There were six of them—Nebraska, Missouri, USC, Washington, LSU and Mississippi—all undefeated, all ranked high among the nation's top teams. Last week they met, three against three. All over the Nebraska campus were stickers that read: "We have not scored on Missouri in four years—let's get a bunch." In Baton Rouge radio announcers filled stations breaks with, "Oh you LSU Tigers, beat Ole Miss." And on the West Coast a Washington lineman named Dave Phillips said grimly: "There's nothing to live for if we don't beat USC." When it was all over on Saturday the Nebraska stickers were torn to shreds. Baton Rouge announcers were back to reading commercials and Lineman Phillips, presumably, was fashioning a noose. Missouri, Mississippi and USC, the winners, could contemplate even higher ratings and January bowl games. Nebraska, LSU and Washington, the losers, could only ponder their mistakes and dream of what might have been.
None of the three games was really close. USC, winning 14-0, showed surprising running strength against the powerful Washington line. Washington kept four men deep on defense to guard against the passing combination of Pete Beathard to Hal Bedsole. "When we saw their defense," said USC Coach Johnny McKay later, "we told our kids to run. They ran real well." Coach Jim Owens found it hard to believe. "I didn't figure anyone could run that well against us, but they were cranked up and ready to go." The victory gives USC first place in the AAWU and, almost certainly, a spot in the Rose Bowl.
LSU started out strong, but after Jerry Stovall scored on a short plunge to give his team a 7-0 lead, Mississippi, led by Quarterback Glynn Griffing, dominated the game. The Rebels rolled up an amazing 393 yards against defense-minded LSU, scoring two touchdowns and a field goal for a 15-7 victory. It was sweet revenge for Mississippi, which had not beaten LSU in this game since 1957, and especially so since the game was played in the violent crater of LSU's Tiger Stadium, where the noise of 68,000 people yelling "Go to Hell, Ole Miss, Go to Hell" can rattle the coolest of quarterbacks. "We've had our hearts broken in this stadium," said Mississippi's Coach Johnny Vaught after the game. "For once we can go home happy." With only three games left, two against cupcakes, Mississippi seems sure of an undefeated season and a big bowl, Sugar or Cotton.
Nebraska had one glorious moment in its game. Midway through the second period, with Missouri leading 7-0 and threatening to score again, Fullback Noel Martin intercepted a pass in the flat on his own 12-yard line and raced down the sidelines for a touchdown. But Nebraska followers had to settle for that; they never got their "bunch." Missouri took advantage of Nebraska mistakes to score another touchdown and a field goal to win 16-7. "This is the most surprising team I've ever coached " said Missouri Coach Dan Devine. "They keep playing better than I expect them to." Assuming Missouri continues that way, it should win the Big Eight title and go to the Orange Bowl.
Although the defeat was disheartening for Nebraska rooters, the overall season—six wins against the one loss—is cause for joy, for it heralds the return of Nebraska as a football power. There was a time—and if you are 40 you will remember it—when Nebraska was a big bear in college football. Between 1928 and 1940 the team won nine conference titles, most of them under the famous coach Dana X. Bible. But then the war began. Whereas other schools had naval training programs that provided a steady flow of healthy players, Nebraska had none. It began to lose, and when the war ended the losing habit was hard to shed.
The best high school players—coaches call them the blue-chip boys—favored current winners. The team has always relied heavily on out-of-state boys since Nebraska is so sparsely populated. (This year's team, for instance, includes players from San Francisco, Chicago and Cleveland, as well as Nebraska's own Eagle, Valentine and Broken Bow.) As the team continued to lose, it became increasingly difficult to attract the out-of-state boys. Thus, more losses and a long and dismal snowball.
When the team finished its 1961 season with a record of three wins, six losses and one tie, its sixth straight losing season and 17th since 1940, the university released its coach of the past five years, Bill Jennings, and hired in his place a paunchy, 47-year-old Irishman with thinning gray hair named Bob Devaney. Devaney is not the very model of the modern major football coach, that electric, young go-getter with the military bearing, the bright smile and the glad hand. Devaney's pants are baggy, his coat rumpled. He wears an old pearl stickpin in his tie. His eyes are puffy and flecks of dandruff dot his shoulders. Trudging across the Nebraska campus, he is Willy Loman, the dying salesman.
Bob Devaney had been an obscure but successful Michigan high school coach for 14 years when, in 1953, Michigan State hired him as an assistant to Biggie Munn and then Duffy Daugherty. "He was a genius at picking out what was going wrong during a game," recalls an associate.-"No discredit to Duffy, but the record shows that Michigan State hasn't been the same since Bob left."
It was Duffy himself who suggested to the University of Wyoming that Devaney would make a good head coach. Wyoming agreed and in 1957 Devaney went west. There, in his first five seasons, he won four Skyline Conference titles. Everyone was pleased and the university's only worry was hew to hang on to its coach. It had already lost two good men in the last few years, Bowden Wyatt and Phil Dickens. In 1961 the Wyoming board of trustees and the administration sat down with Devaney and talked things over. Devaney wanted a five-year contract. He got it. He also got the house in which the president of the university used to live. He got an estimated salary of $16,000 and off-the-record assurance that his contract was really good forever. Devaney was happy. The university was happy. The state of Wyoming was happy.
Six months later Devaney abruptly announced he was leaving to take the coaching job at Nebraska in the higher prestige Big Eight Conference. From all over Wyoming came howls of anger. "If I had my way," shouted State Senator Richard Jones, "I'd keep him there for the full five years of his contract." The senator, however, did not have his way and last February Devaney took over at Nebraska.
What Devaney has accomplished since then is regarded on the Nebraska campus as something of a miracle. Everyone agrees that the coaching staff—Devaney brought most of his assistants with him from Wyoming—is the best organized they have ever seen. When they arrived at Nebraska, Devaney and his men spent hours watching films of last year's Nebraska games. "I hear Paul Dietzel didn't want to look at any films when he went to Army," Devaney said the other day. "Wanted everyone to have an equal chance. I'm not that smart." After studying the films, Devaney decided that Quarterback Dennis Claridge could run well enough to use the sprint-out pass-run option play effectively. Claridge has been among the top offense leaders in the country and is one of the big reasons Nebraska has been winning.
Devaney clings to the almost obsolete belief that there is room for humor in football. Last year at Wyoming, on the morning of a tough game against Kansas, he had a magician entertain the team to relieve the tension. Wyoming, a two-touchdown underdog, held Kansas to a tie. This season at Nebraska, the sound of laughter ringing across the practice fields is not unusual. Devaney believes in short workouts and no scrimmaging. "The boys get hit hard enough on Saturday," he says. When the team runs through kickoff drills, he lets almost anyone try kicking the ball. Recently a big lineman named Bob Browne begged Devaney for a chance. Browne kicked the ball about 20 feet straight up in the air. The team collapsed laughing.
Of course, laughter without victory is a hollow sound, but Nebraska isn't worrying about that at the moment. Devaney has the team back near the top of the ladder, and if it takes a dozen magicians to keep it that way he'll get his dozen magicians, no questions asked. Nebraska's only worry is whether or not Devaney will stick around for another season. There promise to be several openings in the Big Ten soon, perhaps one at Michigan, Devaney's home state, and coaches almost never turn down Big Ten offers. Devaney says he plans to be at Nebraska next year, but that's what he said about Wyoming. Perhaps this time he means it. After all, he'd love to get another crack at Missouri.