I see this as a three part series dealing with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Part 1 will discuss the roots of NU’s success, Part 2 will discuss what went wrong in the Big 12, and Part 3 will discuss what the future may hold for the Huskers.
First off, let’s salute Nebraska for what it means to college football. Nebraska is #3 all time in D-1A wins, with 5 MNCs, all in the modern era. Perhaps a more impressive stat is their record from 1962 to 2001, when the Huskers had a winning percentage of 83.3%, head and shoulders above any other team in college football. Over that span, there is greater separation between #1 NU and #2 Penn State, than there is between #2 PSU and #10 …University of Texas.
That was the era that defined Cornhusker football for the nation. To me, the most remarkable aspect of this period of dominance is that Nebraska had a nationally elite program despite not being located geographically in a talent rich area, as most of its peer programs (Florida, Texas, USC, Ohio State, and even OU with its emphasis on Texas recruiting) are.
Notre Dame is also not in a talent rich location, but it successfully established itself as a national program decades ago, and doesn’t even pay lip service to Indiana talent (I imagine a significant number of ND recruits don’t learn that it is in Indiana until they are scheduling a visit). The University of Nebraska program makes no effort to identify itself separately from the state, and is proud of its region. Let’s take a look at the program, noting why things had been so good, and what went wrong.
Did Nebraska have elite talent during its period of dominance? Yes, it did. A lot of people point to the stability in NU coaching, and the innovative aspects of the program as the keys to their success. They are right about that, but the Huskers were doing more with more, not less. USA Today has a NFL draft database for the 1989 to present period, and its sortable by school and state.
From the 1989 to 2002 drafts, NU had 91 players drafted. The data for peer programs (elite in that period): Florida State- 92, Notre Dame- 91, tOSU- 77, Michigan- 68, Florida- 79, and Miami- 99. The Huskers had as much talent as anybody in the nation.
How did they amass such talent, given such a low population state with significantly more Jareds than JaMarcuses?
First off, they had a monopoly on instate talent. Every Nebraska native with enough talent to gain the program’s interest was expected to walk on there if they weren’t offered a scholarship. The proverbial 2-star athlete that blossoms in some small college into a stud? In Nebraska, that guy never makes it to the small school; he starts off as a walk –on at NU. I’ve done studies before that show that 5-star recruits are twice as likely as 4-star recruits to turn into NFL prospects, and five times as likely as 3-star recruits. In Nebraska, they got them all, and when an unheralded recruit blossomed, he was put on scholarship and stopped sharing a number with three other guys.
Don’t get this wrong. The NU program had to do a lot more than just put an "Open" sign up on the locker door to reel in every decent statewide prospect. The coaches still had to recruit these kids, their families, and their HS coaches. They had to honestly coach their walk-on squads, and actively look for guys who can play, instead of (like every other program) just using them as cannon fodder for drills. Guys were willing to walk on because they knew if they were good enough, their efforts would be rewarded. This required the coaches to work harder with their walk ons, and this effort should be recognized.
So, this instate dominance accounts for 23 of the 91 1989-2002 draft picks (in that period, only 8 other Nebraska schoolboys were drafted). Where did the others come from? Nebraska recruited nationally, not relying too much on any state. NU got guys from California, Texas, the Midwest, and the Ohio valley. Its recruiting pitch had three components-
- It was a nationally elite, high profile program. Its staff had been there for decades, and wasn’t leaving (neither was the system).
- It was committed to option football, and so highly valued talent (option QBs, blocking TEs) other programs discounted.
- It had perhaps the nation’s top academic support program for athletes and regularly graduated kids other programs did not believe they could keep eligible. It turned average students into Academic All-Americans. Nebraska could (and did) recruit players that were not initially eligible, confident that it could get them eligible. This opened up the available pool of talent.
There was one final aspect to the program- the strength and conditioning. Nebraska, for a number of years, had the nation's strongest team. I don’t want to moralize or editorialize about performance enhancing drugs (Note- despite rumors and speculation, there was never any PED scandal with Nebraska players while still in school).
I believe that the job of a S&C coach is to get as close to the line of illegality as possible without crossing over, and I recognize that the line off illegality may not be marked in a sensible way and can be a moving target. Others believe that the job of the S&C coach is to give the players as much as he can without getting caught breaking rules.
Whatever the case, NU had the most effective S&C in the nation. Note- if NU did use PEDs (not known), before judging them you should recognize that if other programs were not as advanced in PED use it was due to lack of knowledge, not lack of will. Second, I believe that NU’s S&C approaches in 1970 were used by everybody else in 1975, and their 1980 techniques were used by everybody else in 1985. NU’s advantage was not the use of any training technique, nutritional supplement, or (speculatively) PED. Their advantage was that they were always years ahead of their competition.
So, there you have it. You had a program with coaching continuity, with a scheme that required sometimes unique talent that might be undervalued by others, and a recruiting and conditioning system that maximized the talent available. This was truly a machine, and it was the envy of the nation.