Husker overhaul, patrol turmoil, prison violence and more of Nebraska’s top stories of 2017

Husker overhaul, patrol turmoil, prison violence and more of Nebraska’s top stories of 2017
World-Herald News Service

Beer sales to Native Americans. Prison riots. The Keystone XL pipeline. The list of top stories for 2017 includes its share of weighty and divisive subjects. But the story that perhaps struck people most involved yet another disappointing football season and the changes at the top that Husker fans hope will restore the team to glory.

Here are the news stories of the year, as selected by The World-Herald.

Husker overhaul

The applause grew louder the farther he walked into the room. The native son had come home with hopes of resurrecting the state’s cultural pride and joy: its college football team.

The hiring of former Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost to coach the Husker football team was, for many fans, a joyous end to what had been the gloomiest season in decades. Nebraska finished with a 4-8 record under then-coach Mike Riley, who was fired the day after his final game by new Athletic Director Bill Moos.

The man who had hired Riley, Shawn Eichorst, had gotten the ax two months before. Eichorst, who had fired the divisive head coach Bo Pelini in 2014, took a chance on Riley, the longtime coach at Oregon State. Critics of the hire called Riley little more than a “.500 coach” who lost as many games as he won.

Turned out they were right. Riley finished 19-19 at Nebraska, his teams suffering one embarrassing blowout after another, including two 56-14 losses at home, to Ohio State and Iowa. Fans poured out of Memorial Stadium in sorrow and disgust after those losses. Riley, who himself took a risk with new, peculiar defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, had few answers.

So it fell to Moos, who had been hired away from Washington State, to put a full-court-but-thoughtful press on Frost, who was in the midst of a perfect regular season at Central Florida. Torn between his current job and his alma mater, Frost ultimately chose Nebraska after a late-night phone conversation with his former coach, Tom Osborne.

“We can get this entire state behind this football program, get this entire state pulling for these players, get this entire state excited about what’s going on, and we’re going to put a product on the field that this entire state can be proud of,” Frost said.

Dry Whiteclay

After two decades of complaints by some Native American activists, beer sales in the border village of Whiteclay, Nebraska, were suddenly and surprisingly shut down in late April. The state liquor commission ruled that inadequate law enforcement existed in the village to allow beer sales — sales that equaled about 3.5 million cans of beer a year.

Whiteclay was known as the “Skid Row of the Plains” for its street people, who openly drank and urinated on the dusty streets of the village. The beer sales were blamed for exacerbating epidemic levels of alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome on South Dakota’s adjacent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol possession is legally banned.

Prison violence

The state’s overcrowded and understaffed prison system saw a deadly uprising in March, when two inmates were killed by fellow inmates during a takeover of a prison housing unit. Later, a convicted murderer killed his younger cellmate, leading to questions about double-bunking cells in solitary confinement and pairing serious offenders with younger inmates serving short sentences.

Overall, attacks on corrections staff increased, and despite efforts to boost pay for guards, turnover of staff remained high. In August, the ACLU of Nebraska filed its long-promised lawsuitclaiming civil rights violations of inmates in a system that holds 2,000 more inmates than its design capacity.


Geeky eclipse glasses were suddenly cool as one of nature’s most spectacular events awed onlookers, snarled traffic and boosted the state’s economy.

An estimated 708,000 people traveled to watch the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse in Nebraska. About 87 percent of them came from outside the state, making it the largest single tourist event in Nebraska ever.

One of 14 states where the moon completely covered the sun, Nebraska had the longest stretch of totality: 468 miles long and 70 miles wide.

The event generated an estimated $127 million impact on the state’s economy from lodging and travel. Nebraska will not see another total solar eclipse until 2106.

But you don’t have to wait that long to see another one. On April 8, 2024, one will track across the U.S. from Texas through southeast Missouri, then north to New England. You might want to get reservations now.

Patrol turmoil

The Nebraska State Patrol saw unprecedented turmoil in 2017 that led to the firing of the agency’s top commander, a federal lawsuit alleging a hostile work environment for female troopers, and multiple investigations into the handling of two use-of-force cases.

Controversy erupted in June following a World-Herald investigation into a fatal high-speed chase that raised questions of a potential cover-up by some of the patrol’s highest administrators. By the end of the month, Gov. Pete Ricketts had fired Col. Brad Rice — whom Ricketts had appointed in 2015 — and placed six other officers on paid administrative leave while turning information over to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Three of those officers would eventually leave the patrol. Meanwhile, a second World-Herald investigation raised new questions about the patrol’s internal handling of a trooper who struck a drunken motorist with the butt of his state-issued rifle.

In August, the agency was rocked again when a female trooper filed a federal lawsuit alleging that she and other women were subjected to a sexually invasive examination by the patrol’s contract physician. The lawsuit has survived the state’s initial attempts to have it dismissed.

Out of business

Nebraska lost two of its homegrown publicly traded retailers this year.

Gordmans, the department store chain founded in Omaha in 1915, declared bankruptcy in March. The chain closed about half of its stores as a result, including all of the stores in Omaha, and its Aksarben Village headquarters.

Department store chain Stage Stores scooped up the remaining stores. It now runs what’s left of the chain, including a Gordmans retail store in Council Bluffs, from its headquarters in Houston.

Cabela’s, an outdoors retailer headquartered in Sidney for decades, was swallowed up by its top competitor, Bass Pro Shops, for $5 billion in September. The combined company’s headquarters will be consolidated in Bass Pro’s home of Springfield, Missouri.

Keystone XL

One of Donald Trump’s first actions as president resurrected the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, which had been killed in 2015 when then-President Barack Obama rejected the construction application of the pipeline’s Canadian builder. Trump’s decision prompted TransCanada Corp. to pursue a permit application with the Public Service Commission in Nebraska, the only state along the pipeline route where, after nine years, the company still lacked authority to build. Hailed by fossil fuel advocates and labor groups while reviled by environmentalists and some private landowners, the $8 billion underground pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of thick tar-sands crude from western Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The five-member commission delivered a surprise 3-2 vote in November to approve one of the two alternative routesTransCanada had included with its application. Company officials have said they have not yet decided whether to continue their pursuit of the project, in part because it almost certainly faces more delays from legal challenges over the approved route.

Bearheels death

Zachary Bearheels, a mentally ill Oklahoma man, died June 5 after being shocked repeatedly with a stun gun and punched in the head by two Omaha police officers. Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said the officers “failed” and fired the four officers most heavily involved.

Former officers Scotty Payne and Ryan McClarty have been charged in the death, first by Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine and then a grand jury. Payne faces felony second-degree assault and weapon charges while McClarty is charged with misdemeanor third-degree assault.

After the incident, Schmaderer instituted departmentwide refresher mental health training, and the mayor promised a new Native American advisory board. Saying that inexperience played a part in the officers’ response, the city also added a recruit class of experienced officers from other Nebraska agencies.

Volleyball champions

After winning the NCAA title in 2015 and losing in the national semifinals a year later, Nebraska volleyball was coming off one of its best two-year stretches in program history. But in 2017, the Huskers lost All-Americans Amber Rolfzen, Kadie Rolfzen and Justine Wong-Orantes to graduation. The team had seven freshmen, four new starters and two new assistants — not to mention an offseason injury to senior setter Kelly Hunter.

Many saw this as a rebuilding year for John Cook and company — and that was before Nebraska lost its first two matches of the season.

What a difference three months makes.

The Huskers rode a 19-match winning streak to a 32-4 finish, capped by a four-set win over Florida in the finals. Mikaela Foecke, Hunter and the other veterans became the program’s first group of two-time national champs.

Cook also joined elite company. He is the fourth coach to win four national titles and the third to do it at one school.

“We surprised a lot of people; we surprised ourselves,” Hunter said. “And we brought that natty home.”

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