You might think that fall practice marks the official return of college football season, but that’s probably because you’re a mere mortal Husker fan. Those who wear the credential know that it’s not “official” until Monday of the first game week.
But we’ll get back to that.
To truly understand where we’re going, it starts with peeking behind the curtain of the circus that is the Husker football media.
It starts in fall camp, which is more than just practice. To satisfy the thirst of the summer media blackout, the gathered group is allowed to feast on a handful of open practices to get warmed before game week. Even on the days where access is limited to post-practice interviews, you can still find around 30 members of the Husker media parade patiently waiting for the doors to open.
And on the days where the media does have access to practice, it’s not the same as the in-season scramble for hot takes and noticing something that the thousands of people watching the games missed. This is their preseason, and unlike the NFL, they take it easy to make sure no one gets hurt or left behind.
While the common man may expect these opposing reporting forces to keep their distances and focus on the football, fall camp’s open practices are more like a ceremonial dinner before a battle. Reporters trade summer vacation stories, BBQ recipes and catch up on whichever memes and jokes they are going to run into the ground that year.
Or some shit, I’m not sure. Though I walk among them, I am not one of them.
And that brings us to game week, and the first Monday morning press conference of the year.
As soon as the elevator doors open, it’s obvious that the Monday morning Husker press conference is the next level that the regular season demands.
The first face waiting there is the pit bull of the athletic communications staff, but you know, it’s a group of relatively tame sports PR staffers, so he isn’t so much a pit bull as he is an English Bulldog. But he’s a mean looking bulldog, just eyeing up everyone and readying himself to slobber stats and grunt non-sequiturs at any media member who dare challenge his domain.
Just past the greeter sits the first ring of this clown show. It’s the observation deck in the press box, but the veterans lying in wait with dormant television cameras and voice recorders aren’t just socializing. As they make small talk and find different reasons to chat with the gathered Husker staffers, they discreetly monitor the situation with professional-level side eye and make sure they are first in line for the inevitable media scrum.
Some even dare to be more direct in their pursuits of popularity. As Demornay Pierson-El made his way to the area, one Omaha TV guy steps forward with a “wassup brotha?” in a clear reminder that he too played college sports, albeit at the Division II level. But in his mind, this clear sign that he can appropriate jargon sets him apart. It’s a bold strategy.
But the real scrum is through the doors. That’s where the press conference showdown happens.
You may be asking yourself, “Wait, isn’t this about information and getting answers that Husker fans deserve?” But it’s a naïve approach. There are practices on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday night for that. This is where the media comes to learn how to front and swagger, and the press conference area on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium is their stage.
Up first is the volleyball portion of the presser. Or in other terms, the time where the almost exclusively male audience tries its best to feign interest in volleyball to score points with John Cook. But this time it only took one question to expose them.
The first question came at lightning speed, but with diction on Jerry Smith’s level. This guy got here early to earn that front row spot, and was just waiting to ask about the “uncharted territory” of Nebraska starting the season 0-2.
“No, it’s not,” Cook quickly replied. “In 2014 we started the same way, and in fact we didn’t even play well.”
Good job. Good effort.
But the main act came a few minutes later when Mike Riley took the podium. That’s when all the heavy hitters settled into their seats, and the fast-paced action gets started: Reporters cutting each other off, asking leading questions and the classical technique of trailing off mid-sentence like it’s the best way to get a good answer.
These are professionals. And each artist has his or his way of going about their business.
There’s angry Omaha newspaper guy, who can only be bothered for a question here and there, so long as he’s not quietly scolding other media members for getting in HIS way. Do we recognize who he is? Today’s target is an AP photographer who wandered too close to his chair in the press conference gallery. How dare the photographer try and take pictures while angry guy sat there brooding about the question he may never even ask.
Just a few chairs away is exuberant Omaha TV guy. Like angry guy, exuberant TV guy has not quite figured out Twitter, or whether to tweet from the first or third person perspective, but press conferences are his chance to remind everyone of his relevance. He’s a veteran, and instead of jumping out early to stake his claim he waited until we were approaching the 30 minute mark of the show.
As exuberant TV guy dropped his question about walk-ons, a question he knew his viewers would love, he could see from the smile spreading across Mike Riley’s face that he had done well. I mean, he smiles like that after every question, but this time was different. It was similar to how he’d ask Tanner Lee about being a captain without playing a down, even though the previous four-year starter had failed to be named captain a year ago.
The fine folks who make up the Husker message boards may never know just how good his questions were, but exuberant TV guy knew, and that’s what mattered most. He asked the best questions.
That brought us to what appeared to be the end. As is usually the case, the communications staffer in charge leaned in during the walk-on question, and added, “we have time for one more.” It’s an experienced move to hedge out those last minute ‘Gotcha’ questions.
But it wasn’t enough to stop insightful Omaha newspaper guy.
Like the expert he is, insightful guy didn’t waste his time with the rest of us sitting in the chairs and standing in the area designated for the press conference. Instead, he sat just outside the action, posted up at a nearby table just waiting for his moment. And this was it.
As he spun out of his chair and into view, he announced his intentions: “Yeah, I have one more question.”
Like Ted Valentine calling a charge, insightful guy knew how to make sure all the attention was on him. His question, and Riley’s answer, were irrelevant—this was about showing the room that he was “the guy.” To further flex his media muscle, he dared ask a follow up to a question that was never supposed to be asked in the first place.
It was a power move, and it drew a roll of the eyes from the communications staffer who had tried to end things. At the same time, a third Omaha newspaper man found the perfect time to sneak past the staffer and make a quiet joke to ease the tension. Those guys really know how to play both sides.
Riley handled both like a pro. Despite the lateness, the Husker head man gave a solid answer for the first question, and even entertained the follow up in a thoughtful way. He had made it through the first act of this season-long drama. Or at least he thought.
At this point, the original clown had been sitting in the front row for nearly an hour since botching his volleyball question, and he saw this as his shot at redemption. Even though we were already two questions past the limit, he again found his top verbal speed and blurted his query: “What are your overall thoughts on the Big Ten west?”
The athletic department staffer’s eyes bulged from his head in disbelief with the audacity to ask THIS question this late. You could see numerous reporters and camera men looking at each other, as if to say, “Can you believe he did that?”
At least they weren’t that guy.
Pat Radigan is in his ninth season covering Husker sports and is neither a certified G, nor 7-feet-tall. And you can teach that.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.