Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Change in Direction

You may have noticed a decrease in my blogging in recent months, and frankly, I owe my infrequent readers a bit of an explanation. The short answer is that I simply don't have as much time to do this as I once did.

I always thought after the kids got past diapers and 3 am feedings that I'd have more time. And I did...for a while. Then elementary school hit, and suddenly there were hockey and dance lessons, scouts and homework.

I tried squeezing in blogging at lunch time and after the kids went to bed. But after a while, I realized that I simply couldn't keep up the pace. It didn't help that I started to get a "writers block". Finally, I realized I had to make some choices.

And I picked my family.

So I've weaned down my blogging both here and at CornNation. I just finally accepted that I can't blog multiple times a week, work full time and take care of my family.

I'm not going away; I'll still contributing here and at CornNation. But it'll be on MY terms. Many so called "social media gurus" think you have to post frequently and regularly. They have a point, but a bigger point is that you shouldn't post when you don't have something interesting to post. People don't unfollow you because you don't post; they only unfollow you when you post things that aren't interesting.

Quality counts far more than quantity. So I'm not going to blog anymore just to meet some quota set by somebody else. I'm going to blog about what I want to say, and on my schedule.

That, in turn, means I'm going to also blog more often about non-sports topics. I'm sure some of you will tell me to "stick to sports." That's your right.

But it's my blog. I'm going to write what I want to write about. Disagree if you wish; this is still America, the last I checked. Maybe we'll have a civil conversation in the comments. Maybe even understand other perspectives instead of resorting to name calling. (Is that even possible anymore?)

The sports talk isn't going away; it's just not going to be forced.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Who Will Replace Dean Blais at UNO?

Deep down, I knew it probably was coming.  I hoped it wouldn't, but I had that feeling that Dean Blais wasn't going to return behind the bench for UNO hockey.  My emotions ran the gamut:  disappointment that he wouldn't be back, anger at the fans that turned on a coach that two years ago put UNO on the biggest stage in college hockey, gratefulness that Blais took a chance on UNO and elevated the program.

And perhaps more importantly: concerned about who will take over.  I'm sure there are more candidates out there than this, but I'll throw three names out there who should be considered...and one who absolutely should not be considered in 2017.

Mike Guentzel
I had Guentzel on my short list in 2009, and I have no reason to not put him back again in 2017. Many people have him as the heir apparent to Minnesota's Don Lucia; eight years ago, it looked like Lucia might eventually wear out his welcome in the Twin Cities, but now it looks like Lucia will be a Gopher as long as he wants.  And since Guentzel is just four years younger than Lucia, there's not much reason for Guentzel to wait if he wants to be a head coach.  Guentzel is a former Lancer head coach, and was an assistant under Blais in 2010.  His son Jake was born in Omaha (when Mike was the head Lancer), and played at UNO from 2013 through last season.  You may remember Mike's reaction in November when Jake scored his first NHL goal on his very first shift for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Mike Hastings
Eight years ago, I thought that Hastings wasn't qualified to be the UNO head coach. I wasn't even sure he was ready to be the "heir apparent" at that point.  But I did say this at that time:
Hastings might look like the slam dunk candidate when that time comes, but for now, it's just unnecessary speculation. Especially after the absurd rumors from this past winter that Hastings would take over as UNO head coach. 
 Well, now Hastings has nine years of college experience, including four as the head coach of Minnesota State-Mankato. He's got the qualifications now.  Would he want to return to Omaha?  Who knows, but considering that Hastings was making $290,000 two seasons ago, he'd probably have to be offered more money than Dean Blais.  And that might be a tough sell given UNO's financial issues.

Cary Eades
This is an outlier name here for sure, but the connections are strong.  Eades spent 15 years as an assistant at North Dakota and has been a head coach in the USHL, winning championships with Dubuque, Sioux Falls and Fargo. He's been a winner wherever he's gone.

Now, the name who really shouldn't be considered: Mike Gabinet. Nostalgic fans remember Gabinet wearing the crimson and black from 2000 through 2004, and want the best for him.  But he's only been coaching since 2012, and up until this season, all have been in Canada. Yes, he's undefeated as a head coach, going 36-0 last season as the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology head coach.  But that's Canadian college hockey. He doesn't have the recruiting connections to college hockey.

Hockey is not like the other sports at UNO.  In the Summit League, UNO can take a chance on a young coach because the competition level just isn't there.  When South Dakota State captured the Summit League's autobid into the NCAA Tournament, the Jackrabbits were awarded a #16 seed and get to play Gonzaga in the first round.  That's where the Summit League is at; it's a low division 1 conference.

Hockey plays in the NCHC, which is arguably like the SEC was in college football. Remember when Skip Bayless tried to argue that four SEC West schools should make the college football playoff?  Well, the NCHC could actually do something close in college hockey.  The NCAA uses the PairWise rankings to select and seed the teams in the hockey tournament, and three of the top four seeds are NCHC schools:  #1 Denver, #2 Minnesota-Duluth and #4 Western Michigan.  And it's not just this season:  the NCHC has put two teams in the Frozen Four the previous two seasons as well.

You are going to throw a coach into this conference with almost no experience coaching at this level? That's simply absurd. It would be a great story if Gabinet was retained by the next UNO head coach, but if UNO has any intention of taking hockey seriously, he can't be a serious candidate.

Monday, March 13, 2017

UNO Hockey Needs Solutions, Not Scapegoats

Two years ago, UNO shocked the college hockey world by advancing to the NCAA Frozen Four. It seemed like the Mavs were on top of the world, and headed for greatness.

Well, that didn't happen.  After a hot start to the season that saw UNO ranked #1 in the nation in October, things cratered after New Years. The Mavs finished the season with eight straight losses, albeit against top ten opponents.

Sunday night, #7 Western Michigan beat UNO 2-1 in overtime to end the Mavs 2016-17 season. The UNO/Western Michigan playoff series was the only one that went three games.  Still, it was yet another season that found UNO hockey missing the conference semifinals.

Frustrating? Infuriating?  Exasperating?  Pick your emotion. But then acknowledge that it's just that: an emotional reaction.

There is real danger in reacting emotionally instead of rationally in these situations.  Should UNO hockey be better than this?  Yes.  But the real question is: how does that happen?

Eight years ago, UNO tried to get better in hockey. Hired a guy who won two national championships with North Dakota.  And UNO did get better.

But it's not good enough. Sure, UNO made the NCAA tournament in 2011 and the Frozen Four in 2015, but still hasn't made it to the conference semifinals in 2001.  That's not all on Dean Blais; the first eight go on Mike Kemp's record.  I get the frustration that Blais hasn't been able to get this program to Minneapolis.  I understand it; I share in it.

But here's my question: if Dean Blais and his resume couldn't fix UNO hockey, who can?

UNO athletics has some major problems right now, thanks to the ill-fated decision to build Baxter Arena. You know, the arena that was supposed to fix UNO's budget woes has instead magnified them. So now UNO can't offer cost of attendance scholarships and can't afford for the men's basketball team to participate in a postseason tournament.

Dean Blais ruffled feathers around Omaha by publicly raising questions about the long-term vision for the program as the season started.  Now the season is over; will Blais head off to his fishing hole in Minnesota?  And if that happens, who takes his place?

It'll be tough to find a better coach than Dean Blais, though maybe a fresh face might work. College Hockey News suggests that Mike Guentzel, a current Minnesota assistant, would be a good choice. I'd agree. But considering UNO's financial woes, Guentzel might not be interested in taking this job, especially if UNO isn't able to pay the going rate for a head coach. Don't laugh; it seems to be happening in other sports at UNO, where the trend is to promote young assistants at bargain salaries as of late. That's led to a suspicion by some that UNO will do the same thing in hockey with Mike Gabinet.

And if UNO tries to pull that stunt with their flagship sport, it might make more sense to just shut down the hockey program instead.  Seriously.  If Dean Blais couldn't fix this, how does an assistant who only has four previous years of experience in Canada fix it.  Giving the head coaching job to someone like that is basically admitting that UNO isn't even going to try anymore.

UNO needs to find solutions to their problems. Blaming Dean Blais isn't going to make things better.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Am I The Last UNO Fan Who Hasn't Given Up on Hockey?

Somehow, I get this feeling that I'm in the minority of UNO fans when I say that I'm still looking for something out of the Mavericks' hockey team this weekend. Many, it seems, have long turned the page to other sports.  The men's basketball team nearly grabbed an NCAA tournament berth in the Summit League championship game Tuesday night, losing 79-77.  It was a pretty good game to watch, but once Mike Daum buried a three point shot with a minute and a half left, the air left the Mavs' sails.

Basketball was a great story, and validates Trev Alberts' 2011 decision to move UNO up from division II to division I in all sports. They play a fast-paced exciting brand of basketball, and have pulled off their share of upsets.  (Helllloooooooooooooo Iowa!)  Now it's onto the NIT or some other postseason tournament.

That shouldn't take away from UNO's flagship sport:  hockey. UNO's horrific home record in the last year and a half since moving from the CenturyLink Center to "The Mistake" certainly is reason to doubt the future of the hockey program.  Only winning eight out of their last 28 home games raises serious questions about the building.

UNO won't be playing at Baxter Arena anymore this season.  And that's a good thing.  Weird thing is that for as bad as UNO hockey has been at home, they've been more than inversely good on the road.  That 6-10-2 home record flips to 10-5-3 when UNO leaves town.  Basically, UNO wins two out of every three games away from home.

Win two out of three? That's what UNO hockey needs to do this weekend against Western Michigan on the road.  One of those home wins was against Western Michigan a month ago, and in the other game, UNO had a lead with six minutes left before giving up two late goals to Griffen Molino.

Bottom line is that there's no reason not to think that UNO hockey can finally win a playoff series and get to the NCHC semifinals in Minneapolis. And if they get those wins, I suspect they'll move into bubble territory in the PairWise rankings with those wins over the fourth ranked Broncos.  They'll probably have to make it to the conference title game to make the NCAA tournament, but that's not out of line.  UNO has played better as of late against tough competition ever since Dean Blais started benching upperclassmen who were coasting along this season.  Except for a lousy first period two weeks ago against North Dakota, UNO has looked like a tournament hockey team.

And if they do that this week, they'll move on.  And who knows what happens after that.  Win and advance.

I haven't given up.  Neither should you.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Husker Fans Shouldn't Blame 2016's Collapse on Talent

The recruitniks were out in force in December and January, trying to pin the blame on Nebraska's 2-4 finish to the season on the overall incompetence of the previous staff. It's easy to do, because the results were painful and the people they point fingers at are long gone.  Bad coaches who did bad recruiting, leaving the program in such a sorry state, Mike Riley was a miracle worker getting this team to nine wins while having to rebuild the program from the ashes.

Unfortunately that's like an InfoWars sports report.  Totally #fakeNews.

Billy Devaney, who was hired by Mike Riley to help provide additional oversight and guidance on the football program said talent wasn't an issue, except against Ohio State.  Every other game, Nebraska should have been able to compete better.  Here's what Devaney told Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star last week:
"Wisconsin, obviously, was a pretty balanced team, but it was a good matchup. The Iowa game, that was bullsh--. There was no way in the world that should have happened.
"Even Tennessee, yeah, they were athletic. But I thought there were other places that we should've competed better, where we matched up well. Ohio State was the only game where I thought we were in trouble, where the talent gap was noticeable."
Recruitniks don't want to hear it, but the words and actions of North Stadium mean so much more than your own conclusions. Two coordinators with long-standing ties to Mike Riley:  fired.  A clear message has been sent by Mike Riley:  Now that I'm here in Lincoln, what was "good enough" at Oregon State simply isn't "good enough" at Nebraska.

Think I'm making this up?  Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald talked to Dan Van De Reit, Riley's assistant athletic director of football operations:
There’s been one major difference from OSU: the head coach. Riley’s dismissal of three coaches in two seasons, and his urgency in landing defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, is a side few saw at Oregon State.
For good reason, Van De Riet said.
“Coach Riley has always been one of the most competitive guys I know,” Van De Riet said. “With expectations come hard decisions. We were at a place for so long where a bowl game was fine.
“Those decisions are hard. I don’t know if at Oregon State if that was necessary. You win seven games, six, go to a bowl game, the fans are happy. The goal there was to get to a bowl game, because they hadn’t had one.
“I’ve been impressed with the way he’s not only been aware of the expectations but how he’s managed those expectations. He’s set the bar to what he feels it’s going to take to win.”
"I don't know if at Oregon State if that was necessary."  Read that quote again.  And again.

Maybe Mike Riley has been slow to truly accept it, but it's becoming clear that Riley recognizes that what he did at Oregon State (which wasn't really working anyway, if you ask people there) isn't going to work at Nebraska.

Want more evidence that Mike Riley isn't exactly sold on his staff? The assistants he kept got contract extensions, but several (Danny Langsdorf, Mike Cavanaugh, Reggie Davis and Keith Williams) didn't get raises.  Williams' situation was exacerbated by his August DUI; otherwise, he'd be deserving of a nice raise. The other three offensive assistants? If you really think that winning nine games last year was a masterful job of coaching (especially on offense), you'd think Riley would reward them with their new contracts.

Especially with the avalanche of cash that the Big Ten's new television deal will be bringing in.  Thanks to Nebraska's buy-in period to the Big Ten Network coming to completion, I believe the Huskers will see an increase of up to 150% in revenues, from about $22 million to over $50 million a season.  Nebraska seems to be planning to use the revenue bump judiciously.  Spending more money to bring in a highly regarded defensive coordinator like Mike Diaco? Reward Trent Bray and John Parella for their good work? Open the checkbook.

Spending more money on coaches who were underperforming at Oregon State?  The checkbook stays closed. Maybe Mike Riley isn't quite ready to press that eject button yet on underperforming coaches like offensive line assistant Mike Cavanaugh, but he's clearly not going all-in either.  Perhaps only to promote staff consistency; let's blow up the defense and do it right this time, but leave the offense alone for now.

Truth be told, I've been more concerned about the offense than the defense, but Riley may have no choice but to stay the course since there aren't any dual-threat quarterbacks (other than Zach Darlington) left in the program.  The whole notion that Nebraska football should jettison the migration towards single-threat pro-style quarterbacks with two freshmen and a mid-major transfer waiting anxiously in the wings certainly sounds blasphemous to those that anxiously awaited (and loudly herald) their arrival.  But I'm unconvinced that this is the right direction for Nebraska to aim offensively when you consider the evolution of modern college spread offenses combined with the lack of success Riley's offense found in recent years in Corvallis.  (Not to mention the lack of success of Tanner Lee at Tulane.)

Be careful what you wish for... you just might get it.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Staying Sane Online In the Age of Trump

In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy once quoted a Chinese curse saying
There is a Chinese curse which says “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times.
It's unknown whether this was actually an ancient Chinese saying or if it was just something misinterpreted or just plain made up (#fakeNews!), but it's hard to argue that we're not living in "interesting times" right now.  And there's no more proof of it than looking at Facebook and Twitter.  The cesspool of partisan bickering gets deeper and deeper, and it's driving wedges between friends and families.  Relationships are suffering, if not downright being destroyed. We're becoming a more divided country each and every day.

It doesn't really matter who started it, or who's at fault. Maybe it makes YOU feel better, but someone is going to disagree, and it doesn't solve the problem.  That train long left the station, and everybody has their hands dirty to some degree.  Blaming others isn't going to fix the problem.

What we can do is cut down on the partisan vitriol and instead try to better understand the perspective of the other side. Don't unfriend people who you disagree with; instead, block the purveyors of the discord.  You know what I'm talking about:  it's those commentary sites that push all of the negativity and spread #fakeNews.

Last week, while I was busy shutting off all of the recruiting coverage on my Facebook and Twitter pages, I also took a whack at all of the partisan sites that kept popping up at the same time. It's super-easy to do, and days later, I'm amazed at how much cleaner and happier my Twitter and Facebook experience is.  I didn't unfriend or unfollow any people; the blocks purely shut down posts by "True Patriots" or "Uncaring Conservatives" or whatever.  How did I do this?

On Facebook, in the upper left of each post is a little arrow.  Click that, and you'll get a menu that allows you to Hide the source of these posts.
Note I didn't block or unfriend "Chris", I blocked Milo, an editor with Breitbart. Free speech purists would say that I'm censoring him, but that's not exactly true. I'm using my free choice to not listen to him, but I'm not preventing anybody else from reading him. He has a right to say what he thinks; I'm simply exercising my right to reject him unfiltered based on what he stands for.

In Twitter, it's even easier. When you come across someone who's HOTTAKES raise your blood pressure, just mute them by clicking on the "gear" icon and selecting "Mute".  The best part is that if anybody you follow decides to retweet the person you muted, you don't see it either.
Does this open me up to only seeing one side of the debate? Absolutely...but it's no worse than someone who only watches Fox News or MSNBC on TV. And I'm purposely not blocking legitimate news sources that have a bent that I disagree with; just the commentators who simply troll the public for a reaction.

Does it work? I can speak after a week of this that it absolutely does.  My "social media" experience is so much more pleasant than it's been in quite some time.  I'm still seeing pictures of kids and dogs; I'm still seeing Tasty videos and cool vacation pictures. I'm still getting a lot of news as well.

I'm just not seeing nearly the amount of crap that I was seeing...and I didn't have to take a Facebook or Twitter vacation to do it.

Or unfriend good people that I disagree with politically.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Worst Week of the Year: Is It Perhaps the Last?

Wednesday is National Signing Day for college football - a day that represents the worst of college football. I used to go on vacation this week and avoid all of the hype and misinformation, but with kids in school, I can't really do that.  I've railed on it so much in the past, I don't feel I need to go into much depth. Yes, recruiting is important...but the coverage and especially the rankings end up misleading as much, if not more, than they inform or predict.

You'll see the typical boasts from the recruitniks about how "Stars Matter" ... and they do.  Except when they don't.  Witness this exchange I had with a Rivals writer during Alabama's Peach Bowl on Twitter.

Alabama and Texas have racked up plenty of Top Ten recruiting classes over the last ten years. But the results couldn't have been any more different.  Nick Saban has a broom closet full of awards, while Texas is now on their third head coach.  And that's the real point:  coaching matters.  And if you consider talent evaluation as part of coaching, then it is THE most important factor in college football success. That's why Alabama gets more out of their four and five star recruits than Texas does.

The good news is that this might be the last year we have this awful February day of recruiting hedonism. The NCAA seems poised to allow an early signing day, which will offload much of the hype into December.  And since we'll have real football to discuss with coaching changes, bowl berths and playoff scenarios simultaneously, the excessive hype will be much more muted.

So this week, my Twitter mute function will be getting a workout. In recent years, I've ended up having to unfollow over three dozen writers.  Some of them never got a refollow in the weeks afterward.  I know I'm in the minority; I know from our stats at CornNation that recruiting coverage sells.  (I've even had to help pitch in when Brian wasn't available. Brian does a really thorough job with the coverage, which is good because it also means I don't have to wade into it.)

Hopefully there's a good hockey game on Wednesday night so I can avoid most of the rehashing.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mike Riley Gets a Redo on His Coaching Staff

I suspect that I'm in the minority of Husker fans that wasn't terribly surprised that Mike Riley made more changes on the Nebraska football coaching staff. That being said, I also know that I'm in the minority of Husker fans who don't think Mike Riley is going to work out long-term. So perhaps I've been operating under the assumption that changes were going to come one way or another, and likely over the next year.

Brian Stewart always seemed like a "short-timer" in Lincoln to me; his arrival in Lincoln was a marriage of convenience.  Stewart was looking at head coaching jobs before a mutual parting of the ways with Maryland in February 2015, while Riley needed to find a secondary coach quickly after Charlton Warren bolted for North Carolina after signing day.  He went looking last offseason as well, but in the end, ended up back at Nebraska for one final season. I suspect that being the defensive coordinator for Rice wasn't the job he was hoping to get, but it's the one he got.

Mark Banker has been tied to the hip with Riley throughout Riley's head coaching career, which is why many fans were surprised he was let go. I wasn't all that surprised, as I detected some friction between them last spring.  First, Banker seemed to publicly disagree with Riley's decision to fire Hank Hughes, and then Banker wasn't included in the interviews for his replacement. That seems odd to not have the defensive coordinator in on the interviews for a defensive line coach.

Then, there was the departure of Greg McMullen at last year's spring game.  Mike Riley seemed to know two days before the game, and McMullen told the rest of the team before the game.

Banker asked reporters what McMullen's decision was after the spring game. Clearly, Banker was out of touch with Riley and his team in that case.  Putting all that together, I had come to the conclusion that Banker and Riley's relationship wasn't nearly as strong as we thought.  That thought came to mind  again when Banker seemed to be awed by Iowa's punishing practice habits after the Huskers got demolished by the Hawkeyes.  Again, were Banker and Riley still on the same page?

In fairness to Banker, he was the fastest coordinator to recognize that the Oregon State philosophies (that weren't really working there anymore) weren't working at all at Nebraska in 2015; he junked much of the quarters coverage he wanted to implement and adapted some of the philosophies that the players ran before. And the defense got better.  A lot better.  But the problem is that if Nebraska is going to contend for championships, the defense has to get even better than this.  It can't be allowing Iowa to hang 40 on the Huskers.

Many Husker fans have taken to saying that Nebraska has a "talent gap" but Riley's actions indicate clearly to me that he believes part of the problem is with his coaches. Certainly more talent would be good, but when the X's and the O's are bad, it doesn't matter about the Jimmies and the Joes.  After all, if it were all about talent, Iowa couldn't possibly boat race Nebraska...and Texas would be a perennial top five/ten program.

So Banker is out. And with a young rest of staff (Trent Bray with 7 years experience, Donte Williams with 4 and John Parella with three), I think Nebraska's next defensive coordinator will have major experience. In fact, I suspect that Riley went out shopping for an upgrade because he wanted to upgrade, not because he had to.  If he had to fire Banker, he would have done that in the days immediately after the Music City Bowl.  And with the recruiting dead period over, Riley can't afford to be caught short-staffed - or let other schools raise doubts about what Nebraska is going to do defensively moving forward.

I think we'll know by Sunday who Banker's replacement is.  I suspect he has experience as a coordinator at either a Power-5 college conference school or NFL program.  Nebraska needs an upgrade, and that upgrade will come at a cost.  I suspect the next coach will have a resume that will afford him a seven figure salary.  Don't worry about the money; with Nebraska now fully vested in BTN and the new Big Ten television deal, NU will have another $25 million in revenue available next season.  The money is there.  The question is whether the coach will have the resume to take Nebraska to a conference championship.

And that's the key here.  Nebraska hasn't won a conference title since 1999, and hasn't played for a title since 2012.  There is urgency to get this done, and Nebraska needs to do whatever it needs to do to get back to that level. Yes, recruiting is important, but it's even more important to upgrade it's coaching talent. In fact, I don't think Banker is the last assistant who'll be going.  Mike Cavanaugh, the "technician" who was one of three "Glad he's gone" Oregon State assistants, would appear to be ready to join Bruce Read and Banker on the "Leaving Lincoln" bus.  Maybe not this spring, but certainly after the season if the offensive line doesn't improve tremendously in 2017.  Running backs coach Reggie Davis also could see some scrutiny as well.

I know many people love Mike Riley's personality, and they want him to succeed. I've had my doubts, but his willingness to undo his mistakes (Bruce Read and now Mark Banker) shows me that he wants to succeed here too. If he's willing to set aside personal relationships that have been holding his teams at Nebraska and Oregon State back, perhaps he's ready to reconsider even more of what he had been doing.

And that's a good thing for Nebraska football.  Change is in the air, and it's not the change that many "Bo-leavers" had been planning for.  Riley clearly is taking action to fix the mistakes he made, and that's a good thing.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

2017 Gives UNO Hockey a Chance to Hit Reset

The best thing that could be said about 2016 for UNO hockey is that it's over.  A year ago at this time, UNO hockey was sitting pretty: 14-3-1 and looking at a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.  But the wheels fell off as the Mavs went 4-14 down the stretch. Not only did they not make the NCAA tournament, they didn't even make it to Minneapolis for the NCHC seminfinals.

Only two of those victories came at home, which is a pattern that carried through the start of this season. Prior to New Years' weekend, the Mavs had gone 4-13-1 at home in the calendar year of 2016.

Only four wins at home in nearly a year.  All the momentum from the Frozen Four run and the opening of the new arena?  Gone. Toast.

Interesting thing to note is that why UNO continued to struggle at home this season (2-5-1 prior to Christmas), the Mavs have been pretty good on the road, going 7-1-2 outside of Omaha. That's good enough to put UNO back into the NCAA tournament speculation; they're 14th nationally in the PairWise, which seeds the teams for the 16 team NCAA tournament. That's squarely on the bubble.

But now the season kicks in, and kicks in full force with the green hordes from North Dakota coming in. They'll be doing their customary large scale infiltration of Omaha, and even have their tailgate plans set up around UNO's new arena.
(Not sure how they're going to bring a Walmart down from Grand Forks...)

It's a rough schedule once again in the second half of the season, with ten of 16 remaining games against top ten opponents.  (North Dakota, Denver, and Minnesota-Duluth)  But it's hard to imagine UNO doing any worse than last year down the stretch, and if UNO finally broke the Baxter Jinx with a sweep to close out the season on New Years' Eve, then anything is possible.  The Fighting Sioux could be down two of their best players:  sophomore Brock Boeser is recovering from wrist surgery while freshman Tyson Jost is playing tonight for Team Canada in the gold medal game in the World Juniors.  Jost is the Effin' Hawks second leading scorer this season while Boeser led them last season.

It's probably more likely that Jost plays of the two; North Dakota coach Brad Berry said last month that the school had already arranged for Jost to fly directly into Omaha tomorrow.  (Should we pray for fog?)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Shawn Eichorst Speaks of Talent...and His New Visibility

Criticized by many (reporters and former coaches alike) for hiding out in his office, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has made it a point to make himself more visible.  Case in point: yesterday, Eichorst met briefly with Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star and Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald. Sipple even asked him about his new visibility around the program:
"I don't know if there was a change in approach. I love the game of football, as you know. We've gone into depth on that. When you transition into incredible positions like at Nebraska, there's a lot of looking, listening and learning to do. I would attribute it more to having a lot of things to do, a lot of people to get to know, more than anything. I now think I know the place a little better than when I first came in, know the people better. That allows me a little more flexibility to get around and to be available."
Well, that's pretty much political BS right there. If you have a lot of people that you need to get to know and a climate that you need to understand better, the last thing you do is lock yourself up in your office. Instead, you go out and make yourself visible. You meet with the people you are supposed to lead and understand them and the environment that you find yourself in.

Shawn Eichorst didn't do that during his first two years.  (And got called out for it.)  He's doing it now, and that's a good thing. But don't lie about it: admit that you are evolving and becoming a better leader.  Eichorst did change his approach, and for the better.

One of Eichorst's key points in both of his discussions was to note that Nebraska needs to improve on it's talent. Many will interpret that as recruiting, and that is definitely part of it.  But read Eichorst's quote from Shatel's column:
“I look at the All-Big Ten teams, particularly the coaches team,” Eichorst said. “The first three teams, we had two players. I think Michigan had 17, Ohio State 14, Iowa had nine, Wisconsin had eight, Penn State had seven. We have work to do.”
Michigan and Ohio State are recruiting juggernauts and in New Years' Six bowls.  That's to be expected.  Penn State is suddenly released from their Sandusky sanctions, so they've been able to open the floodgates on recruiting.

But then there's Iowa.

If you believe that it's all recruiting, then Iowa is that uncomfortable outlier.  Here's Rivals team rankings for Iowa and Nebraska's last five classes:

Iowa:  44, 51, 56, 59, 42
Nebraska:  26, 17, 32, 28, 26

Iowa being third in all-Big Ten honorees is not about recruiting, but coaching and development.  And Nebraska falling to only two honorees is mostly about coaching and development.  It's no surprise to me that Mike Riley has already dismissed two members of his initial staff at Nebraska, because development with this staff is a major concern to me.

You hear a lot of comments and excuses being laid out to account for Nebraska's performance on the field the last two seasons, and one of them is the lack of offensive line talent. I submit that Nebraska has much more talent on the line than we've seen...or rather, we've been allowed to see.  Case in point?  Givens Price.  He was a starter in 2014, but was demoted in 2015.  After essentially being demoted off the two-deep, Price didn't give up, but gave defense a chance.  He didn't play there either, but he kept grinding it out.

And guess what? The Arizona Cardinals saw something Mike Cavanaugh didn't (or couldn't).  They gave hi a chance on the practice squad, and now he's on an NFL active roster.

Not good enough for Nebraska?  That's a huge fumble by Nebraska's coaching staff to let an NFL offensive lineman slip through right through their hands.
How many more Givens Price's are there on Nebraska's roster?  Especially on the offensive line.  I can only wonder.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Without a Doubt, 9-3 Is Improvement for the Huskers

The 40-10 beatdown that Iowa administered to the Huskers to end the regular season was an unpleasant ending to a relatively pleasant Nebraska football season. I knew the offense was going to struggle against the Hawkeyes because of the quarterback situation, but I wasn't prepared for the defense melting down in Ohio State-like fashion.  So I'm not pleased with how this game ended, but I am pleased with how the season went, in the grand scheme of things.

Why? I went into the season with relatively low expectations; I still had doubts about this coaching staff going in.  And while I'm not sold, I am impressed by how this staff adapted and accepted the players they inherited.  And yes, in turn, the players better accepted the coaches.  The defense was significantly better (except in a couple of games), and the offense was better.  And the results were better:  9-3 (with still a chance to win a tenth) beats the heck out of 6-7.  Going from needing an NCAA waiver for a bowl game to a possible New Year's Day bowl game is better.

It's not even debatable.

Some will though. Some just want to be argumentative, while others are just disappointed that the Huskers dropped another egg this month. And then there a few (explitives) who just want to rag on former head coach Bo Pelini.

The Bo-leavers have a valid point; after this season, it's Mike Riley's offense moving forward.  Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe won't be around after the bowl game, and the quarterback room will be occupied by Mike Riley guys.  But will it be better next year?  I fear not.

Next year's quarterbacks will be Tanner Lee, Patrick O'Brien and probably Tristan Gebbia, assuming he enrolls in January. That's two freshman and a Tulane transfer who put up worse passing numbers at Tulane than Tommy Armstrong did his first two seasons.

Wait, what?  Doesn't Sean Callahan insist that Lee is a NFL draft pick (in a high round, I might add)?

Yes. But the numbers don't lie.

Tanner Lee:  53.5% completions, 3601 yards, 23 touchdowns, 21 interceptions
Tommy Armstrong: 52.9% completion, 3661 yards, 31 touchdowns, 20 interceptions

And the rushing numbers?  Well, there's no comparison:

Tanner Lee:  -287 yards rushing, zero touchdowns
Tommy Armstrong: 907 yards rushing, eight touchdowns

I've never seen Lee play in person, and maybe he'll adapt better to Riley's offense than he played in Tulane's offense. But the hype train reminds me more of the hype that surrounded Sam Keller ten years ago, and Keller at least had a record from Arizona State that partially explained the hype. Lee just has Sean Callahan's tweet as the explanation.

It's presumptive and premature to pencil any of the three quarterbacks into the 2017 lineup. O'Brien will have had close to another 100 or so practices before we see him again, and Gebbia is still in high school. That uncertainty causes me to temper my thoughts for 2017, and thus my appreciation for the 2016 season.

2015 should have taught every Husker fan to appreciate each and every victory, and I certainly appreciated a nice bounceback season, overcoming all sorts of adversity.

No doubt about it.  Nebraska improved quite a bit in 2016.  That's something to appreciate.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Harry, the Chicago Cubs and I

Until Cox Cable rolled into town in 1981, I didn't really have a baseball team. Sure, I went to a handful of Omaha Royals games over the years, and watched the Kansas City Royals battle the Yankees for the pennant in the 70's, but it was really just a casual follow.  But when my parents finally were able to get cable television, all that changed.  Along with Nickelodeon, USA and ESPN, we now had Superstations WGN, WOR and WTBS. Between WOR's partial schedule and Ralph Kiner, I didn't watch much of the Mets.  WTBS coverage of the Atlanta Braves was my initial interest; Braves catcher Bruce Benedict grew up four houses up the street from me.

But as time went on, it was the Chicago Cubs games that caught my fancy. Any summer afternoon, you had a 50-50 chance of finding a Cub game on at 1:20 pm in the afternoon...a dead zone of television unless you liked soap operas. 1984 really solidified it for myself; the Cubs were winning, and since I started classes at UNO, I could still follow the games after my classes got out in the early afternoon. And with the games on the radio locally, I could even listen to them on the drive home.  But 1984 brought me my first heartbreak in the playoffs against the San Diego Padres. The Cubs looked to be heading to the World Series until Lee Smith failed in the deciding game five.  I was working that day, so I sadly had to listen to Harry Caray describe the meltdown on the radio.

Harry Caray and Steve Stone became the voices of my baseball fandom. The Cubs faded for the next few years, but stormed back in 1989, only to get shut down again, this time by Will Clark and the San Francisco Giants.  In the 1990's with college out of the way, I was able to make a couple of pilgrimages to Wrigley, and even though I was now working during those afternoon games, I still was a fan.  Harry passed on, and WGN started to cut back on the number of games they carried, but I still watched when I could.

2003 found the Cubs back in the playoffs, and game six looked like the Cubs were finally going to break through. In the seventh inning, with the game seemingly under control, I took the dog for a walk, figuring that I needed to get that done to enjoy the ninth inning and the post game.

Well, we all know what happened while I was out.  I'd later learn about Alex Gonzalez and Steve Bartman, but I came home to find that the Marlins had somehow put up an eight-spot in the eighth inning...and all that preparation was for naught. Perhaps it was better that I didn't endure that.

Two years ago, WGN decided to completely drop their broadcasts of the Cubs outside the Chicago local area, meaning that the only games I get to watch now are national broadcasts. But the games are back on the radio on 1490 AM - just like they were in 1984. Last season looked like it could be "the year"...but those Stupid Mets broke my heart yet again, just like they did thirty years earlier.

When the Cubs broke out to a .800 start this season, this year looked like THE year. The Cubs ran away with the division, and the only question in September was who the Cubs would face in the playoffs. The Giants and Dodgers each had a pitching ace that the Cubs probably would have liked to avoid, but neither Madison Bumgarner nor Clayton Kershaw could pitch enough innings to tilt the field.

Corey Kluber, on the other hand, almost did. Things looked awfully bleak for the Cubs after Kluber's gem in game 4; a game I didn't really watch much of because of the Husker game.  But the Cubs avoided elimination Sunday night, and gave themselves a chance in Cleveland. I knew that Kluber awaited the Cubs on Wednesday night, should the Cubs make it that far.  They did, and my hope for the Cubs was that Kluber, like Bumgarner and Kershaw, would run out of gas.

And run out of gas he did.  The Cubs shelled him, and it looked like the Cubs were cruising late. And in the eighth, I debated what I was going to do. Do I watch the game on Fox and listen to Joe Buck - or do I go out to the car and listen to Pat Hughes call the ending over the radio.  That's one of the biggest shames of baseball's media contract: only the originating station can carry the local broadcast of the World Series teams, though it is also available on satellite radio. Die-hard fans want to hear the voices that carried them through all 162 regular season games call that final out, not some national guy.

But then Jon Lester gave up an infield hit, and Cubs manager Joe Madden hit the panic button. He went to the bullpen to bring in Aroldis Chapman for the third time in four days. Chapman has been nothing but dependable since joining the Cubs, but after throwing over 60 pitches the last three days, he had nothing left.

Steve Garvey. Will Clark. Rajai Davis?  Seriously? Suddenly, the lead and the dream was gone. Madden kept Chapman in the game in the bottom of the ninth, and it felt like Charlie Brown running up to kick the football from Lucy's hold knowing full well what was going to happen.  But somehow it didn't, and the game went to extra innings.  Then the rain came.

The tarp rolled out, and the radar didn't look good.  I thought about it for a minute and said to myself "I have to get out of this house!"  The dog still hadn't had his walk, so I just grabbed the leash and headed out. The whole time I wondered what was going to happen.  How long could I wait this game out?  Do I just wait until next year, like always?

Sigh.  Depression.

I open the door, and walk into the living room, with the television still on. The rain delay was already over, and just like 13 years before, things changed dramatically while I wasn't watching.  The first pitch I saw was Ben Zobrist drilling a double down the third base line.  The Cubs scored twice in the tenth, and were now just three outs away from the title.

I briefly thought about my prior plans, and quickly rejected them. I was going to watch this damn thing through.  Cleveland scored and had the tie run at second base and the winning run at the plate.  Mind is blown.  It wasn't until Kris Bryant fielded that slow roller that I realized that it was happening.

Yet I couldn't scream.  I couldn't yell.  The rest of the family was asleep in their beds.  I could tweet, but it wasn't satisfying.  No, I had to do something.

So out to the garage I went.  Over the years, I had set aside a supply of fireworks, likely for a huge Nebraska victory.  I was halfway out to the garage in 2009 when Colt McCoy's pass landed incomplete out of bounds, stopped only by the review to gift Texas an extra second to win the game.  So it's been sitting there.  Ready.  Waiting.

It was time.

I grabbed the firing tube, a box of shells and a lighter.  Royals fans woke me up a year ago; I was going to wake them up.  And off it went, in a beautiful display of red sparks and the accompanying boom.

And yelled.

I thought about firing more, but decided against annoying the neighbors further.  I made my point.

So I went back in to watch interviews and the celebration, and then Fox cuts away to commercial and I see this.


As much as anyone else, Harry Caray is probably about as responsible as anybody for my Cub fan-dom. Perfect.

I headed to bed...but couldn't sleep.  Probably only got about 4 hours sleep total before heading to work.  Then what do I see come up on Twitter, courtesy of Kevin Kugler?  A brilliant simulation of Harry calling the Cubs World Series win, 19 years after his passing.

Tears. I've probably watched that video about twenty times over the last day. It still brings tears.  I still keep finding myself wondering if it actually happened, much like I did January 2, 1995 in south Florida when the  Huskers slew Miami in the old Orange Bowl stadium.

Why do we obsess about sports like we do? It's more than entertainment; it's not merely a diversion for two or three hours of fun. No, our sports teams become a part of us.  We live, love and mourn through them.  When it's your team, it's not just a game.  And while I didn't throw one pitch, swing one bat or even try to catch a single ball, I feel a part of it.

I definitely don't consider myself one of those "long-suffering fans".  I've been a fan for 35 years; that's no match for fans like Wayne Williams, who listened to game 7 at his father's grave to fulfill a promise made long before I became a Cub fan.

But I am a fan...and I am still celebrating.  Thank you Cubs...and thank you Harry.  We did it.

The unbelievable is now believable.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Huskers Struggle Again With Purdue

I thought Mike Riley had learned the lessons of 2015, but then the nightmare of 2015's most horrific, most inexplicable loss resurrected itself. Seven losses in 2015 seemed to make it crystal clear to Mike Riley that in order to succeed at Nebraska, he must run the ball. And run the ball is what Nebraska did to win seven straight games.

But against Purdue?  The worst rush defense in the Big Ten and nearly the worst in college football?  It didn't happen.  Why not?

Some of it was a "could not," though that wasn't quite as apparent until after the game appeared to be heading towards an ugly repeat of 2015. It actually started as a "didn't want to".  Here are the halftime stats:

12 rushes.  18 passes.  Purdue lead 14-10.

Meanwhile, the Blackshirts were turning Purdue's David Blough into Drew Brees. Again. 16 of 20 passes for 231 yards.

If it was an experiment to prove that last year's problems were all "buy-in," then consider the theory completely disproved:
One difference between last year and this year was that Nebraska couldn't really run the ball well in this year's game. Which is hard to understand, given that Purdue's best defensive lineman, Jake Replogle, didn't play due to injury. To my uneducated eye, it's because Riley, Danny Langsdorf and Mike Cavanaugh elected to stick with Nebraska's two injured offensive tackles. Earlier this season, Nick Gates seemed to be playing at an all-conference level, but then injured his ankle last week.  He kept playing against Indiana, albeit poorly, then missed almost the entire week of practice.  He went the whole way against Purdue despite doing his best imitation of a Memorial Stadium turnstile in the second half. David Knevel was hurting even more, and finally was replaced by Cole Conrad. The only possible explanation is that Cavanaugh was more convinced that not only was an injured and ineffective Gates was better than inserting Christian Gaylord or Corey Whittaker into the game, it was also worth the risk that playing Gates would lengthen his recovery time.  (Not that we don't have some important games coming up the next couple of weeks.)

Or maybe it's just Cavanaugh's stubborn refusal to substitute on the offensive line.

Defensive adjustments helped in the second half, as Blough only completed nine of 23 passes for 78 yards. Tommy Armstrong was much more efficient through the air, and Terrell Newby found a few holes. Nebraska came back and won ugly.


Don't get me wrong:  7-0 is a hell of an improvement over last season.  But now reality is staring Husker fans right in their face, because Nebraska won't be able to be competitive with either Wisconsin or Ohio State playing the way they have been as of late. The thing is, Husker fans know that this team is capable of playing at a much higher level, because they've seen it sporadically all season long.  Sporadically won't work the next two weeks.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Huskers Survive and Advance Against Hoosiers

Survive and Advance. Survive and Advance.

Nebraska broke out to a quick 10-0 lead while Clemson and North Carolina State ran long on ABC. Only problem... ABC didn't tell fans to turn to ESPN2 at kickoff, and then switched the game off of ESPN2 several minutes before ABC picked up the broadcast.  So all we saw was Brandon Reilly's miracle deflection catch on a replay.  A couple of minutes later, Chris Jones picked off a Richard Lagow pass to give the Huskers a 17-0 lead. Cruising, right?

Well, that was the end of that.  Nebraska's offense went into it's typical second and third quarter slump, and Indiana slowly worked their way back into the game.  Bruce Read's special teams were a debacle once again, as the Huskers were completely discombobulated on that punt.  Nebraska left a huge hole up the middle, and the protectors had no idea which of the half-dozen rushers they should try to nobody did.  Easy block for a safety. Add in a substitution penalty on an extra point, and you've got yet more evidence that Nebraska's $450,000 investment in special teams is a complete waste of money.

Nebraska's offensive line struggled...really struggled. Yes, David Knevel only lasted one play, but everybody struggled.  Nick Gates had his worst game ever as a Husker, and the rest of the line was a mess. Bad pass protection led to too many YOLO desperation heaves by Tommy Armstrong that were just a mess.

But at the same time, there were Husker Heroes that emerged.  The entire secondary played really, really well.  So did the defensive line, even if the referees weren't willing to throw a flag.  Terrell Newby gutted out 102 yards and made key run after key run as really Nebraska's only I-back.  Devine Ozigbo tried to play in the second half, but apparently couldn't go.  Mikale Wilbon, I assume, was also out with injury.  That left only Tre Bryant to spell Newby. Bryant looks like a solid blocking back, but he can't continue to average 7 inches a carry if he's going to see any more playing time.

This is going to be heretical to many fans...but Nebraska's best tight end is Sam Cotton. I know fans have been tempted by Cethan Carter's potential for years, but he continues to just be too inconsistent.  Maybe fans would like Cotton better if his name was Jones or Smith.

But let's credit Indiana's Tom Allen for a stout Hoosier defense; during Kevin Wilson's time in Bloomington, Indiana football has looked like old-style WAC football where defense was optional.  But Indiana's defense is becoming legit.

Good win?  Absolutely.  But Nebraska will need to find some healthy bodies and get some offensive issues fixed in the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Will Dean Blais Be The First Casualty of UNO's Baxter Arena Debacle?

Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald had an ominous conversation with UNO hockey coach Dean Blais, who all but said that his time is up at UNO. He's clearly not happy with what's happening at UNO, and isn't confident in the direction of the school.

“It’s good here,” Blais said. “But a real big loss for me is John Christensen. He and his wife are two of the biggest fans we have, and supported hockey to the max.

 “He had your back. As a coach, nothing is more important than knowing the chancellor, the guy in charge, has your back. That will be important.

“It’s like Bo Pelini over in Lincoln, the chancellor didn’t have his back.”
Ohhh, he said the "B" word, which will certainly ruffle more than a few feathers around here. Lack of support from the chancellor was the ultimate end to Frank Solich, and once Tom Osborne wasn't around to stand behind Bo Pelini, Pelini was gone as well. It's no secret that neither coach was particularly well liked by Harvey Perlman, and that's something that Bo Pelini referenced when he was hired at Youngstown State.

It's clear that UNO's Baxter Arena isn't meeting the promises that were used to justify it's construction in the first place. Instead of solving UNO's financial problems, it's magnifying them. And the repercussions are simply not good. Trev Alberts is dealing with a $600,000 budget cut to help deal with the unanticipated extra expenses of maintaining an arena 365 days a year.  That's $600,000 that's not available to do the other things that UNO needs to do to field a national contender hockey program.  Full cost of attendance scholarships? Not happening, and not happening any time soon.

The uncertainty over what UNO can do - and will have to do - as a result of the debacle that is Baxter Arena's financials that clouds the future of UNO hockey.  And that has Dean Blais looking longingly towards the golf course and fishing hole, and that's making a bad situation even worse.  Who would succeed Blais?  It's certainly not somebody on the current staff.  Would UNO be forced to return Mike Kemp behind the bench?  Not that Kemper is a bad coach...but he's already wearing too many hats as arena manager and assistant athletic director.  Mike Hastings?  Could UNO afford him now?  And would he want to jump into the UNO situation?

Sad to say that the future of the program looks almost as bleak as it did 10 years ago. If only the solution were as simple as cancelling a vice-chancellor's subscription to SiriusXM...