The trouble with inheriting the care of an institution like the Nebraska football team is that there is no escaping it. On game day Nebraskans do not extend the wishes of the morning, they raise a fist and say, "Go, Big Red." The billboards and marquees of Lincoln do not declare the price of canned peaches, they predict the coordinates of the Big Red's next blow (e.g., on a dry good store, "Nebraska 21, UCLA 7"), and personal preferences are stretched out across ubiquitous building-wide banners: "Alliance is proud of Randy Borg." Furthermore, no matter how inclement the weather of a fall Saturday, Memorial Stadium is sure to become the third largest city in the state. Last week there were rain, fog and 74,966 on hand to see UCLA's Bruins pass through the eye of the storm.
So pity for a moment—this might be your only chance—Tom Osborne on Saturday. For a young (35) coach whose experience at the front of the class was previously limited to a part-time psychology instructorship at the university and Sunday school teaching at St. Paul's Methodist Church, the job surely seemed fast closing in on him. Fewer than 10 years ago Osborne was still quietly deciding between teaching and coaching. (The basic difference, he found, is that a coach's students must not fail. "Football players have to make A's.") Now here he was, a humble graduate of Hastings College who had never coached anywhere but at Nebraska as an assistant under Bob Devaney, being the man for the new season in the job made glorious by Devaney. Devaney had tapped him for the position long before kicking himself upstairs last winter.
But to accentuate the negatives: Osborne obviously was not Bob Devaney. His eyes did not twinkle, his dimples were unmerry. Though a lank, boyishly good-looking pink-faced man, Osborne is sobersided, deeply religious and so intensely dedicated to going about his business that he would just as soon run three miles—his daily refreshment—as to be interviewed. "Excuse me," he says politely, "I've got to run three miles now."
His spring and fall practices were distinguished by their uncommon zeal and assiduous attention to detail, and by the absence of the puckish Devaney. Thus, as it was said, John Falstaff had been replaced by John Calvin and, as UCLA drew near, Osborne was not spared other reminders of his predicament: he no longer had Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers to addle and rattle through a secondary, or Outland Trophy winner Rich Glover to sit on opposing quarterbacks. Alas, too, his fine passing quarterback, Dave Humm, was hors de combat, his knee swaddled in tape. The substitute was a little-used senior named Steve Runty who had come to Nebraska without a scholarship four years ago. He had finally earned one on the strength of his impersonations of opposing quarterbacks in squad scrimmages. Runty is nicknamed Duck, for the grace of his movements. Lately he has been called Super Duck. As inspirational nicknames go, his has obvious limitations, but it apparently satisfies his friends.
September 16, 1973
Adding to Osborne's discomfort were those extraordinary items that only a coach with time in the spotlight can appreciate. Would he please allow the ABC television camera lorries to move inside the sideline fences behind the benches? Would he please keep the rabid Nebraska cheerleaders from adding an indelicate letter prefix to a special U-C-L-A cheer? Trifling stuff. Then, the night before the game, Osborne was suddenly aware that what he was watching on his television screen was one of his special-for-UCLA defensive alignments, taken accidentally at practice.
As it turned out, UCLA missed the preview entirely, but no matter. UCLA's head coach is the irrepressible Pepper Rodgers, and Rodgers was confident enough without it. He said his UCLA team was bigger (his biggest) and better (his best) than the team that upset Nebraska the year before; that Quarterback Mark Harmon, Tom and Elyse Knox's wonder boy, was still laughing in the teeth of danger, virtually swinging above the jaws of snapping crocodiles with his artful manipulation of the Wishbone.
Pepper said well, of course he'd rather open with Alaska than Nebraska, "But the guarantee wouldn't be as good," and, besides, he had been looking forward to this one. He said he knew Nebraska was still a fine team, but without the "big play guys"—Rodgers, Glover, et al.—the mathematics were not as complicated. He said there was a lot more bone and a lot less wish in his seven-yards-and-a-wisp-of-smoke attack now that he had moved the very swift James McAlister to fullback. "James is the perfect fullback for the triple option," fast and tough, he said. "Just watch him get to the hole." He said one of his friends had suggested he quit talking so optimistically, that he "play it cool."
"That's not my style," he said. "I don't know how to 'cool it.' We're ready. We're anxious to hit somebody. Practice is boring."
From the first series it was clear that Osborne had in mind what Rodgers had in mind: that McAlister on the loose was a major road hazard. The Nebraska defense—enameled over with just enough stunts and predetermined slants to confuse the blocking—was tough enough and quick enough to keep Harmon from operating the full range of the option. The Nebraska tackles, Ron Pruitt and John Dutton, would not be turned; the middle guard, John Bell (Glover's replacement), worked over the center and into the holes, and if he was wrong the linebackers plugged in.
Rodgers said before the game that if his last meal on earth was a hamburger and a big bowl of chili, his last play would be a triple option. The Nebraska defense all but grabbed it off his plate.
The pursuit on both sides was astounding. What few pass plays Harmon called seldom had time to materialize. UCLA got off only nine passes, four by John Sciarra who alternated with Harmon after Mark bruised his knee in the first quarter. And marked man McAlister was never able to find enough AstroTurf to run on. He wound up with just 48 yards in 13 carries.
A blond, stumpy sophomore named Tony Davis (not to be confused with USC's Anthony Davis) and Runty, the inspired quarterback imitator, starting their first game as Cornhuskers, made their intentions known immediately. On the Cornhuskers' first series Runty took them 56 yards to a touchdown, giving UCLA enough things to worry about to last the game through: counters, reverses, quick-developing screens and an option pitch to Davis that was a pip.
Runty got the first touchdown on a one-yard drive, and less than two minutes later the pride of Alliance, Randy Borg, returned a punt 77 yards for a score. Behind 14-0, UCLA was granted a stay of execution by a fumble that set up a Bruin touchdown. Then Runty passed to Frosty Anderson to make it 20-6 Nebraska, but UCLA still was not ready to die. Just before the half Kermit Johnson slipped away with one of the few pitchouts allowed him and ran 43 yards to set up a UCLA touchdown and it was 20-13.
Osborne said later that he was afraid his boys had lost the momentum at that point and he implored them to get it back. In answer, the Cornhuskers drove 80 yards in 14 plays with the second-half kickoff. The most significant play was the last, not because it was the touchdown but because it demonstrated what Tony Davis is made of. On fourth down inside the two, Davis slanted off the left side where he was embraced, first by Tackle Fred McNeill and then by Safety Jim Bright. Had Davis fallen right there none could have blamed him, but he kept his feet, recoiled and sprung again, sliding off the defenders and into the end zone.
Early in the fourth quarter Davis got the last of his 147 yards on a pitchout, running 43 yards to the end zone. His second touchdown completed a remarkable first day on the job. He clearly enjoyed it because he kicked the end zone flag as he whizzed by and then took a swipe at the chain-link fence with his fist. "I was charged up," he said. "I mean, I never was so charged up. I yelled so much before the game I got hoarse."
Nebraska assistant coaches, many of them Devaney veterans, dropped by to shake Osborne's hand as he stood holding the game ball after the 40-13 victory.
"What time tomorrow, Tom?" John Melton asked. Melton was with Devaney 16 years. "How about 12:30, John?" Osborne said. "That O.K.?" "Whatever you say, coach," Melton smiled. "From now on, whatever you say."