Campbell Joins ex-Huskers at Last Big 12 Conference Home Game
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Willie Campbell arrived in Lincoln Monday afternoon on a flight from Seattle that was delayed in Denver.
"You always leave a day early for something you can't miss, and I wasn't about to miss the last home basketball game in a conference that I was so privileged to play in," Campbell said after watching Nebraska practice with ex-Husker and good friend Albert Maxey Sr.
Later, the two Nebraska Basketball Hall-of-Famers hooked up for dinner with Charlie Greene, Nebraska's Olympic gold medal sprinter.
What a West Coast combination - Campbell, an undersized starting center on arguably Nebraska's best basketball team in history, and Greene, once the fastest man in the world. Both arrived in Lincoln from Seattle within days of each other in September of 1963.
Both talented Seattle natives took a calculated risk heading to the Midwest - Greene to run for head track coach Frank Sevigne and Campbell to join a talented cast of players recruited by the late Joe Cipriano, who played college basketball at Washington under Athletic Director Tippy Dye and had solid connections across the state.
Remember, in 1963, Lincoln wasn't even close to what it is now.
Settling in After an Initial Case of Culture Shock
"I married Sandra, my high school girlfriend, right after graduation, so she could come to Lincoln with me," Campbell said Monday, admitting that he will never forget arriving at the train station as newlyweds.
"We put our luggage on a horse-drawn wagon when we got off the train," Campbell recalled. "Sandra looked at me and wondered what we had just done leaving Seattle for Nebraska. I'm sure she had her doubts."
Greene knows what the Campbells were thinking "because when I flew into Lincoln, the airport was nothing but a big, old Quonset hut left over from the war," he said. "Leaving Seattle for Lincoln was like arriving on another planet for all three of us."
Let the record show, however, that all three fell in love with Lincoln.
"I still live here, so you know what it means to me," Greene said.
"Every time I come back to Lincoln, it brings tears to my eyes, and this trip is no exception," Campbell said. "I am so proud of what this young Nebraska basketball team is doing and where they're headed in the future. That's why I wanted to make sure I would stand by them in this historic game against Missouri."
Swan Song about 'Big Eight, Big 12, Big Moments'
Campbell traveled the greatest distance to support a Senior Night that will celebrate Big Eight, Big 12, Big Moments as the Big 12 Conference curtain comes down for the last time at the Bob Devaney Sports Center.
Erick Strickland, Andre Smith and Bill Jackman are among the two dozen former Huskers who will join Campbell and Maxey for a pregame reception and a halftime tribute. All three came from Texas.
Other Huskers who will be honored include: Terrance Badgett, Brian Banks, Brian Conklin, Bernard Garner, Wayne Hester, J.F. Hoffman, Dave Hoppen, Anton Lawry, Andy Markowski, John Matzke, Stan Matzke, Carl McPipe, Keith Moody, Alan Nissen, Terry Novak, Eric Piatkowski, Beau Reid, Bob Siegel, Lee Steinbrook and Tony Wilbrand.
Campbell is eager to meet every Husker he will stand up with.
They, in turn, might enjoy meeting a starter from a 1965-66 Husker team that became Nebraska's first 20-game winner in 40 years - an amazing feat since NU had experienced 15 straight losing seasons before '65-'66.
That 20-5 team ranks as the best Nebraska basketball team ever, according to Mike Babcock, the only author who has researched Nebraska basketball and written a book about his findings.
"That 1965-66 team had everything and came so close to tying Kansas for the Big Eight regular-season championship," Babcock said Monday. "If Colorado hadn't upset Nebraska at the end of the season in Boulder, Nebraska would have tied KU for the title."
Nebraska Came Close to Tying KU for League Title
As it was, the Huskers finished 12-2 in the conference behind KU's 13-1 mark. Nebraska was the only conference team to beat Kansas that season, and the Jayhawks came within one game - a double-overtime loss to Texas Western in the regional final - of making the Final Four.
Texas Western, of course, finished as one of the most storied national championship teams in NCAA history.
Since only one conference school could make the NCAA Tournament in those days, Nebraska sat at home and could nothing but watch a league rival finish fourth in the final rankings. The Huskers finished 11th in UPI 's final rankings. They might have finished 11th in AP, too, but that poll only included a top 10.
In December alone that year, Nebraska beat Wisconsin, Oregon State, Cal, Texas and Stanford. The Huskers also beat Missouri three times that season - by two in the Big Eight Holiday Tournament, by 22 at the NU Coliseum and by 18 in Columbia.
"Joe Cipriano recruited a team that could really press, both in a half-court trap and full court," Campbell recalled. "Man, could we put the pressure on. At that time, Coach Cipriano was considered a defensive marvel."
Interestingly, all five starters on that '65-'66 Husker team are in the Nebraska Basketball Hall of Fame. They include Stu Lantz and Grant Simmons at guards, Tom Baack and Nate Branch at forwards and the 6-foot-6 Campbell at center.
Talented Husker Lineup Always Drew Sellout Crowds
"Every guy on that team could play with anybody," Campbell said.
"I will say this. I never missed a minute watching that basketball team play," said Greene, who won gold and bronze medals in the 1968 Olympics. "Back then, you had to get there early because they always had more people than seats at the Coliseum."
Campbell smiles at the memory. A year after he and Greene arrived in Lincoln, the Campbells welcomed a daughter, Karen, into the world.
"With joy, I remember that apartment at 1540 R Street," Campbell said. "Charlie Greene babysat our daughter."
"I did indeed," Greene said. "I had a brother 12 years younger than me, so I was familiar with the role."
Today, that little baby is Karen Moore, who graduated from Spellman College in Atlanta and is now an internal medicine doctor in New Jersey.
"After supporting my favorite team, I'm heading there next to celebrate my daughter's birthday," Campbell said proudly. "She and her husband have a daughter who's a sophomore basketball player at Georgetown and a 17-year-old son who's 6-foot-6 like I am. We've been very blessed in our lives with health and grandchildren."
Campbell's wife, Sandra, remained in Seattle to take care of her 98-year-old mother, but she yearns for the day she can return to Lincoln again.
After 35 Years, Retired as a Naturalist in Native Seattle
"I encouraged Willie to go back to Nebraska and celebrate," Sandra said, acknowledging how she and her husband returned to Seattle, so Willie could work for 35 years with the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department before retiring. The last half of that stint, Willie was a naturalist.
"The '60s was a great time to be in Nebraska, and it prepared us well for life after athletics," Willie said. "The country was trying to become a nation of 'All the People' and we're proud that we started our family in Lincoln. Nebraska is part of our family, and I have only good vibes about these current Nebraska players. I just want Big Red fans everywhere to know how much I love them all.
"I told everyone I saw at the Washington football game in Seattle last fall how much I appreciated the way Nebraska supports their teams," Campbell said, "and I just want to thank everyone again for the wonderful memories we had living in Lincoln and going to school at a great place like Nebraska. I don't know how it could have been any better than it was. That's why I get so emotional every time I come back."