Nebraska fans probably remember Grant Wistrom as the nightmare in a No. 98 jersey. Nightmare for opponents, of course. He's still the school record holder with 58.5 tackles for loss. Just the mention of his name still conjures visions of vicious hits and furious effort. If you were creating a Husker picture dictionary, put Wistrom's photo alongside the word hell-bent.
But also know that while he played with that energy every Saturday, he wasn't that way every day. It was a process.
"It was something that would start at the beginning of each week and just well up inside of me," Wistrom said in an interview with Hail Varsity Radio this week. "By the time I took the field on Saturday or Sunday, it was like, 'I am going to rip somebody's head off when I step out on the field today.' Sometimes it was a particular player I would fixate on, the guy I was going against. When it was Kansas State I would convince myself that I hated the color purple."
You can make the argument, and plenty have, that Wistrom was the best player of Nebraska's greatest era. We could list all of the awards here, but it might be better to look at the four-year progression. Wistrom was one of two true freshmen to play during Nebraska's 1994 championship season and was named the Big Eight Defensive Newcomer of the Year. In 1995 he became a third-team All-American. By 1996, he was a second-team All-American and the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. He was the latter again as a senior in 1997 as well as a consensus first-team All-American and the Lombardi Award winner.
As far as careers go, you won't find a more clear upward trend than that. Wistrom was also there for all three years Scott Frost was on campus. Hail Varsity Radio host Chris Schmidt asked Wistrom to explain in his own words why he thinks Scott Frost "will be a game-changer for Nebraska."
"It's not just one thing," Wistrom said, noting many of the familiar bullet points on Frost's résumé: history with the Huskers, history with the state, the coaches he played under and all of that stuff. That's all good and relevant, but Wistrom's real answer might surprise those who remember him only as a purple-hating, metaphorical-decapitator-of-quarterbacks.
"You see Scott and his body of work and you realize that he is a good coach, but what really impressed me more than anything was seeing how much his players at UCF loved him," Wistrom said. "You can get a guy that wins and the players almost win in spite of the coach. Those guys played for Scott and won for Scott. When he left they were upset that he left, but they were all happy for him. That type of winning and that type of environment is really, really had to beat, man.
"I think Coach Pelini's teams – and I like Bo as a coach, I thought he did good things while he was there, and he had some issues, too – I think they were fueled on an almost acidic or hate environment where the guys want to prove everybody else wrong. Where Scott's teams seem to play for each other and for the university and for their coach. That's a much stronger bond than any other type . . . That's why I'm excited. They love playing for Scott."
You can listen to more of the interview with Wistrom here, and there's plenty more good stuff to be found there, but I wanted to focus on that idea of love in the locker room. It immediately resonated with me because it was something Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook mentioned in his book, Dream Like a Champion (which I worked on, but I promise this adds to the discussion and isn't just a thinly veiled plug). From Chapter 12:
If there is one regret that encompasses most of my coaching career, it is this: I wish I would have learned earlier to coach with love rather than anger. That is a lesson that took me a long time to learn. I started out as a football coach and that was my earliest model of how to coach. We have all seen how football coaches handle things. Many of them coach with a lot of anger. Football is a violent, harsh game. It is a sport of collisions and combat. The goal of playing football is to crush the player in front of you and crush the other team.
. . .
I coached for a long time like that before realizing that it did not have to be that way. I had a choice to make when I walked into the gym every day: I could coach with love or I could coach with anger. I could be in the moment every day and remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. I could marvel at all of the amazing athletes I was getting to work with and really be grateful for the opportunity we get each season to take a group of players, coaches, and staff and try to make our dreams come true.
Cook's accomplishments, like Wistrom's, speak for themselves. That topic, coaching with love rather than anger, came up again when I was talking to Cook about a week ago. We were just idly talking about the NCAA Tournament, and he noted that the coaches that were winning were often the ones who landed on the love side of the spectrum.
As if on cue yesterday, Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser said this during his press conference at the Final Four: "I hope this message gets out a lot. We talk a lot about it. When you have love and trust in the locker room, you know, you can get on kids. They want to be coached."
Anyway, have a lovely weekend.
The Grab Bag
- Herm Edwards knows everyone thinks this Arizona State thing isn't going to work out. He has some things to say about that.
- A brief history of Baker Mayfield using perceived slights to fuel his competitiveness.
- Some interesting comments from FBS coaches here on the new early-visit period.
- ICYMI: Here's yesterday's practice report, as well as updates on Nebraska's new Duck-R position and the tight end competition.
Today's Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.