From left, Prem Paul, Tom Osborne, Shawn Eichorst. Kevin Wright Photo, UNL Alumni Association
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Academics + Athletics = Innovative Research

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

When Nebraska opens the biggest entrance to its $63.5 million East Stadium Expansion Project this fall, football fans will walk through space that goes well beyond 6,200 new seats and 38 new suites. That’s because 50,000 square feet of this refashioned, modernized Memorial Stadium will be devoted to research, and that exploration of the unknown will feature the ultimate odd couple working hand-in-hand ‒ academics and athletics. University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty, Nebraska Athletics staff and private sector partners will team on innovative health and performance research.

This partnership will mark the first on-campus, shared academic/athletic research facility in the history of intercollegiate athletics. Whether you call it an historic breakthrough or an opportunity of a lifetime, just understand that these two anchor tenants are the result of a unique collaboration that follows a simple but elegant and heretofore unused equation: Academics + Athletics = Innovative Research.

“That’s perfect because that’s what this will be ‒ true innovation coming from two sides that rarely work together ‒ academics and athletics,” said Prem S. Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research and economic development. “All the stars are lined up for this unique partnership, and we’re delighted to join forces with Nebraska Athletics. Our national reputation in athletics is opening doors for us in academics. I have absolutely no doubt that linking our prestigious academic and athletic programs will create opportunities we’ve never had before. Our college deans are excited, and our faculty is on board. We are prepared to work together with a man who left an incredible athletic legacy to his home state and now has the opportunity to leave an equally incredible academic legacy.”

Paul is referring to Tom Osborne, now serving as Nebraska Athletic Director Emeritus. Nebraska’s Hall-of-Fame football coach and three-term Congressman has been given “100 percent leadership and accountability to lead the athletic side of this relationship,” said Shawn Eichorst, who succeeded Osborne as athletic director Jan. 3, 2013. “It was an easy decision to make. Coach Osborne’s vision created this partnership. He has everyone’s trust, and his leadership and guidance will get this joint research effort off the launching pad just like we all want. I wouldn’t want it to happen any other way.” 

Building Private Partnerships 

Osborne, 75, is eager to see completion of the athletic research area that will be connected to the academic research area. Communication, cooperation and collaboration will be paramount to seize the benefits from research that will feature, among other things, Bryan Heart Institute, which will measure conditioning training designed to improve athletic performance. Known for his pioneering leadership in bringing cutting-edge strength training and nutritional research into the daily lives of his student-athletes, Osborne envisions a more comprehensive approach that can range from psychological research to motion analysis of athletes lifting weights and everything in between.

Osborne also has developed a strong working relationship with Steve Kiene, managing principal at Nebraska Global, a high-tech company which has worked closely with Nebraska Athletics on weight and conditioning training, nutrition, online athlete assessments and biomedical research projects, including on-field, tablet-based concussion diagnostics. “We’re strong believers in research and economic development,” Kiene said, “and we’re excited to move some of our best performers into the East Stadium.”

Several performance-related thinkers influenced Osborne’s vision, beginning with former Nebraska women’s soccer assistant coach Wally Crittenden, who developed his UNL master’s of education thesis on the benefits of a Nebraska Sports Institute that would elevate the Huskers’ leadership positions in a variety of performance-related areas. Doak Ostergard, director of outreach for the athletic department, used Crittenden’s creative idea to start asking “What if?” questions regarding possible tenants in the new East Stadium.

David Hansen, then-chair of UNL’s psychology department, was contemplating moving some of his department’s research into the Whittier Research Center, a former junior high building that UNL recently renovated to house interdisciplinary research initiatives. “What if you moved your group into the East Stadium instead?” Ostergard asked Hansen after a meeting on the potential for collaborative research between academics and athletics. The more Hansen thought about the mutual benefits of crossover research, the more he embraced the idea of moving his research team into the East Stadium.

Another cog in this partnership is Brandon Rigoni, a member of the Nebraska football strength and conditioning staff, who completed his master’s degree at UNL and is now pursuing a doctorate in biopsychology with an emphasis in statistics. His research centers on athletic performance related to the human stress response system. 

Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior

Osborne, UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman and Paul worked closely to make this first-ever joint research facility and unique partnership a reality. A key player in the research effort is Dennis Molfese, the Mildred Francis Thompson Professor of Psychology, who will direct UNL’s new Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, a.k.a. CB3. In 2010, UNL recruited Molfese to lead the university’s brain research efforts. Internationally known for his expertise in using brain recording techniques to study the emerging relationships between brain development, language and cognitive processes, Molfese heads the Big Ten/Committee on Institutional Collaboration’s Traumatic Brain Injury Research. Ivy League schools have joined the Nebraska-based effort to study head injuries in sports.

Approved in January by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, CB3 is the linchpin of the East Stadium’s combined research. More than three dozen UNL faculty from several colleges and other campuses are expected to collaborate on research through this broad-based interdisciplinary center, which will employ cutting-edge imaging technology to better understand the biological underpinnings of behavior and performance.

“With CB3, we’re creating an interdisciplinary center for innovative health and performance research that links academics and athletics and ultimately will improve the health and welfare of our nation’s citizens, including our student-athletes,” Paul said.

No one has to tell Osborne the importance of such research. The game of football eagerly awaits research that could supply answers needed to decrease the frequency and the overall impact of football-related injuries. Osborne believes if solutions are not found to correct the alarming trend and severity of increased concussions, the game will be in jeopardy. 

The Big Ten/Committee on Institutional Cooperation and Ivy League concussion research initiative is unique in its focus on short- and long-term involvement by athletes who agree to take part. Osborne said it’s not out of the question that Molfese’s team could measure concussions and determine with definitive research what types of helmets could improve the safety of players who wear them.

Envisioning a World-Class Center

With four decades of experience in brain studies and development, Molfese wants UNL to establish an international reputation as a pioneering, world-class interdisciplinary center that investigates the interface between social, biological, behavioral, engineering and neurological issues.

“Putting good people together leads to good things and the creation of two research spaces in Memorial Stadium will be a compelling catalyst for interaction,” Chancellor Perlman said, adding that the opportunity for student-athletes to use the program will provide information that may be more broadly helpful to society than just performance.

Nebraska Global, which will have office space in the East Stadium, is helping Nebraska Athletics design a web-based information portal for parents of student-athletes – a one-of-a-kind technology tool that will help student-athletes in every phase of their academic/athletic life and also could become a game-changer for recruiting.

Nebraska’s brain research efforts will stretch well beyond student-athletes and could help soldiers as well as citizens. Paul, Osborne and Eichorst envision the East Stadium facility having the potential to become a center of excellence at UNL, with significant impact on funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and the private sector. CB3 will be the nation’s only facility to simultaneously record certain MRIs, eye-tracking and event-related potentials.

Nebraska in a 'League of Its Own'

“I don’t know of any school in the country undertaking what we are,” Osborne said. “In athletics, you’re always trying to push the limits of human performance and endurance, and by merging our athletic mission with our academic mission, we can build better relationships, boost our recruiting and retain our top athletes.”

More than four decades ago, UNL’s chancellor asked Tom Osborne to make a choice between coaching football and teaching. If he accepted a job as a professor, he would be groomed to someday become the president of the university. Osborne, of course, chose football, but also made sure he integrated academics with athletics. 

Today, in his farewell tour as perhaps Nebraska’s most popular leader, Osborne is enabling a powerful crossover between academics and athletics – an idea that was buried deep in his heart when he returned to Nebraska to teach a leadership class in UNL’s College of Business Administration. Nearly six years later, Osborne is nurturing an idea whose time has come, an idea in which he’s invested heavily to see it through.

“Tom Osborne has been such a great leader for all of us – in athletics and academics,” Paul said. “He listens to our faculty and has brought them on board with objectives and goals they all believe in. We’ve already learned so much from him collectively, and we’re excited to continue working with him and Shawn Eichorst collaboratively. Like Tom, Shawn listens and learns and leads. They’re both interested in the same thing – getting things done and getting them done right. It’s going to be a great partnership.”

After spending a considerable amount of time in the athletic department in the last year, Molfese gets pumped just thinking about the challenge facing him and his entire team. “We’re all ready to go out and kick some serious neuro-butt,” he said.

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