Barfknecht: Nebraska's Milt Tenopir loved his job, and his players would always put it on the line for him

Milt Tenopir, an assistant coach at NU for 29 years, loved wearing the big red N on his shirt and his linemen loved playing for him.

Relentlessly positive.

That’s how I will forever remember former Nebraska offensive line guru Milt Tenopir and his love for all things Husker football. Other than family, nothing meant more to him than to wear that big red N on his shirt.

Positively relentless.

That’s how I recall Tenopir’s offensive linemen playing for him, knowing that anything less would be an insult to the man many of them considered a second dad.

Word of Tenopir’s death Monday night at age 76 from cancer brought sadness, of course. But after that immediate reaction, almost any recollection of him sparked a story and a smile.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who liked what he did and where he did it more than Tenopir.

Back when I covered Nebraska football daily for The World-Herald, beat writers were able to wander into the football offices without national security clearance. The best time was on Sundays after a game day, when each assistant was in his office grading film.

Sometimes when you poked your head in the doorway, a coach would say, “Not today,” which we always respected. More often than not, a stop at Tenopir’s office was followed by a big wave to come in and sit. I will always cherish those conversations.

(For the rest of this column, I will use “Milt” instead of “Tenopir” because if ever there were a first-name kind of guy, it was Milt.)

Milt and I had some connection, both growing up in small towns in south-central Nebraska: Harvard in his case and Superior in mine. And my brother taught school in Harvard for 37 years.

Harvard is near Hastings, where Tom Osborne grew up. Milt loved to tell the story about competing in high school track meets against Osborne. Both ran the hurdles.

Milt’s standard line was he could keep up with Osborne ... for the first hurdle. He also chuckled when noting that Osborne’s competitive streak meant sometimes there was “not-so-incidental contact” if you ran in the lane next to him.

Osborne was two years ahead of Milt in school. When Osborne played football at Hastings College, the players helped recruit, and Osborne tried to lure Milt. He was one of Osborne’s first rejections because Milt wanted to go farther from home.

After going to Sterling College in Kansas, Milt started as an eight-man football coach in 1962 in Jennings, Kansas. He was athletic director and football coach at McCook in 1973 when Osborne became head coach at Nebraska.

Milt, with an itch to try college coaching, called Osborne to ask about a job.

There weren’t any at the time, but Osborne said there might be in a year. Almost a year to the day, Osborne called Milt to offer a graduate assistantship. He coached linebackers on the freshman team for Monte Kiffin before eventually moving to the offensive line.

Milt worked in tandem with the O-line, first with Cletus Fischer and then Dan Young. The success rate from that unit, between Outland Trophies and national rushing titles, was unprecedented. And nobody cared who got credit.

Milt’s folksy manner belied his toughness and high internal standard of excellence. And like all the best teachers, Milt didn’t make his players do what was necessary — he made them want to do it.

His reach extends throughout college football, in places you might not expect.

Minnesota offensive line coach Bart Miller was born in Omaha and lived there through his freshman year of high school. Miller said in March that one of his lasting memories is of Milt’s in-season appearances to show film to boosters.

“It was at a small Catholic church and you paid five bucks to get in,” Miller said. “Coach Tenopir would sit there with a pitcher of beer and run film and make comments. My dad took me to all of those. I loved it.”

Milt loved those appearances, too, because it gave him another chance to wear his shirt with the big red N. Now, that shirt has been hung up for the last time. But the spirit inside it and Milt’s love for Husker football will go on.

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