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Shatel: Celebrating my Husker football anniversary ... without Husker football
FIRST DOWNS AND SECOND GUESSES

Shatel: Celebrating my Husker football anniversary ... without Husker football

First downs, second guesses and a pretty cool milestone that caught me off guard:

I’m celebrating an anniversary this year. But I don’t need a cake. I need a football game.

My career turns 40 this month, that’s 29 in Nebraska years.

It was the first week of September 1980 when I began stealing money for a living at the Kansas City Star and Times.

First assignment: high school sports. First game: Oak Park vs. Lee’s Summit.

I wrote the story from a bowling alley, had to wrestle someone to use the pay phone. Made my first deadline. And off I went.

Two years later I was on the Big Eight beat. First game: Iowa at Nebraska. I spent the night at a hotel by the Lincoln airport. Went to a press party at the Legion Club on “O” Street. Bought Bob Devaney a drink. Or maybe that was the other way around.

Final score: Husker 42, Hawks 7. Quarterback Turner Gill, coming off a leg injury from the previous season, threw for a whole bunch of yards and scores.

My lede: “Turner Gill’s leg is fine. His arm is better.” And off I went.

I first fell in love with college football as a sophomore in college in 1977. That’s when they let me into the press box. But it was three years later when I discovered the secret to life.

That was when the Star paid me to do the thing I loved. I’m the luckiest stiff to ever type in a press box, and my career has been one long lesson in life.

Find what you love to do and then get paid to do it. My daughters don’t usually listen to their dad’s advice. I make sure they listen to that bit.

I took the long way to Omaha, through winding backroads in the Big Eight and Texas. I started at The World-Herald on Sept. 1, 1991.

I remember writing one of those first columns in the old Big Red Lounge in south Memorial Stadium, with hundreds of All-American portraits staring at me. I got chills.

College football and Saturdays do that to me every time. I won’t bore you with 40 years of stories today. But I will tell you my favorite part of covering the greatest game on earth.

It’s Saturday morning. Each one in the fall is like Christmas morning. The excitement, the anticipation, the adrenaline rush. I still get them all.

But what am I going to do this Saturday?

This is one heck of a way to celebrate an anniversary. No Nebraska football. Memorial Stadium, site of the 2020 season opener against Purdue, will be empty.

Thank goodness for the high schools and small colleges that are playing. And there will be Big 12 games in the region, and then the NFL too.

But soon the weather will turn and something’s not going to feel right. Something will be missing. Big time.

Maybe the Big Ten can come through with a Hail Mary. The presidents would have to swallow some pride, but some of the medical numbers are better. Let’s face it: You can make the numbers say whatever you want them to say.

Anyway, there’s a lot of noise out there. Could there be a Big Ten season by November? Could it be earlier?

Your guess with the Big Ten presidents, Kevin Warren, the athletic directors and coaches and all of the data and agendas is as good as mine.

I’m available to go to the press box any time of year.

But this Saturday, I’m sleeping in.

» John Thompson was larger than life, in more ways than one. He was a fascinating figure in college hoops history and one of those coaches I wish I had gotten to know and know more about.

But the Georgetown coach wanted little to do with the media. To be honest, most were too intimidated by the coach to try and get close.

Kevin Kugler was one of the fortunate ones who did.

Kugler, the Lincoln native who is the voice of the NCAA Final Four for Westwood One (and now the NFL on Fox), was partnered with Thompson at the Final Four from 2008-19. His heart was heavy on Monday.

“As a kid growing up and following college basketball, I was well aware of that intimidation,” Kugler said. “Thompson used it on the sidelines, with that towel and that scowl. I thought I was going to get the scowl.

“The big secret about John Thompson that you didn’t know until you got to know him is that he was, and I hate to say teddy bear, but once you got to know Coach Thompson, you were in with him.”

Kugler felt comfortable enough by 2010 and that’s where his favorite Thompson story picks up.

“He was an icon of Washington, D.C., obviously,” Kugler said. “He told the story of how he was out walking one day and the Presidential motorcade was going by and slammed on the brakes. President Clinton got out and wanted to say hi.

“We were at the 2010 Final Four in Houston. And I mentioned that former President (George H.W.) Bush was there with his wife Barbara.

“Coach said, 'I have a picture with every president from (Gerald) Ford on up, except for President Bush.’ I’m thinking, 'I may have a chance to meet a president here.'”

Kugler offered to take a photo of Thompson and Bush at halftime. Thompson was delighted.

“So we walked over there and before we could reach them, Barbara Bush comes out and gives him this giant bear hug,” Kugler said.

“She tells him how proud they are of him, how much they admire him, how wonderful it is to see him. He takes pictures with her and the president and they talk for a while. We walked back (to press row) and he was so excited to get these pictures.

“The next morning, he’s still talking about it. And he’s amazed that these people were so nice to him. I said, 'Why wouldn’t be they nice to you, Coach?’

“He just shook his head and I can imagine what that head shake meant.

“But that, to me, said a lot about his life, to come from where he was earlier in life to where he was being embraced by presidents.”

» The Big Ten presidents voted 11-3 to postpone fall football. Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa were the three who said “Play ball.”

So now that the Big Ten has answered that part of the Nebraska players’ lawsuit, does the issue fade away?

Do the Big Ten CEOs stomp out any attempt to play this fall?

They might try. But if the SEC, ACC and Big 12 start playing games, things will get heated again.

» So you want to fire Kevin Warren? Do you trust the Big Ten CEOs to hire someone better?

Perhaps they could find someone more PR savvy. But in terms of leadership, the Big Ten presidents now have control. And they aren’t going to relinquish it anytime soon.

» Forget normal. There is no normal this year. But it was so incredibly therapeutic to see high school football last week. A breath of fresh air.

Now we wait, for the positive cases, for the delays, all that. With this football season, we take nothing for granted and embrace whatever we get. Every game is a gift, a blessing.

That’s how we should always look at it, right?

» One more and I’m outta here: Are Nebraska golf courses open on Saturdays in the fall? Asking for a friend.

Omaha World-Herald: Big Red

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