More than a Coach
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

More than a Coach, Milt Tenopir was a Battler and a Friend

September 27, 2016

Someone who played for Milt Tenopir could tell this better. But here goes.

Milt and Tom Osborne were on a recruiting trip in the west, probably California, with a flight connecting in Las Vegas on the way home. During the layover, Osborne told Tenopir he was going to make a couple of calls, check in with recruits.

McCarran International Airport’s atmosphere is that of a casino, with spinning, flashing red lights and the ringing of slot machines. Welcome to Las Vegas.

When Osborne disappeared behind a bank of pay phones, Tenopir went to a quarter-slot machine, located out of Osborne’s view, to pass the time and try his luck.

Osborne, of course, did not condone gambling, except at times on a football field, and only then when the risks were calculated or meant winning instead of settling for a tie.

Maybe it was the first quarter, or the second or third, but not long after Milt started inserting the coins, the light on his machine began spinning and the bell began ding-ding dinging as quarters spilled out as fast as Milt could scoop them up and put them in his pockets.

As he scooped, he checked to see whether Osborne was still behind the bank of phones.

When Osborne returned, he and Milt, weighted down with quarters in every pocket including those in his sport coat, boarded the flight to Nebraska.

Osborne has since heard the story. Whether he knew about the jackpot that day is unclear, at least in the version I recall, but probably so. Not much gets by him, especially bulging pockets.

Milt was a great storyteller, and he’d share his stories with reporters, often in his office on the second floor of the South-Stadium complex. As I recall, it was up the stairs, to the right and then another right turn, back in the direction from which you had come.

The door was almost always open to reporters. Milt accepted you like a friend, which is how I remember him, and why I am deeply saddened by his passing.

He was a battler, like the offensive linemen he coached, so you figured he would beat the cancer that put him in a wheelchair but couldn’t keep him from Husker practices.

You just knew he would, took it for granted . . .

Like many he coached, Milt was a small-town Husker walk-on, you might say.

He was from Harvard, Nebraska, and recalled competing against Osborne, who was from Hastings, in high school track and field, when he was a freshman and Osborne was a senior. So when Osborne succeeded Bob Devaney as Husker head coach in 1973, Milt contacted him, asking if he’d be interested in hiring a high school coach. Milt had been the head coach at McCook for three years.

Osborne said he had no openings on his staff but he would check back with Milt in a year.

A year later, almost to the day, Osborne offered Milt a job as a grad assistant, a position that paid almost nothing. But it was a start. Milt and Steve McKelvey, also a grad assistant, worked part-time for a dirt hauler and during the summer painted and shingled houses in the evenings.

Milt’s first season at Nebraska, he coached the freshman linebackers. In the spring of 1974, Osborne moved him to the offensive line. He didn’t become a full-time assistant coach until the 1979 season. Prior to that, he was director of club activities for the Nebraska Alumni Association.

Two years in, Milt was offered the job as head coach at Lincoln High. Osborne asked him to hold off, to see if they could get him more money. Milt went to meet with Devaney, the athletic director, on a day when Devaney was leaving for a quick trip to Hawaii. Milt arrived at the South Stadium at 6 a.m. Devaney arrived at 8 a.m. and said he didn’t have time to talk about money.

Clete Fischer, with whom Milt coached the offensive line, persuaded him to try to hold off on the Lincoln High job, that Osborne and Devaney would come up with something when Devaney returned. They did, working for the Alumni Association as well as coaching.

Nebraska’s rich football tradition has depended on such things. Milt Tenopir was an essential part of three national championships and all the other accomplishments from 1974 through 2002, when he was a loyal assistant, and beyond, always a Husker, always contributing by his presence, which always brought a smile to those who saw him.

Beyond those things, however, were the relationships he established with those he coached, an extended family, far too many to count. Nebraska hit the jackpot with his hiring, or walking on really. The flood of words expressing what he meant would fill pages and pages.

They would be bulging, with still more coming and no place to stuff them.

Rest in peace, my friend. I hope I can say that.

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