Steven M. Sipple: Fred Hoiberg’s grandfather left indelible impression on Columbus man
Lloyd Castner’s wife leaves the newspaper for him on their breakfast bar every morning.
Last week, much of the sports news in Nebraska had to do with the hire of Husker men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg. One day there was a story about Jerry Bush, Hoiberg’s grandfather, along with an accompanying photo of Bush.
The photo was a bit much for Castner to handle.
“I couldn’t read the article. Couldn’t bring myself to do it,” says Castner, 83, the former city administrator in Columbus. “I just put the newspaper down. I was emotional because I thought so much of him.”
Castner was telling me all about Bush over coffee and a piece of pumpkin pie late Friday afternoon at Stack ’N Steak Family Restaurant in Columbus when his cellphone buzzed. He politely told the caller, “I’m doing really well, thank you, but can I call you back in an hour?”
Make no mistake, Castner has a lot of insightful stories about Bush, the Nebraska men’s basketball coach from 1954-63. Castner, who bears striking resemblance to actor Walter Matthau, was a student manager under Bush during each of the coach’s first three seasons at the school. Bush was known as the “Big Bear of the Coliseum” because he was 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. But he was a kind and mannerly soul.
If Bush ever used a curse word, Castner never heard him do it.
If Bush ever treated anyone poorly, Castner never saw it happen.
Bush was only 81-132 (.380) as Nebraska’s head coach, but was revered by Husker fans nonetheless. Castner understands why as well as anyone.
“I’ve told my wife, Kay, he’s one of the five or six guys outside my family who influenced me the most,” Castner says. “I think of him a lot because of the way he conducted himself, the way he treated me. I want to treat others as well as he treated me.”
For Nebraska basketball fans of a certain age, the program’s history begins with Joe Cipriano, who immediately succeeded Bush. Favoring an uptempo style, “Slippery Joe” amassed a record of 253-197 (.562) from 1964-80. Cipriano was popular with fans. If you’re 50 or older, you understand.
Nebraska’s hiring of Hoiberg — he was formally introduced Tuesday — naturally led to intrigue in Bush, who died in 1976 at age 62. You soon discover that Bush also was a popular figure with fans. Listening to Castner, you wonder how many others there were on whom Bush made an indelible impression.
“We went a lot of places to play on the bus and played a lot of cards — never for money,” Castner says. “Jerry would make fun of me, the way I shuffled the cards. I have kind of unusual thumbs. He’d say, ‘You’ve got those crazy thumbs going.’”
Castner chuckled. There was nothing malicious about Bush’s teasing.
“Looking back, that brought us closer together,” Castner says. “He treated me like a player. As a result, the players did, too.”
Before taking his job in Columbus in 1976, Castner spent five years as Bellevue’s city administrator. He recalled the time he turned to Bush to be a guest speaker at a formal dinner in Bellevue.
“A friend of mine who was at the dinner came up to me afterward and said, ‘I grew up in Lincoln and thought Bush was about 10 feet tall when he was the coach,’” Castner said.
In his role as a city administrator, Castner endured verbal abuse at times. After all, his job was to ensure that city regulations were followed. He had to tell people no, and some folks would lash out, but Castner wouldn’t lash back. His management style was shaped in part by Bush.
Bush’s kind nature shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of competitive fire.
“He liked to win. He’d get riled up. He was emotional,” Castner says. “He’d raise his voice, but wouldn’t swear and cuss. He was colorful on the bench. The fans loved him and, yes, he was a great after-dinner speaker.”
Castner worked as an assistant city manager in Eugene, Oregon, in 1958 as Bush orchestrated a memorable win at Nebraska, a 43-41 upset of Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas squad. A 5-foot-9 guard, Jimmy Kubacki, hit the 15-foot game-winner with two seconds remaining. The Coliseum erupted.
Kubacki and Castner double-dated in college with the women they eventually married. This week, Castner sent Kubacki news clippings of all the stories associated with Hoiberg’s hire. As is seemingly the case with most Nebraska fans, Castner likes the hire.
“He’s got all those Nebraska connections and he also can tell all those young men who want to go in the NBA, ‘I’ve had that experience and can help you get there,’” Castner says. “Plus, he can relate to Nebraskans because of his parents and grandparents.”
Castner eventually did read the article about Bush that was sitting on his breakfast bar last week — the article he initially set aside because of all the accompanying emotions.
“It was kind of a rough time in my life, going to college and being away from home. As a sophomore, you kind of wonder where you’re going to go and where you’re going to end up in this world. Jerry was kind of a father figure. I guess that would be a good way to put it.”