LINCOLN — Forty years ago, Nebraskans couldn't do much better for a battle of big names than this:
National championship football coach Bob Devaney vs. popular Gov. J.J. Exon, with firebrand state senators Terry Carpenter and Ernie Chambers offering commentary.
That was the setup in the spring of 1971 as the Legislature tried to pass a 5-cent increase in the cigarette tax to help pay for a new multi-sport complex on the state fairgrounds.
One side threatened Devaney might leave NU if the measure failed.
The other side threatened legal challenges to what it saw as questionable ways the tax increase was earmarked.
Sen. Richard Proud, an opponent, introduced a resolution to call the new building “Carvaney Fieldhouse.'' That was a mocking reference to Devaney and Carpenter, who sponsored the amendment to add the sports complex to the list of buildings the new tax money would go to.
Chambers then suggested that Proud and Carpenter stage a duel at Memorial Stadium with admission charged and footballs as weapons.
Such was the hubbub over the university's attempt to build a new arena to replace the NU Coliseum, then in its 45th year. It makes the approval and construction of Pinnacle Bank Arena, which this fall will replace the 37-year-old Devaney Center, downright boring.
NU had tried for years to find funding for a new arena. Then came the cigarette-tax increase plan in 1971.
The proposal passed the Legislature, but Exon vetoed it, saying the tax increase should go into the general fund to be doled out instead of being earmarked for specific projects.
Devaney said he was “disgusted'' by the veto. Carpenter, who said he wouldn't be surprised if Devaney left the state, equated Exon's opposition to “a lack of respect, good manners and breeding.''
Lawmakers voted 31-14 the next day to override Exon's veto for the $12 million project, which eventually came in at $13.8 million.
But the fight wasn't over.
In February 1972, Devaney went back to the Legislature to support three bills that would get the arena project off the drawing board.
Lincoln attorney Larry Sandberg, who testified against the measures because he didn't like smokers being singled out for taxation, admitted his odds against Devaney — now with back-to-back national titles — weren't good.
“I feel like I'm opposing God and some of his disciples,'' Sandberg said.
Devaney said he had traveled the country and seen “many universities smaller and less deserving than ours'' with new arenas.
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During debate on the bills, Carpenter said Devaney “owes it to the state'' to keep coaching at Nebraska until the new arena is built “and his name is put on the front of it.'' Chambers criticized fellow legislators for their “love affair with Bob Devaney,'' who retired after the 1972 season.
The bills eventually passed, the state Supreme Court in April 1972 upheld the constitutionality of the cigarette tax and Exon offered a resolution to eventually name the new arena for Devaney, who he said should be considered “coach of the universe.''
Still, one last bit of drama remained.
At a meeting in 1973, Carpenter surprised Nebraska officials by saying the arena should have 18,000 seats instead of the 15,000 Devaney favored.
“This is the only meeting I've ever attended,'' Carpenter said, “where people oppose spending money to get the ultimate.''
Devaney, worried that any change to the plan would reopen debate on the construction, replied: “I'd like to get this going in my lifetime so I can cast my eyes on it.''
What was known initially as the “Nebraska Sports Complex'' opened in March 1976. The Husker basketball team held one practice there before the official inaugural event — the March 11-13 boys state high school basketball tournament.
As for the smokers who financed the project?
One of the first public address announcements at the state tourney was that smoking was forbidden inside the arena, but that it was allowed in the hallways and concourses. All smoking eventually was banned when clean air laws were passed.
As for the building's name, the NU Board of Regents in November 1978 — after a ruling from the attorney general on who had the power to label a structure — approved “Bob Devaney Sports Center.''
World-Herald librarian Jeanne Hauser contributed to this report.
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