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August 30, 2008

Fiery Ekeler making immediate impact on Huskers

Off in the distance, in the corner of the end zone in the far grass practice field outside of Memorial Stadium, you hear him.

Amid a group of 18- to 23-year-old linebackers, one man barks instructions with the fervor of a drill sergeant. His black Nebraska hat flipped around backwards, the man goes as far as head butting one of his players in the chest plate of his shoulder pads just to show the proper way to form tackle.

After that, he tells his players he loves them, then does one of his many spot on impersonations from the golf comedy "Caddyshack."

It leaves some scratching their heads, but that's just the way Mike Ekeler coaches. A man known for his unrivaled intensity and passion for coaching, Ekeler has already made quite the impression on his players since joining the Huskers as linebackers coach this offseason under new head coach Bo Pelini.

"He's one of a kind," sophomore linebacker Blake Lawrence said. "I've never seen a guy with as much passion as he has. I mean, every play is full of energy… He loves to flip his hat backwards and hit his head on our chest to show us the right technique. When he flips his hat around, that's when it's getting serious.

"It's the two sides of Coach Ekeler. No matter how intense he is, he's so funny and laid back. Our meeting times, we laugh probably once every two minutes. He'll do impersonations of Caddyshack. Coach Ekeler, he's just a great character."

Ekeler, 37, followed Pelini to Lincoln after spending the past three seasons at Louisiana State. Before that, he coached with Pelini again at Oklahoma from 2003-04. Like Pelini, Ekeler has been a part of successful defenses everywhere he goes, and luck has little if anything to do with it.

His entire life, Ekeler has carried himself with a drive and passion in everything he does. A four-year letterman at Kansas State, he earned the nickname "Crash" because of the thrill he got from slamming into three or four players at a time as the player who broke up opponents' blocking wedges on kickoffs.

"He's really able to get you pumped up just because of that energy," senior linebacker Tyler Wortman said. "Especially during fall camp when you're down and drained, he kind of just lets his energy flow through you, and he's able to get you moving like he does."

After college, Ekeler owned a private sales company based in Omaha. Though he wouldn't go into any detail of the business or how successful it was, Lawrence said it did well enough that Ekeler could retire today if he wanted to.

Bo Pelini on Ekeler
"He was a graduate assistant when I got to Oklahoma. The first time I met him was when Bob (Stoops) sent him to the airport when I flew in to talk about the job. He came over and picked me up at the airport and that was the first time I met him. At the time he was actually thinking about getting out (of coaching) and leaving.

"I had just met him and was talking to him on the way back from the airport. It was his first year as a GA and it wasn't the best experience for what he wanted to do. I said 'why don't you stick around, it will be better for you.' I said 'just come work for me.' He has a great work ethic, great enthusiasm, he's a good person, a good family man, he's very intelligent and he's passionate in what he does. He worked with me in the secondary, a spot opened up at LSU and I went down there. (Ekeler) was going to take a job with Jeff Jamrog (to replace Carl Pelini) as a defensive coordinator at Minnesota State, but a spot opened at LSU and he made three more years of sacrifice to come down there to keep learning. He learned this system and he's coming along.

"He's still young in the coaching profession, but he's got talent and he's got passion for the game. He communicates with kids extremely well. They want to play for him. That's a big part of it. You have to be able to communicate those relationships and the trust with kids. Before you can get to the X's and O's, that's the No. 1 priority and he does that well. The X's and O's and the scheme part of it has come along very well for him too. He does a tremendous job. I think he's going to be a great coach for a long time."

The fact that Ekeler chooses to spend six days a week with his players instead is something Lawrence said means as much as anything to him and his teammates.

"Seeing the way he coaches the game, even though he doesn't need to be there, it really shows that he loves us, loves us as players, loves the game of football," Lawrence said. "I think probably he's the most energetic coach in the nation. I think he wants that. He wants to be known as a guy that no matter what puts in a 100-percent effort every day. I think that's what he was as a football player, that's what he was as business owner, and that's how he is as a coach."

Some coaches put on a façade of being fiery and hard-nosed, and often times their players eventually see right through it. That's the difference with Ekeler, though. You only have to spend a few minutes with him before realizing everything he does is real and from the heart.

"I love to coach," Ekeler said. "I made a decision that I wanted to try and have an impact on people. When I'm looking up from 6-feet under, I want to look up and be smiling and know that I had the opportunity to impact a large number of people… You don't try to be anything you're not. As a player, I had fun, I enjoyed it. I loved practice, I loved getting out there. It's the same thing.

"The biggest thrill I get out of it is I can't wait to see Phillip Dillard out there wreckin' shop. I can't wait to see Cody Glenn out there making plays. Can't wait to see Tyler Wortman and the rest of our guys out there executing. That's the thrill. The thrill isn't working 20-hour days and seeing your guys go out there and not perform. I can't wait to see these guys go out there. I'm more excited than they are, for them."

Answering questions for a handful of reporters after a practice, Ekeler is asked how much his players mean to him on a personal level. Immediately, his eyes light up.

More than anything about his profession, it's the relationships Ekeler is able to develop with his players that he loves the most. Each time he left a school to take a new coaching job, the hardest part was leaving his players behind.

At the same time, though, he also saw each move as another chance to make a difference in the lives of another group of young men.

"They're family," Ekeler said. "I'd do anything for these players. Bo always talks about he's got their back and they've got his, and it's the same way. If I make a mistake coaching these guys, I feel worse than anything. I want to put these guys in the best position possible and see them have success.

"I want to see them grow as people too. I want to see them develop into great people and obviously great players. They'll be a part of my family for the rest of my life."

Delving into Ekeler's mind is a fascinating journey. It's rare to find someone both as animated and sincere as he is, and it's little wonder why his players have obviously responded to him so well.

If there were ever a perfect definition of the term "straight shooter", it would have to be Ekeler. He tells you exactly what he wants and how he feels, and he expects nothing less and nothing more from you.

Leadership comes in many different forms, and Ekeler's style is certainly one of a kind. Then again, that's usually how most great coaches are.

"I always joke around with people and tell them I'm a gardener; I'm just diggin' life," Ekeler said. "I just enjoy it. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, there's an old Jimmy Buffett song that says I'd rather die while I'm living than live while I'm dead. That's kind of my motto. I just go out and have fun and enjoy it.

"This is a pressure-packed business. If you can't have a balance, then you won't last very long. I wouldn't. I wouldn't last very long at all."

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