By Dr. Ken 


The first thing Devaney discovered upon his arrival in Lincoln, was a Nebraska program in a state of disorganized chaos, but one that had talent. Assistant coach George Kelly who was at Nebraska in 1961 and remained there with Devaney from ’62 through 1969 until leaving for the Notre Dame staff, said that Devaney “was amazed at how much talent there was and he knew exactly what to do to organize it. He always seemed to be playing people in the right positions.” Unlike some of the successful coaches of his era, he also got a lot of work from his players because they enjoyed playing for him. Kelly stated that “…the key things were his recruiting and the way he gets along with people. Everybody likes him. The kids liked him. He would just go into these small towns in Nebraska and sit in the bars and entertain people.” As a testament to his players’ feelings towards him, at a luncheon prior to the 1969 Sun Bowl, he was given a three minute standing ovation by his own players! During the tumultuous times of the ‘60’s, with many football programs wrestling with the demands and assimilation of African American players, Nebraska residents found that their head coach was indeed blind to the color of his players with a well-earned reputation for fairness. He actively recruited African Americans from New Jersey, from the south, and from California. When these same players formed a Black Caucus in the late ‘60’s to request that the staff acquiesce to a list of suggestions, they found that there really was nothing to ask for, Devaney already treated his players fairly and without prejudice. One former player summed it up by stating, “You would absolutely die for Coach Devaney.”

By 1965 Devaney had solidified Nebraska as a program to be reckoned with and donned them in distinctive uniforms with immediately recognizable stylized numerals

As it was at Wyoming, Devaney and his staff out-recruited the other programs in the area. Realizing that many of the state’s players had potential but needed time to adapt from the eight-man football game played in many parts of the state due to the small and scattered population, he instituted an extensive redshirt program. Success was immediate with his 1962 squad going 9-2, and though it can be agreed upon that Oklahoma, which had dominated the Big Eight Conference since the mid-1940’s had taken a step back, Nebraska was legitimately in the mix for national recognition. He brought the Huskers to four consecutive Big Eight titles, five consecutive bowl games, and at least a top six national ranking from ’63 through ’66.

Devaney’s first team set the tone, as did Devaney himself. Perhaps it was an ill-advised statement relative to the probation that his Wyoming program was smacked with for illegal recruiting benefits in 1957, but the new head coach immediately stated, albeit in a humorous manner, “We don’t want to win enough to get on probation, just enough to be investigated.” Despite seven losing seasons, the Huskers had talent although the disappointing three-win 1961 season could be summarized with the statement, “Big team, but a really slow team.” Devaney’s philosophy was to keep them large but produce a bit faster bunch of tough guys. Fullback Bill “Thunder” Thornton had been All Conference in ’61, with halfback Rudy Johnson and quarterback Dennis Claridge showing signs of life. Huge for the day at 6’4” and 251 pounds, two-way tackle Robert Brown, who would later develop into the Hall of Famer known to the football public as the 280 pound “Boomer” Brown was quick enough to drop into pass coverage from a linebacker’s position or from the defensive line. The Cornhuskers 9-2 record was augmented by a 36-34 victory over Miami in the Gotham Bowl but was merely a prelude to Devaney’s presentation of “his kind of team” that took the field in 1963.

For better or worse, he had immediately set a very high standard. The ’62 team averaged thirty-two points per game, an increase from the eleven per game the previous season. The Huskers nine wins were well beyond the expectations of the most enthusiastic and optimistic followers and the initial call for the entire state to wear red, fill the stadium, and donate as little as one dollar per year to the program, created a groundswell of support and a bit of fan frenzy. Almost immediately erasing fan apathy with a bowl victory and national ranking, Devaney was the picture of the evangelical carrier of good news about his program as he criss-crossed the state forming booster club chapters and making all Nebraska residents feel as if they were part of the process. He received pledges from the newly established Husker Beef Club, a group of cattlemen, for donations of 200 butchered steers to provide prime meat for the squad. He encouraged red hats, red shirts, red pants, and red cowboy boots as haute couture for game day wear. In one season he managed to convince enough fans to travel to away games so that over time the sea of red in opponents’ stadiums altered the atmosphere of those contests. Kansas coach Pepper Rodgers told Devaney that the size of the crowds that followed them out of town to see their Huskers play, made him feel that the games at Kansas were much more like Nebraska home games.

The multiple offense, with Rudy Johnson a national top ten finisher in yards per carry, had the country’s best rushing offense, the fifth best scoring offense, and a total offensive count that left them ranked at number eight at the end of the season. The Orange Bowl victory over Auburn produced a 10-1 finish with a mid-season 17-13 loss to Air Force as the only blemish. Whoever viewed their Big Eight title and Number Six end-of-season ranking, scratched their heads and asked, “Where did they come from?” wasn’t alone but the Nebraska program had entered a new dimension.

Robert Sanford “Boomer” Brown, number 64, out of Cleveland’s East Technical High School, alma mater of track and field greats Jesse Owens and Harrison Dillard, was one of the typically large Husker linemen, but extremely quick. He earned induction to both the College and Pro Football Halls Of Fame

Ascension to the top of the Big Eight Conference was one matter, but Devaney and his staff traveled the nation seeking out players who would fit into the conservative social environment of Lincoln, Nebraska. Devaney’s folksy, down-home manner continued to win over players and parents even as the college cultural scene became radicalized. Nebraska games became the place to go for excellent football and an enjoyable Saturday afternoon. During the Devaney era, Memorial Stadium was expanded four times, enhancing seating from 30,000 to 76,000 and individuals began to bequeath their season tickets in their last will and testaments. Devaney was not the revered “X’s and O’s coach” that some were, or a legendary motivator in the mold of a Bear Bryant. He was a coach that players would go all out for and he had a knack for knowing what position would best suit a specific player’s skills. Through it all, he remained modest and by all accounts, witty and fun to be with. Typical was the story that made some of the religious followers of Husker football at first take a step back, with the conversation stated, “Is it true that you’ve sung ‘Bringing In The Sheaves’ to a player’s mother in order to get her son to come to Nebraska?” Devaney replied, “Yes, I did that. The mother came to Nebraska and the boy enrolled at Missouri.”


Devaney was one of the first of the big name, mid to late-Sixties coaches who did not have rules regarding length of hair, facial hair, or style of dress as long as his players obeyed the university code of conduct and dedicated themselves to the team effort. His assistant coaches were always viewed as being “accessible” and Devaney himself had an open door policy that the players took advantage of. He knew that it was important for his players to feel as if they were a part of the campus community and allowed them to behave like other college students. One player stated that “The big thing was the closeness. The players got along. No race problems, no nothing.”  Devaney went out of his way to provide second-chances to players who deserved it and pushed them to both remain in school and earn their degrees.


The “First Act” of Devaney’s Nebraska dynasty lasted from 1962 through the ’66 season, with 9-2, 10-1, 9-2, 10-1, and 9-2 records. As Big Eight Champions Nebraska became major bowl game participants and although they lost the Cotton Bowl to Arkansas following the ’64 season and two consecutive bowl games to Alabama, one in the Orange Bowl and the 1966 season ending game in the Sugar Bowl, they were now a national player. Devaney had taken his initial “big but slow” squad and recruited it into a faster team  but the bowl losses to the extremely quick Bama squads and to Arkansas indicated what the future would bring. Consecutive 6-4 seasons in 1967 and ’68 came from lackluster recruiting and the process of reshaping the aggressive, tough, and swarming type of group that Devaney envisioned. The ship would be righted for the final act of Devaney’s coaching career, one that placed him at the pinnacle of his profession.


Part 3 To Follow: