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LINCOLN, Neb. - John Garrison walks into Nebraska's indoor practice facility every day and draws his motivation from what he sees in the rafters.
Hanging up there is a red banner listing the years the Cornhuskers won conference championships. The last one was in 1999. Garrison was the freshman long snapper on that team.
He's 32 now and recently named head offensive line coach in a program that for more than a decade has been trying to recapture its past glory.
"This is a personal deal," Garrison said.
Garrison, the player, showed up at Nebraska two years after the run of three national championships in four seasons. By his senior year the Huskers had sunk to .500 and were playing in the Independence Bowl.
"When I left here in 2002, it was a bad taste in my mouth," Garrison said. "In so many ways, being a captain, being a leader on this team, and having us go out the way we did ... I felt awful the way we finished, and having an opportunity to come back and right the ship and be a part of it meant a lot to me."
Garrison, the coach, spent three years as a high school assistant in Blue Springs, Mo., before Bo Pelini hired him as an intern in 2008. Garrison worked the long hours for low pay for three seasons before he was promoted to assistant offensive line/tight ends coach in 2011.
Pelini restructured his staff after last season, putting Garrison in charge of the line and moving Barney Cotton to tight ends coach and to second in command to offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
Garrison takes over a line with ample experience. Three regular starters return in tackles Brent Qvale and Jeremiah Sirles and All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long, and tackle Andrew Rodriguez and center Cole Pensick have starting experience.
Garrison's priorities this spring: keep the line doing what it was doing to open holes for a rushing attack that was eighth nationally at 253 yards a game and tighten the pass protection that allowed 2.5 sacks a game to rank 90th.
"I think our Achilles heel is that, protecting on those third-and-longs," he said. "They are going to come up, and we have to handle them better."
The offensive line has been the pride of the program, conjuring images of the big homegrown, corn-fed boys who figuratively plowed through opponents on Saturday afternoons of yesteryear. But the days of the "Pipeline," the best known of the Nebraska lines circa 1994, are well behind the Huskers.
Garrison said it's his job to make sure the high standards set by those past lines endure. He said if he doesn't, the fans will.
"If you're going to win games, you've got to be good up front," he said. "I think we've been good but we haven't been great. That's what we're trying to do, be great. Our guys in our room understand that. I know they feel the pressure of it. But why would you come to Nebraska as an offensive lineman if you don't expect greatness?"
The Huskers are on their fourth head offensive line coach — Cotton has had two stints — since Garrison played for Milt Tenopir, who really did write the book on line play ("The Assembly Line," 2000). Tenopir, who retired after the 2002 season, occasionally stops by Garrison's office to talk football, and he was at practice this week to see if his protege "is worth his salt."
"I think John will do a good job," Tenopir said. "He's a detail-oriented guy. He worked at technique very hard when he was a player. That's still the key to offensive-line play. You've got to be a good technician. John will instill that into them."
Long said he can tell the history of the program, and specifically the offensive line, is important to Garrison.
"That's why he loves it so much," Long said. "He was one of the most passionate guys when he played here, and I think he brings it when he coaches, too."
Garrison tries to avoid talking about his playing days, though he can't help himself sometimes.
"I try not to bring the letterman's jacket out," he said, laughing.
Garrison knows times have changed. That much was apparent when he played.
Nebraska's offensive line hoarded six Outland awards from 1981-97 but hasn't produced a first-team All-American since 2001 or an NFL draft pick higher than the fifth round since 2002.
First things first, Garrison said. What he'd like to see is "2013" stitched to the conference-championship banner hanging in the Hawks Championship Center. He said his charges up front will have to be great, not just good, to get that done.
"We want to play a physical brand of football, get after it and have attitude," Garrison said. "There is a lot of pride and tradition. The past is the past. It's time for us to make our own history."