Bob Devaney, Nebraska's former football coach and athletic
director, is now AD emeritus. He is sitting in his memorabilia-strewn
office on the Lincoln campus, amidst photographs of the great times.
But if he could have only one picture on the walls, which one would
''That one right there,'' says Devaney, head coach from 1962
through 1972. Without hesitation Devaney points to a faded
black-and-white photo of the 1971 Orange Bowl queen and her
And Devaney laughs the laugh of success. Since the day back in
1961 when he left his head coaching job at Wyoming to accept the
challenge of resurrecting Nebraska football the next season, he has
seldom had much to cry about.
Indeed, in so many ways, the history of Nebraska football can be
reduced to two words: Bob Devaney.
Predictably, Devaney, 79, gives a horselaugh to such extravagant
views of his place in Cornhusker history. ''I just figure I've been
luckier than hell,'' he says. And while it may be hyperbole to say
that Devaney invented Nebraska football, it is certainly no
exaggeration to say that, at the very least, Devaney reinvented
The university's gridiron history did get off to a successful
start in 1890, when it thumped the Omaha YMCA 10-0 in its first game.
Enthusiasm for football was instant. In the early days, the most
pressing concern was to settle on a suitable nickname. The Nebraska
squad was at various times dubbed the Antelopes, the Bugeaters and
the Mankilling Mastodons. But finally, in 1900, the team became known
as the Cornhuskers. As charter members of the Big Eight (established
in 1907 as the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association),
the Huskers, as they were soon fondly called, won nine championships
in the league's first 11 years. They even played in the Rose Bowl in
1941, losing to Stanford 21-13 but making a quantum leap in national
With World War II, though, Nebraska ''seemed to drop out of
football for a while,'' according to Devaney. That's because the
school, unlike many others, had no military training programs with
which to attract young, able-bodied players. From 1941 through 1962,
the Huskers finished in the Top 20 once; that was in 1950, when they
were 17th. One coach during that era, Bill Jennings, became so
depressed by all the losing that, in 1960, he said, ''I've been
watching things closely, and I don't think this state can ever be
great in anything.'' Subsequently he grumbled, ''We can't feed the
ego of the state of Nebraska with the football team.''
Enter Bob Devaney, then 46. He says now that achieving greatness
was not his aim, not even close: ''My goal was to have a winning
program so I wouldn't get fired. I wanted to win just enough games to
please the alumni but not so many as to draw an NCAA investigation.''
Devaney, a longtime Michigan high school football coach before
building a 35-10-5 record in five seasons at Wyoming, instantly
connected with Nebraskans. He saw no reason why the state's ego
couldn't be fed by football. And he succeeded because his own ego
never sidetracked him. In fact, Devaney gives full credit to an
assistant coach named Tom Osborne for suggesting before the 1969
season that the Huskers change from the full-house backfield
formation to an I formation, advice that was offered after the '68
team had struggled to a 6-4 mark and, over the course of the
season, had been outscored by their opponents. The I provided the
power thrust toward greatness -- and never since have the Huskers
scored fewer points in a year than their competitors. Says Devaney,
''I'd like to say I turned it around, but it was Tom.''
Devaney snorts at the suggestion that he was a football wizard,
even though his record argues otherwise: He was undefeated in the Big
Eight in his second year on the job, 47-8 in his first five years
('62-66) and 42-4-2 in his last four ('69-72); he won eight Big Eight
titles, took nine of his 11 teams to bowls and won two national
championships, in 1970 and 1971. ''Hell, no, I'm no genius,'' he
says. ''We inherited some pretty good players, we didn't beat them up
in practice, and we taught them fundamentals so they at least knew
what to try to do.''
Devaney built the ship, recruited the crew, designed the sails and
set them; since taking over in 1973, Osborne has stayed the course.
The Huskers hold 14 NCAA team records, including most consecutive
winning seasons: 33. Eleven times they have led the nation in
rushing, all since 1963. They have 40 conference championships to
Oklahoma's 33. Six times since 1965 Nebraska has been undefeated in
the regular season. Between 1970 and this season, the Huskers have
had 18 finishes in the Top 10. And they have had 26 straight bowl
appearances, breaking Alabama's record of 25.
Even the Cornhusker fans have gotten into the record-setting act:
For 201 straight games, an NCAA record, they have filled Memorial
Stadium with their bodies and their spirit. Longtime Devaney sidekick
and associate AD Don Bryant says, ''The fans support us economically
and affectionately. They love to send their children to the
University of Nebraska. It's what you do -- go to Nebraska and love
Another prevailing sentiment is love for the players. Fans can get
downright teary when they reflect on Heisman winners Johnny Rodgers
(1972: 143 career catches, 17.3 yards per catch, 26 TDs) and Mike
Rozier (1983: 4,780 rushing yards, an NCAA-record average of 7.16
yards per attempt for his career). Seventy-one Nebraska players have
been named All-Americas, 11 of them two times, and the roll call of
Husker heroes is seemingly endless: Vic Halligan, Guy Chamberlin, Sam
Francis, Tom Novak, Bob Brown, Jerry Murtaugh, Larry Jacobson, Jerry
Tagge, Rich Glover, Dave Rimington, Dean Steinkuhler and Trev
Alberts. That's only a start.
And yet over the past three decades Nebraska has been much more
team than a collection of individual stars. Another of its big-time
heroes, halfback Bob Reynolds, who played in the early '50s,
reflected the Nebraska outlook when he said, ''A touchdown is a chain
of circumstances involving 22 players. Very often the fellow who
carries the ball across the goal line is the least important link in
the whole chain.''
Nebraska insiders contend that while Devaney is the centerpiece of
Nebraska football, two individuals who are far less well known join
him as the most influential men in the school's history. The first is
Ed Weir, an undersized athlete but probably the Huskers' best
defensive player ever. In 1925 he became, as a tackle, the school's
first two-time All-America; but more important, he established the
image of the clean-cut Nebraska college boy who studied hard and
played football well. The other obscure but influential character was
John K. Selleck, the school's athletic business manager from 1923 to
'46. Bryant says it was Selleck who, in 1924, created the idea of the
Knothole Gang, kids who sat in the end zone in seats made available
to them for a dime. ''That,'' says Bryant, ''is how the base of
support got built.'' The Boy Scout usher program, also created by
Selleck, generated even more disciples. Bryant knows about all this:
He sat with the Knothole Gang as a kid, he ushered as a Boy Scout,
and he has attended about 600 Nebraska games. Husker fans are a hardy
lot; they even look back on low points with affection. Devaney feels
responsible for the very lowest point: his team's 47-0 season- ending
loss to Oklahoma on Nov. 23, 1968, a day that lives in infamy in his
mind. But in a distinctly philosophical and thoroughly Nebraska way,
Devaney said this after the loss: ''If we have any kind of people
coming back next year, this should make them quite determined not to
let anything like this happen again.'' Two seasons later, the Huskers
were national champs.
But there is at least one low point that remains a real sore point
for the Cornhusker faithful: the 27-24 loss to Penn State on Sept.
25, 1982. Penn State tight end Mike McCloskey was clearly out of
bounds when he caught a 15- yard pass at the two-yard line near the
end of the game; the play was ruled a completed pass, and Penn State
scored on the next play. Both teams finished the season with one loss
and won their respective bowl games, but the national title went to
the Nittany Lions.
| The high points fill pages. It is almost unanimously held that
the most glorious peak was Nebraska's storied 1971 win over Oklahoma,
35-31, in the ''Game of the Century'' (following story). But that
afternoon does not stand alone. There were the Huskers' 1937 win,
14-9, over Minnesota at a time when the Golden Gophers were mighty,
and the 1959 win over Oklahoma, which broke the Sooners' streak of 51
Big Eight victories, begun in 1952. On and on the highlights roll.
Asked how he likes being credited as creator and king of Nebraska
football, Devaney tilts his chair back and says, ''I enjoy it. I like
listening to it. I don't believe it.''
He gazes at the pictures, savoring the memories, then says, ''But
we did get it turned around, didn't we?''