The Renaissance of Nebraska Basketball Has Only Just Begun
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National Coach-of-the-Year Finalist Connie Yori is a trailblazer, and she is a miracle worker. No, check that right now. She'd rather be known by what she really is . . . a good, old-fashioned, hard-working Husker who just happens to be coaching a team that was anointed last Tuesday with more ink and more photos than any other story in the nation's largest non-financial newspaper.
Even a Kansas men's basketball fan couldn't miss the message that USA Today sent to its nearly 2 million readers with this cover story headline in its national edition: "A Perfect Chemistry" followed by another headline that said "Star, role players get act together for 29-0, No. 3 Nebraska women".
If that wasn't enough to lure you in, all you had to do was look at Yori, the centerpiece of an energetic four-column photo. Nebraska's head coach - and 2010 Big 12 Conference Women's Basketball Coach of the Year - was exhorting her team from the bench. Both of her arms were stretched out in front of her, shoulder high. Her fists were clenched, her mouth was open, and you could tell she was showing nothing but positive vibes.
You can tell because all five Husker players on the bench behind her - Nicole Neals, Kala Kuhlmann, Layne Reeves, Katya Leick and Harleen Sidhu - were every bit as engaged in what had just happened on the floor as Yori was. They were all smiling, all bending forward and all lost in the magic of the moment.
Who knows? Below that photo was another one showing a high-stepping Kelsey Griffin with a basketball in her hands and a decision to be made. Was Nebraska's Big 12 Player of the Year and All-America candidate getting ready to take matters into her own hands or was the National Player of the Year candidate getting ready to get the ball into someone else's hands for an easier basket?
Talk about capturing the essence of this year's Nebraska women's basketball team in two compelling photographs. The story was good, too, continuing on and taking up two-thirds of a second page that used the headline "From 15-16 to national contenders" and four photos - one huge - updating fans on each win in a record-setting season.
ESPN Was in Lincoln on Tuesday, Too
ESPN was also in town this past week, shooting Nebraska footage and features for its upcoming coverage of both the NCAA Tournament Selection Show (Monday, March 15, 6 p.m.), and the NCAA Tournament. It's fitting to point out that the Huskers also were featured in the Feb. 22 Sports Illustrated print edition, the first-ever article written on Nebraska women's basketball in that publication.
"ESPN.com has followed us across the country this season with Mechelle Voepel and Graham Hays consistently praising all aspects of our team," Nebraska Media Relations Director Jeff Griesch said, adding that "since Dec. 20 of this season, we've had more national coverage of our program than we've had in my 15 years with the program combined."
Still, Tuesday was a watershed moment in an emerging program that is focused solely on continuing to move forward this season despite losing to No. 11 Texas A&M in the semifinals of the Big 12 Conference Tournament in Kansas City.
With the nation's most influential newspaper and most influential network for sports converging on Lincoln on the same day, let Tuesday, March 9, 2010 heretofore be known as the Renaissance of Nebraska Basketball ... the rebirth of something that can and will get bigger as the best fans in college athletics embrace a sport that's only just begun to blossom in this traditionally football-rich state.
If you don't believe that, at least listen to John Wooden, the most legendary coach in the history of basketball and considered the best coach in a 2009 Sporting News survey of the 50 greatest coaches of all time in any sport.
Because Wooden is often asked to consult with various nationally prominent women's basketball programs, he made it a point to check out the Nebraska women's program on television for two reasons: 1) because he knew the Huskers were unbeaten and highly ranked; and 2) because Tom Osborne, a coach he still mentors, was coming to see him in between speaking engagements on the West Coast.
Wooden admits he's only seen the Huskers once, so he doesn't have a completely clear picture of their overall capabilities.
John Wooden: All for One and One for All
"But I'm going to say they're all for one and one for all," Wooden said by telephone. "It's a team, and that showed, even on television."
Wooden, now 99, doesn't remember who Nebraska played when he watched, but he remembers the Huskers' effort, their unselfishness, their chemistry and their team spirit. "I do recall how impressed I was with their strong sense of team," he said. "That impressed me more than anything else."
Wooden, of course, coached UCLA to 10 national championships and to what still ranks as an NCAA men's record 88-game winning streak. UConn is generating consistent national headlines with its current 72-game winning streak - the longest in women's Division I basketball history.
Here's what's interesting. Over the years, Wooden has repeatedly been asked which of his players he would rate as his best. And just like Osborne, he has never answered that question.
Surprisingly, a man who once coached Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton, says he's never had any more successful players - by his definition - than Conrad Burke or Doug McIntosh, two relative no-names who were not especially gifted physically, but played meaningful roles on championship teams. "By perseverance and dedicated hard work," Wooden said, "they learned their assignments minutely and made few mistakes. They were great practice players and became two and three-year starters."
Wooden, Osborne and Yori all believe those attributes will trump talent any time. "Those two came as close to realizing their full potential as any two I ever had," Wooden said. "Who can do more?"
It's All About Making the Most of Your Ability
Indeed, who can do more than Nebraska's 2009-10 starters and their ultra-valuable backups? In interviews, Yori often points out that the only team in Big 12 Conference history to finish the regular season unbeaten (men or women) is not even the most talented team in its own league, let alone the country.
But it is a team that loves to practice, buys into every ounce of instruction, meets every challenge with resilience and thrives on a certain energy and desire that is apparent to coaches, teammates and fans throughout the Big 12 and across the country.
That, in a nutshell, is a team, a program and a whole state coming together to take Nebraska basketball where it has never been before ... to a threshold of greatness.
John Cook, a Connie Yori fan, has taken Nebraska volleyball into that difficult-to-reach plateau of national prominence. Cook, also a Wooden fan, says the Huskers can continue to "out-team" other programs that may have more talent.
Nebraska fans are sensing the same thing. Last week, we asked several longtime Nebraska women's basketball season ticketholders what they thought about this program's emergence as a national power. To a person, they see this renaissance shaking the very foundation of how basketball is viewed, valued, supported, nurtured and followed in this state.
The Nebraska women rank eighth nationally in average home attendance with 7,390 per game. The previous school record was 5,000 per game. The Huskers traditionally have ranked among the top 30 in attendance over the last 15 years, but this year's spike has created a bigger buzz and a better atmosphere.
Fans are catching the fever, creating momentum and responding in record numbers. During the Big 12 Conference season, Nebraska averaged 11,393 fans in eight home games - the best average in a conference that has led the nation in attendance every year in the past decade.
Big Dreams for Little Girls Part of the Renaissance
Even more importantly, Husker fans are seeing, experiencing and acknowledging that little girls growing up in Nebraska are starting to embrace the new legends of basketball like they've embraced the legends of volleyball for decades. Parents and grandparents are noticing that kids are dreaming about being the next Kelsey Griffin or Cory Montgomery or Vonnie Turner or Dominique Kelley or Lindsey Moore.
Make no mistake. The Huskers have talent. They have good, high-character, high-quality talent. They've just never been in position to compete with such powers as UConn or Tennessee for the best talent.
Still, let's analyze where this starting lineup came from.
Griffin chose Nebraska over Michigan State and Arizona State. Part of the lure for her moving from Eagle River, Alaska, to the Midwest was to get closer to both sets of grandparents living in Iowa and Minnesota. No wonder longtime Nebraska season ticketholder Liz Larue, widow of former Husker trainer Duke Larue, votes every day to help Griffin win the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award for NCAA Division I women's basketball. Not surprisingly, Yori said if she had a vote for National Player of the Year, Griffin would get it.
Montgomery selected Nebraska over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Drake and Wisconsin-Green Bay. Turner was recruited by so many Division I schools that she quit counting when the number reached 20. All three senior starters have great talent, but they have an even greater work ethic. And they've put their team first in everything they do.
Kelley, a junior, was recruited harder by Yori than any other player. She chose the Huskers over Colorado and six other Division I schools. In three years, she's started every game and will join Moore as the glue of the 2010-11 Huskers.
Sunny Smallwood Helped Recruit Moore
Moore, the freshman point guard who has pulled the senior-laden lineup together, fell in love with Nebraska when Yori and NU Assistant Sunny Smallwood recruited her as a junior in high school. She committed early to Nebraska and never wavered in that decision, even though she became a Parade All-American and turned down Washington in her own backyard, as well as four other schools. Smallwood, the recruiting coordinator at the University of Washington for 11 years, was pivotal in helping to sell Lincoln over Seattle.
All-Big 12 Seniors Griffin, Montgomery and Turner, plus emerging stars Kelley and Moore, are five good reasons why Nebraska has been able to climb to the top of a conference that has the highest overall RPI rating in women's college basketball. We also should point out that the Huskers just ran away from a league loaded with national powers.
Obviously, Yori gets the art of recruiting, and the National Coach of the Year candidate also is worthy of a doctorate when it comes to the anatomy of a team. She has reached these heights because she's built her team on loyalty, and the Huskers seem to prosper on the very unity that grows out of such loyalty.
Wooden would be proud. He is, after all, the coach who often cautioned people that "we can become great in the eyes of others, but we'll never become successful when we compromise our character or show disloyalty towards friends or teammates."
The reverse, of course, is also true. "No individual or team will become great without loyalty," Wooden said.
Regardless of how the Huskers finish this season, they have shown all of their loyal followers the very essence of greatness because they have done their very best with the talent they have.
And, as Wooden might say, who can do more than that?
Voices from Husker Nation
Great article!! As part of Husker Nation, I have been following the Lady Huskers enthusiastically all season. I have even sent email letters to both Sports Illustrated as well as ESPN hoping they would pick up on the marvelous story that is Husker Women's Basketball this season. I couldn't agree more that this group of incredibly talented young women completely understand the concepts of hard work, loyalty and TEAM. Their success is a testament to their dedication to each other as well as to basketball. Their success is also a statement about the incredible coaching staff headed by Connie Yori, who saw something special in each of these young women. To build this program and this team takes an enormous amount of time, plus the ability to see potential in the skill sets of each player. This season is just magical, no matter how far this team goes, and now all of Husker Nation stands to applaud!! Go BIg Red. Rosalie Suggs, Noblesville, Indiana
It's what you said, Randy - exactly what you said. Early on this season, I waited in line after a game for autographs with my daughter. It was a joy to see how warm and how genuine each of these young women were and how they connected with their fans. Since that night, my daughter feels like she knows every one of the girls. They are humble, focused, generous, selfless, hard working and driven to achieve at the very highest level possible. They embody everything we Nebraskans value so dearly and the whole Husker Nation should be very proud to call them our team. I'm sure Coach Yori and the team are intensely focused on Friday, but for us fans, can we say 29 down and nine to go? Gregg Nelson, Lincoln, Nebraska
Nice article on the women's basketball team. I've become a big fan of the team this year. Living in Texas, I listen to most of the games on the Internet on Huskers.com. In January, my wife and I were able to see first-hand the Husker women thoroughly whip Texas Tech in Lubbock. The team chemistry was undeniable. After the game, I spoke with Layne Reeves' father (a former football quarterback at Tech). He talked about Layne's decision to become a Husker rather than stay home in Lubbock and play in front of the hometown fans. He couldn't say enough great things about the Husker coaching staff and team and the whole atmosphere around the program. Congratulations to Coach Yori and the team. Here's hoping the great season continues and the next Husker game we attend will be in a few weeks in San Antonio. Joe Petersen, Midland, Texas
Thanks for a great article on "The Renaissance of Nebraska Basketball Has Only Just Begun". My wife and I are Nebraska natives (Clay Center and Indianola) and University of Nebraska grads ('78 and '79). We now live in Iowa, but still follow the Huskers. Since UConn is dominating an ESPN poll right now, we thought it would be nice if Husker fans would go to ESPN's website - http://espn.go.com/womens-basketball/. Scroll down to the lower left-hand side and cast a vote for Kelsey Griffin for National Player of the Year. Hopefully, the Athletic Department can spread the word on Facebook as well, and we can all pull together to show Kelsey our support for her efforts this season. Craig and Janie Hertel, Jefferson, Iowa
My family and I are huge Husker supporters in every sport. We truly love the women's basketball team this year and are thrilled with their success! The players' passion for the game and for each other is so evident, it makes you want to watch them and support them. We can't make it to a lot of games, but we listen to every one of them or watch on TV. Matt Coatney does a great job! Ride this wave to the end girls and get that matchup with UConn that everyone is talking about! Good Luck! Pam Scarrow, Grand Island, Nebraska
I just want to say what a nice article about the Lady Huskers. Although I'm a big Husker fan in general (especially football and baseball), I've never been much interested in basketball of any flavor - until now. I'm more captivated by their sense of "team" than anything. Mark my word. I see the exact same attributes being instilled by Bo Pelini on the football team. I totally agree with Wooden, Osborne and Yori. Loyalty and hard work and a "team-first" attitude trump talent any time, and I think a former Marine is qualified to say so. Mike Wuerth, Omaha, Nebraska
Great story. We have been season ticketholders since the Angela Beck days and are so proud to be fans of the Nebraska women's basketball team. These players exhibit everything I enjoy in college sports. The quality of individual, the work ethic and the team are all things I am proud of. For this coaching staff to put all that together is just awesome. Andy Kuhn, Lincoln, Nebraska
I have been a season ticketholder through Angela Beck to Paul Sanderford and now to the best coach in women's basketball today - Connie Yori. What coach Yori has done from Day 1 eight years ago is nothing but amazing, and this year's ride will not be over until we play and beat UConn for the national championship in San Antonio. But even if we don't, we will still love this coaching staff and these nice young ladies. Everybody in the state of Nebraska is proud to call this team our team. Everybody all over the country will be rooting for this team of ours because what this team has done is good for women's college basketball. They have proven that all things are possible. Good luck ladies and Go Big Red. George Moore