LINCOLN — Nebraska built its football dynasty through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s with a rugged and relentless rushing attack, and Milt Tenopir helped construct the offensive lines that made it go.
His “Pipeline” produced numerous All-Americans and award winners, and Tenopir remained revered by future Husker coaching staffs and players despite leaving the NU program after the 2002 season — even visiting with Mike Riley and his team last Thursday.
It would be the final time he would be around.
Tenopir died Monday at his Lincoln home, according to a close friend, after battling both acute lymphoblastic leukemia and another more recent form of cancer. He was 76.
Former NU coach Tom Osborne said Tenopir had been in hospice in recent days but asked to go home. Osborne visited Tenopir there Monday afternoon for about 45 minutes.
“I knew that his health was failing and the last couple days had been tough, but it was good to see him one more time,” Osborne said Monday night.
Osborne saw him as much as his family during their many years together, which started when Osborne first hired Tenopir as a graduate assistant in 1974.
“We were together a long time, and it meant a lot to me,” Osborne said. “And of course our friendship continued after our coaching days.
“Milt was loved by his players, and I don’t think there’s been a coach that I know that had more respect from his players than Milt.”
In retirement, Tenopir remained a regular at Husker practices or in the Memorial Stadium press box during games, getting around more recently on his scooter.
No matter who was head coach, offensive line coach or playing, Tenopir was still always given the appropriate welcome and reverence. It was especially true with current line coach Mike Cavanaugh, who posted Monday night on Twitter: “One of the Greatest of all Time! Great Man, Friend and Mentor! Love you Coach”
Former Husker lineman Rob Zatechka said he knew that it meant a lot to Tenopir to stay involved, no matter if Nebraska was winning or struggling.
“You got a guy who grew up in Nebraska, and I think the guy just always lived and died for Nebraska football,” Zatechka said. “To Milt, family was the most important thing in his life, and I think he considered Nebraska football to be part of his family.
“I think he just loved the people involved, and wanted to see Nebraska succeed.”
The respect for Tenopir reached well beyond the Husker walls and practice fields.
“He promoted discipline and toughness with the players,” Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. “They executed as well as anybody you could find.
“You knew that they were gonna be tough and explosive and they were gonna knock you around if you allowed it to happen. … You better be prepared for it, because Milt’s guys were coming to knock you off the ball.”
Barry Switzer, who had a close friendship with Tenopir from their days on the recruiting trail, put it a little more colorfully.
“They ran north and south and knocked your ass off the line,” Switzer said.
No one knew the value more than Osborne as Tenopir worked with Cletus Fischer and Dan Young through the years to oversee that the front five was doing its part.
“He was just very consistent and very steady, and every year we had a good offensive line,” Osborne said. “I don’t think I would say we ever had a line that was substandard, and some of those years we had to replace four starters or three starters.”
Osborne called Tenopir a great teacher who would simplify what could be deemed as complex and sophisticated. “That enabled us to maximize our blocking,” Osborne said.
Husker offensive linemen won six Outland Trophies and two Lombardi Awards under his watch. Overall, Tenopir coached 21 All-Americans, 11 Academic All-Americans, 49 all-conference selections and six NCAA Today’s Top Eight Award winners.
In a 2014 interview with World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel, Tenopir recounted taking part in a recent golf outing and dinner hosted by Brenden Stai and talking about his potential impact on some of his players’ lives.
“You know, I hope I did,” he said. “Every one of them was hugging me, thanking me, telling me they love me. I love those guys, too.”
Former NU walk-on Matt Hoskinson could vouch for that as somebody who got the most from Tenopir coaching while lettering from 1995 through ’97.
“It’s been a rough night,” Hoskinson said. “When I came to Nebraska, I was an undersized lineman. I was a fullback and linebacker in high school with the same boyhood dream of every other kid that grows up in Nebraska. I didn’t have a lot of people who believed in me, but Milt did. He more or less talked Coach Osborne into taking a hard look at me.”
Hoskinson said at 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds that he “really didn’t have any business playing at Nebraska, but Milt made me believe that I was 6-6.”
“He was not easy on me,” Hoskinson said. “He wasn’t easy on any of us. He had really high expectations. But when you hear the old adage about having a second father, this guy epitomized that. The way he treated us. The way he genuinely loved us.”
Osborne said Tenopir never had an enemy on the Husker staff. Never had anybody who wasn’t willing to give his best beside him.
During Tenopir’s time working for Osborne and then Frank Solich, Nebraska compiled a 295-63-2 record.
“Milt is probably one of the best friends I’ve ever had,” former NU defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said. “It’s simple enough: His players loved him.
“If there was a better offensive line coach in the country during our time, I don’t know who it was.”
Between 1974 and 2002, Nebraska won 13 NCAA rushing titles, more than twice as many as the next closest program (Oklahoma, with six).
But former NU lineman Bill Bobbora said it wasn’t just about the statistics.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” said Bobbora, who lettered from 1987 to ’89. “You just fell in love with the guy.”
As word trickled through the “Pipeline” on Monday night, Hoskinson knew one thing for sure.
“You see a lot of fat guys crying right now,” he said.