UPDATED: Even MORE Five(ish) Things You REALLY Need to Know About NKU
With my beloved Northern Kentucky University looming as the first opponent for the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament, Louisville Courier-Journal UK beat writer Fletcher Page produced a list titled Northern Kentucky: Five Things to Know About UK Foe. And they were all very important things (except for the part about the viking mascot scaring children. That was just mean). But none of them speak to the essence of NKU. So if you are planning to jump on the Norse bandwagon or if you just want to know everything possible about the Norse before the game, here are the five (or maybe more) things you REALLY need to know about NKU to impress your friends.
The Campus Bar of Record at NKU is Called Skyline
If you know anything about the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati region, you can only imagine how confusing this is for new students, as Skyline is also the name of the dominant (and delicious – and I WILL fight you about this) Cincinnati chili franchise. Technically the bar’s full name is Billie’s Skyline Tavern. It sits atop a little hill literally steps from campus, like five steps. Maybe four if you take moon steps. For YEARS it was the only place that served beer that you could get to easily. Then Martha Layne Collins Boulevard came through, brought us a Buffalo Wild Wings and life was never the same (the old timers ALWAYS went to Skyline though).
The place was the very definition of a dive (and I mean that as an extreme compliment). It was tiny, it was old, it wasn’t flashy and for the longest time there was a GIANT pair of women’s underwear over the fireplace for no apparent reason. We all loved the place. They served an incredible hamburger and had waffle fries before Chick-fil-A made them a thing.
Part of me wants to go to the game Friday. Part of me really wants to watch it at Skyline.
It was the first place I ever illegally drank a beer in public and I had more great times there than I can possibly remember (both because there were so many and because, well, you know.
George Clooney Went to School There
An Augusta native, Clooney was a Norse from 1979 to 1981. In fact, at one point he sold shoes at the McAlpins (now Dillards) in the Crestview Hills Mall with my aunt Rosie. I was THIS close to being his nephew (maybe – you don’t know).
In the NKU alumni magazine a couple of years ago one of his buddies told a story about how Clooney wasn’t going to be able to go on spring break with them because he had a test when they were going to leave. He blew off the test, surprised them by showing up at departure time and made that tip. What does that mean? That I have AT LEAST four things in common with George Clooney: We were both less than fantastic students at NKU (though I graduated), we both married hot wives, we both spent time in the University Center game room (see photo) and we both played for terrible high school basketball teams. Things worked out ok for him, so I still have hope.
Two other Hollywood actors passed through NKU as well — Jennie Robertson who played Millie in the greatest movie ever made and lived on the same dorm floor with some of my friends; and Galadriel Stineman, who played Axl’s girlfriend Cassidy in The Middle and is my wife’s sorority sister (WHAT UP, DELTA ZETA!?!?!).
There is an Elaborate Series of Tunnels Under Campus
No, seriously. The legend is that the original campus was built in the aftermath of Kent State and with security in mind, which also explains the construction materials — NKU was rightfully called “the concrete campus” (among other derisive nicknames) for decades, and may still be (although only the original buildings look like that and the campus is currently gorgeous). The tunnels were to be used to get administration and staff out if there were unrest.
I have no idea if any of that is true, except the being called the concrete campus part. What I know about the tunnels is that if you go to school there long enough, know enough people and happen to tear up your knee in a Greek league basketball game, somebody will give you access to them so you don’t have to crutch across campus (which is legendarily cold and wind-swept) in the middle of winter.
Todd Svoboda Played There
Actually, most UK fans know that before he became the fan favorite walk-on at the end of the bench in the Wildcats’ run to the 1993 Final Four, Svoboda played for the Norse. It was the “Willie Cauley-Stein was a wide receiver” of its time. What most UK fan’s DON’T know, however is that Svoboda was a stud for the then Norsemen.
Svoboda was an athletically gifted big man. He was SO athletically gifted that he also played tennis at NKU (and after graduating from UK was at times Kyle Macy’s doubles partner – imagine a 6-8 guy at the net, good luck). He was also recruited to play water polo (watch it sometime) out of high school. In three seasons at NKU, Svoboda scored 1,114 points (currently 20th all-time), pulled 770 rebounds (4th, his 9.1 average is 2nd), shot 52.6 percent from the floor (12th). He was so good that when Gimel Matinez was briefly injured that season I thought Svoboda had a chance to play some meaningful minutes. He was universally beloved at NKU.
His quirky college career was due to the engineering program he was enrolled in. The program included three years at Northern and two at UK. Ken Shields recruited him to NKU hoping he’d play four years, but when the time came to go, Todd left with his blessing.
Svoboda’s UK claims to fame will always be outscoring Allan Houston in the Cats’ SEC Tournament matchup with Tennessee that season and hitting a three-pointer in the Regional Final against Florida State.
He is the grandfather of NKU’s basketball success. Ken Shields became NKU’s head basketball coach in 1988 when Mike Beitzel resigned to become the head coach at Hanover College, a Division III school that I think is in Indiana somewhere. You read that right. The coach at a decent sized state school that played in the best Division 2 conference in the country left to become a Division III head coach. That was NKU in 1988. They played in the very small Regents Hall and the athletics department was NOT flush with resources.
Shields was a legend in Northern Kentucky when he took over at Northern, having coached at St. Thomas and Highlands High Schools in Ft. Thomas, just down the road from NKU. Shields’ name and his many friends and supporters immediately meant more fans in Regent’s Hall, but things didn’t immediately go well on the court. Shields finished his first season at 17-11, but five losing seasons followed and there were rumblings of his firing. The next year (1995), all he did was go 25-4, lead NKU to its first Sweet 16 appearance and earn Division 2 coach of the year honors. He also set the groundwork for things to come (more coming). He won 20 or more games in seven of his final 10 seasons before retiring after the 2004 season. He was inducted into the NKU Hall of Fame in 2007.
He is one of the most likable coaches you will ever meet in your entire life.
Shields was succeeded by longtime assistant Dave Bezold who led NKU into the Division 1 era, which included a game at Rupp arena (in the interest of full disclosure, I wrote THIS when Bezold was let go. I still feel like NKU did Bez wrong, but I can still love the University and want them to succeed). And now John Brannen has taken NKU to their first Division 1 Tournament appearance.
Shields and Bezold were also great to drink beers with after games at Skyline (see above).
NKU Played for Two National Titles
I know I said five and this is six. Sue me.
Shields followed that 1995 season with back-to-back trips to the Division 2 National Championship game, both in Louisville, Ky., (they played at the Convention Center in a really odd setup).
In 1996, NKU lost to Fort Hayes State, which is somewhere in Kansas, I think.
In 1997, the Norse played then-Division 2 powerhouse Cal State-Bakersfield and future NBA player Kebu Stewart dead even for all 40 minutes. It was so dead even that with time winding down, NKU’s Shannon Minor (now the head basketball coach at North College Hill High School in Cincinnati) launched a three-pointer from the left wing that would likely win the game. Minor was an incredible three-point shooter and my seat was directly behind his line to the basket. From the second the ball left his hand it looked dead center. It looked SO good that me (in my Norse horns of course) and my buddies were IN THE AISLE to rush the floor when…it didn’t go in. To this day I can’t believe it wasn’t good. I have talked to Minor about it since, and neither can he. The Norse had one more chance to win when Stewart missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Andy Listerman’s last-second shot didn’t fall either. So I was just standing in the aisle like a dope wearing Norse horns.
(The NKU women’s team did win a pair of Division 2 National Championships under head coach Nancy Winstel, which leads me to…)
Current NKU Star Drew McDonald is the son of a Norse
What are we at, seven? Damn.
McDonald’s mom was an NKU star in her own right. From 1987-91 then Christie Freppon was a fierce competitor in the post for some great NKU women’s teams. She’s still 11th on the all-time NKU scoring list with 1,339 points and fifth with 850 rebounds. She also blocked 68 shots. I can’t believe she isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Somebody get on this.
She currently coaches girls’ basketball at St. Joseph’s in Cold Spring, not far from NKU.
NKU Once Had a Player Make Every Free Throw in a Season
Last one, I promise
No, it’s true. Well, it’s true that this is the last one, AND it’s true that in 1997 Paul Cluxton made every free throw he attempted, going 94-for-94 from the line. He only shot 94 because he was a three-point shooter (on a team FILLED with them) and just didn’t get fouled that often. Had he been more of a slasher, the last play in that 1997 title game might have been him going to the basket trying to get fouled. Alas, it was not.
In his career, Cluxton scored almost 1,500 points. He was inducted into the NKU Hall of Fame in 2005.
OK, so I thought of two more important(ish) things.
Jack Givens has had a Role in NKU’s Success
Yes, THAT Jack Givens. The hero of Kentucky’s 1978 National Championship victory over Duke sits on NKU’s athletics board. Before the Norse’s 2013 game in Rupp Arena, The Goose was at the NKU alumni/fan function. There’s a really good reason why Jack got involved in NKU athletics, but I don’t remember what it was and I’m not calling him this early in the morning. Also, I don’t have his phone number.
KSR’s Ryan Lemond Played Baseball on Campus
There was a time when KSR’s Ryan Lemond was a REALLY good baseball player at Kentucky Wesleyan. Like all-time hits leader good (or stolen bases, I can’t remember). Kentucky Wesleyan was in the Great Lakes Valley Conference with NKU, so Lemond came to what was then Friendship Field (dumb name. It’s now Bill Aker Baseball Complex, named for former NKU baseball coach Bill Aker).
The first time I introduced myself to Ryan (at the behest of then Kentucky Wesleyan sports information director Roy Pickrell), he told a story about a group of students that sat atop the hill behind the center field fence and heckled the diminutive Panthers star. He said they yelled things like “who left their hat on the field.”
Those fans likely stopped at Skyline (see above) — which was four moon steps from center field — grabbed a six pack in a cooler that Skyline would inexplicably sell/rent to you — and took up residence under the tree in center to sip some beers and enjoy some baseball. And by “likely,” I mean we did.
So I promised you five things and gave you ten. I hope the Norse can overachieve like that on Friday night.