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Sherman: By any comparison, it’s an abysmal year for the Huskers’ big 3 men’s sports

LINCOLN, Neb. — The Nebraska baseball team continues with its series against Michigan State in need of wins Friday and Saturday and two losses by Purdue against Maryland to qualify for the eight-team Big Ten tournament next week in Omaha.

The Spartans beat Nebraska 4-1 Thursday night at Haymarket Park, an uninspiring performance by the home team with its back against the wall. The Huskers stand on the brink of the unthinkable one year after they won the Big Ten and pushed Arkansas to the edge of elimination in an NCAA regional.

This, by any comparison, is an utterly awful spot for Nebraska — the sour conclusion to an utterly awful year for the Huskers’ big three men’s sports.

No need to place the numbers in historical context: 2021-22 rates as the worst combined year ever at Nebraska for its football, men’s basketball and baseball programs. Together, they’re 34-61 since August for coaches Scott Frost, Fred Hoiberg and Will Bolt, all hailed as glorious hires by former athletic director Bill Moos from December 2017 to June 2019.

The football team last fall finished 1-8 in Big Ten play. Basketball was 4-16, tied for last in the league. Baseball is 8-14 after Thursday, ahead of only Minnesota.

In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, what’s the deal with Nebraska?

That’s right, it’s a joke.

Before going any deeper, it needs to be said that the Nebraska wrestling team finished fifth at the NCAA championships in March. And the women, department-wide, remain at the top of their games.

Counterparts to the three big men’s sports, Nebraska volleyball played for a national title again in December; Amy Williams’ women’s basketball team won 24 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament; the Nebraska softball team finished second in the Big Ten regular season and won the league tournament last week.

Rhonda Revelle’s group opens the NCAA postseason Friday night in Stillwater, Okla.

These women receive the same lavish treatment in Lincoln at Nebraska as the men and train in similar conditions. If there’s any concern about the Huskers missing an edge because of the resources and support they enjoy, rest assured, the players in John Cook’s program are far from soft.

“The way it’s structured in the Power 5 conferences, you really get defined by football and men’s basketball success,” Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts said this year amid the losing. “It’s really kind of unfortunate. It’s unfair to those programs like women’s basketball and volleyball, across the board.

“So many of our sports have done amazing things. They don’t get the credit.”

The women do get credit at Nebraska. Volleyball is a statewide phenomenon. If the softball team extends its winning ways this weekend, Revelle and her players will be celebrated.

But Alberts knows of what he speaks about the structure of college sports. He experienced it as a football star for the Huskers and contributed to the imbalance in his old life as an ESPN commentator.

The big men’s sports drive the bus. And they’re steering it right into a ditch at Nebraska.

So what needs to be done? It’s not easy, or these three capable coaches and their staffs would have found the path to Big Ten success. Frost and Hoiberg are 0-for-7 in producing winning seasons here.

They’re 19-75 in regular-season conference games.

Baseball fits into the equation at Nebraska. Nebraska cares about baseball more than any other program in the Big Ten. It cares about baseball more than the Big Ten itself, which couldn’t bother to correctly list the league standings Friday on its website after the completion of games critical to the structure of the conference tournament that begins in five days.

One season after finishing 34-14, the Huskers, picked to win the Big Ten in 2022, are a dismal 21-30 and 8-14 in the league. They’ve been beset by injuries and a lack of the clutch play provided last year by a group of veterans undervalued by outside observers. Turns out, they were not easily replaceable.

Still, the temptation exists to look for an overarching issue that’s sunk the men’s teams at Nebraska.

Poor chemistry is a factor.

Roster turnover, largely unavoidable today, has created problems for Frost and Hoiberg. Often in the current regimes, Nebraska football and basketball have recruited without an apparent plan beyond filling the spots left vacant by untimely departures.

Two formulas have produced repeated success in the Big Ten. The first, to build an overwhelming talent edge, works for Ohio State football. The other, to implement a system, teach it, live it and recruit to it, takes time. It’s what Michigan State hoops has done. And Iowa football.

P.J. Fleck, with twice as many wins as Frost’s 15 in the past four seasons, is working systematically at Minnesota to build a culture of winning.

Nebraska, meanwhile, has slipped into a culture of losing. And losing in Lincoln, with its plentiful resources, is rooted in leadership.

The women’s sports thrive because leaders like Cook and Revelle, head coaches at Nebraska for a combined 52 years, work atop rock-solid foundations. Williams, in charge for six years, appears to be constructing something similar.

Alberts strategizes with his men’s coaches to address and fix the problems. It’s more than can be said about his predecessor. But the AD is still new on this job. His one-year anniversary comes in July.

“From my perspective, whether you’re a coach or an administrator,” Alberts said, “I always view my job as to go out and find people who are better than me and maybe smarter than me.”

Keep looking. Brighter days are ahead. They’ve got to be. Right?

(Photo of Fred Hoiberg: Mary Langenfeld / USA Today)

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