Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Hoiberg, the ‘Big Bear of the Coliseum’ and a Nebraska Connection

March 30, 2019

“Lincoln is a special place for our family,” Fred Hoiberg said in the statement accompanying his official announcement as Nebraska’s next men’s basketball coach. “I was born in Lincoln, my grandfather Jerry Bush was the head coach at Nebraska, my other grandfather was a long-time professor there, and my parents are proud graduates of the University of Nebraska. Nebraska has always felt like a second home.

Mike Babcock wrote about the Bush connection for us years ago. This column originally appeared in Volume 4 Issue 4 of Hail Varsity. For more great writing on the Huskers, subscribe today.

Jerry Bush’s nickname was the “Big Bear of the Coliseum.” That’s how I remember Nebraska’s basketball coach from 1954 to 1963. He also was Fred Hoiberg’s grandfather, which is part of the reason I’ve always been a Hoiberg fan, I guess. But that has nothing to do with what follows.

Bush never coached a Husker team with a winning record. That doesn’t have much to do with what follows, either. I was a young fan back then. Basketball mattered, not the outcome.

From what I’ve read, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound “Big Bear” was gregarious, and certainly a promoter of the program, though the reality was, of course, the only promotion that mattered was winning. 

Still, when he arrived from Toledo, which he had coached to a MAC title and the NCAA tournament in his final season there, he announced that the passion for Husker basketball would become such that a roof would have to be built over Memorial Stadium to hold the crowds.

He met with the pep band and asked that it play songs such as “Rock Around the Clock” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” to fire the enthusiasm of fans at the Coliseum. After the National Anthem, he asked that fans remain standing and sing “There Is No Place Like Nebraska.”

According to a Lincoln newspaper account, he organized a Nebraska chapter of the National Association of Assistant Basketball Coaches and handed out membership cards, allowing holders to “tell the coach how to run the team at any time, during practice or a scheduled game.”

Never mind that the organization was fictitious. You’ve got to appreciate such a coach.

Obviously, some Husker fans did, well into his tenure. In early March of 1959, in a ceremony before the final home game of the season against Oklahoma, Bush was honored with, among other things, two television sets, a hi-fi stereo and a home dehumidifier.

Nebraska’s record at that point was 12-11. Three days before, the Huskers had won at Missouri 81-79, their first regular-season conference road victory since mid-January of 1957.

The string of regular-season conference road losses was 15. 

Nebraska lost to Oklahoma and then at No. 2-ranked Kansas State to finish 12-13.

I was following Husker basketball by then, though I admit to falling asleep on the living-room couch during the Huskers’ 43-41 upset of No. 4-ranked Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain at the Coliseum the previous season.  

Bush’s teams produced some big upsets. They just couldn’t win consistently.

My favorite player from that time was Herschell Turner, a Bush recruit from Indianapolis who led Nebraska in rebounding three consecutive seasons, despite being a 6-2 guard. Turner also was the team’s leading scorer in two of those seasons, and the first Husker to score 1,000 points. 

Turner, the runner-up to Oscar Robertson as the Indiana high school player of the year his senior season, and Wilson Fitzpatrick, Turner’s Husker teammate in 1957-58, were Nebraska’s first black basketball lettermen since Wilbur Wood earned his third letter in 1910.

Bush, who died in 1976 at age 62, introduced me to Husker basketball, you might say––well, I did say that. So there’s no “might” about it.

Anyway, he was honored at halftime of Nebraska’s next-to-last home game of the [2014-15] season against Iowa (enough said about that), as part of Legends Weekend. The Huskers wore throwback jerseys based on the 1954-55 season, Bush’s first in Lincoln, 60 years ago.

A couple of years or so later, I started following Nebraska basketball. I never attended a game at the Coliseum coached by Bush. But I was a fan of the “Big Bear” and his teams, nonetheless.

Whether or not they won didn’t matter to me. 

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