Bill Shepard talks to Dennis Leblanc, left, and Michael Kelly, right.
By Randy York
We all know what a good storyteller is – a person who has a good memory and hopes other people don’t. That was apparent Wednesday when Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst hosted a reception inside the West Stadium’s Student-Life Complex for such longtime Nebraska Athletic Department legends as Francis Allen, Don “Fox” Bryant, George Darlington, Al Papik, Joe Selig, Bill “Shep” Shepard, George Sullivan, Milt Tenopir and Art McWilliams.
Talk about stretching the truth. Allen, who coached Nebraska to eight NCAA national championships in his 40-year reign in men’s gymnastics, saw Husker Olympic gold medal sprinter Charlie Greene sitting on the other side of the room, so he launched into a story about how supremely confident Charlie was in his own ability.
“I’ll never forget waiting to watch Charlie run one time,” Allen recalled. “Everyone in the race took off their warm-ups and started strutting around showing off their muscles before getting into the starting blocks. Charlie watched everyone show off and then got into his starting blocks in sweat clothes. He exploded out of the blocks and blew everyone away…one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen in a track meet.”
Allen’s Story Was Mostly True with One Exception
Knowing how Allen can conceive the inconceivable and how he can layer his version of the truth on top of the real truth, I decided to walk to another table and check his story with Charlie. “Is that true?” I asked Greene after relating Allen’s portrait of the truth. “Partly,” Charlie said before revealing the whole truth and nothing but the truth. “It did happen just like Francis said,” Charlie confirmed, “but it wasn’t a real track meet. It was an intramural event on campus.”
The laughter you hear became the rule for three former Husker coaches (Allen, Darlington and Tenopir) and three former Nebraska administrators (Bryant, Papik and Selig), plus a legendary trainer (Sullivan), a legendary groundskeeper (Shepard) and a legendary manager who oversaw the Husker Training Table (McWilliams).
For old time’s sake, “Shep” wore the same red-and-white polka-dot cap he’s owned for 58 years. “Got it in 1955,” he said. “Wear it for special occasions like this.” Bill Shepard has trouble hearing, even with his hearing aids. But his fellow legends will never forget how competitive he was playing handball on the old NU Coliseum courts. Shep started waving his arms like giant windmills when I asked him how good he was playing handball. “I played against everybody, even the legendary Tom Novak,” he said. “I don’t want to lie, but I could hold my own.”
Shep Tells TV Guy: ‘Not on My Field, You Don’t’
That brings us to a story that made its way across the Student Life Complex’s multipurpose room. It’s a legendary story where a legendary Nebraska groundskeeper went one-on-one with a not so legendary employee of a certain national television network. The TV guy managed to drive a small truck near the sidelines of what is now called Tom Osborne Field before announcing that he needed to drive that truck on the grass field in preparation for Saturday’s upcoming national telecast.
“Not on my field, you don’t!” Shep told the TV guy while standing in front of the truck with his arms tightly crossed.
The contentious verbal match escalated to a point where Shep had to summon Fox Bryant, Nebraska’s Hall-of-Fame Sports Information Director, as a mediator. The TV guy said what he was going to do, and Shep said why it couldn’t be done. Fox listened to both and sided with Shep. When the TV guy said he was going to leave and not come back, two Nebraska employees didn’t have to say anything. They just stood their ground. The only words that broke the silence was Fox, who said: “See you later!” It was the perfect punchline to your classic stare-down between a TV guy used to getting everything he wanted and Memorial Stadium’s Grand Poobah, who protected the stadium’s hallowed turf like it was his own. Even though no one waved goodbye, I have to assume that seconds after Shep prevailed, there was a Big Red smile underneath that red-and-white polka-dot cap he wore.
Tenopir Shares Interesting Experience with T.O.
We end this story-telling column with Milt Tenopir’s memory of recruiting with Tom Osborne, Nebraska’s legendary coach and his longtime boss. For the sake of brevity, we compress Tenopir’s tale of being in the Las Vegas Airport with Nebraska’s head coach on a recruiting trip. As you can imagine, Osborne shook his head while walking past people pouring money down slot machines as fast as they possibly could.
According to Tenopir, Osborne even wondered how many people might miss their mortgage payment because they couldn’t stop gambling. When Osborne spotted a phone around the corner, he walked over to set up a recruiting appointment. When T.O. headed for the pay phones, Tenopir disappeared behind a row of slot machines. He reached into his pocket and realized he still had six quarters, so he put three into a slot and pulled the one-armed bandit. Shockingly, the lights came on and the bells went off. Tenopir could not get the overflow of quarters into his pockets fast enough as he waited for the $60 jackpot. “My coat pockets were about down to my knees with those quarters,” he remembered.
Two years later in a football staff meeting, Osborne talked to his coaches about the evil of gambling, and Tenopir confessed about what had happened that day when his boss was making a recruiting-related phone call. Osborne listened carefully and then proved why he has a photographic memory. “I thought your coat pockets were bulging that day,” Osborne said, “but I didn’t know why.”
First Husker Legends Reception Not Likely Last
Yes, we all know what a good storyteller is – a person who has a good memory and hopes other people don’t. Some people, of course, know and remember everything. And sometimes, they get a bigger kick out of an escapade than the person who actually pulled it off. For about 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon, Husker workforce legends reconnected with a small batch of longtime members of the media.
I surveyed the room several times and saw at least one person in each small conversational huddle smiling and then triggering more smiles around them. There was no program and no specific agenda for this midweek reception – just a relatively new AD who wanted to meet, see and talk to people and maybe even share a laugh or two.
The first Husker Legends Reception was short, fun and successful, and something tells me it won’t be the last. When the legendary Jack Payne put on his coat to drive back to Omaha, he said he’d had a great time. I couldn’t help marveling how he’d spent 46 years in broadcasting and was still willing to drive to Lincoln for a 90-minute get-together. When he put on his Ivy League cap, I asked Jack how old the cap was. “Got it in 1969,” he said with his usual gentlemanly grace. After he walked out the door, it all hit me. A gathering like Wednesday’s felt like putting on an old cap. However you want to look at it, an old cap is better than a new one, just like old stories are better than new stories.
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