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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Carl Mauck is a mountain of a man. It was easy to pick him out Thursday in a diner crowd.

Brenden Stai, the former Nebraska offensive lineman great, says Mauck is the best position coach he ever had, college or NFL. In other words, it makes sense to listen when Mauck, with passion in his gruff voice, emphasizes the importance of a strong running game.

It makes sense to listen to Mauck, because he enjoyed a 34-year playing and coaching career in the NFL. The Southern Illinois graduate started 166 consecutive games at center, snapping to the likes of John Hadl, Bob Griese, Dan Fouts, Ken Stabler and Johnny Unitas.

"In football, if you beat someone by throwing it 60 times, they're not going to respect you as much as they would if you run the ball 60 times and beat the sh-- out of them that way. They'll respect that," said the 68-year-old Mauck, who's retired and, along with his wife, is putting the final touches on a new home in south Lincoln.

His daughter was a Husker swimmer in the 1990s and now lives in Lincoln with her husband and three children. I couldn't pass up a chance to interview the big grandpa. Mauck, after all, was the last center to snap the ball to the retiring Unitas when they played for the San Diego Chargers in 1973.

Mauck, who coached for seven different NFL teams, is as old-school as a spikes-high slide into second base.

"When it's cold, and it's cold up here from November on, and the wind's howling, and you're having a hard time throwing it ... you better be able to run the damned football," he said.

Mauck has been familiar with Nebraska head coach Mike Riley dating to Riley's NFL coaching days. Mauck also knows NU offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh. And, yes, Mauck noticed Riley's proclamation late last season that the Huskers need to become a top-three rushing team in the Big Ten (they were sixth).

The topic persists. Many fans want to see Riley follow through.

Let's be clear: Mauck understands the importance of balance on offense. But he believes a physical running game is paramount, in part because it builds toughness on both sides of the ball. What's more, it makes it easier to pass.

"Because, now, the defense has to start sneaking that safety down toward the box to get the run stopped," he said.

Mauck, by the way, praises Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong. But Mauck says Armstrong shouldn't be asked to read the entire field — sideline-to-sideline — in the passing game. A lot of NFL quarterbacks struggle with that, Mauck said.

"I'd tell him, 'Read one side of the field, take a checkdown, or run the ball,'" Mauck said.

Run the ball.

Mauck adds, "But I'm not coaching there. I'm just giving you my opinion."

He's willing to help Nebraska if Riley and/or Cavanaugh were to call, but he's fine if they don't. He understands the lay of the land in these parts because, well, he's in-tune with the game. Plus, during his various stops in the NFL, he coached four ex-Husker greats: Stai and Dominic Raiola with the Detroit Lions, and Chris Dishman and Aaron Graham with the Arizona Cardinals.

"He was one of the most intense coaches I've been around on a game day," said Stai, who played for Mauck in 2001. "To be honest, I think it bothered some people. But I liked it. I fed off it. Then, when we were in the classroom, away from football, he was just a down-to-earth guy. He added levity, which was nice.

"He has wealth of knowledge and truly cared about his guys. Loved his guys. You could tell, man. He wished he was on the field with you."

Mauck made it to the Super Bowl in 1994 with the Chargers when they lost to the San Francisco 49ers, who featured a 27-year-old assistant secondary coach ... Bo Pelini.

One of Mauck's closest friends in the business is Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The relationship dates to Mauck's playing days with the Houston Oilers in the 1970s. Bum Phillips was head coach, and son Wade coached the defensive line.

Houston twice lost at Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game. After both defeats, thousands of Oiler fans welcomed the team back to Houston with a party at the Astrodome.

"After the second loss to Pittsburgh, Bum gets on the microphone and says, 'Last year, we knocked on the door. This year, we banged on the door. And next year, we're going to kick the son of a bitch in,'" Mauck recalls.

Fast forward to this week. Mauck received a text from Wade Phillips early Monday morning after Phillips' defense took apart the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl:

"Well, we finally kicked that son of a bitch in," Phillips wrote. "The old man would be proud."

The Broncos' defense was the driving force. But perhaps you noticed their strong running game as well.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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