WICKLIFFE, Ohio -- The date Jan. 9 has always had significance for Nebraska head coach Bill Straub. It was on that date in 1994 that Straub and his wife Kim were married. After what happened this past Jan. 9, it has even more significance now.
Straub suffered what was diagnosed as an aortic dissection on that fateful day. It's essentially a separation of the walls of the aorta, the major artery that carries blood from your heart.
How serious is it? If not for a few very fortunate occurrences, Straub said. "I'm on the wrong side of a daisy."Instead, he's in Wickliffe, Ohio for his first event back since his health scare, trying to help lead the Huskers to their second consecutive national championship.
Straub was originally scheduled to be in Las Vegas on Jan. 9, watching some potential recruits at the Team USA trials. However, all the players he was out there to look at were finished with their play a day early, so Straub decided to change his flight in order to be with his wife on their 20th wedding anniversary. In the early afternoon of the ninth, Straub was at work in Lincoln when he knew something just wasn't right.
"My assistant [Paul Klempa, who took over head coaching duties while Straub was hospitalized], was 20 feet from me," Straub said. "I called for help. He said 'What's wrong?' I said 'I don't know. Call an ambulance.'
"The ambulance was right across the street -- and they weren't busy," Straub said. "So they were there in 30 seconds and 10 minutes after they're there, I'm in the hospital."
Straub underwent six hours of surgery during which things were looking bleak.
"During the course of the operation they brought the priest in," Straub said. "So I was given last rites during the course of the operation. When the procedure was over, one of the surgeons came out and told my wife, 'well, we almost lost him.'"
What followed was six weeks of hospitalization. In fact, Straub still hasn't had food or drink since the operation. Instead, he nourishes himself with something he calls "sludge."
He's not a fan.
"It's horrible. Just horrible," he said.
During Straub's recovery, Klempa, Straub's assistant since 1997, filled in, during which time the Huskers won two events and finished no worse than fifth in the team's other three tournaments. Straub said he couldn't be prouder of the job Klempa has done filling in.
"We've been doing this for 20 years," Straub said. "In all that time, he's been my assistant only in name. We do our best to try to bounce off what's going on and what our intentions are and try to draw conclusions.
"He was left without that escape. He didn't have that safety net, as it were," Straub said. "All the decisions weren't something he could share with me. He did it on his own. That means personnel. It means equipment choices. It means alignment choices and in the course of doing all that, it means keeping calm a whole bunch of teenage girls.
"He's done a terrific job."
Klempa said the whole episode was stressful at first, but things are starting to get back to normal.
"When this first happened, [Straub] was in no condition to be calling," Kelmpa said. "But once he started recovering, then we started talking on the phone a little bit more regularly. I made efforts to keep him in the loop. What I was lacking during that time was someone to talk to and strategize with and when he started recovering, I got that back a little and that helped me."
Liz Kuhlkin, the anchor player for Nebraska and the player who threw the clinching shot in last year's national championship, says having Straub back helps everyone.
"We're so happy to have him back because coach Klempa had to wear so many hats and just having [coach Straub] back just makes us so much better," she said.
"We're really excited that he's back for the biggest stage of the year and it's most important that he's healthy."
The Huskers struggled slightly in Thursday's early qualifying session, going 1-3 including a nine-pin loss to top-seed Arkansas State that went down to the last ball. After Thursday's evening block, the eight-team field will be seeded in preparation for double-elimination match play on Friday.
Straub stayed seated and stoic through the early part of Thursday, occassionally pacing and showing brief flashes of his trademark intensity.
What will happen Friday when seasons are on the line?
"I'm a bulldog with this stuff," Straub said. "We've got one girl that's from the state of Nebraska on the team [redshirt freshman April Campbell from Belleview]. Everybody else is in Lincoln because they think I won't hurt their chances of succeeding. Once they make a committment to come to Lincoln, I think it's a two-way street."
Still, Straub said he knows it'll be a bit of a balancing act all weekend.
"I'm gonna try my best to not upset what's gone on," he said. "I don't want to get it to where I jump in the pool and spill all the water."