In 2018, when Scott Frost and the rest of his coaching staff got to Nebraska, the sports psychology department implemented a new procedure: incoming freshmen, whether it was mid-year enrollees in January, guys arriving in the spring, or guys arriving in the summer, would meet with the sports psych department for an hour to basically learn what made each young man tick.
What are their coping strategies? What kinds of things tend to be emotional barriers? What do they individually struggle with and how can Nebraska support them immediately and long term?
The goal has been to know the men on a level far deeper than football right from the very beginning, so that if adversity strikes later on down the road, Nebraska’s coaching staff and support staff has the information it needs to help.
This was important to Frost. It was important to strength coach Zach Duval. The Director of Sports Psychology at Nebraska, Dr. Brett Haskell, came to know Duval first. The two see eye-to-eye on a lot. This might come as a surprise to some, but the father of #WarDaddyUp has been, Haskell says “very supportive of the players’ emotional well-being and becoming well-rounded humans.”
Duval’s a private man—he doesn’t give interviews—and he protects his methods like state secrets, so Haskell doesn’t want to give away the farm, but she says they both align heavily in how they conceptualize high-performance states.
Mental health is a key component in that, and not just to her.
Haskell has been at Nebraska seven years. She hasn’t worked for a more supportive leadership team.
“I would say that this football program has taken mental health as seriously as any coaching staff I’ve ever been around,” she said. “They have opened the doors wide open for me. They let me be an expert at what I do and they respect my expertise. They value it and they really want to help these young men become strong, healthy people beyond here and that’s absolutely something that gets discussed on a regular basis.
“I think just the coordination that they’re encouraging between academics, myself, medicine, them, the open dialogue and the receptivity to other people outside of the people who are focused on the Xs and Os is pretty phenomenal and I think it’s definitely in the best interest of these kids’ well-being.”
I watched college football on Saturday and I felt weird.
I watched Kansas State call up designed quarterback runs and thought of what kind of season we’d potentially be missing from Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez.
I watched Wildcat freshman Deuce Vaughn run roughshod at times and saw Wan’Dale Robinson, a guy we here at Hail Varsity almost unanimously think is poised to become a superstar pretty soon.
All across my timeline I saw the same sentiment from media and fan folk alike: “This is hard for me to watch, I can’t imagine what it must be like for the players.”
No doubt it has been hard.
The Big Ten’s yoyo-ing with a potential restart is probably like picking at a scab that isn’t fully healed. Some reported a vote on a restart would happen after a Sunday afternoon meeting of the Council of Presidents and Chancellors, and then that meeting came and passed with no vote.
But I have a feeling that at Nebraska it’s been made more manageable.
Does Frost’s and Ryan Held’s and Greg Austin’s and Travis Fisher’s commitment to the man beyond the football player lead to what we saw from Dicaprio Bootle and Martinez and Matt Farniok when they spoke on Aug. 10?
They believe they’ve been taken care of, and they’ll continue to be taken care of, so they’re all in.
I asked Dr. Haskell what the mood is, now more than a month after the Big Ten’s postponement. “All over the board,” she said.
It’s been hard on the freshmen, she said. The redshirt guys who thought they’d have a chance to work toward the field and then had their legs cut out from under them. It’s been especially hard on the true freshmen; guys who left home to come to Nebraska for the football atmosphere that’s now laying dormant.
“It feels a little unsettling for them to not have access to the things that brought them here in the first place, away from their homes, away from their families, away from what they’re used to,” she said. “It’s sort of like the reward for taking those courageous leaps are not accessible to them right now and that’s pretty difficult.”
Nebraska has already lost three from the 2020 class, all Florida natives, this summer. (None have publicly stated why they left.)
The older class has been the collective rock for the team, though.
“I think they’ve done a really nice job of recognizing within each of their positions who needs the most support and who might be struggling,” Haskell said. “I think they’ve done a great job of keeping the morale in their groups up and really focusing back on, ‘How can we use this time effectively?’”
That goes back to Frost. That’s the horizontal leadership he’s worked tirelessly and painstakingly at times to build.
That’s the culture you want.
Dennis Leblanc, Nebraska’s Executive Associate Athletic Director for Academics, spoke to the team on Aug. 17, the day UNL began classes for the fall semester, at Frost’s request.
“I wish as much as you that you’re gonna get to play but right now school starts and so we’ve got to figure out how to make this work,” he told them, gathered on the field inside the Hawks. “I know it’s not going to be easy.”
Nebraska’s tutoring service for its student-athletes has gone on unaffected by the coronavirus. It has moved to an online-only capacity, but Leblanc’s department hasn’t been raided by an athletic department looking to trim the fat.
“We, like everyone, were asked to tighten our belts a little bit, but (Athletic Director) Bill (Moos) was very protective of that portion of it, of how it might impact the student-athletes,” he said.
The same can be said for Haskell’s department, which was allowed to hire a new sports psychologist recently amid the university’s hiring freeze. (The job had been posted well before the freeze. Moos, who took a voluntary pay cut, approved the hire. Frost also gave a portion of his salary back to the school.)
“I have colleagues across the country in director roles who were in the midst of doing the same thing and all of their positions were killed immediately,” Haskell said. “It was really our department stepping up in regards to the psychological well-being of our student-athletes allowing us to move forward with that hire despite all of the challenges we’re facing financially.”
When Frost spoke to the media on Aug. 10, he projected that a lost football season in the fall would cost the athletic department anywhere from $80-$100 million in revenue. To not only maintain but grow a division like sports psychology during that? That’s transparently progressive.
But these are the things Frost cares about.
People around the program talk about unity. Nebraska’s as unified from the top of its leadership to the bottom of its football roster. That happens because Frost cares about more than the bottom line.
Sophomore center Cameron Jurgens is in organic chemistry this semester. When football was postponed, Leblanc’s department worked with a few Huskers to add some additional courses to class schedules. Challenging courses. Courses they might not normally take during a normal football-filled fall.
Last semester, Nebraska football posted the highest semester GPA a football team has posted in the 30-plus years the department has been tracking such data, a 3.297.
Now, the spring semester was altered late by the coronavirus’ emergence, and after it ended UNL allowed all students the option to count that semester’s classes on a pass/fail basis or for a grade. That contributed somewhat to the high number.
But Leblanc said the five highest semester GPAs have all come under Frost. And he’s been the coach since December of 2018. So, it can’t all be because of the University’s kindness late.
I asked Leblanc what attributed to the rise. He was frank.
“It’s attributed to Coach Frost, it really is, and the assistant coaches,” he said. “They are just so supportive of what we do. The players don’t want to let their (position coach) down and the assistants don’t want to let Coach Frost down.
“I’ve worked with six different coaching staffs since I’ve been here”—this is Leblanc’s 38th year in Lincoln—“and they’ve all been great to work with, they’ve all been supportive, but this group, it seems like the players really don’t want to let their coaches down. I’m not saying it’s perfect—it never is when you’re dealing with 160 guys, it’s college—but I know that when I visit with a player he understands that on Thursday’s I go up and meet with the coaches and you don’t want to be on one of my bad lists when I go into that room because they’re going to hear from one of their assistants. Nobody’s going to be screaming and yelling at them or anything like that, but it’s just gonna be like, ‘Hey, that’s not how we do things around here.’”
Haskell says Nebraska’s assistant coaches come to her for problem-solving. They’re quick to call, she says. “They’ve really embraced sports psych.”
I talked to Jake Masker, a junior offensive lineman for Kearney Catholic High School and brother of Husker walk-on quarterback Matt Masker, about the last month or so for his family. Matt hasn’t ribbed Jake about little brother getting to play while Matt sits on the sideline.
He’s been supportive. Nebraska’s been able to practice. Matt has turned to faith.
Whether it’s for geographic reasons or because of the men Nebraska has coaching the team, faith has historically been of pretty heavy importance to Nebraska’s Husker players, Haskell said. Not the case with every player, but Frost is someone his players can talk to for just about anything. To a man, he’s been exactly what they’ve needed, and he’s helped to either provide or cultivate the support system to get them through.
Different guys have used different motivations to keep their spirits up.
The continued fight from the public—lawyers, parents, fans—has even helped.
“In the sport of football, we talk a lot about ‘Player Coaches,’ or at least the athletes do,” Haskell said. “I think the willingness of our coaching staff to step up on behalf of what the players want has been really unifying for our players and our coaches.”
If the Big Ten comes out at some point in the coming days and says it’ll be playing football this fall, there will be joy.
A month of not knowing what the hell is going on will be over.
For Nebraska, though, I wonder if this time hasn’t been as dark as it could have been.
They’ve been valued, holistically.
Nebraska had the right man steering the ship.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.