When there was a football game out there to be won, which was not very long, it was difficult to see anyone but those old familiar Nebraska heroes doing what few people except themselves and Bob Devaney knew was possible. Which was the modest stunt of taking Bear Bryant and Alabama and making them look like your neighborhood Texas A&M with a little dash of Oklahoma State thrown in. The 1972 Orange Bowl (see cover) was the game of what decade? The 1950s before Bear got to Tuscaloosa? The only game going on for anyone to watch last Saturday night in Miami was between Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers and Rich Glover, to see which one of them could do the most to make it the worst thing that ever happened to Bear Bryant.
One has to look back and wonder what kind of odds a Nebraskan could have gotten from an Alabamian before the opening kickoff if the fellow had said he felt that his Cornhuskers would whip the Crimson Tide worse than Nebraska had whipped Oregon...Minnesota...Texas A&M...Oklahoma State...Colorado...and Kansas State? Or what if the Nebraskan had said what one of Bob Devaney's associates had whispered, with a sincere expression, that the score would be about 40-7, not knowing that the actual count of 38-6 would be enough to make it the worst loss of Bryant's Alabama career and equal to the worst of his entire life? A lot of people close to Devaney insinuated such madness, and Alabamians only thought them crazier than Miami Beach itself.
What makes this worth dwelling on is that Bear Bryant was in town as the coach with the reputation, the mystique, the image of the man who can, simply by being around, lend all the glamour and stature that any football situation or game ever needs. And Bob Devaney was there in his accustomed role of good old boy, a man who has never actually had it, despite his own brilliant coaching record.
Devaney has no real star quality, not outside of Nebraska, that is. At least not until right now, this very moment, which finds him and everybody from Nebraska giddy with the delights of a second straight national championship. Celestial fame has set in with the fact that when the Cornhuskers had to go up against all of that Alabama mystique, they calmly shrugged it aside and turned the whole affair into a joke by halftime.
January 10, 1972
It was 28-0 then. And Rich Glover had made himself as much a part of Alabama's backfield as, shall we say, Johnny Musso. And Johnny Rodgers had already made his usual punt return for a touchdown. And the Alabama Wishbone had been gnawed bare.
"As a matter of fact," said Rodgers later, "a few of us did talk a little bit at the half about the celebration party we were going to have back at the hotel."
While Nebraska got a couple of good breaks that demoralized Alabama early—a clear-cut interference call to set up the first touchdown and a head-ringing fumble to set up the third, both within the game's first 18 minutes—there was something else down there on the field that removed any doubt about the outcome. It was the fact that homebody Devaney had a far better game plan than Bryant—and far better athletes to run it.
The most impressive thing about Devaney's Nebraska teams is their discipline and balance. Normally, football teams that rely as much on the forward pass as the Cornhuskers do in their endless I slot and spread formations have a tendency to become eventually nothing more than passing teams, and that won't cut it. Nebraska never has slipped into this fault. It can always run, as indeed it ran on Alabama, with Jeff Kinney and Bill Olds bruising their way for some killing yardage out of what were designed to look like throwing formations, which is what the game plan was all about.
Meanwhile, Alabama's offense was a sad sight. All season long its Wishbone had never looked quite right, despite the victories the Tide kept rolling up. It lacked deception and outside speed, and Alabama Quarterback Terry Davis even confided to a friend before the Orange Bowl, "I've never had to throw when we were behind. I'm not that confident about my passing. I hope we don't get in that situation."
Alabama quickly did get in that situation, mainly because of the last play of the first quarter, when the incomparable Johnny Rodgers stabbed the Tide with a punt return just as he had mortally wounded Oklahoma with one. Once more, he made the biggest play in a big game.
Rodgers took this punt on a sudden bounce 77 yards from the Alabama goal, with red jerseys engulfing him. A swerve to the right, quickly, a turn upfield, a couple of blocks, an alley, and it was burn, baby, burn, right past the Alabama bench. Following a two-point conversion it was 14-0 and get the champagne ready.
"Johnny's return and a couple of good defensive plays stunned them," said Nebraska Quarterback Jerry Tagge, who did his usual masterful job of passing and "reading." "The thing was, we never really got to see what we could do against them, but everything was working."
The Nebraska coaches knew all along that it would.
"Their Wishbone is two years behind Oklahoma's," one of them said privately. "They must not believe in it totally themselves, because they go to other things at times. We could have beat them bad but Bob isn't that kind of guy."
Which is true. When Alabama's Davis went out with an injury early in the fourth quarter, Devaney took out Tagge, just to be sporting. The game was over, anyway.
One thing about The Bear, though. He's always equal to a loss.
"We were beaten soundly by a far superior team," he said. "I wouldn't have minded our bunch playing lousy if we could have lucked out and won. But they toyed with us most of the time. They might have been the greatest I've ever seen."
That theme, of course, was sounded before Saturday night ever arrived. Everybody is "great" and "proud" and "happy" to be on hand at every bowl game ever played. This one was so extra special there were two press conferences daily all week long, but they were hardly revealing. Either Bryant or Devaney would enter the little room off the driveway at the Regency Spa Hotel in Miami Beach and try to kill the other with lavish praise. And a man keeping count claimed Bryant and his assistants used the expression, "We're very proud to be here," between 60 and 100 times, a phrase they didn't get to use even once after the game.
Nor was it easy to get a line on the game by observing or chatting with the players on either team. As a group, the Alabama team seemed more noncommittal, more aloof, perhaps a bit more cocky. Not so much in what few things the players said, but simply in the way they walked, sat, grinned or didn't grin, in public.
Nebraska's players seemed noticeably more at ease than Nebraska's coaches, and there might have been a good reason: Bob Devaney.
"We've tried to see that they have fun, and I've tried not to impress on them the personal importance that I feel about this game," Devaney said. "I've lost twice to Bear and I don't like to think that there's a guy around who can just walk out on the field and beat me any time he wants to—even if his team is very good.
"Fortunately, these players of ours aren't as aware of the Alabama stigma as we coaches. They were only in high school somewhere when Bear beat us in the '60s."
Devaney lost two in a row to Bryant in Miami and New Orleans after the 1965 and 1966 seasons. It was the first one that hurt the most, for it meant another national championship in another era. Those losses (39-28 and 34-7) did very little for Devaney's image.
The fun the players had consisted of all the things that bring people to a city that would name a roadway after Arthur Godfrey. Both schools dressed their men up in their red blazers and sent them out nightly to shows at various hotels, some of the shows featuring singers and some featuring chorus cuties. They also wound up at the racetracks and the Seaquarium. Nebraska's team even managed to have a dinner at the Bonfire, one of the 79th Street Causeway's best restaurants for sporting types.
Except for one workout a day, which never seemed too harsh, the players had a good deal of time at their respective hotel pools to lie in the sun in tank shirts and shorts. For whatever it was worth, Devaney allowed the Cornhuskers to swim and play frivolous games in the pool. Bryant did not allow swimming. Just drowning, somebody said later, in tears.
There were no comics among the players, but some of them did struggle to convince everybody that they were not getting nervous or tense. Jerry Tagge mentioned at one point that "it's sort of tough to get up for a game in Miami." Jeff Kinney confessed that he had preferred basketball to football in high school. And Rich Glover, in reply to his thoughts about the Crimson Tide, said, "I'm just sitting by the pool listening to soul music on my radio."
It was left to Terry Davis to supply the week's only quality mirth. Asked what it was like to be the field general of a full-house backfield of wine makers, the reference being to Johnny Musso, Joe LaBue and Steve Bisceglia, Davis responded: "Sometimes it's confusing with all those foreigners there. While I'm calling signals, one of 'em will be asking the other one what the play is, and one of 'em will be asking another one what the snap count is. I should have majored in Italian."
Alabama deserved one laugh. And so ended the Orange Bowl laugher.
Hours before Nebraska so conclusively proved it was No. 1, Oklahoma reinforced the suspicion that it is certainly No. 2, Penn State humiliated Darrell Royal and Texas 30-6, and Stanford, that Cinderella Rose Bowl team, ended all of Michigan's pretensions to national honors.
In many ways the Sugar Bowl was even more of a rout than the Orange. Although Oklahoma looked nonchalant, sluggish and even bored on occasion, Jack Mildren and his Sooners erased, once and for all, the myth of Auburn, Pat Sullivan and the mesh jersey. If Oklahoma had truly been aroused it probably could have scored in three figures. The total was 19-0 after the first quarter, 31-0 at halftime and, finally, 40-22.
The Sooners this season were without a doubt faster, bigger, smarter, more deceptive and more varied than any other team in the country except Nebraska. Those two stand alone, and whoever winds up No. 3—and Big Eight fans insist Colorado, beaten only by Nebraska and Oklahoma, rates consideration—is a light year behind the first two.
Before the Rose Bowl began, the unbeaten Michigan Wolverines were telling anyone who would listen that they were the best team in the country. But in the most exciting bowl game of the holiday season, mighty mouse Stanford pulled another upset, just as it did last year when Ohio State was on the verge of becoming national champion.
Stanford is not a bad football team, but it did lose this season to San Jose State, Washington State and Duke, so naturally it was somewhat of an underdog—10½ points, to be exact—to a team that had made it through a Big Ten schedule without a loss. But being the underdog is just what Coach John Ralston and the Indians seem to enjoy, and when they are, anything goes. Such as a fake reverse on the opening kickoff. It did not work, but Michigan should have gotten the message right there. With Stanford, nothing is as it seems.
Midway through the final period, with Michigan leading only 10-3, thanks to a spirited Indians' defense that bottled up the Wolverines' strong running game, Stanford's Steve Murray dropped back to punt. It was fourth down and 10 yards to go from his own 33; there was no doubt that Murray would punt. So the snap went to Fullback Jim Kehl, who slipped the ball forward to Halfback Jackie Brown between his legs. As the Wolverines fell back to block for the punt return there was Brown running all the way to the Michigan 36. A few plays later Brown raced 24 more for a touchdown and it was 10-10.
With less than four minutes to go, Michigan tried a 46-yard field goal that was short. Where many teams are involved, the missed field goal would mean defeat averted, possession of the ball at the 20-yard line and plenty of time to score, but not for Stanford. Gambling John Ralston ordered a "field goal return." Jim Ferguson, an obedient sophomore, caught the ball in the end zone, came out as far as the five, cut back to the two, was hit by Michigan's Ed Shuttlesworth and thrown back into the end zone. Although Ferguson's forward progress was clearly dead at the two, the back judge, William Quimby, ruled it a safety. Quimby is an official of the—er, well, Big Ten. So instead of having the ball at the 20 and a tie game, Stanford was behind 12-10 and had to kick to Michigan.
But Michigan was unable to run out the clock, and with 1:48 Stanford got the ball on its own 22. Suddenly Don Bunce, the Indians' quarterback, began to look like a combination of Jim Plunkett and John Unitas in his prime. With professional calm Bunce completed four passes, and Stanford had the ball on the Michigan 17. Now there was no more gambling. Bunce called two running plays and a time-out with 12 seconds left. In came 5'9", 155-pound Rod Garcia, a sophomore who had missed five field goal attempts in Stanford's shocking loss to San Jose State. Garcia's kick was dead center and Michigan was just dead, 13-12. To Bo Schembechler, the Wolverines' coach, who had argued with the justice of the polls, it was a bitter moment. As for Stanford, its victory provided a happy ending to what had been a depressing season for West Coast football fans.
Thus the long day worked out just the way Larry Jacobson had said it would. Jacobson, the big Nebraska tackle, was lounging by the swimming pool one day last week. "Come Saturday night, there won't be anything else to discuss," he said. "We'll still be No. 1 and Oklahoma will be back to No. 2."
So it was. As a lot of people had known all along, the real Game of the Decade had already been played back in Norman, Okla. on Thanksgiving Day.