Barfknecht: From Tom Osborne to Danny Nee, I've seen a lot. Sometimes too much in 39 years

Lee Barfknecht is retiring after a 39-year career at the Omaha World-Herald.

I’ve seen Tom Osborne naked.

Hey, you asked for a farewell column after 39 years at The World-Herald, so I might as well grab your attention.

It happened after a midweek football practice in the mid-1980s. As sometimes happened, I had written a story that Osborne thought could have been constructed differently.

He wanted to have his say, and I wanted to hear it. But he was in a hurry, trying to get to an event in Omaha. I was in a hurry, trying to hit the deadline for our western Nebraska edition.

So I followed Osborne into a tiny dressing area under the old South Stadium that I didn’t know existed. While he disrobed and headed to the shower, he made his points — the final one loudly over the hiss of the spray.

This adds a twist to the old line that coaches and their beat writers eventually see too much of each other. The point is my sole goal as a sportswriter was to serve World-Herald readers, and I would go damn near anywhere to do that.

The beat writer/coach relationship is the thing I’ll miss most — in all sports and at all levels — because it was the truest way to learn what was going on, then convey it accurately to our readers.

Osborne and I had some disagreements, but we’ve remained good friends, even after seeing each other at 1,166 football practices. “Boy, that’s a lot of dancing around,” Osborne joked in a phone call last week. I’m eternally grateful for the things I learned from him and those in his program.

Also, the kindnesses of the Omaha metro area high school athletic directors and coaches who taught this small-town guy how to get going in the early 1980s are forever remembered.

But the biggest thanks go to my wife, Sara; daughter, Alaina; mom, Irene; and brother, Craig, for their love and support during my time in this crazy business.

My wife was the first full-time female sportswriter at The World-Herald. Two years later, she wised up, got into advertising/market research and continues as our family’s primary ball-carrier. (I almost used the football term “bell cow.” Life tip: Never call your wife a bell cow.)

My mom went to work at the weekly Superior Express in 1966 shortly after our dad died. Hanging around the back shop of a newspaper is how I got ink in my blood. Mom finally retired in April at age 87 after 51 years on the job. Good thing she hung it up before me or I’d have never heard the end of it.

Another huge thanks goes to The World-Herald’s Thad Livingston, the best editor a sportswriter could have. He took over a disjointed department a dozen years ago and turned it into a nationally renowned, award-winning powerhouse. The sweetest music our writers hear is when fellow scribes say, “You guys are one of the last to still do it right.”

As for memories, there are so many after 39 years. But here are random things I’ll never get out of my brain:

» The before, during and after of Miami’s 31-30 Orange Bowl win over Nebraska to claim the 1983 national title. Osborne goes for 2. Howard Schnellenberger arrives at a press conference in a helicopter. Dean Steinkuhler’s fumbleroosky. Mike Rozier dodging agents at the hotel. This is the book that should be written.

» Wichita State 3, Creighton 2, in 12 innings in 1991 — the night the College World Series went to a higher level and stayed there.

» The 1990-91 Nebraska basketball team, which went from 10-18 to 26-8. I never had a chance to join the circus, but covering that team was the next best thing.

» A late-afternoon nip of the brown stuff with Bob Devaney in his office. He got his ice from the training room.

» Writing a column from Stillwater, Oklahoma, after losing three good friends from Oklahoma State in a 2001 plane crash of the men’s basketball team.

» No-Sit Sunday. Tim Miles’ victory over No. 9 Wisconsin clinched Nebraska basketball’s first NCAA tourney berth in 16 years.

» NU tight end Johnnie Mitchell, for some postpractice fun, grabbed a football and fired a perfect spiral 80 yards right-handed. Someone tossed him another ball and he sizzled a 75-yard strike left-handed. Most freakish athlete I covered.

» About an hour before NU took on No. 1 Kansas in storied Allen Fieldhouse, Venson Hamilton and Bernard Garner — in full warmups — walked to the concourse concession stand, bought hot dogs and stood at the old-fashioned high-top tables to eat them. To the horror of nutrition experts, Hamilton and Garner combined for 21 points and 13 rebounds as the Huskers took KU to overtime before falling 82-77.

» Hearing the ball come off the bat of then-NU outfielder, now-coach Darin Erstad. That sound tells you the difference between a big leaguer and somebody else.

» In an interview with swimmer Peter Williams from South Africa, I asked what he knew about Nebraska before being recruited to Lincoln. “In geography class back home,” he said, “our book said the two places on Earth with the most extreme weather conditions were the plains of Siberia and Nebraska. I now have to believe that’s correct.”

» Getting Tyronn Lue’s jersey retired, despite years of bungling on the issue by Nebraska’s basketball administration.

» Longtime broadcaster and partner in misery Kent Pavelka for his insight and tales on the road with NU hoops.

» Terry Pettit putting up with me covering some of the early years of his Husker volleyball monster, even when the only thing I knew about bump, set and spike was how to spell them.

» On a trip to Florida State to do some pre-bowl stories, I was ushered to the training table at dinnertime to meet All-America cornerback Deion Sanders. “Neon Deion” asked if I was hungry, and I said I was. So he made us both peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the interview.

» Nebraska 73, Oklahoma 21 in 1996. The Huskers punted after their first six possessions, then scored 10 touchdowns in 2½ quarters. That’s an accomplishment, even if the opposing coach was John Blake.

» Watching Omaha South guard Cedric Hunter score 38 points in a Class A district semifinal while being double-teamed by a pair of all-state athletes whose names you would recognize. Those two remain anonymous here in exchange for my favorite beverage.

» At a Big Eight preseason media day, I was in the lunch line when Nebraska coach Danny Nee walked up to grab a napkin. He told me to come around the corner and join him. While walking and talking with another writer, I absent-mindedly sat down my tray and didn’t notice who was at Nee’s table. I looked up to see Kansas’ Larry Brown to my right and Iowa State’s Johnny Orr to my left. Too bad for you that table talk was off the record.

» Seeing Nee give referee J.C. Leimbach the choke sign to earn his second and third technical fouls and an ejection in a 133-97 loss at Oklahoma. As Nee left the court, OU coach Billy Tubbs stopped him, shook his hand and thanked him for giving Leimbach the choke sign.

» I couldn’t help but smile when Nebraska gymnastics coach Francis Allen openly taunted opponents, then kicked their tails on the way to national championships. God broke the mold after making Allen, which is a loss for all. He should have done the press conferences for every sport.

» Covering the Bob Gibson All-Star Classic charity golf event. I don’t get star-struck often, but getting to interview Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Oscar Robertson, Stan Musial and Ozzie Smith on the same day dazzled me.

Yes, that was a whole bunch of shameless name-dropping. I was privileged in my time at The World-Herald to have met many movers and shakers, and never took that for granted.

But that’s not where the most important stories come from.

Instead, go interview those “moved and shaken” by the movers and shakers. Talk to the longtime loyal employee fired on Christmas Eve; or the coaches whose direct supervisor looked them in the eye and lied to them; or the fans and boosters whose hard-earned money gets them less because of a tone-deaf policy change.

Journalism matters. Facts matter. Support local journalists because they live and work among you, and like to be held accountable while holding the rich and powerful to account.

Will that about do ya?

That was Osborne’s line to end a presser that ran too long. I hope it will “do ya” because I’m rounding third and heading for home. Thanks for reading.

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