By Randy York
Associate Athletic Director
Nebraska’s back-to-back upsets of two nationally ranked basketball teams last week – Kansas State and Texas A&M – surprised more than a few Big 12 followers.
One of the wins even surprised Tonya Sadler. “I was hoping, but wasn’t expecting us to beat K-State,” she admitted. Tonya, the wife of Nebraska head basketball coach Doc Sadler, said she wishes she’d seen it coming. “But I didn’t really think it was going to happen.”
She did, however, predict a Nebraska win over A&M. “I knew we could do it because of the way we played against K-State,” she said. “I told Doc: ‘Your team is back, and they’re going to give the same kind of effort in College Station.’”
The Huskers did just that, making the Sadler household in southeast Lincoln the loudest in the Capital City over the weekend. “We screamed and yelled and cheered just like we do when we go to games here,” Tonya said. “All of us really got excited (including Doc’s mother, Cookie, and his two sons – Landon, 14, and Matthew, 11).”
When Cookie Miller, Nebraska’s point guard, fell to the floor in pain with a severely sprained shoulder in the final six minutes, the Sadler screams became sounds of silence. “I thought to myself: ‘Uh-oh,’” Tonya said. “I knew it was a true test of our character, but I still felt we’d pull together instead of get rattled, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Although Doc and Tonya rarely talk about basketball, their support for each other is unwavering.
“We both grew up in a little town of about 2,000 in Greenwood, Arkansas,” Tonya said. “In high school, Doc was the quarterback, and I was a cheerleader. I’d wear his No. 10 on my sweater just to show my support for him.”
“I was not as good a quarterback as she was a cheerleader, that’s for sure,” Doc said. “I can’t imagine having a better wife than I have. She understands what it takes to do what I’m doing, and even though she always says she’s the last person in the world to know what’s going on in basketball, she’s doing a great job of raising our two boys.”
Sadler helps whenever possible, but admits he’s preoccupied with trying to build in Nebraska what Eddie Sutton helped build in Arkansas. Sutton, one of only five major college head basketball coaches with 800 career wins, has led programs at Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma State and is now at San Francisco.
In 1974, Sutton took over an underperforming Arkansas program. Over the next 12 seasons, he led the Razorbacks to a 270-75 record. Under Sutton, they won five conference championships and made nine NCAA Tournament appearances, including the 1978 Final Four. He has the rare distinction of having taken two schools (Arkansas and Oklahoma State) to the Final Four, and was the first coach to lead four schools to the NCAA tournament.
Sutton and Arkansas are part of Sadler’s basketball DNA. He started there as a manager for the team, doing everything from the laundry to sweeping the floor. Even when he became a graduate assistant coach at Arkansas, he didn’t mind babysitting the Sutton kids, including Sean, now head coach at Oklahoma State (Nebraska’s opponent Saturday in Stillwater, Okla.).
The Arkansas experience influenced Doc’s decision to coach at Nebraska. “There are a lot of reasons why I identify with the people of Nebraska, and football is one of them,” he said. “Just like everyone else in this state, I love football. My dad (the late Charles Sadler) was a high school football coach in Arkansas for more than 30 years. We grew up with tremendous loyalty to the University of Arkansas. We just wanted some of that loyalty to become just as important in basketball.”
Doc saw first-hand what it took to create that kind of transformation. “I realize it takes everyone to be on board to have that kind of success,” he said. “I’m willing to work as hard as I can and to recruit the best kids that I can to make this state proud.”
He’s also willing to get in his car and travel the miles to win friends and influence people across the state. Before the season started, in a little more than a year, Doc had driven more than 40,000 miles and attended more than 140 events. Some were as small as 10 people; others as large as 200.
“At Arkansas, we learned the importance of winning with Arkansas kids, so we recruited Ron Brewer, Marvin Delph and Sidney Moncrief,” Doc said. “Nebraska will always be the first place we look here, too. If we’re going to get it done, we need Nebraska success stories. That’s why I get in the car and drive to places like North Platte, Scottsbluff and Chadron. We want everyone to know us and support us. To be successful, we need everyone behind us – from the athletic director, coaches and players to the ticket-takers, concessionaires and custodians. I want Nebraska basketball to become the same kind of close-knit family that Nebraska football is.”
In his unending pursuit of that dream, Tonya says her husband works so hard even during the off-season that he’s asleep “two seconds after his head hits the pillow.”
Last week was a rare exception. When his Huskers used a 2-3 zone and a box-and-1 to stymie K-State National College Player of the Year candidate Michael Beasley, Doc had trouble even getting to sleep.
And when he did, he’d still wake up and wonder what he could have done differently to change the results of conference games he felt were highly winnable – home-court losses to Baylor (by 2) and Missouri (in overtime) and road setbacks to Colorado (by 4) and Iowa State (when the Huskers held the home team to 11 points in the first half).
Wednesday night, Oklahoma visits Lincoln, and Doc knows the Sooners have enough weapons to win here when they’ve already won at such places as West Virginia, Baylor and Texas Tech.
“We need all the help we can get to beat Oklahoma,” Sadler said. “They have a lot of talent.”
Tonya, her mother-in-law and her kids will be sitting in their usual place behind Doc and the team at the Devaney Center. “We’re always standing up and cheering,” she said. “We clap; we yell; we scream; we get excited.”
The Sadler family’s behavior doesn’t exactly represent the norm. “I don’t know why people are hesitant to stand up and cheer. Maybe it’s because I’m an old cheerleader, and I don’t know any better,” she said. “I do know this: Showing support really does help, and those players can use all the noise we can give ‘em.”
Last year, a fan told Tonya he’d never seen a coach’s wife cheer at a game like she does. “I don’t know whether he meant it to be a compliment or what,” she said. “I guess I’m just like Doc. He’s honest, down-to-earth and tells it like it is. He’s just a good ol’ small-town, Greenwood boy. And I guess I’m just a good ol’ small-town, Greenwood girl. Neither one of us will sugar-coat anything.”