It’s Friday! That means Ten Big stories in 10 little bites. I owe you a good blog after skipping Wednesday to work on real stories for the real newspaper (occasionally, they make me do that). So on the plate is Bill Raftery’s favorite player of all-time, what makes Calvin Strong so tough to tackle, why Bo Pelini has a chance at the Big House, why an American soccer phenom moved to Barcelona, Tiger Woods, Dana Altman, Mike Napoli, Husker tales from Ukraine and much more.
But first, the stunning rise of two college football doormats…
From 2002-08, 65 teams competed in BCS conferences. During those seven years, USC ranked No. 1 in winning percentage, Texas No. 2, Ohio State No. 3. No surprise.
Washington and Duke inhabited the bottom of the barrel — No. 64 and 65. But guess which two schools were 62nd and 63rd?
Stanford and Baylor.
The Cardinal was 25-55. The Bears were 25-57. Neither had a winning season.
* It’s not like Baylor was any better before ’02. The first Husker road trip I ever made was 2001 to Waco, where I witnessed something brand-new. There were entire sections empty. (By the way, Nebraska had four 100-yard rushers that day).
What’s even more fascinating is the divergent paths Baylor and Stanford chose in revolutionizing their programs.
The Bears hired Art Briles, a relatively obscure coach with deep Texas roots and a brilliant offensive mind. He spread the field and torched Big 12 rivals at their own game. That’s right, he beat Oklahoma(!) and Texas (!!) with speed. Flabbergasting.
Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh, a high-profile coach with zero experience at the FBS level. What Harbaugh did have was a chip on his shoulder. A nasty side. He looked at Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly and decided the best way to beat ‘em was to beat ‘em up. And he built the most physical program in the country. At Stanford of all places. Flabbergasting.
What’s it mean? You can win big anywhere — ANYWHERE — with the right coach and the right vision. If I were Shawn Eichorst, I’d take a long, hard look at the Stanford blueprint. Eichorst surely has an appreciation for it; he worked for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, who ran basically the same system.
Both those programs recognized over the past 20 years that they probably couldn’t out-run college football’s big dogs. But they could recruit power. I like watching Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner. But the identity of this program needs to be toughness.
That’s exactly what Bo Pelini intended when he took over. He talked about it all the time. Physical, physical, physical.
But something went wrong the past few years. Nebraska’s defense consistently loses the battle at the line of scrimmage. And its offense, when the going gets tough, too often leans on its quarterback’s arm rather than its running backs’ legs. Doesn’t help when it also loses its best in-state lineman — Harrison Phillips — to the school that has seized the very identity Nebraska once perfected.
That’s Stanford, on its way to another top-5 finish. The Cardinal made it look easy Thursday night. But we know better, don’t we.
* * *
>> I give Nebraska a better chance of winning than most on Saturday, not necessarily because of the Huskers’ strength but because Michigan is a mess.
The Wolverines are beat up physically and mentally after last week’s blowout in East Lansing. And because they don’t run the ball well, I’m not sure they can exploit NU’s primary defensive weakness.
Moreover, who knows Michigan’s state of mind? Earlier this week, Jason Whitlock went after the culture his friend, Brady Hoke, has built in Ann Arbor. He focused on Taylor Lewan. Hoke didn’t like it one bit.
The Wolverines haven’t lost a game at the Big House in Hoke’s three years. But Akron and Indiana almost got ‘em. If Nebraska can grab a little early momentum, I could see Michigan falling apart.
>> I spent a little time this week talking to Bill Raftery. He, of course, is the lead analyst for “Fox Sports 1” and the Big East. He will be covering Creighton a lot.
Everybody around the league — and the country — is curious how the three Midwestern schools (Creighton, Butler and Xavier) fare, Raftery said. But the Jays won’t sneak up on anybody.
Raftery spent a day with Creighton in October.
“I couldn’t help being impressed how deep they are. … This is a really good basketball team.”
Guard play is solid, said Raftery. And the frontcourt exploits opponents in multiple ways.
“They have a kid by the name of McDermott I hear is pretty good.”
Creighton will be successful if they get good point guard play and the center by committee plays at Gregory Echenique’s level, Raftery said. The Jays were one of the best passing teams in the country last season. They need to be this season, too.
Here’s 10 quick topics for Raf.
The grind in major conferences versus mid-majors:
The bottom of the stronger leagues are much better. You can’t become “emotionally satisfied.”
“You can’t get fat because you beat the top team in the league and the next night you play the seventh-place team and you don’t bring it all, it makes it more difficult.”
The place Creighton fans will most enjoy visiting for the first time:
Madison Square Garden is No. 1 and there isn’t a close second. Raftery hopes Creighton fans follow the Jays to New York the same way they went to St. Louis for Arch Madness.
“It’s just a tad more expensive in New York than St. Louis.”
The national perception of Creighton:
It’s a lot more “national” than people in Omaha realize, Raftery said. He still remembers playing at LaSalle in the 60s when he went toe-to-toe with Paul Silas.
“I was telling Greg when I was out there, I think he still holds the Palestra (Arena) rebound record of 30. I held him to 30 and then I fouled out.”
Tim Miles’ renovation project at Nebraska:
Raftery, who got to know Miles in the NCAA tournament two years ago, said Miles will get it going. It’s tough in the Big Ten — “they’re in with the biggies” — but “I would not bet against this guy. Kids look like they really enjoy playing for him.”
Raftery’s favorite college player all-time. Not the best, just his favorite:
Patrick Ewing, he said. “Just the way he competed and played every possession like it was the end of his life.”
The best college shooter he’s ever seen:
J.J. Redick would be up there, Raftery said. Dale Ellis. “How ‘bout a father-son combination — Dell and Stephon Curry.”
The best team of the past 20 years:
Anthony Davis’ Kentucky team in 2012.
The game he would love to go back and watch on tape:
Raftery picked three. The ’66 national championship game between Texas Western and Kentucky. Bill Walton’s 21-for-22 performance in the ’73 Final Four. And Michael Jordan’s jumper to beat Georgetown in ’82.
The college venue he’d still love to see:
Raftery said he’s been to all the big ones. But he hasn’t seen a college game at Hinkle Fieldhouse — he will this season. Ten years ago, he covered a high school game there between Greg Oden and Tyler Hansbrough.
The college program that will make a big jump in 2014:
Raftery chose two — St. John’s and Iowa.
* * *
>> I profiled Calvin Strong for The World-Herald Thursday. The Omaha North junior broke single-season Class A records for rushing yards and touchdowns.
How does his ability translate to the next level? The knock on Strong is his top-end speed. You look at 170-pound backs in Florida and Texas and they’re running 4.3, North High assistant Damon Benning said.
Strong will get faster, but blazing isn’t his style.
He’s a pitter-patter runner, Benning said. A side-to-side guy. His feet are almost parallel. What he loses in speed, he gains in balance.
“He has the best balance of any high school back I’ve seen in the last 10 years.”
Strong is “great in small spaces.” He’s aggressive, physical and very, very decisive, which helps him run like a bigger back.
“He’s on top of you before you have a chance to react.” And usually pushes the pile forward.
Strong doesn’t go 80 yards very often. But he “chunks you to death,” Benning said, with 20- and 30-yard bursts. Is it good enough for the big-time schools? We’ll see.
At this point, Strong said, Georgia is probably recruiting him the hardest.
>> As much as I’d love to weigh in on Richie Incognito vs. Jonathan Martin, I think the topic has received enough media attention for one week.
On Thursday afternoon, I was in the cathouse at Henry Doorly Zoo when a New York Post reporter called me wanting to quote me on Incognito, a person I haven’t written about in 10 years.
I can’t link all the substantive opinions I’ve heard this week, but I did enjoy this pair of excellent pieces from the L.A. Times’ Sam Farmer, examining the bully culture in the NFL and its effect on Cam Cleeland.
>> The NFL, Tom Boswell writes, is becoming a “guilty pleasure.”
>> In college baseball, they’re changing the ball for the 2015 CWS. But it’s not just the college game experiencing a power outage. What happened to all the home runs in the major leagues? Jeff Passan examines how the home run drought affects the free agent and trade market.
>> The New York Times profiles a 13-year-old California kid whose family moved to Barcelona so he could train at one of the best soccer academies in the world.
>> A few weeks ago, I posted a column proposing the Washington Redskins become the Red Clouds. Now the Washington Post is promoting the idea.
>> Brandel Chamblee apologized to Tiger Woods, but SI’s Michael Rosenberg says the dispute is a sign of weakness for Woods. Tiger’s playing in Turkey this week. The other day, he hit a drive from Europe to Asia. Sounds impressive, right? Well, in his prime, he would’ve hit it from Europe to Australia.
>> Touching story of a Kearney Catholic assistant coach who inspires his players from a wheelchair.
>> If Johnson doesn’t tug on your heartstrings, try this video of a middle-school football team in Michigan.
>> Dana Altman’s program, coming off a Sweet-16 season, took a hit this week when two players, including his point guard, were hit with nine-game suspensions for selling their shoes. Oregon opens the season today in South Korea against Georgetown.
>> Your latest bogus NCAA ruling involves an Ivy Leaguer who lost an entire season of eligibility for playing three games in a church league.
The NCAA wisely changed its mind Thursday, reversing the decision and clearing Nathan Harries to return to the court. Question is, how many of these crazy rulings happen every year we never hear about?
>> Let’s finish up with a few more Hail Mary memories. In Monday’s Chatter, I posted fan experiences from Saturday’s stunner at Memorial Stadium.
I enjoyed reading them so much and the feedback was fantastic. Unfortunately, many people sent their submissions after blog publication and they were were just too good to ignore.
So enjoy stories from Ukraine, Germany, Arizona and Utah. And have a great weekend. Thanks for reading.
Paul Kenneth Thorson:
I was up at 1am in Kiev, Ukraine watching online, the catch and run by Ameer for 16 yards and I woke my wife as I yelled.
Suddenly there was nothing on my screen. It went black. In the excitement I didn’t notice I was running out of power on my laptop. I cried out and frantically plugged everything in and rebooted in time to hear Bo Pelini refer to a “Great win” in a sideline interview. I could only watch in relief and amazement the replays of the Hail Mary.
Sigh….a great moment in Husker history relegated to replays after watching the entire game 3,000 miles from Lincoln and missing the last 4 seconds!
I was watching online from Germany. It was after midnight when Westerkamp made The Catch, and screaming wasn’t exactly an option, so I channeled my energy into messages to family and friends. I think I blew through a month’s worth of exclamation points in about 5 minutes.
Sitting in Granny’s Closet sports bar in Flagstaff, Ariz., with some new friends who all had come to watch the game. We met as we were walking into the bar. We exploded with shock & joy screaming our heads off, high fiving, and singing the fight song. What an awesome moment.
I’m an 1980 alum and have been watching Nebraska football with my dad (who’s 88) my whole life — sometimes over the phone or with him holding the phone up to the radio back in the day when I moved away from Nebraska. I’m now a professor at the University of Georgia and my dad’s been having some serious health problems and moved to a nursing home a month ago.
I came back this weekend to spend time with him — knowing that the highlight of the weekend would be watching this game together, in person. I was well aware that it might be the last time we watch together so I was praying hard for a win.
Few moments in my life have been as perfect as that football game, with my wonderful father — the person who, along with my mom, gave me a lifelong love of Nebraska football.
I am a junior on the basketball team at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, but am from Omaha and have been a lifelong Husker fan, going to games with my father and sitting in sec. 36C row 55 seat 6 since I was an infant.
I continue to be a very vocal fan, and even with a busy schedule, watch every game, or at least set the DVR. Well, Saturday my team had an exhibition game against Adams State. Between our pregame shootaround and meetings I was only able to get home really quickly and watch the last 4 minutes of the game.
We were to be back in the arena by 5:30 mountain time. The last drive started around 5:15, cutting it close, but I wanted to stay and watch the final drive. I usually ride over to the arena with my roommates, but I told them to go ahead of me, I’ll meet them over there. They left right when Quincy dropped the pass right before the final play.
I stayed on my couch, and as I saw the ball had been caught I jumped up, remembering in midair that I was currently recovering from knee surgery and was still moving around quite slow. I limped out of my house through the neighborhood screaming. My neighbors must have thought I was crazy.
I called my dad who was in the North Stadium immediately after and all I could hear was screaming. What an unbelievable moment. And I was still able to make it to the gym on time.
I have been fortunate to attend nearly every home game with my father since 1978. On Saturday I was not feeling well and let my 7-year-old son attend the game with his grandfather. The last time I was sick and did not go to a game was the 2008 Colorado game where Alex Henery kicked a 57 yard field, followed by the Suh interception, to win the game. I had always kicked myself for not going to that game.
As I sat in our family room watching the game unfold I felt that same feeling again that if “we” win this game, I am going to regret not being there. Earlier, I noticed my 10 year-old daughter, Moira, had the game on in her room as she was playing and that our television broadcast was a few seconds behind hers. She has always fashioned herself as ambivalent during these games. Sure she wanted Nebraska to win, but was a little too cool to get caught up in the excitement.
Well as the ball hung up in the air for what seemed like minutes, I heard my daughter scream and yell, letting me know that something “miraculous” had just happened. She ran in and jumped on me and my wife just as we saw Jordan Westerkamp’s catch. The celebration for us began.
As I sat there and initially reflected on how I had just missed seeing another husker miracle in person, I smiled and was thankful. Not just for the catch. But I was thankful for the opportunity my son had to share with his grandfather in Memorial Stadium and for us to share that moment with our daughter.
I know now that my daughter is truly a Husker fan. And I can tell you that Tim Beck was not the only grown man to shed a tear at the end of that game. I would not have traded that moment with my daughter for any seat in Memorial.