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You're at Lincoln Municipal Airport, you say, and you need directions to Nebraska Wesleyan University? That's a cinch. Head east on the Cornhusker Highway and get off on Adams Street. Hang a right on 56th. Wesleyan will be that vest-pocket school on your right, across the street from the university. You know, the University of Nebraska, home of the Cornhuskers. In town for the football game, are ya?
No? Well, if you need a room, try the Cornhusker Hotel on 13th Street. It has cheap parking and free apples at the front desk. And do yourself a favor: Try the Husker Special at the café—turkey and ham on an English muffin, smothered with hollandaise sauce. Comes with salad and a roll for just $4.95.
Smothered as they are by omnipresent Cornhuskers, no one would blame the Plainsmen of Nebraska Wesleyan if they came down with a Dean Steinkuhler-sized identity crisis. But thanks to basketball coach Jerry (Midas) Schmutte and his band of suburban jump shooters, the folks at Nebraska Wesleyan have plenty to be proud of. With three Final Four appearances in the past four years, the Plainsmen are to Division III basketball what Miami (sorry, Cornhuskers) is to big-time college football. In fact, given the Huskers' dismal postseason history—they are 0-1 in NCAA tournament games—they probably should be the ones with the identity crisis.
Comparing postseason achievements in Division III to those in Division I is like mixing apples and oranges, you say? Well, you're right. In a sense, the Plainsmen have a tougher row to hoe. They're competing against 293 other schools for 32 NCAA tournament berths, as compared with the same number vying for the 64 berths in Division I. Should the Huskers, by some minor miracle, win their first Big Eight basketball title this spring, they would automatically be invited to the NCAA's show. Should Schmutte, on the other hand, win his fifth Nebraska Intercollegiate Athletic Conference crown in five seasons, that accomplishment and $1.95 will get him a Nebraska Nectar at the Cornhusker's Café.
"We qualify by our record alone," says Schmutte, a 1967 Nebraska Wesleyan alumnus who earned seven letters playing baseball and basketball. "Every game is important because unless you get those 20 wins, the tournament selectors say, 'Well...,' and pass you over."
So Schmutte makes sure he gets his 20. Says point guard Jim Moran, "I never knew you could prepare so much for a game. We know what we're going to do when we go into games, and it works." Moran, who lived in York, Neb., before his family moved to Baton Rouge in 1983, is the only starter not from Lincoln. The locals are 6'7" center Charlie Burt, forwards Steve Brugman and Scott Miller and 6'3" guard Bill Weed.
Schmutte is content to let the Division I coaches pile up frequent flier mileage and live on hotel food. He has found the building blocks for his national powerhouse without leaving the state, often without crossing the city limits. This dovetails conveniently with his travel and recruiting budgets, which are comparable to what the Huskers pay their aerobics instructor every year.
But at least Schmutte is spared the aggravations that beset his brethren in the big time. "I don't have to worry about opening the morning newspaper to find out who signed with what agent," he says. And at Wesleyan, he adds, "Proposition 48 is irrelevant." Typically, four of the Plainsmen's five starters last season were premed students.
Schmutte remembers the incredulous looks people gave him in 1980. He was a fresh-faced first-year coach who had spent the previous four years resuscitating basketball at Norris High in Firth, Neb., where his record had been 81-11. The Plainsmen had won six games the previous season, and here was this Norman Vincent Peale sound-alike saying the program was headed "for national prominence." They thought he'd been puffing on some funny corn husks.
But in 1982, Schmutte recruited forward Kevin Cook and center Dana Janssen, both from Lincoln Northeast High. They became Plainsmen, and Schmutte was on his way. Cook and Janssen led Nebraska Wesleyan to the Division III quarterfinals in 1984 and to the Final Four the next two years.