Fifty years ago this week, a new football coach for the University of Nebraska stepped off a Union Pacific sleeper car at 6:30 on a subzero morning in Omaha and soon warmed sportswriters with his high spirits — Bob Devaney.
"The first meeting with Devaney created the pleasant impression that he is a down-to-earth gent who would have no trouble making friends in Nebraska," wrote Wally Provost, World-Herald sports editor. "There also was every indication that he knows exactly what he needs to build winning football — and how to get it."
He surely did. Devaney ushered in the modern era of Big Red football as well as Memorial Stadium sellouts, a national-record string that continues to this day.
Wow, a half-century: It was a great 40 years.
OK, it's still great. But the past decade, as we all know, hasn't lived up to the heights of the previous four. How could it?
Devaney turned around a program, made it one of the best in the country, won a national championship and lost only 20 games in 11 seasons.
His successor, Tom Osborne, won three national titles and lost only 49 games in 25 seasons. Frank Solich took over and lost just nine over his first four years.
But then Solich's teams lost a total of 10 his last two years. Bill Callahan lost 22 in four years. Bo Pelini's teams have lost 16 in four years. That's a combined 48 losses in 10 years — one less than the 49 that Osborne lost in 25 years.
The good news is that Nebraskans' love for their team hasn't flagged. As sports columnist Tom Shatel wrote on Sunday, the sky isn't falling and the interest of Husker fans is "a never-ending flame."
The past Husker season reminds me of the 1990 season, my last in a decade as sports editor and sports columnist.
NU lost three of its last four games back then, the losses by an average of 25 points. In the 2011 season, Nebraska lost three of its last five, an average loss-margin of 16.
The '90 team and the '11 team each lost by a wide margin in Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, and both Husker teams finished 24th in the Associated Press poll. (That was Osborne's lowest poll finish ever.)
In each case, fans were restless. We know what happened in the '90s — three national championships. What will happen in the decade ahead?
It seems like it's always football season in Nebraska. The university's Huskers.com site counts down the months, days, hours and seconds to kickoff of the April 14 spring intrasquad game.
Tonight is a big date on the football calendar — the annual Outland Trophy banquet at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Omaha. Barrett Jones of national champion Alabama will be honored as the nation's best lineman.
Nebraska had great teams in the early part of the 20th century until a drought during and after World War II — which ended when Devaney arrived.
He had secretly visited the campus in Lincoln, introduced only as "Mr. Roberts." At the home of NU Chancellor Clifford Hardin — a story Devaney later enjoyed telling — "I spilled soup all over myself."
At first no one spilled the beans about his visit to campus. When it leaked out, the University of Wyoming was unhappy because he had signed a five-year contract extension there.
The World-Herald reported on Jan. 6, 1962, that Devaney was Nebraska's choice for head coach, though Wyoming didn't officially release him until Feb. 3, 1962.
But Bob arrived for good when he stepped off that U.P. train on Jan. 9, and began wooing Nebraskans with hard work, humility and humor.
To high school football coaches at the Ranch Bowl in Omaha: "I will say very humbly and very honestly that we need your help."
To members of the Omaha Business Men's Association, which gave him a standing ovation when he was introduced at the old Castle Hotel downtown, he quipped: "I know why you stand up that way. You can take better aim. ... I know you are entirely behind the football program — win or draw."
A news article said Devaney kept attendees "laughing almost constantly at his anecdotes," but showed "grim purpose" in reminding them that football is a rough game.
Every coach is different. Devaney was impish and outgoing, while Osborne's humor was droll. But both connected with people.
We were spoiled for decades by the Bobfather and T.O., averaging only two losses per season. Now we've had a decade averaging nearly five losses per season — and Nebraskans have proved they aren't mere fair-weather fans.
It's a rough game, and it's become big business. Winning isn't easy, and never has been.
Who knew, 50 years ago this week, that Bob Devaney would build an amazing legacy after stepping off that train? Fans today, no doubt, will help keep things on track.
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