I first met Kenneth “Doc” Sadler at a meet and greet in 2006. The Arkansas native flowed from person to person with a sort of crisp politeness that caused people to chat for a few moments and then move aside in a smooth social waltz.
The food was overcooked meat and a lukewarm baked potato complete with a roll that could probably have broken concrete if pitched properly. I wasn’t there for the entrée. Neither was anyone else. We were here to meet the newest face in a sea of the memorized, “Doc.”
When I noticed Sadler was moving in my direction, I adjusted my red polo, and prepared a fake, nervous grin. I was greeted by a kind smile and an outstretched hand. What followed was the stammering of something incredibly trite like, “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir” or some line I’d practiced for formal occasions when I clicked on “auto-pilot.”
I’d done some research on Sadler prior to his arrival in Lincoln. I dug his work and told him as much. He seemed as appreciative as if I’d congratulated him for becoming a grandfather. The few minutes we spoke went swiftly, and I understood the waltz.
He had a lot of hands to shake and smiles to offer. I could almost guarantee that he wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a crowd, but nothing would surprise me with Doc.
Fast forward to Thursday, March 8, 2012. Nebraska men’s basketball looked horrible on a historic level. At his best as the Huskers’ head man, Doc had collected 20 wins in a season where his team fell in the second round of the NIT tournament.
At worst, there was this past year. One of confusion, desperation, frustration and anger. As Purdue flipped the off switch on Nebraska’s 2012 season, it was clear that Sadler needed to go and would likely be doing so in the near future.
So many times I’ve seen grown men step behind podiums and bid adieu to what was technically their now-former job. Their presence was usually followed by political blather so rehearsed that you’d glance around the room looking for the invisible teleprompter.
The school had been so kind, the fans so welcoming and the city, well, the city had been good to the family. There was something horrifically unexpected for those who witnessed yesterday’s press conference – Sadler meant it.
As firmly as I’ve learned to set my jaw in the most emotional of moments, I didn’t expect Doc to leave the podium to compose himself. No one did. He tried to lead off with charm, a subtle joke about product placement to break the tension, but as he looked out into a sea of media hanging on his every word as he hit a brick wall of finality.
Sadler eventually returned and proceeded to catch everyone in attendance off guard. He bared his soul to the audience sitting in front of him and across the Internet without regret.
This man wanted to be the savior of the Scarlet and Cream. He wanted to take Nebraska to the Big Dance, win that elusive victory and give more.
Never more did I believe that than when I saw the same man who looked me straight in the eye and smiled while offering a firm handshake of thanks get blindsided by the reality of it all.
After the press conference ended, I walked away, took a drive and tried to put it out of my mind. Something that seemed so inevitable and necessary not even 24 hours prior was such a damn shame when the time finally came. I don’t know what’s taking place in the Sadler home, and quite frankly, I don’t want to know.
I realize it’s a business as does Doc. 99 times out of 100, I’m able to accept that the bottom line is wins and losses, red and black, hardware and empty trophy cases. Then there’s that hundredth time.
It’s business, but that doesn’t mean I can accept it cold and callously every time. As saccharine sweet as it sounds, it was appropriate that this hundredth was because of a man from Greenwood, Arkansas who may or may not be able to pick me out of a crowd.