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Omaha's recycling at risk: Contractor wants city to renegotiate contract or send recyclables elsewhere

The plastic, newspaper, cardboard and cans that Omaha residents separate into green bins could end up in a landfill if Omaha doesn’t pay its recycling partner more.

Firststar Recycling said it might stop accepting Omaha’s recycling if the city won’t negotiate new contract terms before the deal ends in 2020.

The company is prepared to pay a $60,000 penalty and end the contract early if talks with Public Works prove fruitless, The World-Herald has learned.

The reason: Firststar says it’s losing money after a near-collapse of the national and international markets for recycled materials.

How bad is it? Cardboard, for example, used to bring Firststar $100 a ton. Now it sells for as little as $15 a ton. Even aluminum cans, which had sold for $1 a pound, now sell for about 50 cents.

Firststar wants to charge Omaha a tipping fee of up to $100 per ton of waste it drops off to recycle. Currently, it doesn’t charge the city.

Paying the fee would cost Omahans an extra $1.7 million a year, or nearly $1 per month per household, if residents recycle as much as they did last year, 16,973 tons, according to Public Works. And the amount Omaha pays in fees could increase if people recycle more. If, in theory, Omaha took all the material residents now recycle to the landfill, the city would pay about $440,000 to dispose of it.

The city, which has been in talks with Firststar about the fees for months, argues that the recycling contract should be re-bid to keep the process fair and open to all potential bidders.

Similar fee increases have driven some other large cities, such as Philadelphia and Memphis, out of recycling entirely or into more limited recycling programs that incinerate or throw away less valuable materials.

City Councilman Rich Pahls, who represents southwest Omaha, said Firststar has the city “under the gun.”

Firststar processes recycling from more than two dozen communities, including Omaha and Lincoln. It is already charging smaller waste haulers new tipping fees, including Papillion Sanitation, which picks up recycling in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

The business model for recycling has shifted from one where businesses and organizations were paid to recycle to one where most groups pay fees to recycle, said Craig Moody, managing principal of the Verdis Group, which works with businesses, governments and nonprofits on sustainability.

One way that businesses and organizations have offset higher recycling fees is to separate out cardboard, one of the most valuable materials to recycle, said Brent Crampton of Hillside Solutions. That keeps the cardboard from being contaminated by food and other waste, he said, and lowers labor costs for recycling processors.

Some haulers are taking more material to another recycling company, Nebraskaland, which has a smaller operation, Crampton said. Nebraskaland did not return calls seeking comment.

Many haulers are increasing prices to reflect the new recycling fees.

Firststar, in a letter to one hauler obtained by The World-Herald, said its future tipping fees could rise again to match whatever fee Omaha agrees to pay.

Some Sarpy County residents have seen their costs for recycling jump 30% on their garbage bills.

Lincoln, too, is hearing from its recycling partners about higher costs, but it still sees a future for recycling, said Jon Carlson of the Mayor’s Office.

Omaha might be unable to negotiate the changes Firststar wants without running afoul of laws meant to keep bids fair and open, city officials say.

In a June 28 letter to Firststar, Deputy City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch suggested cutting the contract short and bidding it out again.

He wrote that the city could pay Firststar the $25.92-per-ton fee Omaha pays to dump garbage at the landfill until the contact can be bid again. That’s about one-fourth of the fee that Firststar wants to charge.

The city, which once made money on recycling, now breaks even, Mayor Jean Stothert said. Under Firststar’s proposal, recycling would cost the city money.

Stothert said she would like to hear whether taxpayers want to pay for recycling, suggesting they attend Aug. 13 public hearings for the city’s next trash contract and budget.

“I want to make sure people know this is coming,” Stothert said at a recent town hall meeting on roads. “It won’t be cheap.”

She also wants reassurances from Firststar that the company is recycling what Omaha residents send their way, and not taking the less profitable material to the landfill.

Firststar CEO Dale Gubbels said his company is storing more material than before on his property to maximize profitability by timing when it sells recyclables, but Firststar does not and has no plans to cherry pick more valuable waste and dump the rest.

Stothert’s 2020 budget proposal, unveiled Tuesday, didn’t include funding for recycling fees. The City Council would have to approve it as new spending.

Projecting the costs could be tough. The larger, 96-gallon carts Omaha will get as part of its next trash contract could spur more recycling.

Bellevue, for example, nearly doubled the amount of tonnage it was recycling after the city switched from garbage cans to carts last year, Gubbels said.

Firststar and other recycling advocates say they hope the market rebounds from China’s 2018 decision to stop buying American plastic and paper waste.

“The situation is supply and demand,” Gubbels said. “The demand has dropped with China out of the picture.”

That’s a big reason why cardboard and plastic is stacking up outside of Firststar’s recycling facilities near 108th and I Streets.

While much of the recycling from the Midwest stays in the U.S. or heads to Mexico, many domestic companies pay less than Chinese firms did.

Firststar, which employs 120 people at its Omaha plant, also needs to invest about $3 million to update its facilities to process what people toss out today, mainly different types of plastic, Gubbels said.

Councilman Pete Festersen, who represents parts of north-central Omaha, said he hopes the city will remain committed to recycling.

“It’s critical that we maintain a viable recycling program now and in the future,” he said.

But any effort to change or rebid the recycling contract before its completion needs to be fair to all potential bidders, including new ones, he said.

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The city is unlikely to see a flood of new bidders, Gubbels said, because building a new recycling facility in the Omaha area would cost a new bidder about $25 million.

That’s why he said he’s confident his company will get what it needs from the city, because, to him, Firststar is still the best bet for taxpayers.

He said the environmental good that comes from recycling, including a reduction in the amount of plastic that ends up in oceans, is worth the public investment.

“We do have competition, unfortunately,” Gubbels said. “It’s called a landfill.”


Plus
Scott Frost got a bigger football roster. But did Nebraska shortchange women’s sports to do it?

LINCOLN — Almost from the day he was hired as Nebraska football coach, Scott Frost expressed a desire to expand the team’s roster to make way for more of the motivated walk-ons who were so vital during the Cornhuskers’ glory days.

Now, as Frost starts practice on Friday for his second season at Nebraska, he will do so with a roster of over 150 — some two dozen players more than on the team he inherited.

And he can thank the women’s swimming and cross-country teams for that.

To bring in the new football players while still seeking to stay within the bounds of the Title IX gender equity law, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is adding roughly an equal number of female athletes in those sports.

In college athletics, it’s called “roster management’’ — juggling head counts across all sports with a goal of attaining overall gender balance.

But women’s sports advocates say the practice can also be abused, with team sizes becoming unusually large and lesser female athletes recruited to simply pad rosters. It then becomes a means to avoid adding a new women’s sport, denying women a truly meaningful college athletic opportunity.

Figures show that with the recent adjustments at Nebraska, the rosters of both the women’s cross-country and swimming teams are now substantially above the NCAA average.

And an examination of last year’s swim roster expansion shows that the school added nine walk-on swimmers whose skills were well below those of its scholarship athletes. The walk-ons also practiced separately from the rest of the team and swam a much-abbreviated season.

“Schools play all kinds of games to try to feign participation equity,” said Kristen Galles, a Washington, D.C., area attorney who has litigated Title IX cases, including in Nebraska. “Instead of adding all these swimmers and runners, UNL should add new women’s sports like lacrosse and field hockey, with new varsity opportunities and more scholarships.”

Nebraska athletic officials say compliance with Title IX is not a game for the school. They stand by the recent effort to create more opportunity for football players and female swimmers and runners, as well as the school’s overall commitment to comply with the gender equity law.

“There are some vague spots on how you administer it, but at the University of Nebraska, we are uppermost diligent on compliance as we see it,” NU Athletic Director Bill Moos said. “And we will continue to be.”

How exactly did Moos and Nebraska athletics accomplish this roster juggling act? And do all the changes leave the school in compliance with Title IX?

Answering those questions requires a dive into the vagaries of the landmark 1972 federal law that over almost half a century has fundamentally transformed the athletic landscape for women.

The buzz created by the United States’ recent World Cup-winning women’s soccer team stands in many ways as a tribute to the power and influence of Title IX.

In light of the recent football roster change, The World-Herald examined NU’s progress in providing increased athletic opportunities for women. It looked into the recent roster adjustments and analyzed data on athletic participation reported by Nebraska and other schools to the U.S. Department of Education.

Those figures show that over the last two decades, NU has significantly reduced its athletic opportunity gap for women. While in 2000 there was a 13% difference between women’s enrollment and athletic participation, the difference has been cut to under 3%.

Whether that gap is narrow enough to comply with Title IX is unclear. The gap remains large enough to allow the addition of a new women’s sport, and Department of Education guidance to schools suggests that means that it’s still too large. But even without meeting that standard, the school has other legal means to achieve Title IX compliance.

And the issue may go beyond the numbers. The newspaper’s examination raised questions about the recent swim roster expansion and whether the walk-on athletes added are receiving a true varsity experience.

In the end, the only way that any school finds out whether it’s actually complying with Title IX is if someone calls foul. The enforcement system is completely complaint-driven, through lawsuits or complaints filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

If Nebraska’s roster juggling leaves it open to charges of overly padding women’s rosters, it certainly wouldn’t be the only school in that boat — literally.

The World-Herald analysis revealed that women’s rowing teams with rosters of 100 or more have become common at big-time football schools, including Alabama, Clemson and Texas and Big Ten schools Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State.

To provide Scott Frost a larger football roster, should Nebraska expand existing women's rosters or start a new women's sport?

Moos said he’s proud of Nebraska’s commitment to making sure that all athletes at the school have the tools they need to succeed, both on the field and in life.

It also shouldn’t be overlooked that by adding the female athletes, the school opened the door for more young men to achieve their own Husker athletic dreams.

“They were boys growing up dreaming of having that red ‘N’ on their helmet,” Moos said.

* * *

JEFFREY Z. CARNEY/THE WORLD-HERALD 

With roughly one walk-on for every player on scholarship, Nebraska had upwards of 160 players out on the practice field during the 1990s. And Tom Osborne made sure they all got lots of practice reps, creating a system that turned out football players with factory-like precision. “The best thing Coach Osborne did with all those players was everybody practiced,” Scott Frost said a year ago. 

As the starting quarterback on Tom Osborne’s last national championship team in 1997, Scott Frost well knows what most set those Cornhuskers apart from the rest of college football.

It wasn’t Osborne’s offensive genius. It wasn’t his blue-chip recruits. It was the way the Huskers practiced.

With roughly one walk-on for every player on scholarship, Nebraska had upward of 160 players out on the practice field every day. And Osborne made sure that they all got lots of practice reps, creating a system that turned out football players with factorylike precision.

“The best thing Coach Osborne did with all those players was everybody practiced,” Frost said a year ago. “It wasn’t 22 guys practicing and everybody else on a knee holding a helmet. ... And part of that is what led to the development of players and helped walk-ons and young players get better faster and get on the field to help the team.”

Osborne’s walk-on program indeed played a key role in helping the Huskers win national championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Nebraskans also took great pride in the walk-on program, filled with home-grown players from every corner of the state.

But lost to history is the fact that the Huskers’ walk-on program was also in many ways a product of Title IX.

When Coach Bob Devaney won the school’s first national football titles in 1970 and 1971, the NCAA set no limit on how many players a school could have on scholarship. The only limits then were set by conferences.

The Big Eight, Nebraska’s conference at the time, handed out football scholarships like Halloween candy. League schools could offer 45 new scholarships each year and faced no limit on total scholarships.

Osborne, who served as an assistant under Devaney, said it wasn’t unusual for the Huskers and other Big Eight schools to have upward of 160 football players on full-ride scholarships.

Compare that with the Big Ten, which at the time allowed schools only 30 new football scholarships a year and set a total limit of 70 scholarships in all sports combined. For Nebraska, it was a huge competitive advantage.

But by 1972, just as Devaney was handing his program to Osborne and sliding full time into the athletic director’s chair, the college athletics landscape was profoundly changing.

High school participation raises questions: Are girls less interested in sports? Or is it too soon to tell?

Congress included a single 37-word clause in a public education bill that year proclaiming that any school receiving federal funds could not discriminate on the basis of sex in any program or activity, including athletics. At the time, sports for women at both the high school and college level were rare, even seen by some as unladylike.

Devaney responded to Title IX in 1974 by creating Nebraska’s first intercollegiate athletic programs for women.

But of biggest concern to Devaney and Osborne at the time were new scholarship limits the NCAA imposed in 1973. In football, the total cap at first was set at 105.

It’s unclear today whether the initial cap was primarily driven by pressure on athletic budgets related to Title IX or broader concerns about competitive equity. But there’s little question that schools’ obligation to fund new women’s sports in ensuing years contributed to additional cuts in scholarships across all men’s sports, including an ultimate limit of 85 in football.

Devaney publicly suggested that such limits would lead to a return to “single-platoon” football, in which the same players play both offense and defense. That would destroy the game’s quality and empty out the stands, Devaney ominously warned. Nebraska fought the limits and also joined unsuccessful efforts to get Congress to exempt football and other revenue-generating sports from Title IX.

Of course, Devaney’s most dire visions never came to pass. Suggestions that the stands would clear out are now almost laughable at a school where every home game has sold out since the Kennedy administration.

And most concede that the legal boost provided by Title IX led to athletic opportunities for women on the high school and college level that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

“You have seen women’s sports explode, and that’s been a good thing,” said Osborne, who would later administer Title IX as Nebraska’s athletic director. “I certainly appreciate and applaud everything that’s happened in women’s sports.”

And in the end, Osborne’s football team hardly skipped a beat, consistently competing with the nation’s best over more than two decades. That’s largely because when it came to the scholarship limits, Osborne found a workaround.

“We went after what we now call walk-ons,” he said.

Inside the mind of Tom Osborne: how he built the Husker machine and how it can be done again

Indeed, Osborne found that players were willing to pay their own way at NU for a chance to realize their Big Red dreams. Nebraska’s rosters stayed at 160, at times well above that figure. The 1997 team Frost quarterbacked had 188.

“It did help us develop depth,” Osborne said, “and a lot of those walk-ons became really good players.”

But over the next two decades, that formula for football success was lost.

Frank Solich, Osborne’s hand-picked successor, maintained the big rosters. But when the program slipped below top 10-caliber and Solich was controversially fired in 2003, new coach Bill Callahan dramatically scaled down the walk-on program.

Bo Pelini, Callahan’s successor, boosted walk-on numbers somewhat, but they fell again under his successor, Mike Riley. During Riley’s last season in 2017, a 4-8 disaster that ushered in the hiring of both Moos and Frost, Nebraska’s football roster was down to 129 players.

It’s worth noting that Nebraska’s roster that year still appears to have been the second largest in the Big Ten, after Michigan. But it was also not a lot more than the average of 121 for all schools playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of college football.

Given Frost’s roots in the Osborne glory years, it’s not surprising that the new coach came in seeking to instill renewed life into the walk-on program. Moos recalled that Frost actually first brought it up during the initial job interview.

Moos told Frost that he would explore how to make it happen. To make it work, he knew, they would have to dig into the school’s numbers under Title IX.

* * *

RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Scott Frost wants to grow Nebraska's football roster to over 150 players, similar to numbers under Tom Osborne. “I’m not going to just let guys be on the team just to be on the team,” Frost said on Signing Day when discussing roster expansion. “So, it’s going to be competitive — just like your opportunity to be a starter at the university is competitive. That will put us in a really good place of where we have the right type of kids. Kids that are on the team for the right reasons and hungry to be here.”

It’s certainly not typical in today’s world of college athletics to see schools expanding a football roster by 20%. Peter Lake, a Stetson University law professor who has studied Title IX, said it’s far more common to see schools cutting the number of male athletes or even axing entire teams.

“This is kind of ‘Rudy’ meets Title IX,” Lake said of Nebraska’s move, referring to the popular movie about an underdog walk-on football player at Notre Dame. Lake said any such move would need to be analyzed in the context of the law.

Contrary to common belief, Title IX does not strictly require equal numbers of male and female athletes or equal spending on them. The Department of Education requires schools to provide “equitable opportunities” for women, with regulations setting out a three-part test by which schools can comply.

Schools can comply with Title IX by providing participation opportunities for women that are “substantially proportionate” to women’s enrollment — the ultimate test under the law. If a school’s percentage of athletes who are women essentially matches its percentage of women in the student body, it passes that test.

If schools can’t meet that standard, they can still comply by either demonstrating a history of continued program expansion for women or by showing that they are fully accommodating the athletic “interests and abilities” of women.


Participation gap persists in Big Ten

The gap between women's enrollment and women's participation in athletics at the University of Nebraska in 2018 was about average for the Big Ten.

Source and note: Unpublicized athletic count data for 2018 reported to the U.S. Department of Education. Reported figures likely do not match schools' official figures for purposes of Title IX.


All the standards have some gray area, making Title IX compliance both art and science.

For years, most schools relied on part two — a history of increased opportunity. As athletic programs for women were ramped up, it was easy to point to a recent history of expansion.

But in recent decades, as far fewer women’s sports have been added, it’s become harder for schools to fall back on that prong.

Other than the 2013 addition of sand volleyball — started mainly to give extra practice time to the powerhouse Husker volleyball program — Nebraska hasn’t introduced a new women’s sport since adding rifle in 1998.

“Very few schools today can meet that standard,” Donna Lopiano, a former college athletic administrator who consults with schools on Title IX, said of prong two.

Donna Lopiano

As a result, Lopiano said, many schools over the last two decades have been seeking to meet Title IX’s first prong — closely matching women’s athletic participation with enrollment. And many began utilizing roster management to do so.

Roster management typically involves paring back rosters in men’s sports to minimum levels while maximizing women’s rosters, with the goal being to balance total participant numbers.

The practice is seen as a legitimate way to control costs and avoid a worse alternative — eliminating a men’s sport.

That’s been a real concern. Dozens of men’s scholarship wrestling, gymnastics and swimming programs have been axed since the arrival of Title IX, including men’s swimming at Nebraska. But it’s also worth noting that total male athletes in all NCAA divisions have greatly increased in that time.

“If done correctly, roster management is an acceptable approach,” said Sarah Axelson of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

WOMEN'S SPORTS FOUNDATION 

Sarah Axelson

But she and others said it can also be abused if schools create unusually large rosters. That can deprive women of a reasonable chance to compete and also diminish the experience of other team members.

Galles, Lopiano and others say schools have excessively padded some women’s rosters when they should instead be adding a new women’s sport, providing more true athletic experiences, as well as new scholarships.

Kristen Galles

“The goal became, ‘How can we add participants numbers without adding new women’s sports?’ ” Lopiano said.

In an extreme case, the University of South Florida faced controversy earlier this decade when it was revealed that it listed 75 participants in women’s cross-country — almost five times the size of a normal roster.

Many of those runners were also listed as members of the indoor and outdoor track team. The Department of Education allows such double- and triple-counting if athletes do compete in all three running sports. But some of the South Florida athletes listed said they were not members of the teams.

Though many schools have practiced roster management for decades, it appears that Nebraska only recently began to use it.

When Shawn Eichorst succeeded Osborne as athletic director in 2013, he examined Nebraska’s standing under Title IX and decided that the school needed to reduce its women’s participation gap.

He put together a gender equity working group that considered adding a women’s sport, with field hockey and lacrosse reportedly among those under consideration. But in the end, he decided in 2014 to mostly focus on adjusting rosters in men’s and women’s track and cross-country.

At the time, Nebraska’s men’s teams in those sports were substantially larger than the women’s. Over the next several years, the rosters were equalized, then slightly tilted toward women. Men lost about 40 total roster spots in the three sports, while women gained about 30.

Gary Pepin, who coaches both the men’s and women’s track teams, said it wasn’t easy. Persuading more women to walk on presented challenges. And he had to tell some worthy male competitors who wanted to walk on that there was no room for them because of the roster limit.

“It absolutely made me sick,” Pepin said.

But roster management also moved Nebraska’s Title IX numbers. World-Herald figures show that the gap between women’s enrollment and women’s athletic participation at Nebraska was cut from 7% in 2014 down to 2.7% by 2018.

By that time, Moos had succeeded Eichorst and was weighing Frost’s request for a larger roster.

Moos said he did look into starting a women’s sport, though not seriously.

Creating a new sport can involve millions of dollars in new expenses, from hiring coaches and awarding scholarships to team equipment, facilities and travel.

The average annual budgets of Big Ten lacrosse and field hockey teams is $1.5 million, though that would not be an impossible stretch for a school like Nebraska, which brought in $142 million in athletic revenue in 2018. The school has seen its share of Big Ten dollars almost double in recent years to over $50 million.

Allure of scholarships leads in-state players to lower-level programs instead of Huskers

Instead of adding a sport, Moos and his staff developed a plan to phase in a larger football roster over two years, with corresponding increases in the women’s swimming and cross-country rosters.

There would still be costs associated with the new female athletes. Each athlete would need to be equipped and is eligible for a number of other benefits the department said can be worth $20,000 per athlete annually, including eating at the athletic training table, summer school tuition, laptops and other academic support. But it would remain far cheaper than adding a team.

Year one of the plan this last year saw the swimming and diving team add 12 swimmers to reach a roster of 43. That paved the way for Frost to add roughly an equal number of football players. His first-year roster was at 140.

Now the school is set to add a half-dozen new women’s cross-country runners this fall, athletes who could also ultimately count as indoor and outdoor track participants if they join those teams, too.

Nebraska athletic officials believe that gives them room to continue the football roster expansion this fall. Last week, Frost’s roster sat at 153, the biggest since Solich’s last year in 2003, and believed to be once again the biggest in college football. And it could still grow. Frost and athletic officials are talking of it reaching 155 yet this fall.

During the first year of the football expansion plan, Nebraska kept its women’s participation gap at about 2%, said Bob Burton, Moos’ chief of staff. The goal is to keep that gap below 3% moving forward.


Narrowing the Title IX participation gap

Data reported to the U.S. Department of Education suggests the University of Nebraska has substantially narrowed its historic gap between percent of its student body who are women and the percentage of athletic participants who are women. Whether its existing gap, which athletic officials say in the past school year was 2 percentage points, would stand a Title IX test is unclear.

Source: Compiled from unduplicated count data, U.S. Department of Education


Husker athletic officials believe that with those numbers, the school meets Title IX’s proportionality prong.

Whether that belief would stand up to a Title IX test is unclear. Previous guidance from the Office of Civil Rights has indicated that a gap that’s large enough to allow for the addition of a new women’s sport is too large.

Title IX: Dropping football made UNO compliant; other Nebraska schools have mixed records

World-Herald calculations show that last school year, Nebraska would have needed to add 30 female athletes to reach full parity with the school’s female enrollment. That gap exceeds the average NCAA roster size in field hockey and is close to the average for lacrosse.

Asked about that possible team-size gap, Husker athletic officials didn’t address the specifics, only saying in a statement, “We have no plans to add a women’s program at the University of Nebraska.”

Even should Nebraska not meet that test, Burton said in an earlier interview that the school believes that it’s complying with the Title IX plank calling for meeting the “interests and abilities” of women.

Seeming to argue in Nebraska’s favor on that is the fact that the university does offer varsity competition in every sport that’s sanctioned for females on the high school level in Nebraska. Title IX guidance to schools mentions that as a measuring stick, though not the only one.

Nebraska officials said they also looked at the club sports offered on campus, apparently deciding that there was no current need to elevate any of them. At least two club teams at Nebraska are in sports sanctioned by the Big Ten: rowing and lacrosse.

Whether Nebraska is creating meaningful athletic opportunities in the expansion of the women’s swim and cross-country rosters could be the subject of debate. Both will now be roughly 50% larger than the average NCAA team in their sport, limiting opportunities to compete.

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The athletic experience of nine walk-on swimmers the school added last year was also very different from that of the scholarship swimmers — including practicing for less than half the season. But one of the swimmers said in an interview that she and her fellow walk-ons enjoyed the opportunity to swim collegiately and are looking forward to the coming season.

“I absolutely loved it,” said Alex Ellis of Omaha. “I felt we did get a great chance and opportunity to improve.”

The swimming and cross-country roster expansions will be explored more deeply in a separate story Monday.

Husker athletic officials defended their expansion of the two women’s rosters. And in an interview, Moos stood by Nebraska’s commitment to treating male and female athletes equally.

He noted that all Husker athletes, men or women, scholarship or walk-on, eat at the same training table, receive the same laptop computers and have access to the same academic support and health care.

“I can look (female recruits) right in the eye and say everything we offer here is consistent, regardless of gender and regardless of the sport,” he said. “That’s just how we do it.”

The Return of Scott Frost