Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats" Series: Nebraska's Danny Nee

September 6th, 2011
In the latest installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer spent some time with former Nebraska head coach Danny Nee. During his time in Lincoln, Nee led the Cornhuskers to five NCAA Tournament berths and an NIT title in 1996. Nee is now the head coach at the United States Merchant Marine Academy.

Jon Teitel: One of your teammates at Power Memorial HS was Lew Alcindor, who said that you were "a tough guy ("he thought he was the reincarnation of Jack Dempsey"). What was it like to play with Alcindor, and what made you so tough? 

Danny Nee: You do not realize at age 15 that you are playing with such a great player, but you could see him growing and his coordination improving.  Playing tough for me is the same as playing hard, so I would do the dirty work like set screens and dive after loose balls. 

JT: You were a member of Al McGuire's first recruiting class at Marquette. Why did you choose to go there, and what made McGuire such a great coach? 

DN: Frankly I did not even know where Marquette was. I wanted to go to an East Coast school (like Seton Hall, Providence or St. John's).  I came back from a game one night and McGuire and his mother were sitting in my family's tiny kitchen hanging out with my parents!  He was a tall, charming, good-looking guy, so my father could immediately relate to him, and his mother was a nice Irish lady just like mine.  My dad told me, "You are going with this Irishman".  Al and I became really good friends when I was an assistant at Notre Dame.  One of his best attributes was his personality. He could fit in at the local bar with a bartender or in a boardroom with the CEO of IBM. 

JT: You served a two-year tour of duty with the Marines and received an honorable discharge in 1968 after serving in Vietnam. How did you end up in Vietnam, and how did the experience change your life? 

DN: I was not doing great in the classroom so I decided to join the Marines.  After getting discharged I almost became a football coach at a tiny school in Kansas, but later got my masters degree and got back into basketball. 

JT: In 1976 you became an assistant coach at Notre Dame for Digger Phelps. What was it like to work with Digger, and what made him such a great coach? 

DN: The people in New Jersey thought I had lost my mind, as I was only making $3,000 after moving to South Bend.  I did everything there but wash the dishes, and had an office out in the foyer!  Digger was flamboyant but an excellent motivator who was driven to win.  If you gave him three days to break down a game plan, he was the best tactician in the game.  He realized that ND had no geographic boundaries because everyone around the country knew about the Irish. 

1978 NCAA Tournament (assistant at Notre Dame)

JT: Bill Laimbeer scored a career-high 20 points and had nine rebounds in 21 minutes in a win over Houston. Could you tell at the time that Laimbeer was going to become a star? 

DN: Laimbeer was a unique player. He was huge but could also step out to the top of the key and make jump shots.  I remember him being cerebral and strong. 

JT: Kelly Tripucka scored 20 points in a win over Utah on St. Patricks's Day after Digger had the team wear green socks. What did you think of the socks, and was there any way ND was losing with green socks on St. Patricks's Day? 

DN: I loved the socks, and thought it was one of the most innovative things I had ever seen! 

JT: Tripucka scored 18 points and had 11 rebounds in a win over DePaul and their Hall-of-Fame coach Ray Meyer after a one-point overtime loss to them at home only a few weeks earlier. What was it like to face Meyer (a former basketball team co-captain and assistant coach for the Irish), and did your team go into that game with a sense of revenge after the previous loss to DePaul? 

DN: Tripucka was great because he did everything and never played like a freshman. He might have been the most confident player I had ever seen.  We did not see it as revenge, but there was a big rivalry. 

JT: You lost to Duke by four as they made 32-of-37 FT (Mike Gminski had 29 points on 13-17 FG). How close did you come to winning the game, and do you think that free throw shooting made the difference? 

DN: In hindsight, I think we were the better team and should have won.  The referees must have thought we were fouling them because they kept calling fouls.  Every Final Four team back then knocked the crap out of each other and every team had great coaches. 

JT: You lost the consolation game to Arkansas after Ron Brewer made a turnaround jumper at the buzzer to win it. How frustrating was that loss, and where does Brewer's shot rank among the most clutch shots you have ever seen? 

DN: We were all disappointed, but it was a little embarrassing to lose both of our Final Four games.  Brewer was a great player and I remember my heart going into my stomach when he made that shot. 

1983 NCAA Tournament (head coach at Ohio)

JT: You beat Illinois State by two thanks to a leaner by freshman Robert Tatum at the buzzer. How satisfying was it to finally have a buzzer-beater go your way, and how did a freshman have the guts to take/make that shot? 

DN: That was one of the greatest shots I have ever seen.  I think if we played them 10 times they might have beaten us 9 out of 10.  We ran a Hubie Brown play similar to Christian Laettner's famous shot to beat Kentucky in 1992.  John Devereaux caught it and tapped it over to Tatum, and he was able to make it while leaning back. 

JT: You lost to Kentucky in the second round (Mel Turpin had 14 points and nine rebounds). Did your team run out of gas after the first round win or was Kentucky just a more talented team? 

DN: We came from the MAC and Kentucky came from the SEC.  They had a bunch of great players and great coaches and their size was just too much for us. 

JT: You became coach at Nebraska in 1986 and led your team to 5 NCAA Tournament appearances in the 1990s. Why did you make the switch from Ohio, and how were you able to be so successful? 

DN: I followed a great coach named Moe Iba who taught great defense, and we made it to the NIT semifinals in our very first year.  Our band played "New York, New York" when we beat Washington to make it to the semis!

1996 NIT (head coach at Nebraska)

JT: After your fifth straight loss midway through the season, your players staged a walkout before having a team meeting and deciding to return. What caused the walkout, and how were you able to restore order? 

DN: I was getting on the team pretty hard, and after some of guys got fed up we had to cancel one practice.  Some of the guys lost their scholarships but they were resilient and turned a negative situation into a positive. 

JT: Erick Strickland scored 19 points as your team scored a postseason-school-record 91 points (10-17 3PM) in an eight-point win over Colorado State. How were you able to score so many points, and was your team just "in the zone" from behind the arc? 

DN: I remember it distinctly: our only goal at the NIT was to win it all.  Colorado State just could not do anything right that night, and we played very well both mentally and physically. 

JT: Strickland scored 17 points in a win over Fresno State and its coach Jerry Tarkanian. How important was Strickland to your team's success, and what was it like to coach against Tarkanian? 

DN: We manhandled them and it was over after the first five minutes.  It was awesome to coach against Tarkanian because I greatly admired him.  We had a great team with a few guys who ended up in the NBA. 

JT: You went to the free throw line a postseason-school-record 45 times in a win over Tulane. Was it an especially physical game or did your team just keep getting fouled in the paint over and over? 

DN: Strickland was magnificent, and we just kept getting fouled. 

JT: Tournament MVP Strickland scored 13 points in a four-point win over St. Joe's for the first basketball title in school history. What did it mean to you to win the title, and what was the reaction like when you got back to campus? 

DN: I think they just ran out of gas.  It was euphoria.  I am from Brooklyn so I had a ton of friends at the game that I had not seen in ages.  It was really exciting and served as redemption. 

JT: You left the college ranks in 2006 to work as a scout for the Utah Jazz. How did you like the scouting gig, and which NBA team received the most favorable scouting report? 

DN: Utah GM Kevin O'Connor was nice to me and threw me a life raft.  I was just calling around and he gave me the scouting position.  However, I had no interaction with players so after a couple of years I was looking for something else. 

Nee is also on Jon's list of the best coaches in Big Ten history.

Illinois: Lou Henson (1975-1996) 423-224, 12 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Indiana: Bobby Knight (1971-2000) 661-240, 24 NCAA tourneys, 11 conference titles, 3 NCAA titles, 1 NIT title, 4-time national COY, 5-time conference COY
Iowa: Tom Davis (1986-1999) 270-139, 9 NCAA tourneys, 1-time national COY, 1-time conference COY
Michigan: Johnny Orr (1968-1980) 209-113, 4 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 2-time conference COY
Michigan State: Tom Izzo (1995-present) 355-152, 13 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 4-time national COY, 2-time conference COY
Minnesota: Louis "Doc" Cooke (1897-1924) 254-142-3, 5 conference titles, 3 national titles
Nebraska: Danny Nee (1986-2000) 254-190, 5 conference titles, 1 NIT title
Northwestern: Arthur "Dutch" Lonborg (1927-1950) 236-203, 2 conference titles, 1 Helms title
Ohio State: Fred Taylor (1958-1976) 297-158, 5 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 2-time national COY
Penn State: Bruce Parkhill (1985-1995) 181-169, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Purdue: Ward "Piggy" Lambert (1916-1946) 371-152, 11 conference titles, 1 Helms title
Wisconsin: Walter "Doc" Meanwell (1911-1917, 1920-1934) 246-99, 8 conference titles, 3 Helms titles