’ve read a couple times about an apparently embarassing “Rutgers affair” but I can’t remember what that refers to. Can anyone help jog my memory?

    1. Andy says:

      Thanks for the response…for some reason I remembered all the other stuff but had forgotten the Rutgers ordeal.

  5. Elliot says:

    Wow! Great writing…I was a college student in Lincoln when that went down. At least it was exciting!

  6. TD says:

    Andy, in the late 90s, Nee was a leading candidate for the Rutgers HC job, and was very public about his interest in the job. He ultimately didn’t get an offer.

  7. Kevin says:

    I remember the Nee era from start to finish. When he came to Nebraska in 1986, he was a bridge builder. By 1991, he had constructed the Nebraska Basketball Golden Gate. By 2000, he had blown it up.

  8. Redrage says:

    Danny Nee brought in some good talent, Its to bad Doc wasnt coaching them. Nee might have been a good game day coach, not really sure or not, but he lost games because of the days in between the games. If it werent for Beau Reid, Clifford Scales, Rich King and that group and the group of players with “the polish rifle” and their 6’7 center(Bruce), Danny had players that at times seemed more mature than he was. It’s the wild players he had that he couldn’t keep control of and I bet practices were as wild as they played at times on game days. Doc has never reached the level of talent Nee brought in. If Nee would have just pushed defense as much as Doc does and kept players under control better, he might have been a coaching legend in Nebraska.

    Doc is a good guy, I just wish it could have worked out.

    1. UNL Grad says:

      Too bad Doc wasn’t coaching them? Why?

      So they wouldn’t develop into better players? So he could hold the more talented players back? So he could prove that he could take a team capable of scoring 100, and score 40 with them? So we could hear the same, tired, ridiculous excuses as to why the team didn’t achieve X, Y, and Z? So he could start Tom Best and Jason Glock and play them 30 minutes?

      I see no benefit to inflicting Doc Sadler on the most successful era of basketball this school has seen in quite some time.

      1. Redrage says:

        what most successful era of basketball? Huskers have NO NCAA TOURNAMENT WINS! Until we win at least one tournament game, we havent had any success. Even Nee’s best team went down in first round. NIT championship, nice but not good enough. Maybe Doc could take Nee’s teams that were able to give up 100 points in a game and hold them down so we could have won. What’s the difference, both coaches have problems, Doc just hasn’t been as lucky as Nee.

        1. UNL Grad says:

          “Most successful” would imply “the era that achieved the most success”. I can tell, by your response, that engaging you is a futile effort.

  9. DS says:

    Entertaining read but there are numerous missing words.

  10. PizzaMan says:

    I always felt they made a mistake letting Nee go. I loved listening to his postgame show….he wasn’t afraid to say what was on his mind. Look at what we have done since his departure. At least we were winning games and could make the NCAA tournament.

  11. Matt in MN says:

    Ahhh yes–the good old days where even when Nebraska basketball wasn’t having a winning season, they were interesting. Good athletes, a foul-mouthed yet excitable coach. Now 12 years later, NU has been reduced to completely boring and uninteresting dreck. They have become like that movie that looks good to great in the previews at times, then you watch the movie and realize the only half-way decent scenes you see in the entire show are the ones that were shown in the preview. I remember both those articles from 2000 by Shatel and Lee B, the whole “S.O.B. luncheon” as it was called, and thinking at the time that all Nebraska had to do was bring in a coach that could take Nee’s talent and get them focused…and then they came soooo close to getting Bill Self…and instead ended up with Barry Collier (whom I wasn’t sold on from the get-go).

    That being said, I am sad for Doc–I do like him and wish he had been able to make it work. He is clearly another in a long line of coaches that can shine at times in the mid-major world, but can’t coach his way out of a paper bag at the major conference level. I hope he can find a place that fits and be successful. And meanwhile, I REALLY hope T.O. and company can find a coach that can get it done here…it’s been WAY too long now.

    1. Woodman79 says:

      Ironically enough, even though he’s faaaar to classy of a guy to say it, I suspect Doc has a similar pity for his successor … based upon the looks of what he’s left in the cupboard.

    2. macjones says:

      Don’t hold your breath, MN Lil’ Herbie. Because the next coach HAS NOTHING to work with next season. In other words, the Lil’ Herbie cupboard is bloody well EMPTY! Eh.

      Nonetheless, your current CHIEF will be in the small town Capital town in ’12-’13. Simply because OZZIE no speak ‘em with FORK TONGUE. The contract extension, for instance. LOL

      1. UNL Grad says:

        Seriously. WTF is this?

  12. Husker Holk says:

    Dr. Tom has spent the money on the facilities. Now let’s spend some cash on a coach and do this the old fashioned way – buy a winning program!

    1. Ahusker says:

      Finally, someone who hit the nail on the head. We spend all the money to have the nicest facilities, but we pucker up when it comes to paying for a proven and descent basketball coach and assistant coaches/and proven recruiters. We have to make a splash heading into the new Arena!

  13. macjones says:

    R.I.P. Lil’ Herbie MCB… especially after Purdue MOLESTED your team de jure, again. dUh

    And believe it or not Lil’ Herbie small town/suburban Good Ol’ Boys. NO above-average major college hoopdom Chief is going to come to your STOIC, RIGID, BLAND Hinterland enclave! That includes NATIVE SON Dana. Eh.

    That’s probably WHY Self said thanks. But no thanks. Because he didn’t wanna’ get involved with an INSIGNIFICANT mcb program.

    At least y’all Good Ol’ Boy Roys have Lil’Herbie pigskin action to keep your collective SELF-ESTEEM together. Albeit your pigskin team de jure AIN’T been significant in college football since 1997. LMAO

    1. BigFRed says:

      Your schtick has grown tiresome.

  14. Rickenaz says:

    I really think that Nee started hurting when coach Reed left. Reed was a fantastic big man coach and defensive mind. Had Reed stuck around a bit longer, I think we would have 1 or 2 NCAA tourney wins. Let’s be clear, when a young man comes here to play regardless of talent he has to come here to play as a teamate. I understand that in order to get some of the better guys to come here he had some “high maintainance guys”. I think that you have to determine what type of “high maintainance guy” he is. If a guys disruptive then no matter where he goes he will never pan out in college ball. You have to have a team in college, you can’t lone wolf it. Those lone wolf guys will harm, and not help a college team.

  15. Sooka says:

    Nebraska’a last good B-Ball Coach………….Look where the program is now……………

    1. A Fan says:

      Exactly right. Nebraska basketball hasn’t been anywhere near what Nee brought to the floor in the last 15 years.

    2. Jason says:

      Maybe. And I thought it was cool that he accepted introduction to the Nebraska Basketball HOF. But, the team had been on a slide for a couple seasons.

      What’s sad is that one of his criticisms was not being able to win a Tourney game (esp. when they went in as the 4 seed). Now, we’d be happy for just a sniff of the Big Dance.

  16. Jason says:

    Nee ran himself out of town. Give me a break.

  17. Eduardo says:

    Common theme is how nice Sadler is, what a good guy he is. Let’s all agree to those sentiments and move on. Where I work, being a nice guy doesn’t cut it unless you do your job and hit your goals. Sadler can whine all he wants to about injuries, sun spots, whatever excuse he wants to use, but he just didn’t (as Larry the Cable Guy would say) get ‘er done. And don’t feel sorry for him. Doc will pull down some serious bread for coaching a team to the cellar……..which I or any of you could have done for maybe one tenth of his salary.

    1. UNL Grad says:

      At least he didn’t use “high altitude” as an excuse when losing in Boulder. But, then again, that only affects people outside a building.

  18. James Daro, Jr. says:

    “He’s stayed too long, delivering the same lines but not an NCAA win and only one season close to a conference title.” Tom Shatel wrote in the World Herald, Jan. 12, 200. I guess I have often been confused to hear that Nebraska basketball has never won a conference title. Well, who coached the team when they won the ’94 Big 8 tournament championship? I remember the fun times of Neebrasketball and I would give anything to see those days return. 11 postseason tournaments in 14 seasons. 2 appearances in the conference championship game (’91 and ’94, winning in ’94) and a NIT championship in ’96. Husker fans, Nee’s days were your glory days! The two coaches who followed haven’t come close to matching his success!

    1. flatlandbuff says:

      so true

  19. John says:

    Sam,
    I am a bit biased because I know you from way back, but you are a very talented writer. I have been reading the World Herald
    since the day I learned to read and you have been a great addition to the paper and the sports section. I love when you go old school, please continue to do that.

  20. RedFan says:

    Lets start by saying Danny Nee said some things he should have kept to himself, however I have lived through the end of Cipriano, Iba, Nee, Collier and Doc and none of them recruited and won like Danny Nee and no one can prove me wrong. I believe like all Nebraska fans we want more, and that’s why this hire should take some time. I remember the 20 plus win season’s and the national sports talk shows talking us up because we we’re going to the Dance. It will happen again!

  21. Chippy Brown says:

    Danny Nee was the best bb coach ever at NU. . .period. He shouldn’t have been fired. How have the 12 years since he left as compared to his last 12 years?

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  23. WakeUpHuskerFans says:

    Hey, I’ll be the first to admit that at the time, I thought Nee should go.

    But in retrospect, it was a mistake to fire Danny Nee. No question now.

    He recruited more talent than all the other coaches combined. He recruited players we wouldn’t stand a chance.

    He was a good coach. He worked hard and wanted it.

    If he had stayed, it would have been a few years and he would have been the most senior coach in the Big 12 — and I think, he would have won in the NCAAs.