Randy York’s N-Sider
Before Saturday, Bo Pelini had never been aboard an American passenger train. The same can be said for Connie Yori and even John Walker, who discovered a new twist that relates to his European visits to recruit. Coming off notable seasons, all three Nebraska head coaches spent Saturday on Union Pacific Railroad’s Big Red Express and after taking the train to Columbus, Grand Island, Kearney and North Platte to thank Husker fans for their loyalty and support, all three were equipped with two meaningful experiences they simply did not envision – 1) an inspiring lesson in American history; and 2) a new way to consider seeing the country.
Pelini, whose team beat SEC power Georgia in the 2014 Gator Bowl, loved lounging and dining among the 14-car UP elite fleet. Every time he walked by a host of sleeping cars, he couldn’t help but think “You know what? It wouldn’t be so bad to go to bed and wake up the next morning being where you want to be,” Bo told me. “Since I haven’t ever been on a train before, I didn’t know what to expect. Everybody enjoyed it. UP is a first-class operation. They got us to four different cities, and when you see fans like ours coming out to meet you, it makes you feel fortunate to be working here.”
Yori, whose team won the 2014 Big Ten Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament in Indianapolis, marvels at the history lesson that was communicated at every stop – that Union Pacific is more than 150 years old and Nebraska is the corporate headquarters for nearly 8,000 employees. Why? Because the first tracks laid in the state signaled the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s dream of a transcontinental railroad.
Yori: Railways Changed Our Country
“Our country really is pretty amazing when you think about the pioneers who came here in wagons with their families,” Yori said. “Building a railroad that long ago was a phenomenal commitment that made our country what it is today. Railways changed everything, and today was a history lesson for a lot of us despite our age. It was a phenomenal train ride, and the scenery was beautiful. The last time I’ve been on a train was in Europe when I was 22 years old. I’ve never been on a train in the United States...ever!”
Neither has Walker, whose team won the 2013 Big Ten Conference regular-season women’s championship in soccer as well as the conference tournament title in Champaign, Ill. “I go to Great Britain almost annually for soccer, and whenever I'm over there, I make at least one train ride, but not here in the U.S. I’ve never taken a train ride here,” Walker said. “But for me, after today, it's the No. 1 way of traveling. I love it. I absolutely love the train. With the train, you get the scenery. You have the freedom to get up and down. You have a chance to talk. I had a good chat with Connie Yori about recruiting and player development. I even had the chance to talk to some of the younger coaches that I didn't even know.”
The history lesson included something else that coaches didn’t expect – Husker fans throughout the route waving and holding Husker banners as they watched the Big Red Express weave its way through their locales en route to the four whistle stops. At each stop, fans listened to coaches and UP officials speak. They clapped their hands to a live pep band, posed with cheerleaders, sought autographs, and showed their appreciation for a busy group who took the time to show their appreciation for Nebraska’s record-setting attendance across all sports over the past year.
Celebrating Two Heritages at Once
Mayors at each whistle stop received joint proclamations from Nebraska and Union Pacific – two of the state’s most recognizable brands. Lance Fritz, president and chief operating officer, said the Big Red Express special train celebrates not only Union Pacific’s heritage with the communities along its main line from Omaha to North Platte, but also the historical connection the University of Nebraska has with each community.
Pelini, who was in North Platte a couple weekends ago for his daughter’s softball game, was as enthusiastic at his last stop as he was at the first stop. In fact, after experiencing the difference between driving 450 miles roundtrip between Lincoln and North Platte compared to relaxing on the train, Nebraska’s seventh-year head coach gave the day’s smallest crowd the day’s biggest news – his belief that the Huskers have the talent, work ethic and chemistry to be one of the four final teams that will be selected to compete in the first-ever College Football Playoff semifinals in the Rose and Sugar Bowls on Jan. 1, 2015.
It’s been a good, busy summer for Pelini, who told the North Platte crowd it's time to recharge his batteries before the Huskers report for fall camp, don pads and begin their next season inside Memorial Stadium, which will feature all sorts of technological improvements.
Train Fleet, Stadium Twin Elite
Somehow, the Big Red Express seems an ideal metaphor for Nebraska, which has won more football games than any other Division I school in America over the last 50 years. Even though Union Pacific is more than 150 years old, no other railroad in America has retained its historical passenger equipment like UP. Each rail car is unique and chronicles a different chapter of Union Pacific’s past. The preservation of the fleet also speaks to the high value that Union Pacific places on its heritage and role in America’s history. The same, of course, can be said about Memorial Stadium, which has never looked better or been equipped more to serve a fan base that has sold out 333 consecutive home games since 1962.
Likely Trips, a Dream and a Maybe
Yori said Saturday that her family has talked about a train vacation but failed to act on it. “I think it would be fun for us just to go to Denver or Chicago on the train,” she said.
Walker is an equally strategic thinker who sees a train vacation in his future.
Dan Kendig, another Husker coach whose team won a Big Ten Conference Championship this year in women’s gymnastics, now has three American train trip experiences and has added a new item on his personal bucket list of 10 things he wants to do in his life – “take a train trip right through the Pacific Northwest,” Kendig said.
Of course we asked Bo the same question about a possible family vacation on the train. “It would be different,” he said, “but I don’t know if Amtrak would be as nice as what we rode on today. That was pretty special.”
Bottom Line: Bo’s Pressures Greater
On the bus ride from North Platte’s rail yards to the final venue Saturday evening, I asked Yori to pinpoint her most memorable moments. One was a conversation with Pelini, especially since Husker coaches are so focused on their own programs, they rarely get together.
“I don’t see a lot of Bo, but I had some quality time with him today,” Yori told me. “He’s a good representative of our state. We’re lucky to have a guy that has the kind of values he has running our football program. Bo has lots of pressures that in a lot of ways, none of the rest of us face. Bo has always been very, very good to me. He’s always gone out of his way to come over and chat whenever possible. Today was good because it was a very relaxed environment. We could actually sit down and talk about some of the issues that we all face in our programs and in college athletics.
“You don’t really know what you’re getting into when you get on a train in the morning and where it’s going to lead you,” Yori said. “It’s been a great day. The train ride was phenomenal and everyone enjoyed the camaraderie on the staff. As coaches and administrators, I think most people think we’re having conversations every day, and that’s not true because we’re all busy doing our jobs. When you see each other, it’s usually brief and sometimes just a ‘hi’ because everyone’s moving to the next thing. We don’t have time to stop and enjoy the moment. Today was great. We had that time. We need more days like this one.”
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