Head trainer pushed out of NU football

Doak Ostergard submitted his letter of resignation on Friday after Nebraska Football Coach Bill Callahan told him the program would no longer need his services as the head football trainer.

The lights in Doak Ostergard's office are the only ones on late Sunday night.

That's not surprising for a man who has put in 100-hour workweeks for the better part of his time as head football trainer. But this time there are no ankles to wrap or muscles to stretch.

Ostergard says he's there to clean out his office.

But all he has to show for it are a couple of empty Rubbermaids sitting by the door.

He's reluctant to pack up the only job he's ever had. Nebraska football was his life and his passion. And he says it ended without warning or explanation.

It seems to be an ever-increasing theme in an Athletic Department that keeps its business to itself.

"The worst part about the whole situation is that the reason you're here is because of your friends and relationships you've built," Ostergard says. "This is what connected me to all of them. I won't have that anymore, and I won't be able to build new ones."

RISE AND FALLA phone call interrupts Ostergard in the middle of a story from his early years at Nebraska. He checks the caller ID. It's Tom Osborne.

"He's a very good friend," says Ostergard, offering a peek at the caller ID. "He's a great guy. Most people don't think you can be as good a guy as people make you out to be, but he actually is."

The legendary head coach gave Ostergard the job he's hesitant to pack away. Soon after Ostergard graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Osborne put his faith in Ostergard in 1984 and eventually made him the head football trainer.

More than injury updates, Ostergard understood players and problems they had on and off the field.

"He was a hard worker," Osborne says. "He was somebody players appreciated, and I felt that he was always on track with his observations of players."

Always a players' coach who cared for the well-being of his players, Osborne says he considered Ostergard an important component to the Cornhuskers' success. Under Osborne, the training staff was considered on equal footing with the coaching staff.

When Frank Solich succeeded Osborne in 1998, Ostergard retained his role on the team and continued to operate as an integral member of the staff.

But then Bill Callahan replaced Solich, and Ostergard's role was significantly altered.

"Ever since he's been here," Ostergard says, "it's been painfully obvious that trainers were not part of the coaching staff."

Even with the abrupt change in status, Ostergard continued to fulfill his duties, meeting with Callahan at 6:45 each morning to discuss the injury report.

But at the end of last Thursday's meeting, Callahan told Ostergard the program would no longer need his services.

"The option to stay wasn't presented to me," Ostergard says. "I asked for a reason why, but (Callahan) wouldn't give one.

"He's got every right to have whatever trainer he wants. But I was under the impression I was working for athletic medicine, not for (the football program)."

Both Callahan and Athletic Director Steve Pederson declined comment Wednesday, sticking to the department's policy of not commenting on personnel matters.

On Friday afternoon, Ostergard turned in a letter of resignation. Then he started packing his office.

PLAYERS REACTNews of Ostergard being forced to resign quickly reached former players who consider him a close friend.

Jason Peter says he can't understand why Ostergard was let go. For so many former Huskers, Ostergard's office was open at any time for advice, comfort or simply passing time.

"If you're man enough to stand there and fire somebody, you should be man enough to stand there and give him a reason why," says Peter, a defensive tackle for the Huskers from 1994 to 1997 who is now a high school defensive line coach.

Dominic Raiola, a current Detroit Lion and former Outland Trophy finalist like Peter, remembers taking advantage of Ostergard's open-door policy by sitting in his office with friends and talking before practice.

Hanging in that office last weekend was a framed autographed Detroit Lions jersey, sent by Raiola.

And Raiola's jersey wasn't alone. Steve Warren was the first to present Ostergard with a complimentary jersey and others have followed, including former Huskers Scott Frost, Mike Minter and Darin Erstad.

Within 24 hours of the announcement that Ostergard was no longer with the team, the memory on his answering machine was full.

"I almost feel like I'm at my funeral," Ostergard says. "People are saying such nice things to me."

In some ways, Ostergard's departure is part of an ongoing funeral for a program built on integrity and family values. Some former players say the Nebraska football of today finds itself increasingly separated from the Nebraska football of 10 years ago, and Ostergard was possibly the strongest remaining connection to the Osborne Era.

College football is an ever-changing landscape that requires programs to adapt to survive. But according to some players, actions without explanation - severing ties and raising questions - only make the divorce tougher to swallow.

"My biggest problem is that the university is losing a good person, not only an outstanding trainer," says Joel Makovicka, a former Husker fullback and current Arizona Cardinal. "The University of Nebraska needs to keep people like him around."

Makovicka joins many former Huskers in feeling distanced from the program.

The number of familiar faces has declined since Pederson took over as athletic director in December 2002. The departure of Ostergard eliminates one of the strongest ties many former Husker players have to the program.

"I haven't been back for a spring game in a few years, and I was looking forward to coming out this year and seeing Doak," says Kyle Vanden Bosch, a former Husker playing for the Tennessee Titans. "Now when I go back, I'll probably just catch the game and catch up with some old friends, and that'll be it."

POOR TIMING

The decision to dismiss Ostergard was announced only days after Husker running back Marlon Lucky was rushed to the hospital for undisclosed reasons. While the proximity of the two events created speculation, Ostergard is adamant the two have no connection.

"You hate to be in a position to have to defend yourself in the papers," Ostergard says. "These are the people that don't know me that are making these suggestions."

It would appear that the decision to part ways with Ostergard was made prior to Lucky's incident. For the first time since the early 1990s, Ostergard did not receive a bowl game bonus. When he tried to track down an explanation, he came up empty-handed.

Instead, Ostergard has been the center of gossip in fan forums and blogs. He just hopes there was no malicious intent in the close proximity of the two events.

"I'm confident that Doak had nothing to do with Marlon Lucky being in the hospital," Osborne says.

A FAMILIAR TRENDIt was a surprise to Ostergard that Callahan even had the authority to fire him, particularly because it was Dr. Lonnie Albers, the director of Athletic Medicine, who filled out his evaluations - not the head football coach.

"Anybody in any profession has the right to know and be given a good reason," Makovicka says. "Not only Doak, but everybody else. He's been there a long time ... and I think it would have been fair for the university to give him a reason."

Ostergard's departure falls in line with several others who were dismissed without explanation during Pederson's time as athletic director. They all share the trait that there was no explanation for why the department took the actions it did.

Andy Birkel created a huff on his way out at Nebraska. When the wide receiver met with Callahan following the 2004 season, the head coach offered no explanation for Birkel's significant drop in playing time from his freshman to sophomore seasons.

"He was really short with me, very rude, very unprofessional," Birkel told The Associated Press at the time.

The same characteristics marked the dismissal of a secretary who worked for the Athletic Department for 31 years before Pederson arrived in 2002.

According to a former employee in the Athletic Department, the secretary was informed within one week of Pederson's hiring that her services would no longer be required.

Pederson never responded to any inquiries by the fired secretary requesting an explanation.

Ostergard isn't sure what the next step is for him, but he's confident it won't involve being an athletic trainer anywhere else.

"Trainers are often underappreciated, underpaid and they work a lot of hours. I'm a Nebraska guy. My old job is not one that I could do without having a strong passion for the program and the people."

LIFETIME OF MEMORIESOstergard can tell you about the time he went down to South Beach with Mike Rozier and bartered for cameras.

He can reminisce on pulling pranks with Eric Piatkowski.

He remembers vividly Bob Devaney stealing sandwiches from the lunchboxes of ticket office workers.

Ostergard will never run out of memories with the friends he's made over the years.

"Maybe someday I'll write a book," says Ostergard, looking around at the jerseys hung on his office walls. "I could go on telling stories forever. I've got a lifetime of memories ... and a lot of friends that came from this job."