By Dr. Ken 


While the consecutive 6-4 records of 1967 and 1968 would have been a significant if not tremendous improvement over Nebraska’s typical football fortunes of the years prior to Bob Devaney’s ’62 arrival at Lincoln, his success in the five year period preceding this two-year run of relative mediocrity brought criticism. It also served as a reminder of the words spoken to John Melton, the trusted assistant coach who had followed Devaney from Wyoming to Nebraska. As noted in Part One, [ see HELMET HUT ] Melton was told by his Wyoming banker that “You’re making a big mistake those farmers will kill you in Nebraska.” In retrospect, the temporary dip in Devaney’s incredible success attracted what would have to be considered unwarranted criticism but to the head coach, this was part of a long range strategy.

Despite the 6-4 record, Nebraska had talent in 1967, including All American defensive lineman Wayne Meylan

Alabama had taken the Huskers to task in two consecutive bowl games and Devaney realized that he needed faster athletes, and hand-in-hand with that supposition was a second realization that his full house backfield needed diversification in order to take advantage of whatever speed he could inject into a new offensive formation. First however, Nebraska had to find and round up the necessary manpower. Assistant coach Jim Ross was brutally honest in talking about the two lean years that the Huskers suffered when he stated, “We just quit recruiting for a while” and Melton added the exclamation point to the situation with “The players weren’t playing very well and we weren’t doing a good job coaching.”

While team speed was an emphasis, the defense had been stout in the two down seasons. Offensive production had fallen off however, with the Huskers averaging 404 total yards per game in 1965 and 279 in ’68. Points scored per game also took a header, dropping from thirty-five per contest in 1965 to less than thirteen in ’67. Hastings College standout Tom Osborne had joined Devaney’s staff after a year with the Redskins and another with the Forty Niners, an unheralded and little-used receiver who saw his future in coaching rather than in continuing his playing career. Completing graduate work at Nebraska, Osborne served as an unpaid offensive assistant, compensated with meals at the training table and a passel of tee shirts and shorts. His role increased as a full staff member and he was named as offensive coordinator in 1969, more or less putting the finishing touch on Devaney’s image for his new approach. Osborne installed an I-Formation with a wide-spread wingback, and often moved the receivers in a manner that foreshadowed the later development of the modern Spread Offenses. The 1968 recruiting class was highlighted by quarterbacks Jerry Tagge and Van Brownson, both who were mobile and with potent arms. Halfbacks Jeff Kinney and Joe Orduna featured a “Thunder And Lightning” scenario but both had breakaway speed. In general, the smaller and lighter recruits, a departure for the Huskers, provided what the coaches sought. The defense too emphasized quicker athletes among the ’68 recruits, led by Rich Glover, Willie Harper, Bob Terrio, and Larry Jacobson.

Devaney’s latter teams won two consecutive National Championships in 1970 and ’71. All American and Outland Trophy winner Larry Jacobson was one of three Huskers drafted in the first round of the 1972 NFL draft

Many fans did not see much difference or improvement from the 1967 and ’68 seasons as ’69 began sluggishly with a 31-21 loss to USC in the opener and a conference loss to Missouri after defeating mediocre Texas A&M and Minnesota squads. Devaney knew that both USC and Missouri were loaded and both were bowl teams at the end of the season. He knew too that his brand new offense needed a break-in period with innovative inside reverses, isolation blocking, and the infusion of his young speedsters. Quarterbacks Tagge and Brownson delivered as hoped for, proving to be apt rushers with mobility and able to pass when needed. While the fans were murmuring, the players and staff were confident that they had an excellent formula for success. Winning seven in a row proved that their optimism was warranted and the Kansas victory in the season’s fifth game kick-started a streak of thirty-two consecutive games without a loss. There was almost a 100 yard per game increase in total offensive production and a reversal of what had been a negative turnover margin.


The Huskers 9-2 record was completed with a huge win over Oklahoma and a 45-6 beat-down of Georgia in the Sun Bowl, leaving them ranked at number eleven in the final polls. Devaney saw the potential for more and wanted it going into ’70.USC was again a nemesis as the 21-21 tie versus the Trojans in the season’s second game was the only blemish on a huge 11-0-1 National Championship season. The offense was in place entering the first skirmish but there were questions about a defense that had lost eight starters. The doubters were quieted as both sides of the squad were superb and they were barely challenged until the Oklahoma game which was won 28-21 in Lincoln. That victory left the Cornhuskers ranked at number three going into the Orange Bowl against SEC Champion and fifth ranked LSU. The game, played in the evening during prime time, was perhaps the best of the bowl season, with quarterback Tagge completing a late sixty-seven yard drive with his sneak into the end zone. The 17-12 victory moved the Associated Press to vote Nebraska as Number One and moved Devaney to state, “Even the Pope wouldn’t vote for Notre Dame as Number One.”


As a “Legend In The Making” Coach Devaney still downplayed his role and remained the salt of the earth individual that had first arrived at Nebraska. He obviously had found a winning formula, one that allowed him to surpass the rather significant accomplishments of his first few years in Lincoln and it was a testament to his willingness to bring fundamental changes to his football philosophy. There was no change in the way he handled and treated his players and they continued to play hard for him and each other. By the time the 1971 season concluded, the entire football world was looking at Nebraska as a new standard. In a season that saw the Cornhuskers play an “extra” game sanctioned by the NCAA in Hawaii and finish at 12-0, Big Eight Conference foes Oklahoma and Colorado also made national headlines. OU had but one loss in completing an 11-1 year and a 40-22 victory over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. That loss was of course, to Nebraska. Colorado stunned everyone with their 10-2 finish, Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl win over Houston, and losses only to conference rivals Oklahoma and Nebraska. The Huskers got yet another shot at Alabama and when the smoke cleared with Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide on the wrong side of a 38-6 defeat, the legendary Bear was moved to say, “The 1971 Nebraska team is the best college team I have seen.” With Nebraska’s final ranking as the best in the nation, followed by number two Oklahoma, and number three Colorado, the accomplishments of both the Big Eight and Nebraska in being the best in the Big Eight, could not have emphasized more strongly, just how good the Husker team was.


The Thanksgiving Day Oklahoma game more than any other caught the fancy of the nation as The Game Of The Century featured OU’s best-in-the-country offense faced off against Monty Kiffin’s best-in-the-country defense. Television ratings were shattered and no doubt many platefuls of turkey and stuffing were left to get cold as the game was every bit as good as its billing. Marred by but one penalty call, both teams pounded each other with OU’s Jack Mildren and Greg Pruitt, matching NU’s Johnny Rodgers’ seventy-two yard punt return touchdown and the inside plunges of Jeff Kinney. A fourth quarter drive led by Tagge was the difference in Nebraska’s 35-31 victory in a game that has been highlighted by books and documentaries about its various aspects. To this day, the ’71 Nebraska team is rated by many college football experts as “possibly,” “probably,” “definitely,” “arguably,” and “without a doubt” the best of all time. Devaney to his credit, never bought in to “the greatest of all time” hype but admitted that he believed that he had a “great team.” There were individual stars that included Rodgers, Kinney, Tagge, Glover, Jacobsen, Joe Blahak, and Bob Terrio with Tagge, Kinney, and Jacobsen all first round NFL draft choices.


1972 had not started when Coach Devaney announced his intention to step down after the season and pass the reins to offensive coordinator Osborne. Some believe that making that announcement hurt the team and that the 9-2-1 Big Eight Championship team, even with its rather easy 40-6 win over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, could have better competed for another National Championship. Players later noted that the chain of command was a bit murky in that final Devaney season, but assistant coach Jim Walden, later the head man at Iowa State, recalled that “Our biggest challenge was not being over confident.” He noted that the opening game loss to UCLA and a surprising 23-all tie versus Iowa State very much resulted from being “not ready and (we) did not play with the intensity that we were known for.” Still, Bob Devaney stepped into the Athletic Director’s position as a full time endeavor following the Orange Bowl win, leaving large shoes for Osborne to fill and a finale that saw the team ranked at number nine, and Johnny Rodgers awarded the Heisman Trophy. That in the course of his lengthy career Tom Osborne did in fact fulfill the mission to meet or surpass Devaney’s legacy speaks well of the program these men ran. Devaney had approved the installation of college football’s first truly organized strength training program under the direction of the first full time strength coach in fields event competitor Boyd Epley and the program became a national institution. Devaney left college coaching with a tremendous 130-36-7 mark with National Championships in both 1970 and ’71. He remained as NU’s Athletic Director until 1993 and earned entry to the College Football Hall Of Fame.


If one man can be accorded the honor of having shaped the culture of a football program, altered the role the team played within the psyche  of the entire state, and changed the national perception of the university, it is Bob Devaney, a man and a coach who perhaps is deserving of more recognition than he receives.