Countdown to the Big Ten: Q&A with NU Alumni Leader Diane Mendenhall
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Q: As head of Nebraska alums worldwide, how would you describe the overall reaction - one year later - to our university joining the Big Ten Conference?
A: That one year has flown by, and so many things have happened. Within the first week after the announcement that we were joining the Big Ten, nearly every alumni association in the conference contacted us and reached out with ways that we could collaborate. Then, we started to reach out to our own chapters that we had in that Big Ten footprint. Many chapters had been somewhat active; others were almost dormant, but all wanted to rejuvenate once they heard we were joining the Big Ten. Last July, Hoosiers for Huskers started up. Last spring, we added the Northeast Ohio chapter. Interest from alumni in that area has been overwhelming, and the impact has been phenomenal from Nebraska alums across the country. It's obvious that they feel proud of this move to the Big Ten.
Q: As a key leader in transitional times, tell us what you think of the way Chancellor Perlman and Tom Osborne have handled this game-changing move.
A: It was a brilliant move that Chancellor Perlman and Coach Osborne pulled off in leading us into the Big Ten. I really don't think we, as Nebraskans, know the good fortune that we had in having those two individuals in that role at that particular moment in time. It was almost like divine intervention, getting both of them together with their reputation and the collective clout and respect that they have around the country, both in athletics and academics. I think it was so masterful that Nebraskans will look back and see this as a 100-year event, not only for the university, but also for the entire state. Economically, there will be a ripple effect, and I'm not sure if people fully understand that yet. With Chancellor Perlman's status with the NCAA and the committees he's served on, it's amazing to have a chancellor who has been so engaged. Look back over his past 11 years and see how far this university has come in terms of enrollment, all-time high ACT scores and research dollars at all-time high levels. If all of that hadn't transpired in the last 10 years under his leadership, we wouldn't be in the position we are now. And if Coach Osborne hadn't had all the successes he's had, then left, and come back, we wouldn't be where we are athletically. This is so fun. A year ago we were at the Chancellor's Administrative Retreat at the same time this all went down. There were 13 individuals at that meeting, and I almost felt I was the 12-year-old kid from Ogallala. I just kept thinking "wow" to everything I was hearing and kept thinking to myself: "You are observing history right here, right now."
Q: You speak to groups across the country. Over the past year, do you have any favorite anecdotes from Big Red fans about this historic move into the nation's oldest conference?
A: What we've done in the Big Ten this past year is send two of our chapter coordinators on a tour to other Big Ten campuses. A good example of the collaboration we've experienced right out of the gate was co-hosting an event with the University of Wisconsin Alumni Association for (ex-Husker linebacker and Wisconsin Athletic Director) Barry Alvarez the night before his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. It was wonderful because we had alums from our chapter (Nebraska Society of New York), as well as alums from New Jersey to Pennsylvania at that event to honor Coach Alvarez. We've found Coach Alvarez to be someone that has helped unite us all.
Q: When you speak to alumni groups, what's your core message?
A: When I think of alums and impact, I reflect back to that event we had with Wisconsin in New York City. What Coach Alvarez said that night really resonated. In front of this entire room full of his Wisconsin supporters, he actually said, "No matter where I live or have lived, I will always go back to Lincoln as my home." When you think about it, that is the impact the University of Nebraska and the Lincoln community had on him forever. And what was really neat about that Big Ten tour was being able to host events in these Big Ten cities and invite other chapters in those areas. In Madison, for instance, we co-hosted an event with the Madison Huskers and the Fox Valley Huskers. We sent postcards within a 100-mile radius inviting alums to the event. When Coach Alvarez received his postcard, he RSVP'd that he would love to attend. When you have someone that notable with that passion, and he comes to the event to wish everyone well, you know how important getting together really can be. He made it fun, and it's a perfect example of why our Alumni Association honored him as one of our Alumni Masters in 2008.
Q: You worked in the athletic department before accepting Harvey Perlman's offer to lead the Nebraska Alumni Association. What are the parallels between academic bonds and athletic support among alums?
A: As the Alumni Association, we want to be the front door that brings alums back to campus. It's our job to offer programs that connect them to their passion, whether it's academics, athletics, their specific college, their Greek house, whatever ... we want to be that conduit that enables them to push the mission of this university forward.
Q: The song says there is no place like Nebraska? Is that true, and if so, why?
A: When we say connect, we mean it. I think it's true that we all stick together in all kinds of weather. Collaboration and camaraderie are part of that connection process. I think there's a united spirit on campus, and it's stronger than it has ever been. Again, whether it's academics, athletics, the Chancellor's Office, the Nebraska Foundation or the Alumni Association, we all now have very defined roles in how we collaborate. We're more together in moving this university forward than we've ever been. We all work for the greater good, and it all goes back to our shared Midwestern values. We know that if we work hard, set our sights high and all stick together, we achieve. Work ethic and a willingness to cooperate and collaborate are part of those values. I know synergy is a cliche, but that is the way Nebraskans operate. We understand that united, you accomplish more. Look at the football team and how so many walk-ons contribute to the overall success. Well, that's basically the theory behind how Nebraskans as a whole approach life every day. There may be silos all across the state of Nebraska, but Nebraskans do not have a silo mentality. We are unique. We are one. We are a team. It's all about what we do and accomplish together. Nebraskans truly have one mindset. Even when we have a bad day, we still believe we're going to win. We are not fair-weather fans like so many others. We stick behind our teams, and that's part of the reason they give such great effort. We're all excited to see how we can stack up in the oldest conference in the country. I don't know anyone who isn't looking forward to the opportunities in front of us.
Q: Like the athletic department, your group is meeting new people, developing new relationships and planning both to visit and to host new schools. Do you sense, like I theorize, that 11 schools are welcoming Nebraska with open arms and Nebraska, true to its nature, is excited about doing the same?
A: 'Amazing' is the perfect word to answer that question. During the first week we knew we were headed to the Big Ten, other alumni associations throughout the Big Ten were offering assistance in hotels and places to have tailgate parties, and collaborating on student programming and hosting joint events for young alumni. It's a whole new feel in this conference, and I say that with tremendous respect for the Big 12 Conference because we have wonderful relationships there, too. But to answer your question, we were definitely welcomed with open arms in the Big Ten. I don't know how it could have been any better than it's been. Then the icing on the cake is our membership with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC). Membership in this academic consortium will allow us to reap tremendous benefits advancing our academic mission while achieving significant financial savings through cooperative purchasing.
Q: You're a competitive person. You played volleyball at Kansas and still do color radio commentary for Nebraska volleyball. What's it going to be like for John Cook, the old Wisconsin coach, to move back into the Big Ten?
A: When I think about it, in the 2000 National Championship match, there was a sign in the Wisconsin fan section that said "Cook the Huskers". You think I'm a competitor. There is no bigger competitor on this planet than John Cook. He approaches every season to win the national championship, and his philosophy is not to run from anyone. He believes you have to play the best to be the best. I think he will be happy to be in that conference and take on the new challenge. I think John sees the academic benefits as well. Moving to the Big Ten has definite academic clout.
Q: Would you donate tickets when four-time defending NCAA volleyball champion Penn State plays at Nebraska in that first Big Ten game? We'd love to auction them off on Huskers.com.
A: Donate tickets - are you kidding me? That'll be toughest ticket to get. I've already had calls from former Nebraska volleyball players. It will be interesting. I can go back to my playing days when Russ Rose (Penn State's head coach) was an assistant coach to Terry Pettit (Nebraska's head coach) and Pettit brought in John Cook, who ended up working with Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin. There's connectivity all over the place.
Q: Decades ago, Johnny Carson was Nebraska's most famous fan. Nowadays, it seems like Larry the Cable Guy gets that title, unless you throw in billionaire businessman Warren Buffet or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Isn't that even more evidence that there is no place like Nebraska?
A: I go back to our mission, our grass roots, and see so many successful alumni that aren't household names like those you just mentioned. When I go to alumni awards banquets and look around the room, I see all kinds of winners who are not on TV or earning millions of dollars, like Jane Olson, who traveled across the world for human rights for women and children. I see Daniel Dawes, who graduated from the Law College five years ago and co-authored a guidebook on the landmark health reform law and is helping Congress implement that reform right now. When you see alumni like that out there, alums that are impacting our country and truly changing the world, you realize that they are every bit as much of the evidence that there is no place like Nebraska..
Q: Forget about everything politically correct and strategically important and tell us what every Husker fan wants to know ... will Nebraska be playing in the first Big Ten Conference Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium Dec. 3rd in Indianapolis?
A: I live by the quote: "It is always better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one than to have an opportunity and not be prepared." So, of course, knock on wood, we will be there in Indianapolis. We always prepare for those opportunities. We've already done our site visit. We have our hotel reservations for that trip. Our trips sell out quickly, so we have to be prepared. Our Wisconsin and Minnesota football road trips sold out in record time, and Michigan is very close to being sold out. Our alums and friends of the University of Nebraska expect to win.
Q: For you personally, what's the most exciting thing about joining the Big Ten, and what are you going to do to celebrate July 1?
A: This event will change the university, Lincoln and the surrounding community and our entire state. I think that every chapter of our alums around the world - from Malaysia to Tokyo - should pause and reflect where we are on July 1st because that day is a game-changer for the University of Nebraska. That's why I'm going to toast my orange juice that morning as I realize - and appreciate - what that day really means.