LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -While the Nebraska Cornhuskers are at their lowest point in a half century, their little brothers at the state's NCAA Division II schools have never been better.
Chadron State is No. 2 in the national rankings. Nebraska-Omaha is No. 3. Both are unbeaten and, along with Wayne State College, are in position to win conference championships. Nebraska-Kearney also is having a winning season.
So is it a coincidence small schools in this state of 1.7 million are thriving while the Huskers are diving?
Nebraska's D-II coaches think not.
They say Huskers coach Bill Callahan's decision to blow up the walk-on program that enjoyed national prominence from the 1970s to 1990s under Tom Osborne has left a bevy of high-quality homegrown players available for the small schools.
``One of the more frustrating things for me was to offer a young man a Division II-caliber scholarship to play football at UNK and have them turn that down and have them walk on at Nebraska,'' said UNK coach Darrell Morris. ``When I heard coach Callahan was going to maybe de-emphasize the walk-on program, it didn't hurt my feelings.''
Nebraska's squad numbered near 200 players during the walk-on program's heyday, enough for Osborne to run four full practice stations. Sure, most of the walk-ons were practice meat, but a few blossomed into stars.
Derrie Nelson of Fairmont was an All-America defensive end in 1980. Offensive lineman Adam Treu of Lincoln was among those who followed and had a long stint with the Oakland Raiders. Fullback Joel Makovicka of Brainard played for the Arizona Cardinals.
Osborne capitalized on the passion for Big Red in this state, where kids grow up dreaming of playing for the Huskers. The walk-on program linked the team to the state's many small towns.
``Almost everyone had somebody who was playing here,'' Osborne said.
The walk-ons epitomized hard work and the desire to play for the state and the ``N'' on the helmet. The attitude rubbed off on scholarship players from out of state, Osborne said.
Frank Solich, who succeeded Osborne, didn't take all comers like Osborne did. Solich was more selective but still took 25 to 30. Callahan took 12 this year.
Osborne, now interim athletic director, said he would recommend a revival of the walk-on program to whoever is coaching the team next season.
None of the Division II coaches would estimate how many of their current players would have opted to walk on at Nebraska in the past.
``All I know is that we get a couple kids a year that we never would have had a shot at,'' Chadron State's Bill O'Boyle said.
Interestingly, Chadron's best player - Danny Woodhead - turned down an offer from Solich to walk on at Nebraska. Woodhead this year became the all-time leading rusher in all of college football.
Wayne State coach Dan McLaughlin helped administer Nebraska's walk-on program as an assistant under Callahan for seven months in 2004. He said Callahan's desire to have a more ``manageable'' squad size was reasonable.
``Instead of having an open door, it became more of an invitation,'' he said. ``We're inviting you to the party instead of anyone showing up who wanted.''
Nebraska-Omaha probably has felt the least impact from the Huskers' walk-on cutback, coach Pat Behrns said. UNO, which offers a full complement of 36 scholarships and has some of the best facilities in Division II, targets the top 15 in-state prospects each year.
If Nebraska signs the top five, Behrns stands a good chance of getting many of the other 10 because he can offer each close to a full scholarship.
Behrns said nearby Football Bowl Subdivision programs (formerly I-A) such as Wyoming, Colorado State and Iowa State are becoming more active recruiting the state, as are nearby Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA) programs such as Northern Iowa, South Dakota State and Northern Colorado.
As far as Chadron's O'Boyle is concerned, he'll gladly take the players Nebraska doesn't want.
``We would try to offer a measly amount of money, and you would call the next week and the kid would have Osborne visiting him asking him to walk on. It was a done deal,'' O'Boyle said. ``Those times have changed.''
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On the Net:
University of Nebraska-Lincoln athletic department: http://www.huskers.com

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