1945: Potsy Clark and the Iowa game

Monday, December 16, 2013

(Note: The aftermath of the disappointing 2013 Iowa game brought to mind another NU Iowa game.)

During World War II there was compulsory military service for all men age 18-45. Toward the end of the war all the males in a class of graduating seniors were entering some type of military association. The exceptions to this rule was that 4-Fs (physically unfit) and conscientious objectors (religious convictions -- difficult to prove) and family men. That meant that during World War II (and a year or so beyond) the quality of a college football team reflected on the type of military programs that were offered by the college. The very best of the wartime teams were those which had some type of pre-military program, which allowed the student to play football and continue his education, before he actually entered the service. The two Service Academies, (there was not yet an Air Force Academy) had the best teams during that period, and the best of all was the United States Military Academy at West Point.

For the years 1944, '45, and '46, Army was absolutely dominant, winning the National Championship in 1944, 1945, 1946 while outscoring their opponents 1179-161. They were led by two of the all-time greats in college football, Doc Blanchard (Mr. Inside) and Glen Davis (Mr. Outside). Blanchard was a punishing runner between the tackles. Then, after he had softened up the middle, Glen Davis, Mr. Outside would work the end sweeps -- the two going back and forth, presenting an attack that was impossible to stop. Notre Dame came the closest, in 1946, with a 0-0 tie game, which has been called one of the "Games of the Century". Both Blanchard and Davis were recognized by each winning a Heisman Trophy.

Unfortunately, Nebraska was one of the schools which did not have the military associated courses, which allowed young men to stay in school and play football. Col. Biff Jones, the legendary coach of the 1940 Rose Bowl team stuck around one more year, but with the war looming on the horizon the nucleus of his fine teams began to go into the service, as did his assistant coaches, and after the 1941 season Jones, himself returned to active duty with the Army. Consequently, the Nebraska wartime teams were made up of 17 year-olds and 4Fs. Although the members of these teams were willing, and games were often competitive, football talent and experience were lacking. The result was that the Cornhusker football record during the war was dismal, the team going 11-24-0 for the years 1942, '43, '44, '45, under makeshift coaching staffs, led by Glen Presnell in 1942, A.J. Lewandowski (Mr. NU Athletic Department -- At one time during the war Mr. Lewandowski served as Athletic Director, Football Coach, Basketball Coach, and Baseball Coach, as well as Ticket Sales Manager and Head of the Maintenance Department for the University) in 1943, '44. For the 1945 season Lewandowski turned to one, George "Potsy" Clark, to help get the Cornhusker football program back to its winning ways, as Athletic Director and Head Football Coach.

In a number of ways Potsy Clark was one of the most interesting coaches in the program's history. He was a likeable fellow, funny, and a good storyteller, good enough that he was in great demand as a speaker at sports banquets across the country. But he was also a fierce competitor, a strict disciplinarian, an imaginative administrator, and a fine football strategist, with effective teaching skills to get his message across to his players.

Clark had been a standout quarterback at Carthage, Illinois, High School before World War I, leading his team to two state championships. At the U. of Illinois he continued to star, at quarterback for two of Coach Bob Zuppke's undefeated seasons, winning two Western Conference titles.

Potsy Clark was also a standout on the baseball team, but passed up a career in the Major Leagues to accept a teaching position at University of Illinois, which led to a coaching position at the University of Kansas -- interrupted by a stint in the Army during World War I. In the Army he organized a football team at Camp Funston (Kansas) and led that team to the Army-Navy Championship, with a 7-0 victory, before being sent into combat in France.

During the '20s and '30s Clark was certainly a Journeyman Coach. His college coaching stops included stints at the University of Kansas, Michigan State, University of Minnesota, and Butler, before coming to take the top job at Nebraska in 1945.

Most notably, and the thing that he is probably most remembered for today, is his tenure as head coach of the professional Detroit Lions team 1934-38 and again in 1940. His Detroit teams were competitive in the League, and won the League Championship in 1935. Clark is given credit for his part in establishing the NFL into truly Major League status.

At Nebraska, in 1945, Clark took over a team that had suffered mightily, managing but seven victories against 19 losses in the three previous years, drawing crowds of 15,000-17,000. Things did not look to be any better in 1945, before the service veterans began to return in the Spring of 1946. The beginning of the season started off on a dismal tone, with five straight losses.

Potsy Clark, always upbeat, was lavish with praise when someone did something good, and positive in his corrections. Still, he must have felt great discouragement with that team.

At mid-season things began to turn around for the Cornhuskers. The young and broken Huskers had won three straight games (Kansas, Kansas State, South Dakota) leading into the Iowa game on Nov. 24. Iowa did not have a great team, but they bested NU each of the last three years -- plus they had beaten the mighty Minnesota Gophers that season, after Minnesota had embarrassed the Cornhuskers 61-7 in October -- the largest point spread Nebraska had ever given up.. All this pointed to another long afternoon for the Huskers.

Nebraska had shown a steady improvement in skills by the time of the Iowa game. and there had been an emergence of stars -- notably John Sedlacek and Willard Bunker on defense; and most of all, running back, Cletus Fischer.

The Fischer family has become almost a legend at the University of Nebraska. Cletus was the oldest of the Fischer Brothers of St. Edward, Nebraska. Cletus led his 6-man high school team to state championships, as did his brothers, Pat, Ken, and Rex and like Cletus, they made great contributions to the Cornhusker football team. Later Cletus' three sons also played for the Cornhuskers. Cletus, of course is best remembered for his outstanding coaching career, in high schools in Nebraska and Texas, and most of all for his 27-year career as an Assistant under Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne. Cletus is credited with developing the offensive lines for the National Championship teams in 1970-'71.

By the time of the Iowa game Cletus Fischer had adapted his 6-man skills to the 11-man game, and Potsy Clark had directed his natural ability so that he had become a powerful runner, with enough speed that he was a constant breakaway threat as well.

The game did not start off favorably for the Huskers. Iowa ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown -- IA 6-NU 0. However, Nebraska answered with a sustained drive for a touchdown. For the rest of the first half the two teams went back and forth, neither able to score.

The second half was more of the same, into the fourth quarter, when Nebraska conducted a long drive, which stalled on the Iowa 30. A field goal was attempted, but sailed wide right. However, Iowa was called for an offside penalty, giving the Huskers a first down, thus sustaining their drive, which they were able to punch in for a touchdown. Iowa was not able to answer and the game ended NU 13-Iowa 6. Their three year winning streak against NU was over, and NU's record against the Hawkeyes improved to 21-10-3.

The improvement in the team was deemed favorable, yet Potsy Clark chose to give up his Head Coach's duties, for 1946 and '47, but returned in 1948. He left Nebraska in 1949. In 1956 he retired from coaching altogether, to begin a successful career as a stock broker.

Potsy Clark had a favorite quote, which pretty much describes his life:

You strive until the goal is gained

Then look for one still unattained,

Your record points the course you take,

To greater records you can make.

For hope springs not from what you have done,

But from the work you've just begun.

Source: NU Football; Potsy Clark, a Success Story by Bob Carroll

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