This is the first in a series of interviews I have done over the years with Nebraska players who have played in the classic game against Oklahoma in the Game of the Century. While Jerry Murtaugh has already graduated and didn't play in that game, it is still fitting to start this series with him as he helped set the groundwork for the 1971 team. Future interviews will include Bob Terrio, Jeff Kinney and several other players from the 1971 team.
Jerry Murtaugh lettered on the 1968, '69 and '70 teams. He was a starting linebacker on the 1970 National Championship team and held several defensive records at Nebraska for decades. Jerry is retired from Union Pacific Railroad and has started the Nebraska Greats Foundation to assist athletes with medical needs from all of the colleges in the state. In addition he has the weekly "Legends Radio Show" out of Omaha. Jerry, along with Johnny Rodgers, attended my mother's funeral in 2011. I will always appreciate that gesture.
This interview was done on July 27, 2004, by David Max.
DM Where are you from originally?
JM Originally I am from Omaha, Nebraska. I went to North High School here in Omaha and graduated in 1967.
DM Who recruited you to Nebraska?
JM Coach Devaney was down a lot and Coach Cletus Fischer and Coach John Melton who was the linebacker coach. They spent a lot of time here in Omaha talking to me. It was an honor. The coaches would come over to the house or they would take my parents and myself to dinner and they would talk about the University of Nebraska. The education, the football and where they were going to go with the football program and how successful they were going to be with recruiting all of us high school players out of the Omaha area.
DM Who else were you recruited by?
JM I had all the southern schools, Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Oklahoma. The schools that did not recruit me were the Big 10 schools which was suprising. Everybody else did and Oklahoma was a leading candidate and I almost signed with Oklahoma.
DM Did you make any other recruiting trips?
JM I went to Iowa State. They wanted me for wrestling. I went to Wyoming. I was all set to go to Colorado and Oklahoma when Coach Devaney stepped in and finally convinced me that the place for me was Nebraska.
DM So with his influence you didn't go on the Oklahoma recruiting trip.
JM That's right. I had basically gave Oklahoma an oral commitment. I didn't sign with them but they were doing a good job on me selling the University of Oklahoma and all the opportunities that I could have down there and Coach Devaney got wind of it so he came to Omaha and gave me the negatives on Oklahoma and the positives on Nebraska which convinced me to sign with Nebraska.
DM What were the negatives?
JM The negatives would be "Your parents aren't going to be able to see you play very often." (I was from a family of 10 children, 5 boys and 5 girls and there wasn't a lot of money). He thought that Nebraska would be beating Oklahoma the majority of the time if I signed with Oklahoma. He came out and said with all the talent they were recruiting that I would be on a team losing to Nebraska. Since you're from here where everybody knows you and if you go to Oklahoma and you will be an unknown. I know you will make a name for yourself but this is the best place for you.
DM What were the practices like?
JM Oh boy, oh boy. They weren't easy. Coach Devaney yelling at you all the time and Kiffin and Powers and Coach Melton. They put us through the wringers. When I got down there in '67 freshmen couldn't play varsity and the freshmen head coach at that time was Clete Fischer and the defensive coach was Monte Kiffin. We went 4-0 that year. We had a good football team. In 1967 Nebraska went 6-4 so they weren't real good. The next year we went 6-4 again and we had hell to pay my sophomore year because Coach Devaney just came out of a bad year and had another one and people were screaming for his head and all the coaches to fire them and we went through a tough time as a team. They were calling us losers and saying the coaches were not good coaches so that was a little tough on a lot of us young guys.
DM So 1969 was kind of a turn-around year?
JM 1969 was a big, big year for us. 9-2 and we had an exceptional football team and we could see where we were going. We had great talent and young people. The Eddie Periards and the Dave Morocks. The Dave Wallines, the Wally Winters and the offensive line. We had some good juniors there. Bob "Fig" Newton. Those kind of people. We could see we were in contention after that Junior year.
DM Who was your position coach?
JM It was Coach John Melton. Very, very good friend of mine. Great, great coach. He worked with me a lot. Had a lot of patience with me. Did a great job for me. Like I said. We are very, very close to this day. He lives in Eagle by that great golf course out there. I go out and see him and play golf and he attends my events.
DM Do you have any teammate stories?
JM I have one about little Eddie Periard. He passed away about three years ago in a car accident on Christmas. Eddie made Second Team All-American as a 5' 9" 195 pound middle guard. His senior year he's starting and people had to double team him because he's so doggone quick and he was so darn mean. In the Colorado game our senior year he was getting double teamed all the time and just getting killed. He got hit this one play and he's laying there and he can't breathe and he's trying to tell me something and I'm waving to get him off the field and I'm saying "Get him out of here. He's hurt. He's hurt." He looks up at me and said "I'll kick your ass if you allow me to go off this field." He finally spit it out at me. I go "Geeez, Eddie." He said "I'm not leaving. You shut your mouth." I'm starting to laugh at him so I pick him up and he can't breathe and tears are coming down his eyes and I couldn't help it. I just broke up. That was how tough he was. The very next game I got hit and I got knocked down and I couldn't breathe and Eddie's over the top of me and said "Murt, you want us to call for a stretcher to get you off the field?" I look up at him and I start laughing. I've got tears and I could hardly breathe and I said "I'll kick your ass if you call for anybody to get me off this field." But that was just the way we were with each other. Good 'ole Eddie. It was just one of those things with him and I. You weren't going to get us off this field. He was a tremendous, tremendous athlete.
DM You were in the same defensive backfield with Bob Terrio. What was it like playing with him?
JM When I was a senior he was a junior. I forget how many interceptions he had it was so many. Bob and I would tease each other. He said I took all his tackles. I had #42 and he had #45 and Dave Morock who was the monster man had #43 and he kept saying you're taking my tackles because of this and that and the numbers, etc. I said "Well, let's think about this, Bob. They named me the strong side linebacker and they named you the weak side linebacker. Why is that, Bob? Well, it's because I'm strong and you're weak. Period. So that's why they did that. Do you know why you made all those inteceptions, Bob? Do you think they were going to throw to my side? They figured they could get away with it on your side so everybody threw to your side, Bob. It's about time you picked off a few damn balls!" He would get mad at me about this and we just kind of giggled that way.
Dave Morock said the same thing so I said "What did they call you, Dave? You're the monster man because you're uglier than S*#!*! so that's why you're the monster man, Dave!" Just little things like that. That's what we did to each other. They're always on my ass because "You didn't make all those tackles and do, de, do, de, do, de, do." I just laugh and say "Yeah, I did."
DM Speaking of all those tackles you still hold a lot of defensive records at Nebraska that may be broken by Tom Ruud's son Barrett.
JM I was gone when Tom got there. He was a great, great athlete. Number 1 draft choice I think by the Buffalo Bills. I coached against Barrett for four years when he was at Lincoln Southeast. I am a volunteer coach at Creighton Prep. I told everybody that this is the kid. This is a great linebacker and I said it from his freshman year through his senior year. I have no qualms. I knew this kid would do it. He is tough and he is a tremendous athlete just like his dad. I predict that Bo Ruud is going to be better than Barrett. I also coached against him for four years. It's a great family. I'm proud to have him break it. That's the way it should be. He deserves everything he gets.
DM Is there a particular regular season game that sticks out in your memory?
JM It was against Steve Owens and Oklahoma in 1968. He had 20 some 100 yard games and it was my sophomore year and they beat us 40 something to nothing. Steve and I hit and hit and hit. I don't know how many tackles I had that game but he would knock me down and run over me and say "Jerry, ....Jerry, how's it going Jerry?" and I'm POed. He was a great athlete and he was giving it to me a little bit. The next year which was his senior year when he won the Heisman we held him to 52 yards and we beat him up SO BAD. Every time I would knock him down and I would land on top of him I would say "Steve, ...Steve, how's it going Steve?" He'd giggle and say "I deserve it." I said "You gosh darn right you do." Those are the two games I remember. He would pound on you and pound on you. He was so gosh darn massive and he didn't finagle. He just ran straight at you. Those were the people I liked to play against. The John Riggins' and those type of guys.
DM Do you have any "in the huddle" memories?
JM I wasn't much of a talker. I was co-captain with Dan Schneiss and the pre-game talks neither one of us said much. It was "Hey, you got a job to do. Let's go out there and kick the S*#% out of them." Basically, that was it. In the huddle, since I called the plays, you just keep control. Sometimes people would bitch at each other and you just calm them down. There's no real stories. In our day there wasn't that much talk. The jawing and talking that they do now. Devaney wouldn't have allowed it. You played football and kept your mouth shut. He said, "You don't get up and jump around. You just do your job and walk away." The four years that I was there, there was never one punch thrown on Nebraskas' side. Devaney demanded that. He said, "If one man throws a punch I will guarantee you that you will never play for me again." He made that statement at the beginning of every year the four years that I was there. "One punch. I don't care who you are. If someone hits you I want that 15 yards. And I better get it because it's not going to hurt you when they hit you anyway and I need that 15 yards." I can guarantee that not one time in the ten years that Coach Devaney coached there no one threw a punch.
DM Do you have a favorite Bob Devaney story?
JM I have so many. He kept getting sick and tired of getting me out of trouble. One day, and I forgot what I did to get in trouble but I was running steps. He had me running steps before practice AND after practice for some of the crap I did. It was nothing outstanding. Just stupid stuff you do as a kid. I'm standing there my senior year and I'm look up there at the little sky box that is the press box. He said, "Murtaugh, what the heck are you looking at?" I said, "Coach, I've never been in those sky boxes in the four years I've been here. Do you think I'll ever be able to get up there and see what it's like?" He looked at me and said, "I'll tell you what, Murtaugh. There's no way in hell you'll ever step in those press boxes. Now get your ass up those steps." And I'm up the steps again. To this day I have never stepped into that press box so Coach Devaney still has that thing on me. I told Tommie Frazier this story last year at his radio talk show and he said, "We're going to break Coach Devaney's promise to you and have you up in those press boxes." I've heard that story before but I haven't been there yet. 'Ole Coach Devaney. He still has one over me. (Laughs) He was a good, good man. Great coach.
DM Do you have a favorite Tom Osborne story?
JM Coach Osborne was the receivers coach. We had very little to do with the offense. They would practice on their side and we would practice on our side. We would get together to scrimmage and that was about it so I didn't really know Coach Osborne when I was playing. In the past few years I've gotten to know him with my organization and the things that he's trying to do to stop obesity with kids in Congress and working with me. What a great man. The past couple of years I have really been able to get to know him and appreciate him and all his hard work.
DM What was your best bowl game memory?
JM The 1971 Orange Bowl. I will never forget that because I think that is when tradition started. I am just so proud of all the guys I played with and when we get together we enjoy the comaraderie and say "Boy, oh boy. Look what we started at the University of Nebraska!" Eddie Periard played the greatest game of his life and had 15 to 20 tackles. Bob Terrio intercepted that ball with eight seconds to go and was in the right place at the right time. Thank God. Dan Schneiss on offense running and killing people blocking. Guy Ingles, Tagge, Brownson and that offensive line did a great job. Joe Orduna ran like a wild man that day. They (LSU) had a good football team but we were a better ball club. It was close but if you really look at the game we fumbled inside their 20 yard line like three times so we gave up some scoring opportunities. We should have taken them out of the game that first half. It was a great opportunity for us and Coach Devaney deserved it after all the heat he and the coaches had taken. It was well deserving for them and the players. It was very rewarding. Then, I didn't understand it so much. Now that I'm an old guy and I can really appreciate it. People come up and talk about that game and I go "Wow! This is very satisfying and rewarding." I really thank the fans for remembering all of us. That's a great thing for old guys like us.
Then there was the 1969 Sun Bowl. We had a great time down there. We got in some trouble over in Juarez (Mexico) and, of course, he jumped me for it. A couple of guys got thrown in jail and a couple of guys helped me bail them out and Devaney had already heard about it and he jumped me. He said, "Murtaugh, you did it again." He was cussing and screaming at me and the other 5 or 6 guys and said, "You're off the team. You're going home tomorrow." Of all the guys that were in trouble, 4 or 5 of us were starters and there might have been a couple of second teamers but they were all playing. He sent us to our rooms and everybody started calling each other and they were all scared to death. I kept telling them "There's no way he's sending us home because he wants to win this game. He'll get us afterwards. Don't worry about it. He's not sending us home." The next morning he had a meeting with us and he's screaming and yelling and he said, "I've decided I'm not going to send you home but I'm going to get you when we get home." I kind of giggled because I knew Coach Devaney wanted to win. He did beat us to death when we got home. He ran us to death but that was a great, great time. We played the University of Georgia and Coach Dooley, after we beat them 45-6 and put a whooping on them, put in the papers that in all his years of coaching he has never seen a better team than the University of Nebraska. I said, "Wow! What a compliment for the coaches and players." That was a great service that he did for the University of Nebraska.
That's when I kind of knew "Look out for us next year." The next year (1970) I opened my mouth and I told the papers "We're going to be Number 1." Coach Devaney just blew up. I got in trouble again. He said, "Quit opening your mouth." The papers were asking me how we were going to do and I said "We're going to be Number 1. We're going to win it all." Coach Devaney heard that and Jeff Kinney came over and grabbed me by my helmet and got me out of there and drug me over to Coach Devaney and he started ripping me. He said, "You got to keep your damn mouth shut. You can't be doing this crap, Murtaugh!!" and on and on. I had to start running stadium steps again. I started it off right every year. I got in trouble. I was in great shape. Lots of steps. Lots and lots of steps. The prediction was right. I had so much faith in the players and the coaches. Nobody was going to beat us.
DM You are a member of the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame. What does that mean to you?
JM The year that I went into the Hall (1987) there was some great names that year and one that I remember in particular was Charlie Bryant. Charlie was the first black man to play for the University in 1952 and he went on to be a successful teacher and wrestling coach. At the time I was just in awe and I had two of my three kids with me and it was just a great honor. They gave me a plaque and I'm looking at all these great names and I'm thinking "Wow! I'm here with all these people."
DM Where did you play after you graduated from Nebraska?
JM I went to New England my rookie year and blew the knee out on a kickoff. Rehabed and went back the next year and blew the knee out again in training camp and that was it.
DM Do you still stay in touch with teammates that you played with?
JM Yes I do. Especially with the organization that I have. The Tagges, the Brownsons, the Kinneys, the Ingles, the Wally Winters, the Fig Newtons. All these guys. I appreciate them now more than I did then.
DM Is there anything that you would like to comment about that hasn't been asked?
JM I am 56 years old and it was 34 years ago that we won this first National Championship. People come up to me remembering that I played football for the University of Nebraska. They say "Thanks for the memories." and I say "No, thank you for remembering me." I feel honored that they can come and say that but I feel honored that I can meet the fans and they still remember me. That to me is something. It really is. That's why I appreciate it so much more now than I did then.
I have a comment about Coach Devaney that made me realize what a great coach he was. He and I never saw eye to eye on many things in the four years that I was there. He was Irish Catholic and I'm Irish Catholic so you know we're both stubborn as hell. We used to fight and for four years we never got along. During his retirement party his wife got us together and we finally made up to each other and we talked. He sat there and said, "You know, Jerry. Everybody thinks I'm a great football coach. I'm not a great football coach. People don't understand. I was able to hire the nine greatest assistant coaches in the United States. That I will take credit for." I said, "Wow! I never realized that." He said, "You, betcha. It wasn't me. It was them." That was a statement that most people probably have never heard. That's the way he was. He was a motivator. He got the most out of his players in terms of dedication and loyalty.
And to this day whenever I am with Coach Melton he talks about Coach Devaney like he is still sitting right there with him. What a great friend and what a great coach Coach Melton was and he let you do your thing. Melton said that he got fired twice in one day and I was the cause of it. He blamed me for that one. I remember it distinctly. It was funnier than hell. He got fired twice that day and then that night he was at Devaneys' house and he said he would hire him back the next day. I was a senior and it had something to do with Tagge, Kinney, and Brownson. They were getting pretty cocky during fall practices. They were wearing their little skirts. I should say skirts but it was those jerseys that said you can't hit them. I'm a senior and I'm getting a little POed so on this one play I drop whatever quarterback it was. I put him right on his back. Devaney went nuts. He started screaming at MELTON, not ME. "What the hell are you doing? Can't you control that SOB?" Melton comes over to me and he just shakes his head and you know he's POed at me. He had chew down the front of his shirt and he smoked that cigar and he was hot at me. The next play I thought "You know, I'm just going to try this one more time and see what happens." The same play and I nailed the quarterback and Devaney threw down his hat and his board and ran over to Melton and said "You can't control that crazy SOB. You're fired. Get both of you out of here!" He got fired right then. Melton came over to me and he was shaking so much and he was spitting and I had the biggest grin and said, "Sorry, Coach, I just didn't hear him." He went ballistic and then about a half hour later we're into practice I did something after the whistle and he got fired again. Melton comes over to me and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I don't know. I just had a bad day." He said, "BAD DAY!!! I JUST GOT FIRED TWICE!!!!" I just laughed and I said, "Well, that's the breaks of the game, Coach." Oh, Melton, he talks about that day all the time. Like I said later that night Coach Devaney hired him back. (Laughs) It was a dandy. To this day he blames me for all that stuff.
DM Jerry, thanks for sharing your Husker memories with us.
- Nebraska Greats Foundation
- Legends Radio Show
- Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame
- 1988 YouTube interview
- Randy York John Melton article