Then & Now: Danny Nee
Compiled By Dave Brandon
(Photo Courtesy Grand Island Independent)
Danny Nee is the winningest coach
in Nebraska history, and was at the helm of the Huskers
from 1986-2000. Nee, who posted a career record of
254-190, made the post-season eleven out of his fourteen
seasons at Nebraska, including five NCAA tournament
appearances. In addition to Nee’s collective team
success, several individual Huskers developed into NBA
players under his watch, such as Eric Piatkowski, Rich
King, Tyronn Lue, Erick Strickland, Tony Farmer, and
Nee is currently the head coach at
Duquesne, and recently sat down with HHC for our latest
Sunday version of “Then & Now.”
HHC: Danny, we want
to start by telling you it’s an honor to have you join
us, and thank you for your time.
DN: Not a problem,
your website sounds great. I look forward to checking it
HHC: Awesome, you’ll
find lots of Danny Nee stories! Hey, before we get into
your basketball career, talk to us about what it was
like serving two years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and
more in particular, Vietnam.
DN: That was just part of my life, and at
that point, I just thought it was the right thing to do.
So, I volunteered, because like a lot of guys who are
going to Iraq now or after 9/11, at that point of my
life I thought it was the right thing to do.
HHC: You were awarded the Combat Air
Insignia Medal for your service in Vietnam, and have
always been known as a tough and fierce competitor. How
much of your mantra and personality stems from your
times in the service?
DN: Nah, that wasn’t a big deal, trust me,
it was just a little award. As far as my personality and
mantra, I do think that it has had an effect, but as far
as how or when, I don’t know. I will tell you that
Vietnam, just like Iraq, was a tough place to be.
HHC: I’m sure. Now, onto basketball. You
grew up in Brooklyn, and were a high-school teammate of
Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) at Power Memorial
High School. What was it like playing with him?
DN: It was fun,
because we won a lot of games, and it was just a very
exciting and enjoyable time of my life. We had a great
coach, his name was Jack Donohue, who ended up being an
Olympic coach, and to put it in perspective, everyone
who played on that team got a division one scholarship.
So, Jack was a great coach, and taught us all a lot.
As far as Lew goes, he was a great
player, although nobody knew at that time that he’d end
up being one of the top five players who ever played the
game. And, in my opinion, he is just that, along with
Bird, Magic, Jordan, and guys like that. But all the
kids on that team were just such great players, and it
was a pleasant experience.
HHC: After your successful high school
career, you were a member of Al McGuire’s first
ever-recruiting class at Marquette. How did you end up
DN: Well, Al really
recruited my parents, to be honest with you, because I
didn’t know anything about Marquette. I went there on a
visit, and my parents thought it was great, so yeah, it
was just all Al.
Playing for Al at Marquette was
very fun, and Hank Raymond coached the freshman team. He
was a nice man, and went on after Al to succeed him and
coach there. But Al McGuire, I learned so much from him,
he is just unbelievable and so unique.
HHC: Besides playing under Al McGuire,
your first major coaching job was as the top assistant
to Digger Phelps at Notre Dame, where you coached for
four years and helped lead the Irish to the 1978 Final
Four. What was it like working with Digger, and what did
he teach you about coaching?
DN: I’ll tell you what, it was a big break
to get that job, because the NCAA had just expanded from
two assistant coaches to three. At that time, it was a
“part-time” job, but it really wasn’t. It was a
I could give you volumes on Notre
Dame, as far as what it stands for. It was just great.
We had very good players and a very good team, and
Digger was just a very innovative coach who did an
unbelievable job there. We went to Four NCAA regionals,
in addition to the 1978 Final 4 that you mentioned, and
the experience was just very nice.
HHC: After your four seasons at Notre
Dame, you then went on to coach at Ohio U., where you
lead the Bobcats to the post season in four out of your
six seasons, including two NCAA’s and a Sweet 16
appearance. What was Athens like?
DN: That was my first
head-coaching job in college, and I really enjoyed it. I
really liked living in Athens. The Bobcats were kind of
special, and a lot of that success had to do with some
of my great assistants. I had Billy Hahn and Fran
Fraschilla, and both of them turned out to be great head
coaches. So yeah, Ohio U was a good time.
HHC: You came to Nebraska prior to the
1986-1987 season after turning down several other
high-profile jobs. At the time, many people thought you
were crazy for coming to a “football school,” but you
publicly stated that if you could win at Notre Dame, you
could at Nebraska. Describe to us how difficult it is to
win at a “football school.” Is the label overrated, or
DN: I agree with your
statement and understand it, but I never looked at it
that way. The first reason was because of Bob Devaney
and Tom Osborne. They were both so special to work for
and with. I never felt it was a football school because
they were always trying to help me and help the
basketball program try to get on its feet.
I thought it was a tremendous
advantage to have a great football team because of all
the accolades and accomplishments that the football team
had; it just overflowed to all the sports. We had a
great strength and conditioning program with Boyd Eppley,
and a great training table. Whatever it was, we were
always on the cutting edge of equipment because of
So, I just never thought that was
an excuse, because there’s no law against having both a
great football and basketball program. I always had a
pro football attitude, and I really thought the football
teams were magnificent. I really enjoyed going to them
and seeing them, because I’d never been part of that
before, and I thought that Lincoln Nebraska and the
state’s commitment was something else.
Football complimented us as we were
trying to build a basketball program. And the other
positive was that anywhere I went, and I said Nebraska,
it was instant recognition, which was very positive. So
we always sold that we have great football, but also
basketball. We would tell recruits we were in a great
conference and committed to winning in both football and
HHC: Talk about your first few seasons at
Nebraska, and how difficult it was to transition from
Moe Iba’s players to your own?
DN: It wasn’t
difficult at all. We had Brian Carr, Bill Jackman, Mike
Martz, Bernard Day; they were all great, man. They were
super to deal with, and we had a very successful year
right away because of those guys.
Coach Iba was such a great teacher
of the man-to-man defense, and that first team was so
fundamentally sound. To be honest, that first year might
have been the easiest coaching job I’ve ever had,
because when I unleashed them and put in a fast break,
and told them to run and shoot, to go along with the
quality Iba defense, we were pretty potent.
Those kids were such great people
and easy to coach, and it was so fun coaching them. It
was unbelievable. I can still remember Marquette,
Arkansas, and Washington coming into the Devaney Center
to play in the NIT that first year, and we beat them all
in really good games. It was really exciting.
HHC: The 1990-1991 team is probably the
best in school history, as they won 26 games and
finished the year in the top ten of some polls. What do
you remember most about that season, and be honest, did
you have any clue they would be that good, especially
coming off of a 10-18 season?
DN: We were paying
our dues up to that point, and there were so many great
players on that team that were just developing. I mean,
you had Rich King, Beau, Scales, Bruce, all those guys.
The core had been either redshirted or in the program
for a while. And then you had the addition of Tony
Farmer, Jose Ramos, Keith Moody, and then we also had
young players like Piatkowski, Carl Hayes, Dapreis
Owens… Go back and see, three or four of them are 1,000
point scorers. All of those guys had very strong
careers, and they were all uniquely different.
It came together and popped that
year, and we were building that for three or four years
prior to going there. So, we played with Iba’s players
the first few years, and then we started recruiting our
own. It was just a very experienced and mature team that
just came together. Those guys were all great players.
HHC: Talk about the four-year run of NCAA
Tournaments you enjoyed from 1991-1994. What sticks out
most about those teams?
DN: Winning. (Laughs) We won. You can go
over the list of who we beat, and the great
accomplishments, such as winning the Big 8 Tournament,
when we beat Coach Sutton and Big Country in the finals.
We had an unbelievable night with Oklahoma in the first
round, and Missouri in-between. But yeah, we broke
streaks and won at places we never won before. Big 8
basketball then was amazing. It was pretty damn good
HHC: Many critics say that your teams
“choked” or “underestimated” your first-round opponents
in a couple of those NCAA Tournaments. What is your
response to this?
DN: I have no answer to that, its almost
stupid. I think the thing is, you learn about winning,
and you learn how to win. Once you learn how to win, you
build a winner, and we just didn’t get comfortable in
those games. I really think the first time that we went
it had nothing to do with overconfidence. We had a
couple of minor problems we had to deal with it. Plus,
it was a new experience.
I would agree with critics who say
we should have beaten Xavier, Arkansas, Connecticut,
etc. But, the timing and things weren’t totally right.
I feel those teams in the years of
1991-1994 were just another step in the program that we
were getting closer to. Before I got there they didn’t
go to the NCAA’s, and since I’ve left they haven’t. We
were getting very close to taking that next step, and
its something that’s very difficult to do.
HHC: Talk about how gratifying it was for
you to win the NIT Championship in 1995-1996 after all
of the controversy surrounding that year?
DN: It was great, and I was happy for the
players and coaches. I was also happy for Nebraska,
because it was another milestone. A national
championship had never been won on any level at Nebraska
basketball, but we did it. And then, right after we won
it, people came at us and criticized us. And I didn’t
get it. All we were trying to do was win and try to make
it the best program we could make it.
Nebraska is what it is - I can’t
change that. We were in there competing and getting good
players, and they were graduating. And, obviously we
were recruiting well because the players we had went
onto the NBA. Yet, my critics liked to rail on me, and
its stupid. They did the same thing with Frank, too.
There was always something we didn’t do, so that’s just
how it is.
HHC: Tell us some of your all-time
favorite players at Nebraska, as far as kids who really
grew and became men under your watch.
DN: Well, on your
site alone are three of them, in Beau Reid, Bruce, and
Cary. I remember bringing them all in. Rich King is up
there. But just any of those guys, it was easy, because
they were all self-made players. They came in with
talent and worked their butts off, and became very good
college players. I know Bruce played some ball overseas,
and I think that Beau could have easily played pro, too,
had he wanted to.
HHC: Who were some of
your more successful projects?
DN: Again, Rich King goes from a kid in
Omaha, who I don’t even think was starting all the games
his senior year, to a first round NBA draft pick. He
grew into a great player. Mikki Moore had two division
one scholarship offers, and Jimmy Williams went down
there and found him. My only regret with him is that we
didn’t redshirt him his freshman year.
And of course, you can’t forget
Venson Hamilton, Clifford Scales, Dapreis Owens, Eric
Piatkowski. God, we haven’t even mentioned Erick
HHC: Yeah, he was
featured on our Then & Now segment awhile back. Even
Kimani Ffriend is bouncing around the NBA now!
DN: Yeah, that’s
right; Kimani would be another player in that successful
HHC: Absolutely. Hey, before we let you
go, talk to us about your current situation at Duquesne,
and how is your team looking this year?
DN: We’re very
optimistic about this year, and to be honest with you, I
think we are real close. With my experiences of Ohio and
Nebraska, Duquesne is very similar in many ways. They
had a rich tradition before, and now we’re rebuilding.
It actually reminds me a lot of Creighton. A small,
catholic university of 10,000, that just hasn’t won in
awhile, and we’re looking forward to turning it around.
I will be honest and tell you that we are very close.
HHC: And, are you
still sporting the cool ties?
DN: (Laughs) I’ll tell you what, ask my
wife that question, because she’s in charge of that. If
she gives me clearance, then I’ll wear it. (Laughs) And,
a guy named Gary Novatney back there in Lincoln deserves
a lot of credit. I’m not sure if you know who he is, but
he owns Gary Michaels.
But yeah, Janet used to scream at
me and pick out the ties. She just hunted them down,
especially when we were on big time TV. I’ll tell you
what, it wasn’t easy, but she’d always make me look
good. It was a really fun time.
HHC: Danny, thanks a
lot for taking the time to talk with us.
DN: It’s not a
problem at all. I’m actually excited to give my son
Kevin this website, because he was born in Nebraska and
loves Nebraska basketball. I love Nebraska too, and I’m
glad to do this. My only regret is that I haven’t stayed
in better touch with some of the former players at
Nebraska, as far as wives and kids, and how they are all