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Last week, Tom Osborne left his third-floor office and took one flight of stairs down to the football floor. Nebraska’s athletic director had asked Bo Pelini, the Huskers’ head coach, for some time to address his staff.
Osborne went into the room carrying the look of a man with a serious message, and he delivered it in his usual calm, measured manner.
He said that another Big 12 school had written the NCAA about Nebraska’s apparent violation of a rather obscure rule involving extra recruiting enticements.
“The allegation involves Mike Ekeler wearing a tattoo to entice Will Compton to come to Nebraska,” Osborne said, “and, unfortunately, because of that tattoo on his arm, it looks like we will have NCAA sanctions against us when the investigation is complete. The way I understand it, it looks like Mike will be off the road for a year recruiting, and it looks like Will is going to be ineligible to play this year.”
Osborne took no pleasure in making that announcement. There was concern in his face and compassion in his voice. The room went quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ekeler finally said, breaking the ice.
The room went even more silent. Then, Ron Brown, Nebraska’s veteran receivers coach, went over to Ekeler, the Huskers’ rookie linebackers coach, and put his arm around him.
“I’ve been through this before,” Brown told Ekeler, patting his back. “I think you’re going to be okay.”
Coaches Finally Realized They’d Been Had
Then Brown smiled. Then Osborne smiled. Then together, they released the healthy chuckles that had been hiding behind their grim faces. When the chuckles turned to laughter, the whole room full of coaches knew they’d been had.
“Coach Brown might have known Coach Osborne was kidding, but no one else did,” said Jeff Jamrog, Nebraska’s assistant athletic director for football operations and the one who asked Osborne to play the prank on the coaching staff. “I mean, you should have seen Ekeler. He turned as white as a ghost. Even when he realized it was a joke, he was pretty shook up.”
Still, it’s hard to be mad at anyone who makes you laugh, and Osborne’s dramatic bit of Tom-foolery falls into the same category as Bo-jinks, the name that covers a series of equally creative shenanigans that Nebraska’s head coach has played on his staff and players to help in their emotional overhaul of Nebraska football.
“When you work as hard as these players and these coaches do, you have to find ways to break up the tension and the monotony,” Osborne said.
Sometimes, you have to take one for the team, and on this day, it was payback for Ekeler, who is gaining a reputation as an innovative recruiter, especially when he used an over-the-top prank to put an exclamation point on the highly touted Compton’s decision to become a Husker.
Nebraska Defensive Coordinator Carl Pelini set the prank up perfectly in the Compton family living room. As Pelini, Ekeler, secondary coach Marvin Sanders and defensive line coach John Papuchis were leaving Compton’s house, Pelini said that Ekeler had asked him to stop on his way from the airport so he could do “something special” to commemorate Will’s verbal commitment.
“Remember how I said I would jump off the North end of Memorial Stadium if you didn’t commit to us?” Ekeler asked Compton. “Well, my wife wouldn’t have allowed that because we have four little kiddos, and she says they need their daddy.
“So I decided to do this instead,” Ekeler said, pulling up his right shirt sleeve to reveal a makeshift Blackshirt tattoo on his upper arm with “Compton” printed over it. “I got this tattoo on my way over here just to remind myself every day that if you did not come to Nebraska, you would be making the biggest mistake of your life.”
Compton’s parents, his brother, his girlfriend and his best friend all laughed at the outlandish sight, which – like every other good prank – had, in effect, eased the pressure of making such an important decision.
Well-Meaning Pranks Can Unify a Team
Osborne, of course, would never go to such extremes, but he can’t help but laugh – and pull a prank – on someone who does.
“That’s okay,” Ekeler said this week. “I grew up idolizing Coach Osborne, even though I never got to play for him. People can laugh all they want about me getting fooled, but I now have a story about Coach Osborne playing a ridiculous prank on me . . . a story I can tell my grandkids someday. Everyone has this image of this very stoic leader, but I’ll tell you what. Coach Osborne has more personality than all of us.”
Nebraska’s athletic director also has the vision to support traits that paved the way for the best teams that Bob Devaney coached. Osborne sees Pelini – and certain members of his staff, including Ekeler – enjoying the motivational art of fun. Why else would Osborne participate in last fall’s famous “Tussle on the Turf” exhibition following a Nebraska football practice inside the Hawks Championship Center?
The tussle involved Mark “The Mangler” Manning, Nebraska’s head wrestling coach, getting five chances to tackle former Nebraska special teams captain Brandon “The Gunner” Rigoni at full speed, in full pads, near the goal line. Manning gave up three touchdowns before wrestling Rigoni to the ground to win the challenge. Wrestlers and football players laughed and cheered the action, and shortly after Osborne awarded a trophy, Tussle on the Turf became an overnight hit on YouTube.
Knowing how creative, well-meaning pranks can unify a staff and a team, Osborne is more than willing to contribute whatever he can and whenever he can to help the cause.
At the request of Pelini, for example, Osborne agreed to play a prank on the players the day after he’d pulled one off on the coaches.
Only four people were in on this one – Pelini, Osborne, Jamrog and Marc Boehm, Nebraska’s executive associate athletic director. With seven coaches remaining in their offices, Osborne, Boehm and Jamrog walked into Nebraska’s football auditorium with looks of heavy concern. A sullen Jamrog introduced Osborne, who again, in his customary, understated style, took immediate command of the players.
“Something’s been brought to our attention, and it has a major effect on everyone in this room,” Osborne said. “As most everyone knows, the NCAA disallows anyone in intercollegiate athletics from getting involved in NCAA basketball brackets.
“We’ve warned everyone in the athletic department about how serious this can be, and, unfortunately, the NCAA has been investigating those charges against us. It’s my understanding that seven of our football coaches have been involved in NCAA pools this year, and we’re going to have to make some changes this spring. Marc, you’ve been talking to the NCAA on the phone . . . can you give us an update?”
Osborne Announced as New Head Coach
After Nebraska’s athletic director sat down, Boehm got up to confirm the accuracy and to announce that changes were now necessary, starting with Osborne replacing Pelini immediately as head coach.
One player, sensing an April Fool’s hoax, laughed out loud.
“This is no laughing matter, young man,” Boehm said sternly, pointing his finger at the perpetrator.
Properly admonished, the guilty player, like the rest of his teammates, remained quiet in their seats.
Osborne then got back up to talk again. “It’s been awhile since I’ve coached,” he said, “so we’re going to scrimmage a lot today . . . “
By the time he got to his next line – “I really don’t know the plays, but we’ll get through them” – Osborne had lost whatever credibility he had when he first walked in.
It became obvious. Osborne and Boehm couldn’t help chortling at the insanity of their own charade, prompting the players to snicker before they felt the freedom to erupt in a burst of good, old-fashioned team laughter.
The prank proved once again that there’s nothing like an outward expression of amusement to cut through the mental and physical drudgery that’s required to become a Nebraska football player.
“I thought I did a decent job, but Marc really played his part,” Osborne said. “He had the team pretty well convinced something was wrong.”
Osborne, Boehm, Pelini and Jamrog see laughter as good, cheap medicine. Even though it will never make problems disappear, laughter will give you a healthier attitude toward the problems you have, and it will divert focus from any anger, frustration or worry you might be experiencing.
Laughter Sends Team Chemistry ‘Straight Up’
“What happened last week weren’t just silly, foolish pranks,” linebacker Blake Lawrence said. “They’re designed to make us all come closer together, and they do. This coaching staff really stresses working hard together, and when we can find time to laugh hard together, team chemistry just goes straight up.”
Take, for instance, Bo’s best prank during fall camp last season. The scene took place in the same football auditorium in which Osborne performed his emotional trickery.
Pelini was chastising Matt Slauson for mistakes made in a scrimmage before classes started last fall. The more Pelini groused about the mistakes, the madder Slauson got. Finally, he got up from his auditorium chair, threw his cup and said, “You know, coach, I don’t have to take this. I quit!”
And he stormed out of the room.
“The whole team sat there in stunned silence,” Lawrence recalled. “We had just seen our best offensive lineman quit and our head coach was getting more and more upset by the second.”
After debating with his assistant coaches, Pelini decided to leave the room and check on Slauson. “We could hear them continue to argue outside the door,” Lawrence said. “We all just looked at each other in disbelief. When the door started to rattle, it sounded like somebody was getting beat up.”
This time, though, “Coach Bo started screaming and yelling, and it really heated up,” Lawrence said. “We were all thinking that Matt was so mad he was pounding on our head coach. Ron Brown ran out of the room and yelled for a trainer, so Mark Mayer ran out the door, too,” Lawrence related. “I don’t know what everyone else was thinking, but I was thinking: ‘Oh my, we’re going to be one of the stories on Sports Center tonight.’ I mean, nothing looked staged. It all came across as very real to all of us.”
Then, suddenly, Pelini reappeared. “He had this big smile on his face,” Lawrence said. “He told everyone to quit worrying. He told us that they’d planned the whole thing, and it was all a big joke. Then, like nothing had happened, he said: ‘C’mon, guys. Let’s go bowling.’”
And so the Huskers, playing for a first-time, full-year head coach, got out of their chairs laughing and headed straight for a bowling alley west of town. “What a perfect way to end a tough fall camp,” Lawrence said. “Everyone thought it was awesome. The way they set it all up was just hilarious. I mean, everybody bought it. The mood had been really, really intense all fall, so a heated debate (between a physical player and a demanding coach) didn’t seem that far-fetched to anyone. None of us knew what was going on until they both came back in the room laughing.”
Devaney Let Team Jesters ‘Hold Court’
Ask Mike “Red” Beran about the importance of humor in a physical football camp. He believes that Devaney’s sense for fun was essential to Nebraska winning its first two national championships in 1970 and ’71. “Good pranks have been part of Nebraska football for almost 50 years,” said Beran, a walk-on offensive guard who battled against the likes of Larry Jacobson, John Dutton, Willie Harper, Rich Glover, Bill Janssen, Monte Johnson, Dave Walline and the late Ed Periard.
Like Coach Osborne’s best teams in the ‘90s, the best competition for Coach Devaney’s best teams in the ‘70s “was us going against our own teammates in practice every day,” Beran said. “There were times we almost killed each other, so Coach Devaney let some of the jesters on our team hold court every once in a while. That was the best way to remind ourselves that war can be fun.”
According to Beran, the team’s “jesters” were Doug Jamail, Jim Carstens, Jeff Hughes, Doug Johnson and the late Glen “Satch” Garson. “I will never forget the day when Coach Devaney was addressing the team after a very physical practice,” Beran recalled. “While he was talking to us, Doug Jamail was behind him in a boxing robe, shadow boxing with both gloves on. Everyone had a really good laugh on that one.”
Later that season, Carstens and quarterback Bob Jones had a real boxing match, masterfully orchestrated underneath the East Stadium. “This time, Jamail was in a tuxedo, not a boxing robe,” Beran remembered. “They had a phony microphone that came down from the ceiling. They had a ring announcer, judges – everything. Those two were supposed to go three, three-minute rounds, but the third round only lasted about 30 seconds. They were both so tired that they could hardly stand up, so it was declared a draw. Whenever we get together, we still talk about how much we laughed when we played and how much that laughter helped us play even harder.”
Nearly a half century later, former Huskers talk about that day because they know that in one 6 1/2-minute, creatively staged boxing match, three important things were accomplished. First, it eased the pressure. Second, it lightened the load, and third and most importantly, it unified the team.
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