KEARNEY, Neb. — The World-Herald's ranking of Nebraska's top 100 athletes has drawn praise as well as fire.
Whether it be a seasoned grandpa or an opinionated fifthgrader, sports fans of all ages are fully capable of drawing up their own list of the state's greatest athletes.
The World-Herald anticipated that its Top 100 project — the presentation of which culminates today with Bob Gibson as the state's No. 1 athlete — would spawn squabbles and contention at family dinner tables as well as in coffee shops throughout the state.
But it's likely that the discussion with the most well-informed debaters took place in Kearney way back on June 14. That is when a preliminary list of athletes considered for the project was presented to nine longtime observers of Nebraska athletics.
Eight men and a woman, all invited by The World-Herald, were encouraged to poke holes in the logic used to compile the preliminary list. They were allowed to lobby for the inclusion of athletes who perhaps had been overlooked during The World-Herald's initial list-making process.
Panel members gathered at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, ate lunch and haggled for nearly five hours. Some of it was light-hearted banter. Some of it was serious stuff.
Panelists had no voting power. This would remain The WorldHerald's project, with final decisions on the top 100 made by the newspaper. But panelists tossed out suggestions and offered some table-thumping observations. Several athletes were added to the working list, which at the time had already been whittled to about 150 names from more than 450.
Some of the opinions offered during the lengthy discussion that triggered debate:
Dave Rimington (Omaha South) was the better center in college; Mick Tingelhoff (Lexington) had a better pro career.
The accomplishments of Roger Sayers (Omaha Central) far exceed those of Val Skinner (North Platte).
Bill Brown (Omaha Creighton Prep) is the best tennis player the state has produced.
Bass angler Denny Brauer (Seward) is a great guy. Sharing a boat with him would be a great time, but he shouldn't be in the Top 100.
Johnny Rodgers (Omaha Tech) was the best high school middle linebacker one panelist had ever seen.
Louise Pound (Lincoln High) broke down barriers that would have taken women's athletics another century to overcome without her involvement. She was genuine.
Why didn't The World-Herald pick the best females separately? Why were the females included with the males?
Eric Crouch was the only player worth voting for the year he won the Heisman. He was the only candidate. He had no competition. One panelist thought he was one of the weakest Heisman Trophy winners ever.
Inevitably, sports themselves were compared. Tom Ash, retired director of the Cornhusker State Games and a former World-Herald sportswriter, locked horns with Jack Payne, retired Omaha sportscaster, in a spirited debate over where Olympic gold medal shooter Gary Anderson should be ranked.
"A shooter or a golfer, same deal," Ash said. "They have a very specific skill that belongs in
the top 100. But not in the top 50. Gary Anderson had a great skill, but is shooting an athletic event like some of the other sports?"
"Gary took up his rifle as a sport," Payne said, "and it's recognized as such by the Olympics. He achieved the peak of his sport. He excelled two times — gold medals in two different Olympics."
Don Benning, retired assistant superintendent of the Omaha Public Schools, recalled instances where black athletes excelled despite having to contend with sinister forces far more powerful than anything opposing teams could muster.
"Let me give you an example," Benning said, citing former University of Nebraska lineman Charles Bryant, an all-conference selection in 1954 and an eventual inductee into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
"When you play for a team where your own teammates don't want you on the team . . . when you can't house with your own team when you go on trips — I don't know how it can get much worse."
Hall of famers, world record holders, Olympic gold medalists, All-Americans, national champions. Nebraska's wealth of athletic talent is sometimes taken for granted — or completely overlooked — until the names of all the greats are assembled and their exploits once more are examined and relished.
"Holy smokes!" exclaimed Mike Troxel, retired principal and athletic director at Sutherland and a former Nebraska School Activities Association board of control member. "Look at the names. We've had such tremendous athletes in this state, and a lot of them won't even make the Top 100."
After reviewing the athletes, each panel member was asked which of the greats was the greatest.
Six of the nine panelists agreed with The World-Herald that Bob Gibson was the best athlete in Nebraska history.
Panelists who backed Gibson were Al Papik, retired NU senior associate athletic director; Buck Mahoney, Kearney Hub sports editor; Gene Haynes, principal at Omaha North; Payne; Ash; and Benning.
Troxel declined to name a No. 1 athlete. So did Dick Beechner of Kearney, executive director of the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame Foundation.
Jo Dusatko, retired girls coach at Omaha Central, split her choice between Gibson and Gale Sayers.
Sayers was the group's overwhelming choice as the secondbest athlete the state has produced. Haynes, however, gave that honor to Bob Boozer and believed Sayers was No. 3.
Several panel members pointed out areas where they encountered difficulty in assessing the talent of individual athletes.
"The representation of women (in the Top 100) is very fair," Dusatko said. "It's just hard to compare some of these women to a Gale Sayers or a Bob Gibson. The women aren't there yet. And we don't have the pros. They've come a long way since 1971, but they're not there yet."
The hardest part for Troxel was to step back and look at all the state has produced.
"I have my favorites out here," he said. "I thought Mary Lou Jasnoch from Oshkosh should be on there. And Kim Behrends of Chappell. But when you look at the whole picture, probably not. That was difficult for me to do — look at the whole picture."
Many panelists said the most difficult chore was to evaluate current athletes the likes of Robert Rands (track, football), Alex Gordon (baseball) and Erika Anschutz (archery).
"Where do they fit in the history of the state?" asked Mahoney. "You know what everyone else has accomplished. But where do they rank?"
Wrapper: The countdown to No. 1
The World-Herald continues its introduction of the Top 100 athletes in Nebraska History. See pages 1y to 4y around today's Sports section for athletes No. 1 to 10.