When 14th-ranked Nebraska met 13th-ranked Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., last Saturday night, Cornhusker starter Beau Reid chewed on a mouth guard. Nebraska assistant coach Jeff Smith was perched high above the game, wearing a headset and talking to graduate assistant Jeff Reinert on the bench. The victor in this longtime rivalry would become a front-runner in the race for the Big Eight crown. All perfectly ordinary, except for one thing: This game was played not on a football field but on the varnished hardwood floor of Lloyd Noble Center.
When it was over, the Cornhuskers had handed the Sooners one of their worst home defeats in coach Billy Tubbs's 11-year tenure at Oklahoma. The 111-99 win also gave the Cornhuskers their first victory in Norman in 10 years. "The only word I can think of is finally," said Nebraska center Rich King afterward.
The Huskers were picked to finish dead last in the Big Eight, and why not, considering their recent past: three straight seventh-place finishes? Instead, at week's end they had a gaudy 17-2 record and were the only Big Eight team with so much as one road win in conference competition. Nebraska is no longer a joke or a secret but a team possessing such superb balance—five players are scoring in double figures, and eight have at least 20 assists—that on any given night anyone can be a hero. "We got our butts kicked by a better team," said Tubbs.
Nebraska has seized the role of league heavy from Oklahoma by undergoing the most rapid metamorphosis of any team in the country. "The difference?" says Husker coach Danny Nee. "Nebraska is better. Nebraska is just a whole lot better than it's ever been."
Nebraska is also big—it goes 6'8", 7'2" and 6'8" across the front—and sort of meaty-faced. The Cornhuskers aren't particularly elegant—they don't run trick defenses—and, individually, they aren't much to speak of. But as a group.... "Damn respectable," Nee says.
When the Big Eight writers tabbed Nebraska for eighth place in 1990-91 rather than the usual seventh, behind even longtime doormat Colorado, the Cornhuskers seethed. "I told the players," says Nee, " 'Don't even listen to that—.' "
At the same time, three of the team's most influential seniors, Reid, King and guard Clifford Scales, decided that they had had their fill of life on a downtrodden team—Nebraska had gone 13-18, 17-16 and 10-18, respectively, the last three years—so they made a small promise among themselves that 1990-91 would be a winning season. "Basically, it was a case of we were terrible last year, and we didn't want to be terrible again," says Reid.
Nee contends he wasn't bothered by the last-place prediction because he knew that his feverish five-year recruiting effort was about to pay off. "Each one of them was a little war," says Nee of the task of persuading promising basketball prospects to attend a university where the sport was little more than a diversion between football seasons. Athletic director Bob Devaney must have believed the same thing, because Nee got a four-year rollover on his contract last spring.
Some of the recruits were projects, such as King, who has gained 70 pounds and grown two inches since his freshman season. "It's scary to see him eat," says Nee. "I mean, he eats large meals, frequently. His mother is saving $20,000 by sending him to college." King was pulling down a team-high 7.9 rebounds a game at week's end.
Other significant factors in the Corn-huskers' ascendance are junior forward Carl Hayes, whose 15.4 average made him the team's leading scorer; sleepy-eyed junior forward Tony Farmer, an import from Los Angeles; Gumby-like redshirt freshman forward Eric Piatkowski; Scales, whose skills as a guard are as smooth as his cleanly shaved head; and Jose Ramos, who fled Florida's much-investigated program in 1989 and was ineligible for the first 12 games of this season because he had played 12 games for the Gators while he should have been academically ineligible.
Then there's Reid, a 6'8", 200-pound fifth-year senior who has come back from the scrap heap. He can line up at three positions for the Cornhuskers—as their conscience, their backbone or their muscle. He can hit a soft jumper or hit somebody in the jaw, depending on what they need. Four times in his career he has buried game-winning shots, including one against heavily favored Michigan State earlier this season.
"I do whatever it is that it seems like we're lacking," says Reid. "If a charge needs to be taken, or a guy is hot and needs to be fouled real hard, I'm the one to do it."
His real name is Arden Manley Reid III, and he is the son of a former Nebraska assistant coach. He is called Beau because he is said to resemble his great-great-grandfather, who was known as Beau. A 1986 graduate of Lancaster (Ohio) High, he originally signed to play for Nee at Ohio University. But when Nee got the Nebraska job soon thereafter, Ohio released Reid from his letter of intent and he followed Nee to Lincoln.
In the summer following his sophomore year, Reid snapped the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He sat out all but eight games last season while recovering from surgery. Reid's return may have been the single most important development in the Cornhuskers' off-season. "Cause and reaction," is how Nee describes him.
Nee might as well have been describing himself. At 45, he is still a bit the Brooklyn-Irish street tough who got kicked out of high school, and a bit the ex-Marine who tells harrowing stories of being a helicopter tail gunner in Vietnam. He has blue eyes that can stare a hole right through you. If the Cornhuskers continue their success, then one of the bluntest guys in the game will have made it. Finally.
"I still operate out of street smarts," says Nee. "Rough is what I grew up knowing, and it's what I still know. I definitely have that grunt mentality. I don't think I'd be here without it. A lot of guys would have melted in Lincoln last year.
"When my mother would say, 'Go get your father,' I'd go to the local bar, because that's where he was, having a beer. So I'm going to have a warm beer now and then. I still believe in the Marines' way of doing things. I have that bent, toughness, fitness, all that. You learn to do everything on instinct."
Nee was expelled from Manhattan's Power Memorial Academy, a Catholic school, at the end of his junior season for participating in a gang fight. In 1963 he and some teammates were celebrating their city championship in a bar when somebody uttered a racial epithet about the star of the team, a tall youngster named Lew Alcindor. That started an argument. The action moved outside, where bottles were broken, knives flashed and a gun appeared. Soon news of the brawl spread through the school; Nee, among others, was kicked out.
He transferred to Fort Hamilton High in Brooklyn, and his former coach at Power, Jack Donohue, called Marquette coach Al McGuire and recommended Nee as a prospect. Nee came home from school one day to find McGuire and McGuire's mother sitting in his living room. "They're sitting there eating Irish soda bread and drinking tea with my parents," says Nee. "My father had a second-grade education. He didn't know Marquette from the moon, but he tells me, 'Danny, you're going to Marquette.' I'd never even heard of Marquette."
Nee's first attempt at higher education lasted one year. "I wasn't ready," he says. With the Vietnam War at its peak, he enlisted. He served 11 months of his two-year hitch in Vietnam and received Combat Air Insignia medals. Nee also lost 55 pounds because of an intestinal ailment that caused internal bleeding. He tells of standing in bunkers waist deep in water, watching rats swim by. Also of burning leeches off his arms, legs and neck at night in the barracks. He watches the war in the Persian Gulf with absolute horror.
"I pray every night that not one kid loses a drop of blood," says Nee. "I have a son who's 13, and the police would have to pull me off him before I'd let him go through what I did."
Two days after being discharged in 1968, Nee went to work in New York City loading trucks. Before long, though, some friends who were attending St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, Kans., persuaded him to join them. He made the dean's list, became student-body president and settled gratefully into the midlands life-style. "But how I was when I was 18, that's how I am now, the same guy," says Nee. "It's locked up inside somewhere, and it'll never change."
The same guy has recruited some so-called marginal students in his quest to turn Nebraska into a basketball power, yet seven of the 10 players he has signed and who completed their eligibility have graduated. "By threats, by hugging, by kicking, by running, by suspending, we've tried everything so far," says Nee.
Nee, however, didn't hesitate to go after Ramos, a talented player who brought along some baggage related to improprieties involving his college entrance exams. Ramos represents a rather severe extension of Nee's neck, but he maintains that landing Ramos will prove to be a good decision, at least for Nebraska. "Hey, I'm not Father Flanagan," says Nee. "We're trying to fix it. We need parts."
Most of them appear to be in place. The change Nee has wrought at Nebraska could be momentous. Attendance is up by an average of 3,200 fans a game over what it was at the same juncture last season. The basketball team's rising fortunes stand in contrast to the falling fortunes of the football team, which lost three of its final four games last season and has dropped five of its last seven meetings with the Sooners.
Early this season letters appeared in the local papers noting the basketball team's unusual placement of a coach in the rafters—Nee thinks Smith can spot tendencies and weaknesses in the Huskers and their opponents—and drawing some scathing comparisons at the expense of the football squad. "Cut Tom Osborne some slack," wrote one reader in a letter to the Omaha World-Herald. "It's got to be darn tough to recruit football players to come to a basketball school."
Well, not yet. The Cornhuskers, according to Nee, are still a "fragile" team. They have not been ranked as high as No. 13 since 1966—they are 11th in this week's AP poll—and are not used to network television coverage, much less contending for a conference title. The last three-years have made them wary of celebrating, and the next three weeks will be more telling than the Oklahoma game was. After playing Missouri and Oklahoma State this week at home, they venture to Kansas, a perennial conference contender. "That's when we'll write the story," says Nee.