Tom Baack wore a tux for his induction into Indiana’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
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By Randy York
Weeks after his formal induction into the hallowed halls of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, Nebraska basketball Hall-of-Famer Tom Baack found his way back to Lincoln. Now 65 (he turns 66 Tuesday), semi-retired and living with wife Paula in Monument, Colo., Baack was on one of his regular Nebraska road trips a week ago to check out the family farm. So he decided to see what everyone, including ESPN and the Chicago Bulls, are raving about – arguably the best basketball practice facility in the United States of America. Like everyone else, once Baack saw the Hendricks Training Complex, he could feel the pride, and somehow the experience triggered a prejudice he’s had since he graduated from Concordia High School in Ft. Wayne, Ind. – Nebraska was and still is a sleeping giant in college basketball. He calls it “a diamond in the rough” program just waiting for all the right things to converge at once, so America can say, Hello Nebraska, how are ‘ya? We had no idea you guys were into basketball.
Well, we are, and we thought Baack, who held Nebraska’s all-time scoring record for a decade (before Jerry Fort set a new record in 1976) could provide insight on why he turned down four Big Ten basketball scholarship offers to come to Lincoln and why, more than four decades later, that logically sound choice would make even more sense now. To cover all the ground that seems relevant, the N-Sider offers seven favorable facts that come through the lens of a triple-barreled Hall-of-Famer who held his high school scoring record for 40 years and is a member of that HOF as well. Since Baack’s 17.3-point career scoring average ranks second (to Fort’s 17.9) on Nebraska’s all-time charts, that alone qualifies him to make the following observations about why he believes the Huskers are on the brink of success:
1) Nebraska’s top-notch facilities will help the Huskers find basketball’s elusive Holy Grail and its long-awaited first NCAA Tournament win. “I’ve read about the facility, but like it is with everything else, you have to see the Hendricks to really appreciate what it is and how it will draw talent from all over the country. We played our games in the old Coliseum, where spectators’ feet would extend right next to ours when we were taking the ball out of bounds. Now, even the practice court is more spacious than the court we played our games on. It’s amazing. Once a recruit sees the training facility, plus the new ($179 million Pinnacle Bank) arena going up in the Haymarket Area, how could you not want to play at Nebraska?”
2) The Big Ten Conference is just the right league to awaken a sleeping giant. “I felt that way when I came here in the mid-1960s, and I still feel that way now. I’m glad Nebraska’s in the Big Ten, and I just wish it would have happened 40 years ago when I was playing here. Northwestern, Michigan, Indiana and Purdue all offered me scholarships, and it got down to Purdue and Nebraska. I chose Nebraska because I wanted to play right away. I would have gone to Ohio State if they would have made an offer. I grew up a huge Buckeye fan and listened to every game on the radio. I loved Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried. I would have gone there, but they didn’t recruit me.”
3) Tim Miles has what it takes to lead the charge and his assistants have the passion to make it a memorable ride. “I’ve never met Coach Miles, but I was impressed with what he did at Colorado State. There’s no question he can coach, and I enjoyed meeting some of his assistants when I stopped by the new practice facility last week. Everyone knows how busy they are, but they made me feel like part of the family. It was fun sharing some stories. They knew some people I know, and vice versa. I told them that part of my acceptance speech (at this spring’s Indiana Hall-of-Fame banquet that drew 1,100 people in Indianapolis) I made a pitch for coaches to check out Nebraska. Everyone knew I meant it, too.”
4) The success of Nebraska’s journey to basketball relevance now hinges on just one word: Recruiting. “Now that Nebraska’s in the Big Ten, there are advantages that I didn’t have when I played and coached there (Baack was an NU assistant for eight years after he played). If we’d been in the Big Ten when I was playing, my parents could have driven to Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern to see me play without any problem at all. When we played at Wisconsin, my dad found a way to make that one. What was a disadvantage then would be a recruiting advantage now. Nebraska can recruit the whole Midwest now. To succeed, all they need is the players.”
5) Talented players influence other talented players. “I was talking to three of Coach Miles’ assistants. I think they were a little surprised that we had a great team in ’65-’66 after 15 straight losing seasons. We finished 20-5, went 12-2 in the Big Eight and were ranked No. 11 in the final UPI poll. We split with Kansas, but KU was 13-1 and went on to the post-season. Back then, the NCAA Tournament field was only 22 teams, so only one team from the Big Eight could go to the postseason. We had talent. In fact, all five of our starters (Baack, Stu Lantz, Nate Branch, Willie Campbell and Grant Simmons) are in the Nebraska Hall of Fame. It’s not just coaches who recruit players. Players recruit players, too.”
6) Just like records are made to be broken, history’s ready to be made. “I think every player that ever played for Nebraska is ready to get that first NCAA win off our backs. I was fortunate enough to have some records, but they’re made to be broken, and I don’t know anyone who isn’t ready for history to be made. To me, if Colorado can get it done, Nebraska can take it up another notch or two (the Buffs won the Pac-12 last March and also won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament). It looks to me like this new staff is recruiting players who can get up and down the floor and play up-tempo offensively, yet still play good defense. Everybody’s looking for that, and once they find it, it’ll be fun to watch.”
7) Recruiting Nebraska fans is every bit as important as recruiting new players. “I like the way Coach Miles and his staff are reaching out and getting fans on board. Fans are a big part of winning, and I’m going to do my part to help. I’m buying four new Nebraska season tickets. I can’t come all the time, but I’ll find people who can. In basketball, fans make a difference more than they do in any other sport. Colorado went from a half-empty arena to sellout crowds. Fans played a big part in Colorado making that transformation, just like they did for Coach Miles at Colorado State. Smart fans will buy their tickets now. They’ll get on board and help Nebraska become what we all know it should become – a winner.”
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