Shatel: An old man and his line, plus friends for a lifetime

Former Nebraska offensive line coach Milt Tenopir signed this keepsake, a poster from his final season before retiring.

I’ll never forget the time Milt Tenopir introduced me to Frank Codr. Pleasantries were short.

“NO MEDIA! GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”

This was in 1997, an electric fall in Nebraska. And Tenopir, the offensive line coach at Nebraska, had invited me to stop by his weekly football group in Omaha called the “Bugeaters.”

This was a group of Omaha businessmen/Husker fans who met with Tenopir and defensive coordinator Charlie McBride every Thursday night at Champions Run during the football season. The coaches showed film. They discussed strategy and what might be coming up on Saturday. Food and drink abounded.

The meetings, held down in the card room section of the men’s locker room, were hush-hush. There were two rules: nothing said was ever to leave the room. And no media.

But Uncle Milt invited me, right?

I went downstairs to the locker room and turned the corner into the card room and a packed house of about 40. That’s when Codr, the “prime minister” of the Bugeaters, greeted me.

I bolted out of there as fast as could, up the staircase and out into the parking lot in record time. With Tenopir chasing after me. The coach then went back and chewed out the prime minister.

Codr and I laughed hard at that story on Wednesday. I went to see my old friend, Frank, at his house. The former rodeo cowboy and U.S. Navy man from Dwight, Nebraska, is 73 now. He still works a few days a week at the life insurance company he founded. Still runs the Bugeaters, though in 2016 it has consisted of graduate assistants and Tenopir, who worked a deal with head coach Mike Riley to keep the group going.

Thursday night’s meeting will be somber and emotional. This is the first meeting without Tenopir.

My friend, our friend, passed away on Monday night, and in some ways I needed to see Codr. Needed to sit around and tell stories. Laugh and smile at the memory.

It felt like Milt was sitting there with us, with a chew in his mouth and sipping on a Bud Light.

“Life is fateful,” Codr said, and he was talking about how he and I wouldn’t have met if not for Milt. And it got us to talking about how each of us had met the man.

Journalists generally do not get close to people they cover. It’s frowned upon. It’s just not a good idea, to fraternize with someone you may have to write something harsh about one day. It either clouds your judgment or ends the friendship.

I couldn’t help it with Tenopir. I loved the guy from the time I met him, in 1983, when I came up to Lincoln from Kansas City to write about his pipeline. We hit it off immediately, me wanting to romanticize the Nebraska offensive linemen and him sitting back in his chair, the proud papa.

The Huskers were winning at the highest levels in those days, and a big reason was the legendary line. Nebraska linemen were celebrities. And Milt was the guru. Nobody knew who college assistants were, but everyone knew Tenopir. He was an offensive line coach who was famous.

He made it glamorous to be an offensive lineman. That reputation was a big reason his players won six Outland Trophies. And a big reason the Outland dinner takes place in Nebraska.

In the ’80s, I visited Tenopir in his office once a year, usually in August. One year, he said he was going to write a technical book on coaching offensive line.

“I got your title,” I said. “The Assembly Line.”

I never did get any royalties for that.

When I took this job in 1991, his line was the subject of my first Husker column. He invited me to a postgame gathering at his house, where he and the big uglies bonded. The linemen would unwind, cutting up like kids, and proud papa would lean back and watch.

The night before a game at Kansas, on karaoke night in a hotel sports bar, Tenopir got on stage and sang “My Way.” The man had a voice.

One of my favorite keepsakes is a poster that Codr had made for a retirement party for Tenopir in 2002. The previous year, the coach had shown up for practice with a full white beard. I told him he looked like Ernest Hemingway and wrote about “The Old Man and the Line.”

The title to those posters was “A Farewell to Arms.” Tenopir signed mine “To a good friend.” I had no problem with that.

The most unusual part of our relationship was my inclusion in the Bugeaters group. From 1997 until this year, I’ve been in that Thursday group, from Milt and Charlie to Kevin Cosgrove to Tim Beck and Barney Cotton. It was never as good as when Tenopir and McBride were doing it.

They were fascinating to watch, taking turns showing the previous game. Tenopir’s session would often last over an hour, as the coach would show one play four or five times. If one of his boys was pancaking a defender, he might show it six.

I was sworn to secrecy, but these sessions helped me better understand the game (a statement I’m sure many will take issue with!). For instance, if a play broke down in the backfield, I might blame the line. Milt was always quick to point out when a receiver or fullback whiffed on his block and caused the play to fail.

One year, he had a pet name for a receiver, adding a “bleeping” between his first and last names. Milt had famous lines, like the profane one referring to when a boy reaches puberty, when one of his young linemen made a big play.

Of course, Codr says Milt got that one from Mike Corgan.

Codr came to Omaha in 1965 to find work after getting busted up one too many times on the rodeo circuit. NU head coach Bob Devaney, seeking to build support in Omaha, started having a coach bring game film to town to show to fans. Codr went to the first session and loved it.

He hit it off with Mike Corgan, Devaney’s running backs coach and a fellow pipe smoker. Corgan invited him to practice before the Oklahoma game, and then they’d go have beer.

Around 1974, Corgan started bringing along a young line coach named Milt Tenopir.

A few years later, Corgan retired from Osborne’s staff and Tenopir and Codr became mates, on and off the field. Once even in the Hollywood Hills.

“One of my favorite Milt stories was on a UCLA trip one year,” Codr said. “They absolutely killed us (1988). Milt was so (upset).

“I offered to drive him back to the team hotel after the game but he said, ‘No, I’m not going back to the hotel.’ He got word that (Osborne) wants a meeting. Milt says, ‘I’m not going. There’s plenty of time for that. Now is the time to think about the game and what the hell happened.’

“So we got a 12-pack and went up in the Hollywood Hills and talked, but not about football. He didn’t want to talk about football.”

A few years later, some friends at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Omaha approached Codr about getting Tenopir to bring game film to the church each week to raise money for the church. Tenopir agreed. That’s how that tradition began.

But when Codr moved from Benson to west Omaha, another tradition formed. Codr wanted to be closer to home. So he brought Tenopir to Champions Run, and eventually Milt brought his friend Charlie McBride.

They called it “Bugeaters” because they were afraid that word of a “Huskers” group would get back to Osborne, and the two assistants didn’t want the head man to know what they were doing.

“Our thing became to honor out-state offensive linemen,” Codr said. “Like idiots, we put up a sign at the home games to honor the O-line. Well, Tom saw it and said, ‘Do you think I’m stupid?’ He knew something was going on.”

Codr sat in Tenopir’s office during line meetings, and called it “like going to church.”

“He had a huge office, sat 20-25 guys,” Codr said. “He talked in almost a whisper. What do you think you should have done on that play? The lineman would tell him where he messed up. It was always like that. They would tell him where they did wrong. He would never get on them.

“He was such a positive reinforcement. That’s why the kids loved him.”

The Bugeaters group was the perfect symbol for Tenopir. The group had a waiting list because of Tenopir’s celebrity. And it worked because he was just like any Nebraska fan, sipping a beer and talking football.

Two years ago, the coach was diagnosed with leukemia. Chemo knocked him out. Then came a call from Codr: with another coaching change, the group’s future was in doubt. Could Milt come back and keep it going?

“It lifted his spirits,” Codr said. “It got him fired up again to do that.”

A few weeks ago, things were good. Codr took Tenopir to their annual “Czech guys” trip to the Bohemian Cafe in Omaha, where Tenopir talked football to a group. This time, the coach came in slowly with his walker, but he was looking better, Codr said.

Not long after that, though, Codr said, Tenopir told the Bugeaters that his doctors had told him “Chemo doesn’t always work” and were taking him off the medication. Codr’s heart sank. That was the coach’s code for saying he was going to die.

That was the last night Codr saw his old buddy.

“He told his doctor, ‘I don’t want to die — I love my life so much,’ ” Codr said. “He loved going to football practice, loved seeing his grandkids.”

A few weeks ago, in a parking lot outside Memorial Stadium, I saw Tenopir, moving around in his motorized chair after football practice. He was headed to the Bugeaters. I was headed to kids’ soccer practice.

I don’t know that I would say Milt was like a dad to me, but at least like an uncle. I never got to say goodbye to my dad — he passed all alone.

That day a few weeks ago, I leaned over to Milt and said, “Love you, coach.”

I wish I had thanked him for introducing me to a guy named Codr.

“Fate,” Codr was saying again. “Milt brought us together. He brought so many people together. Players, families, kids. Wonderful, wonderful guy. They don’t make them like that anymore.

“I wish they did.”

tom.shatel@owh.com, 402-444-1025, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

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