... then along came Bob

Monday, April 27, 2015
Bob Devaney, 1966 Cornhusker.

Today, when it seems we have days to honor all sorts of individuals, and events in our nation's history, it seems appropriate that here in Nebraska we should take a moment to remember a fellow who was born in this month, just 100 years ago. Although he did not invent the game of football, or even introduce it to the University of Nebraska, a case can be made for him as the man who ushered in this second great era of Cornhusker football.

Bob Devaney was born in Saginaw, Michigan on April 13, 1915. Always interested in sports, he enrolled at Alma (MI) College, where he pursued a Bachelor of Science Degree in Social Studies, and played end on the Alma football team. After graduation he coached football, successfully, at a number of high schools in Michigan for 14 years before taking an assistant coaching position at Michigan State under Biggie Munn and then Duffy Daugherty.

In 1957, at age 42, Devaney received his first college head coaching position -- at Wyoming. In five seasons as the Cowboy head coach his teams achieved a fine record of 35-10-5 and a trip to the Sun Bowl. He was happy at Wyoming and it was only with a bit of persuasion by his old coach, Duffy Daugherty (who himself turned down the position) that he accepted -- for the princely salary of $17,000 per year. He was hardly first choice for the Huskers. Four others had turned AD Tippy Dye down -- NU football was said to be a dead program.

(There was probably good reason to think of the Huskers as a dead- end program. After the first fifty successful years of Cornhusker football, which included epic battles with Knute Rockne's Notre Dame teams, victories over Red Grange's Illinois teams, dominance over the Missouri Valley and Big Six conferences, culminating with the 1941 Rose Bowl, Nebraska had fallen onto hard times. In the two decades leading up to Devaney's arrival in 1962, NU had but two winning seasons, playing before sparse crowds.

In Coach Jennings's last year, 1961, the team went 3-6-1. In leaving, a discouraged Bill Jennings had a word for the Nebraska fans. He said they should get over trying to be a national power. With our small population base and limited budget, we should forget about national rankings and be satisfied to compete in the Big 8. The eastern press agreed with him. Then along came Bob!

Once Devaney landed in Nebraska, he threw himself into the job completely. He and Assistant Coach, Cletus Fischer, a hold-over from the Jennings' staff, made barnstorming tours of the state, not seen since the days of Dana X. Bible. The athletic budget was so small for a venture of this type that the two had to make the trips in an outdated auto, with no heater and no radio. There was only money for one motel room, so the two coaches shared a room (and, said Devaney later, "Cletus snored.")

Coach Devaney was certainly an unknown commodity when he was hired to take over the reins of the broken UN football program. There was even a question of how to pronounce his name. Should it be De vanny, or De vainy? That problem was quickly dispelled when someone came up with the slogan, "Get up off your fanny and help Bob Devaney!"

McCook was a stop on one of those early "get acquainted" tours. An overflow dinner was held in Devaney's honor at the Elks Club, 'and included area coaches and potential Huskers, like McCook's Jeff Kinney, who would play a key role on Championship teams in 1970 and '71.

Coaches are known as good story tellers, and Devaney proved to be among the best, as he had the room roaring with laughter with Devaney quips, while he laid out his plans for his team.

Devaney could judge good talent and was a great recruiter. Tony Jeter, NU's first Black All American, told of Devaney's visit to his home in West Virginia. Tony was considering schools, mostly in the East. After lunch they were sitting around the kitchen table talking football. Soon Tony's Mom went into the living room and began playing hymns on the piano. After a bit Devaney excused himself and went into the living room. He motioned for Mrs. Jeter to keep playing and began to sing the hymns as she played. After that Mrs. Jeter would not hear of Tony's going any place but Nebraska -- to play for that nice man, Mr. Devaney.

Devaney soon proved that he could coach as well. His first team, in '62 went 9-2, with a victory in the Gotham Bowl, over the Miami Hurricanes, led by future NFL great, George Mira. In Huskerland Devaney was looked upon as a miracle worker. That status continued through the 1966 season. Devaney said that people referred to him as "Sweet Old Bob." But following two 6-4 seasons in '67 and '68, he said that people just referred to him by his initials, "S.O.B."

In 1969 Devaney hired a Grad. Assistant, Tom Osborne. Osborne convinced Devaney that the team needed an upgrade, a change to the I-Formation. The result was that the Huskers bounced back to a 9-2 record in '69, which set the stage for two Super years in '70 and '71.

In 1970, after a 10-10 tie with No. 9 Southern California, the Huskers breezed through their remaining regular season schedule, ranked No. 3, behind No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Ohio State, arriving in Miami to play No. 7 LSU in the Orange Bowl. When Texas was upset by Notre Dame and OSU lost to Stanford, Nebraska was declared No. 1 on the strength of its 17-10 win over LSU.

Perhaps the highlight of the 1971 season was No. l Nebraska's 35-31 win over No. 2 Oklahoma at Oklahoma, still referred to as "The Game of the Century", in which a strong Husker defense contained the mighty Sooner Wishbone offense -- just enough. One of the Husker heroes of that game was McCook's Jeff Kinney, who scored four touchdowns to seal NU's victory.

In 1971 the AP MacArthur, National Champ trophy was awarded to the No. 1 team at the end of the regular season. That year the committee changed the policy, till after the Bowl games, giving No. 2 Alabama (& their legendary coach, Bear Bryant) a chance to win it all. Devaney had developed the reputation as something of a good time guy, playboy, usually "Genial Bob." This time he was furious, and perhaps the entire Husker team took out its rage on Alabama in the Orange Bowl. Result NU 38-Ala-7.

After the game, Bowl officials ordered Devaney to report to the field for the trophy presentation. Devaney, who was sopping wet from his team treating him to an early shower, was in his undershorts. Devaney's response, "You sure took your time. Are you sure you don't want us to play the Green Bay Packers first?" With that, Devaney turned away and headed back to the showers, leaving the NU Chancellor to receive the MacArthur Trophy for the team at midfield.

Devaney coached one more year, the 1972 season, before turning over head coach duties to Tom Osborne. He missed a 3rd straight championship, but had the pleasure of seeing Johnny Rodgers receive the first NU Heisman Trophy. He left an enviable record of his 11 years as NU Coach -- 101-20-2, nine Bowl appearances and eight Big 8 Conference titles -- and the heartfelt thanks of a grateful Husker Nation.

Devaney's "retirement" consisted of accepting the job in the front office, as NU Athletic Director, a post he held until 1996. In this position he was again eminently successful, bringing both Women's and Men's programs to National prominence in most sports. He engineered the first of the many expansions of Memorial Stadium, and brought about the building of (at its time), "state of the art" State Fair Park Sports Center that now bears his name.

Though Devaney passed away in 1997, at the age of 82, his influence on the University is very apparent today, with the Nation leading streak of sold out Husker games, a record number of Academic All Americans, super high expectations for incoming coaches, and a reputation for playing the games with great enthusiasm, but following NCAA guidelines.

OK, so now, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, let's all raise our glasses for a toast to one of the all-time greats, the genial Irishman, Nebraska's own, Husker Bob Devaney!

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