Connie Yori still on the mend
Nebraska coach still recovering from complications from knee surgery
LINCOLN, Neb. -- One instant, Nebraska coach Connie Yori isn't there. The next second, she is. Beep-beep, outta the way! She's right behind you!
"Here she comes! Here comes Speed Racer. She's a demon on wheels!"
Yori was in her scooter last week after the Huskers' 68-50 victory over Southern Cal. She had coached the game with the aid of a single crutch, ditching the other one. Then after the buzzer and quick locker-room talk, she scootered over to chat with Nebraska radio announcer Matt Coatney for the postgame show.
"This thing can turn on a dime," she demonstrated later, showing how proficient she is at "high" speeds. "I have not hit one person. And I can cruise on it."
Of course, Yori would have preferred not to learn any of this until she was at least, say, about 120 years old. Then she might voluntarily have used a scooter to get around. Doing it now, though, at age 48 has been a requirement after a supposedly routine knee surgery in August that had frightening complications.
"You think, 'It's just minor surgery, you know?'" Yori said. "The day before the surgery, I biked 25 miles -- to and from work. I did it the day before that, too. Because I thought, 'I need to get some workouts in before surgery.' In hindsight, my knee wasn't that bad."
Unfortunately, it would be far worse after the procedure. Staph infection and a blood clot put Yori back in the hospital, and she spent September there or at home unable to do much of anything. The pain, she admits, was excruciating. There was some fear, too. Yet Yori downplays all of it, compared to what she saw others go through in rehab.
"There with people with serious head injuries after car accidents, cancer patients -- I mean, you can't complain about this. It's not that bad," she said. "It does change the way you do things, and it's frustrating at times. But you also have to remember the big picture and know it's going to get better. It's not the end of the world."
That's vintage Yori, and she would have said that even on the days her knee hurt the most. But this particular evening as she spoke, she was still reeling from the shocking, horrible news that coaching colleague Kurt Budke of Oklahoma State had been killed in a plane crash the previous afternoon.
Yori didn't need that tragedy to put her own situation in perspective. Because if there's one thing Yori always does, it's view life through the proper lens. Even with the best team she has had at Nebraska -- the Sweet 16 squad that won the Big 12 regular-season title and finished 32-2 in 2009-10 -- Yori appreciated the ride but knew where that group's weaknesses were and kept trying to improve them. She has as a coach that quality that is always desired in players: to stay never too high, never too low, and always focused.
The knee complications did take away from her focus, though, for a little while. Yori is about the last person to ever say, "Help, I can't do this," but on the worst days in September, she had to tell her staff that.
I really feel like our upperclassmen did such a good job while I was out; they voiced the things they'd heard me say for as long as they'd been here. We only have four juniors and seniors on the team, but I have a really good group. They're kids that want to work hard, and we didn't have to tug at them with that. The effort has been there.” -- Nebraska coach Connie Yori
"I was really sick. I was out of it," she said. "I could not function. I could not do my job. I tried to stay in touch with our coaches, and they'd come and see me. But I just said, 'You guys have to do it. I can't do anything.'
"Our coaches were great. And our administration, from [athletic director] Tom Osborne on down. Tom came to the hospital to see me three times. I couldn't believe it, with all he has to do. It shows how good of a person he is. I missed five weeks, and now I go to rehab every morning for four and a half hours. Everybody's been very supportive."
Yori's most serious injury as a player while at Creighton in the 1980s was an ACL, so she had experience with rehabbing that.
"This is totally different, though. This is what they call a frozen knee," Yori said. "When I was in the hospital, my leg was straight for about five weeks from Aug. 31. It was infected and I couldn't move it. So when I started getting better, my knee was locked and I had no mobility in it.
"Now, I'm working on range of motion, but it's not like an ACL because nowadays those kids are walking on those the next day or a few days later. My knee is still locked. Back when I had my ACL [surgery], they put you in a cast for six weeks. Those were the olden days. I had to break scar tissue then when I rehabbed, but I don't remember it being this hard. Maybe it's my age."
Yori says along with her assistants Sunny Smallwood, Kellie Lewis-Jay and Dayna Finch, her husband, Kirk, and 7-year-old son, Lukas, deserve the praise for helping her get through this.
"It was hard on [Lukas] to go to the hospital; he didn't like that," she said. "He saw me crying and doing some things he'd really never seen me do. He told me the other day, 'Mom, I hope you don't ever go back to the hospital.'"
Yori also has a lot of young players on this Nebraska team -- four freshmen, two redshirt freshmen and two sophomores -- and normally she would have been heavily involved in prepping them for this season.
"The good thing is we had a foreign trip this summer, which was huge in hindsight," Yori said of Nebraska's visit to Europe from Aug. 5-15. "We had 10 practice opportunities, and we really used them. We went two-a-days, so we actually had 19 practices before we went on the trip. Psycho coaches, right?
"But we spread them out over the month of June, and we were able to get a big jump on our season. I was scared about how many young kids we had to begin with, and then you throw my knee thing in there and me missing all of September. But by the time we started regular practices, I was back at least part-time."
Along with the European trip, an advantage was that the one spot on the court where the Huskers have very good leadership and experience is point guard, thanks to junior Lindsey Moore. She's averaging 15.0 points and 7.3 assists; sophomore teammate Jordan Hooper leads Nebraska in scoring (19.0) and rebounding (9.5).
The Huskers are 4-0, although they've faced only one team thus far capable of challenging them. That was USC, and the dominance the Huskers showed in that game -- they outrebounded the Trojans 66-40 -- gave Yori some optimism that this team has real potential.
Nebraska makes its first road trip this week, facing Florida A&M and Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla., on Friday and Saturday. The Huskers then go to Georgia Tech for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday.
Yes, the Big Ten. It's still weird seeing Nebraska not in the Big 12, and the conference switch has been another concern for Yori. She wanted to use September to do as much homework and preparation as possible for facing the Big Ten teams, but essentially lost that month.
"We wanted to get ahead, and were waiting until the schedule came out in August to assign teams," said Yori, whose Huskers play their first Big Ten game against Penn State on Dec. 30. "But we'll just have to take it as it comes and prepare the best we can. It will come with time.
"I really feel like our upperclassmen did such a good job while I was out; they voiced the things they'd heard me say for as long as they'd been here. We only have four juniors and seniors on the team, but I have a really good group. They're kids that want to work hard, and we didn't have to tug at them with that. The effort has been there.
"As much as my assistants are great coaches, I'm the one who yells the most. And if we'd had to coach effort, with me not there or not with as much energy as normal, it would have been rough. But we haven't had to do that."
The players, surely, just have to look at how hard their coach is working to be able to move around. Makes it easier to go all-out, and be thankful for two good knees.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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