Matt Hoskinson reeled off Milt Tenopir's qualities Tuesday, one after another, but one jumped out.

"He always made me feel like I was better than I was," said Hoskinson, who played for Tenopir at Nebraska from 1993-97.

Think about Hoskinson's comment for a second. We should all be so lucky to have someone in our life who has that level of impact.

Every little bit helps in a life that can get awfully rugged.

Tenopir, who died Monday after a long battle with leukemia, gave truckloads of kindness and support to people during his 76 years. The longtime Nebraska offensive line coach was genuine in his approach, a straight-shooter. He could be gruff, even a bit surly at times, but his kindness won out.

He was tough but caring.

A hard driver with a giant ticker.

And that's why a lot of folks are hurting this week, most notably a long list of offensive linemen.

I could've dialed up any number of former Huskers who played for Tenopir, who retired after the 2002 season. He coached 21 All-Americans. But I called Hoskinson in large part because he was in many ways the epitome of a Tenopir lineman.

A walk-on from Battle Creek, Hoskinson was slightly undersized at 6-foot-1, 280 pounds. He was far from the most talented Nebraska lineman of his era, but he had a burning passion to help his team succeed.

He worked his way up the ranks to become the "sixth man" on a line that helped pave the way for Nebraska's 1997 national championship.

"Milt had this amazing ability to make you believe you were just unstoppable," Hoskinson said.

I marvel at people like that. How do they do it?

Tenopir did it by being honest with his players. They knew where they stood with him. They knew their place on the depth chart.

What's more, Tenopir eschewed the limelight. He was in many ways selfless — a hallmark of great leaders. He was like a lineman in that regard.

I always appreciated that Tenopir made sure to give credit to the late Dan Young, Milt's right-hand man for 17 years.

Dan had special emphasis on pass protection, while Milt concentrated on run blocking.

Their chemistry was unmistakable.

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Their results were remarkable. To wit: The 1995 national championship team, with four new starters on the line, rushed for 400 yards a game and averaged 7 yards a carry. In 12 games, with 243 passes, the line allowed no sacks. Not one!

What's more, the starters had only three procedure penalties combined, and just one holding call.

Tenopir keenly recognized players' strengths and weaknesses, and coached them accordingly.

Bottom line, he got the most out of players.

"I don't think it's black magic," Hoskinson said. "Some people just have that innate ability."

Make no mistake, Tenopir believed in the importance of line play. It was no coincidence Tenopir and Charlie McBride were close friends because they shared a belief that the offensive and defensive lines drive a team — hence, the annual offensive line/defensive line gatherings at Milt's house after every spring game.

"It was a bonding time," Hoskinson said. "It was just brilliant."

Said McBride, Nebraska's defensive coordinator from 1981-99: "I really think those gatherings had a lot to do with winning the national championships (in 1994, 1995 and 1997). Let me put it to you this way: You really got a sense for how much the guys appreciated each other.

"To me, a big key to winning is having players who like each other. If there are little groups, cancer spreads. It turns into a bad deal when guys don't really know each other. That was the point of the whole thing."

Hoskinson cherished those gatherings. And, yes, Milt was a tremendous host.

"So was Charlie," Hoskinson said. "You're talking about two of the best storytellers who ever lived. …"

The 41-year-old Hoskinson wanted to gather himself before we talked. A sales director for a medical device company, he oversees 130 sales reps and 12 managers throughout the country. He travels a lot. He planned to visit Tenopir this week when he returned from the West Coast. But he didn't make it in time.

"I heard the news (Monday night), and I was just heartbroken," he said. "It was a punch to the gut."

Milt would understand. He was that way.

He often was on the move himself. He was in a hurry a couple of weeks ago, the last time I saw him. As a Husker practice was wrapping up, he sped past me on his motorized scooter. As always, he said, "Hey, Scoop," in his characteristic low growl.

His wife, Terri, shook her head and smiled.

Yeah, Milt made you feel good about yourself.

We were awfully lucky to know him for so long.

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


Husker columnist

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

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