By Dr. Ken 


With absolutely no disrespect intended towards the football program at the University Of Nebraska-Lincoln, where is its relevancy? If asked “Are the Nebraska Cornhuskers ‘good?’” by any measure, the answer is “Yes.” However, this was a football program far better than “good” and for decades, had to be considered when talking about a possible national champion or Top Ten team pre-season, in-season, or post-season ranking. Now, faithful Huskers followers of the current generation may not even be aware of the status and clout that NU enjoyed in past decades. This is not to state that the program has fallen into the type of disrepair that would make anyone believe it is on par with the Idahos, Eastern Michigans, or New Mexico States, but the Huskers of the latter part of the Twentieth Century were elite.

Fullback Frank Solich was featured on Sports Illustrated’s College Football Preview issue in September 1965. This photo and the feature within the pages of the magazine put the Nebraska program and Solich, the current head coach at Ohio University, onto the national landscape of college football

Every era provides college football fans with a few coaches who stand out from among the rest. One or two will become legendary based upon their overall record, victories over significant opponents, number of conference and/or national championships, and All American players they develop. It has always been this way and each generation no doubt believes that they were more fortunate than others in being able to “live the game” during the reign of a particular coach or group of coaches. The man who provided relevancy to Nebraska football was Bob Devaney. For reasons not understood by this author, Devaney’s name is not often mentioned when discussing the great collegiate football coaches of the past, or of his generation of coaches. Bryant, Robinson, Royal, Paterno, Wilkinson, Broyles, Osborne, Blaik, Hayes, Schembechler, Parseghian,and Dodd are often the men noted for being outstanding in the mid-1900’s and each has earned a distinction that certainly confirms their place in college football’s history and in the College Football Hall Of Fame. Bob Devaney is not one of the names that is immediately put forth as one of the all-time greats and he should be. It should also be recalled that Devaney was not a typical football coach coming from a background that included previous playing stardom or a burning desire to coach and mentor young men.

A product of the depression era and Saginaw, Michigan, Devaney played high school football, basketball, and baseball but excelled at none of these endeavors and was not “scholarship material.” He instead graduated in 1933 and began the difficult physical work that came with a job at the Chevrolet foundry. He looked to an uncle who was an accountant and decided that he would be far less exhausted at the end of the work day in a job that was similar. He enrolled at Alma College, approximately forty miles from his Saginaw home, and toiled as a waiter and gas station attendant to pay his tuition and support his wife. He became an All Conference end and team captain and was convinced by his college coach to accrue education credits so that he could teach high school business courses and coach football. Devaney single-mindedly pursued this course of action and began a lengthy journey through the Michigan high school ranks, teaching up to six subjects per day and coaching multiple sports. In 1953 at the age of thirty-seven, having settled into a life of a typical high school teacher and coach, he looked back on his recent coaching record at Alpena High School and realized that he could be satisfied with the success that comes with winning fifty-two of his last sixty-one games. Devaney had given thought to becoming a college coach but with no offers tendered, as he said, “I was thirty-seven. If a break didn’t come before I was forty, I was going to go back and get my masters and take a boring administrative job somewhere.”

Assistant coach Devaney in back row, helped the 1955 Michigan State Spartans to a number two National Ranking, a 9-1 record, and a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA 

The break did in fact come with a phone call from Michigan State line coach Hugh “Duffy” Daugherty who offered Devaney an assistant’s position on Head Coach Biggie Munn’s staff, coaching ends and defensive backs. The Spartans were quite successful in three of the four seasons that Devaney served as a Michigan State assistant and he was named as Wyoming’s head man for the ’57 season. His arrival at Wyoming was due to a bit of luck, luck seen as “bad luck” by Devaney at the time. Missouri head coach and athletic director Don Faurot had promised Devaney the head coaching job at Mizzou after the 1956 season, upon Faurot’s retirement from the coaching ranks. He went as far as to instruct Devaney to “assemble your staff” but before a contract was finalized, Missouri hired Frank Broyles. Faurot later explained that the decision was “out of (his) hands” but as an acclaimed, long time head coach and the AD, this explanation did not hold up well to public scrutiny. Broyles left Missouri for a storied career at Arkansas after but one season, and Devaney was supposedly again on Mizzou’s radar but there was no negotiation and Devaney had, in one season, firmly established himself at Wyoming.


Devaney gets his Wyoming Cowboys in winning position



As Devaney remarked a number of times, “I learned to love Wyoming. They wanted to win at Wyoming.”  The university president was sympathetic to the difficulties of attracting talented athletes to Laramie, Wyoming, which in the 1950’s, was considered little more than a frontier outpost. Devaney was an excellent recruiter in part because he was a genuinely nice person, well-liked by those in the State of Wyoming, those he worked with, those who worked for him, and the families of the players he recruited. Dr. George Duke “G.D.” Humphrey had been the University Of Wyoming President since 1945 and understood that a viable football program would elevate the public’s awareness of his university. As a native of Tippah County, Mississippi, a graduate of what was later named the University Of Southern Mississippi, and an ardent football fan who had grown up in the south, he had exposure to what had been rather rampant “Pay-For-Play” shenanigans. He was also highly educated and intelligent and knew what would be necessary for football success and thus he allowed for a rather lenient admissions policy for some players. The result was a rapid ascension of the program but a 1957 season of violations resulted in a one year period of probation, from 1959 – 1960 with a bowl ban in ’59.


The Devaney Era at Wyoming got off to what insiders saw as a rocky start, following former head coach Phil Dickens who was Rocky Mountain Coach Of The Year in both 1955 and ’56. His four years at Laramie were quite successful, with the 10-0 record of ’56 leading to the job at Indiana University. Devaney’s 4-3-3 record, despite solid and exciting play behind a new Multiple Offense was interpreted as a step back. However, Devaney knew how he wanted to build his team, and did so. With only twenty-seven high schools within the state playing eleven man football, the staff knew that they would have to look for players far and wide and they did.


From 1957 through ’61 Devaney compiled a 35-10-5 mark with a victory in the 1958 Sun Bowl. In five seasons he won or shared the Skyline Conference Championship four times with two National Top Twenty finishes, a remarkable achievement for Wyoming. It was often said that even to the late 1960’s when Devaney would be on the road recruiting with his Nebraska assistants, the talk often referenced events at Wyoming and the wonderful time he and his family spent there. No one doubted that he liked the state, its people, the school setting despite its relative isolation, and those he worked with but his ultimate coaching success would have been limited. As was stated decades later by a member of the Wyoming athletic department, “The best he (Devaney) could have hoped for would have been to achieve what BYU eventually did. BYU has a terrific program and won a National Championship (in 1984) but they could not compete for that title or at that level consistently. They could dominate our area but Bob had the ability to compete annually.”


Devaney’s staff obviously agreed. When he accepted the Wyoming job and left Michigan State, he brought a number of coaching associates from the State of Michigan with him. Jim Ross had been a long time friend and he and Devaney shared coaching duties at Alpena High School with Ross the head basketball coach and Devaney the head football coach. Each served as the other’s assistant. Both had been quite successful with Devaney undefeated in his first two seasons of high school coaching. Mike Corgan also was a solid high school mentor. Devaney hired Carl Selmer from Worland, Wyoming and John Melton, a former Wyoming Cowboys fullback and high school coach at Thermopolis, Wyoming. The latter two knew the territory well and immediately reinforced the philosophy that Wyoming would be successful only if they went out of state to procure talent.

Jerry Hill, a Lingle (Wyoming) High School star, anchored the 1959 and ’60 Cowboys as an All Skyline Conference honoree before going to the Colts for a solid if underrated NFL career

One of the unusual approaches Devaney took relative to the college coaching procedure of the day, was to put a lot of time and effort into coaching his freshman squad. He insisted on having his experienced coaches teach the fundamentals of his system to the new players so that they could make a more significant contribution when they moved up to the varsity level. The 1958 record was 8-3 with a Sun Bowl victory over Hardin Simmons, and ’59 was 9-1 with what Devaney thought was his best Cowboys squad. The NCAA sanctions from his first year recruiting violations prevented their participation in a post-season bowl game but they were crowned as Skyline Conference Champions. Devaney's final two seasons at Wyoming resulted in 8-2 and 6-1-2 records. More importantly, Wyoming had become nationally known among the coaching fraternity and fans. In 1959, the Cowboys coupled  a number sixteen national ranking with a Top 10 rushing offense and defense, Top 10 scoring offense and defense against the score, and Top 10 total offense and defense.


Although Devaney usually referenced his ’59 squad as his “best,” the 1960 squad managed to rank Number One in the nation in defense against the rush and Number One in total defense. Their offense had nothing to be embarrassed about either with a rushing offense ranked at number five and total offense at number six. In short, the team was clearly playing at the upper echelon of the national football landscape on both offense and defense. There was now a reputation of rock-ribbed defense and ball control through the running game that had the attention of not only opponents, but coaches everywhere. Devaney’s final ’61 contingent continued the trend with a rushing offense ranked number six and rush defense at number eight nationally, with a number five total defense mark.


Most importantly, these squads played as a team. There were a few individual standouts but none of the names were “big time” or household standards, not even in the West. Claude “Wimp” Hewgley who went on to coach and scout in the NFL for more than thirty years was the big gun on the 1957 team. Fullback Mark Smolinski, who later enjoyed an understated but very solid eight year pro career with the Colts and Jets, future Washington State and Iowa State head coach Jim Walden, former Vikings and Rams defensive back Chuck Lamson, and Jerry Hill, the Colts excellent fullback from ’61 through 1970 were the “name” players, all very good but none associated with the national recognition that comes with true stardom. Devaney molded good players into great teams with an esprit de corps and hard work that was somehow lost to time relative to other coaches of his era. However, his success in the isolated outpost of Wyoming did not go unnoticed.


When a move to Nebraska was rumored, the staff knew that the situation relative to recruiting would be similar to that at Wyoming. However the Cornhuskers had a vociferous and much larger fan base and high school pool of players to choose from relative to Wyoming so they were all in when the possibility of moving to Nebraska was broached. When it became public knowledge that Nebraska had approached him, despite the fact that Devaney had four years and eight months remaining on a recently signed five year contract extension, the Wyoming Board Of Regents scrambled around to see if anything could be done to keep him and Desert News columnist Hack Miller vented that “The man is under contract, which is a self-made law under our American free enterprise system. He is not available to seek another coaching job. To do so is to imply that his contract with Wyoming is binding only on Wyoming's part.”


It seemed as if everyone liked Devaney so much that his decision to leave Wyoming was actually well understood and accepted by most, and on January 7, 1962 he was named the new Nebraska head football coach. It must be remembered that Nebraska may have been no better and perhaps at the time, a worse choice for national recognition than Wyoming. NU’s 1940 Rose Bowl appearance was a high point that had sunk to only three winning seasons since. Devaney’s former mentor Daugherty encouraged him to take the job in Lincoln, and Devaney recalled that “Duffy thought it was a better job than I did. He told me if I won here as I had been able to win at Wyoming, things could go big.” Of course, there were those who believed differently. Assistant Coach Melton noted that when he announced his decision to follow Devaney to Nebraska, and asked to have his bank accounts transferred, “The president of the bank in Laramie calls me in and says, ‘John, sit down a minute; I want to talk to you.’ He says, ‘You’re making a big mistake those farmers will kill you in Nebraska.’ ”


Part 2 To Follow: