By Randy York
Of all of our social institutions, the family is the one that most of us are familiar with, and that point was driven home time and again when Nebraska sponsored its first Big Red Weekend, which could have been billed as the Husker football version of Sister Sledge's timeless hit We Are Family. Twenty-one underclass recruiting prospects - from Maryland to California and from Texas to Wisconsin and South Dakota - were invited to Memorial Stadium, and they saw a side of Nebraska they might have heard about, but never experienced. "The two things Bo preaches most are family and accountability - two things that go hand-in-hand - so we wanted to show these 21 recruits what kind of family we have here," said Ross Els, the Huskers' first-year recruiting coordinator. "We didn't want just to talk about it; we wanted to show 'em."
From early accounts, Big Red Weekend was a success. Two weekend visitors already have given Nebraska their verbal pledges to sign National Letters of Intent. After spending 8½ family-oriented hours at Nebraska's Hawks Championship Center Saturday, Els said Monday morning that he wouldn't be surprised if others followed suit. He stressed, however, that there is no set timetable for that happen, nor would Nebraska exert any such pressure. While recruits arrived as early as last Thursday and left as late as mid-afternoon Sunday, Els praised the teamwork within NU's Athletic Department to stage what became a unique platform to recruit. In Els' mind, the strength of the Nebraska family compares to the strength of an army, especially when he measures people's loyalty and dedication to each other.
Pelini Sees Family as the Root of Culture
Since Pelini sees family as the root of culture, Saturday's main event wasn't just for recruits. It also included the Huskers' entire football team, and Saturday was a deserving reward for all its hard work since spring practice ended last April. If family is a perpetual source of encouragement and emotional refueling that reinforces the value of its members, prospective recruits received that and more as they spent time with Husker players, coaches and support staff from 2 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday. The atmosphere inside the Hawk's Championship Center, the indoor home of Husker football, resembled a family reunion with plenty of creative indoor activities that created more than its share of competition, fun and laughs.
"We had an old-fashioned bar-b-cue," Els said, adding that the ribs and chicken were as good they get. "We just wanted to have fun and let the kids enjoy themselves. It worked well because the day did what it was supposed to do - show all of our recruits what a special family we have here at Nebraska."
While several institutions host large, unofficial weekends where they invite prospective football recruits to come in at their own expense, most are tied in with some sort of a camp or a 7-on-7 competition. "We felt that we didn't need to evaluate recruits," Els said. "We've already done our homework. We just wanted them to come in and see what we have here. The majority of the recruits came with their parents. Some brought their high school coaches. A couple came by themselves.
"I can't begin to name names of everyone who made this a reality, but Austen Everson and Aaryn Kearney (football recruiting) and Eric Haynes (event management) worked countless hours to pull it off," Els said. "Our facilities people were led by Maggi Thorne. Everybody helped, including the best video people out there. Whenever we asked someone about something, they would throw in another idea. One thing I'm definitely learning after my short time here is how everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to do it right. They're all qualified, intelligent people and obviously a big part of our football family."
Dad's Video Helped Mom Feel Involved, Too
One of the "extras" in this special day was Alvin Banks, a former Nebraska football player who now serves as an academic counselor for Nebraska's Athletic Department. As a former Husker who's seen his share of recruiting styles, Banks shared with recruits his perspective of Nebraska's unique style. One recruit's dad from the West Coast was so enamored with the Huskers' emphasis on academics that he used his iPad to record the experience. "He wanted his wife and the kid's mother to see what they were seeing in Lincoln," Banks said. "Coming here meant all the difference in the world to them."
Count Els among those who believe the bond that links a family isn't always one of blood, but of shared vision, style and respect. "I think that's where these recruits are coming from after seeing us a family," Els said. "It's scary when you're thinking about going to a school that's hundreds of miles away from where you live. Recruits want to know how they're going to find the best friends of their life. I mean, if they come to Nebraska, they'll probably fall in love with somebody here. They need to know how much they can really grow here, and they need to know who the people are that will help them grow. That's what Nebraska's all about. We've been doing this for a long time. When we explain how we do it, everybody understands why it's worked."
Pelini always has insisted that the toughest thing about recruiting at Nebraska is getting players to visit in the first place. Once they see Lincoln, tour the facilities and talk with the players already here, recruiting is relatively easy.
Last Saturday, Nebraska showcased its usual leaders to address visiting recruits, parents, coaches and players. Tom Osborne talked about tradition and how Nebraska's past has paved the way to unparalleled facilities and future opportunities. Dennis Leblanc discussed Nebraska's national leadership in Academics. Keith Zimmer summarized how the Huskers are pathfinders in Life Skills, and Scott Trausch explained why Nebraska continues to be a national leader in Nutrition. James Dobson described Nebraska being on the cutting edge in strength and conditioning training, and Dr. Lonnie Albers gave prospective recruits a glimpse of Nebraska's trailblazing future in athletic medicine research.
"We have a big athletic family, and they're all an important part of our football success story," Els said. "We always showcase these individuals, but this time, we wanted to communicate why we're different and how we're special. Coach Osborne really resonates, especially with parents and coaches because they were around when he was winning national championships here, and they understand the character and the ethics that he stands for. I know this. When he gets up there to talk, man, all eyes are focused on him."
Proof of Success Comes Next February
As enthused as Els is about the Big Red Weekend experience, he will hold off putting the "great" tag on it. "We'll see in February," he said. "That's the only report card that counts."
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