Over the past few weeks, friends and colleagues have been asking me how I’ve prepared for my new role as interim president of the University of Nebraska.
They are sometimes surprised to hear me say that my decades of experience in athletics – from my days as a student-athlete, to coaching my sons’ teams, to serving as a high school and college basketball referee – have proven to be some of the best training I could have asked for.
Why? Years on the field and court have taught me a simple but powerful lesson about what separates winners from the rest of the pack. It’s a lesson that informs my approach to life and work, including this new role I am privileged to hold.
Winners, I’ve learned, assemble as a team.
Winners expect the best of themselves, compete hard and align around a common purpose. Every player has a role and gives full effort. Every play is designed to help the team win.
The others? They hang on the sidelines. They’re not interested in coming together as a team. They settle for average results.
If there’s one thing I know about Nebraskans, it’s that average isn’t good enough.
From growing up in a farming family in David City, to becoming a first-generation college student, to working in the Omaha business sector, to criss-crossing the state to ref small-town games, to my decades in Lincoln where I now live, I’ve seen it over and over again: Nebraskans of all stripes are competitors. We work hard and use common sense, but no one should take “Nebraska Nice” to mean we don’t want to compete with the best of the best.
The University of Nebraska is a very good university. Our faculty provide quality education at an affordable cost. We are known for excellence in cancer research, agriculture and national defense. We touch the life of virtually every Nebraskan – whether you’re an alum like me, whether you’ve been treated at our medical center, or whether you’re one of the 92,003 faithful who packed Memorial Stadium on Volleyball Day. The University of Nebraska has always been, and will always be, one of the most important drivers of individual success and economic growth in our state.
But we have not competed to our full potential.
Nebraskans expect and deserve a world-class university – a university that competes in the Big Ten and beyond, not just on the volleyball court but in the classroom and research labs. A university where every student can become the best version of themselves and fulfill their dreams here in Nebraska. A university that leads in reversing Nebraska’s brain drain and goes after every student with personal recruiting and competitive scholarships.
We can be that university for Nebraska, if we assemble as a team and do the hard work necessary.
We have all the right ingredients. Talented faculty and staff, 50,000 amazing students, generous alumni, elected leaders like Governor Pillen and our legislators who recognize education is key to Nebraska’s future. We are underway with major projects that will have lasting, statewide impact: the rural health complex in Kearney, Project Health at UNMC, renovation of Memorial Stadium.
And under the leadership of our Board of Regents, we have a bold plan in place to reimagine the University of Nebraska in today’s changing and complex environment.
But as I’ve told our teams, now is the time for us to renew our passion for the University of Nebraska and our commitment to doing good for our state. Now is the time to assemble as “Team Nebraska.”
There are candid conversations and hard choices ahead. Being excellent doesn’t mean we can be excellent in everything. It means we will have to set priorities and spend our existing dollars accordingly. It means we can never forget who we work for – the people of Nebraska – and that we must hold ourselves to uncommonly high expectations.
The payoff is a world-class university that sets a new model for what higher education can be: competitive, creative, highly responsive to the needs of students and the people it serves, deeply aligned with the values and culture of its community.
That’s the opportunity for the University of Nebraska, if we align around our common goal to be our best.
That’s what winners do.
Interim President, University of Nebraska