LINCOLN — Tom Osborne used to get flak for his ground-based attack, but in one of Nebraska athletics’ latest endeavors, he’s all about getting the program airborne.
The longtime football coach and now athletic director is campaigning for added support of Husker Air Force, a relatively new booster group designed to amass private aircraft time for NU coaches to use in recruiting.
In a video recently sent to major donors, Osborne states:
“You can probably most directly influence the outcome on the court or the playing field by helping us in recruiting. The way you can do this most directly is through private aircraft.”
Nebraska’s small population base and relative geographic isolation have always been issues in recruiting.
“If there is any place in America that needs private aircraft,” Associate Athletic Director Paul Meyers said, “it’s Nebraska.”
Add to that the need to get in on recruits earlier in their high school careers.
Husker football has tracked oral commitments to Big Ten schools made by players from their sophomore year of high school to May of their junior year. From the Classes of 2008 through 2012, the average was about 45 a year. For the Class of 2013, the number jumped to almost 90.
In an interview, Osborne said Nebraska had about $600,000 donated toward private aircraft usage two years ago — $350,000 in air hours and $250,000 in cash.
Nebraska hopes to arrange 350 hours of private aircraft time for the coming school year, at a cost of about $1 million. Osborne said about 200 hours of that is for football and another 125 for men’s basketball.
As those numbers indicate, private air travel is far from cheap, which Meyers confirmed with the following details:
When traveling within a 500-mile radius, Nebraska tends to contract for turboprop planes with a lease rate of $1,800 to $2,000 an hour.
For longer trips, jets are needed to make the travel cost- and time-efficient. Those rentals tend to run $2,500 to $3,000 an hour, with a rare fee of as much as $5,000 per hour.
“We have really tried to be responsible with our money,” Meyers said. “Coach Osborne is one of the more conservative people I know, so I hope people realize when we go to a private plane that there is no other way to do it.”
For decades, Nebraska coaches have flown in private aircraft to recruit.
“We’ve always had people willing to help if they could,” Meyers said.
But it wasn’t until October 2010 that a formalized system was created under the name Husker Air Force.
The unit has partnered with Jet Linx and UltraAir. Boosters can contribute in four ways: buy hours with Jet Linx and UltraAir; donate other purchased hours; donate personal aircraft time; or donate cash through the NU Foundation.
Husker Air Force has about 45 members, Meyers said. Most are plane owners, so a push is on to broaden the donor base.
“Two years ago, about 75 percent of our needs were contributed,” Meyers said. “Last year, about 50 percent of our needs were contributed. That’s why we’re trying to raise awareness and get this program to grow.”
First-year men’s basketball coach Tim Miles showed in late April how hectic recruiting can be out of Lincoln.
In less than 2Ĺ days, Miles traveled 3,041 miles to attend AAU tournaments in Newport News, Va.; Indianapolis; Little Rock, Ark.; and Sioux Falls, S.D. In that time, he watched eight of his top prospects for 2013 and five for 2014.
When considering the Nebraska job and then finishing contract details, Miles said, he put a high priority on access to private travel.
“There isn’t a high volume of Big Ten-caliber players nearby,” he said. “So we need the ability to be in a lot of places in a short period of time.”
Miles’ recruiting targets are Nebraska first, Big Ten states second and former Big 12 North Division states third.
In a recent listing of Rivals.com Top 150 basketball prospects for 2013, one came from Nebraska (Omaha Central’s Akoy Agau at No. 90), 31 were in Big Ten states and four were in Big 12 North states.
Texas is another place Miles has strong contacts. There are 11 Top 150 prospects there.
In football, a revision in the recruiting calendar is a big reason Nebraska is seeking more private air time now, Osborne said. Two spring contacts are allowed instead of one.
“So our coaches are recruiting their area first,” Osborne said. “Then they are using the second evaluation to ‘cross-recruit.’
“For instance, the linebacker coach will go look at all the linebackers. You may have linebackers in six or seven states, so we’re criss-crossing the country a lot.”
Traveling long distances in short periods of time efficiently — always a challenge on commercial routes — has grown more difficult with airline consolidation and extra security.
“So there is no other way to do it a lot of times other than with private air travel,” Meyers said. “That’s why we want to promote this.”
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