Mad Chatter: Finding Devaney — The two-month coaching search that changed Husker football forever

Bob Devaney won 101 games and two national titles in 11 seasons as the Nebraska football coach.

The hole is dark, but Nebraska has faced darker. 

From 1941 to ’61, the Huskers lost 125 games — second-most in the country. Since ’62, no program has won more. What changed? Bob Devaney arrived and gave life to the modern era of Husker football.

This story, written by Dirk Chatelain and originally published in 2012, is how it started.

On a cold, gray afternoon the last week of 1961, Carl Donaldson was dispatched to the Lincoln airport. The veteran administrator at the university had two tasks:

» Collect Tippy Dye’s luggage. The new Nebraska athletic director had flown in from Wichita that morning.

» Pick up a salesman arriving on the 3:30 plane from Denver.

Donaldson didn’t know “Mr. R. Roberts.” Nor did he know that the man — traveling under a fake name — was a candidate for the open football coaching position.

It had been a long 20 years for the Huskers. Appropriately, this coaching search had dragged on four weeks. Dye’s first choice flirted with Nebraska, only to say no. New candidates were popping up in the paper every week.

Donaldson wasn’t told he was part of the process. Holding a photo, he waited for the DC-6 to unload. The last man off carried a topcoat. He was mid-40s, round and balding. Years later, Sports Illustrated would compare him to a “dumpy baker.” 

It was Roberts all right. Donaldson shook his hand and directed him to the car.

They drove back to campus. By instruction, Donaldson stopped to show his guest Memorial Stadium, capacity 31,000. Then to the men’s dorm at Selleck Quadrangle, where Mr. Roberts visited dorm rooms and the cafeteria. Finally, Donaldson escorted him to a dark room. Waiting inside were reels of Nebraska football films.

Donaldson — like the rest of Nebraska — would soon learn Mr. Roberts’ real identity. It would take years, however, to fully grasp Bob Devaney’s impact.

He restored vision and confidence to a fallen program. He established a culture that outlived him. Devaney’s greatest legacy: He made Nebraska a national name while binding its people together. He enlarged the tent while pulling those inside closer.

He made Husker football bigger and smaller.

In other words, it’s a good thing Hank Foldberg turned down the job.

* * *

“There is an intense desire to do something good in this state, like elect a president or gain prominence in politics. But we can’t feed the ego of the state of Nebraska with the football team.” — Bill Jennings

In the 1920s, Nebraska football shut down Red Grange and twice beat Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen.

In 1941, the Huskers played in the Rose Bowl. In 1959, they ended Oklahoma’s 74-game conference unbeaten streak.

NU’s roll call of legends — Guy Chamberlin and Ed Weir, Tom Novak and Bobby Reynolds — stacked up against any school’s. 

But since the Rose Bowl season, the program had become a mess, losing more games than any other team in the country — aside from Kansas State. Eight Husker coaches had come and gone.

There was George Clark, whose stomach was so big they called him “Potsy.” He coached one year, then left NU to teach at a business college in Michigan.

Bernie Masterson, former Chicago Bears quarterback, tried to install a 300-play offensive script. He went 5-13.

Potsy came back from Michigan for one more season, went 2-8 and earned a promotion to athletic director.

Next up: Bill Glassford.

After five years, 35 players signed a petition to get him fired. Glassford had forced them to play hurt, ridiculed them and held four practices a day during fall camp, the first at 5 a.m., the last under moonlight. Glassford survived two more seasons, then — after fans harassed his wife and kids — he was fired and started selling insurance.

Said Texas A&M coach Bear Bryant in 1955, after a 27-0 win over the Huskers in Lincoln: “I don’t know how to say this; some people aren’t going to like it. These Huskers are good kids and they hit hard, but they aren’t very talented.”

Next up: Pete Elliott. At 29, he was a golden boy, a brilliant young coaching mind who had quarterbacked Michigan to the 1948 national championship. After a 54-6 loss at Oklahoma to close his first season, Elliott bolted for California.

Finally, Bill Jennings

Elliott’s top assistant was bold and charismatic — until he became head coach. Then he turned conservative and self-conscious.

Jennings compiled impressive talent — Mick Tingelhoff, Pat Fischer, Ron McDole, Bob Brown, among others — but he couldn’t figure out how to use it consistently.

In 1958, he was hanged in effigy on campus after a 31-0 homecoming defeat to Missouri. Two weeks later, NU beat national powerhouse Pittsburgh.

Jennings could beat Texas, but not Oklahoma State. Oklahoma, but not Iowa State. It was maddening.

“I’ve been watching things closely,” Jennings told an Omaha business crowd in 1960, “and I don’t think this state can ever be great in anything — there are so few people.”

Remarks like that one, combined with losing Omaha prep phenom Gale Sayers to Kansas, pretty much doomed Jennings.

Didn’t help that his offense failed to record a first down against Colorado.

* * *

On Nov. 30, 1961, Jennings was fired, beginning a coaching search that wouldn’t end officially for two months.

Tippy Dye had no intention of taking so long.

He’d long been targeted to be Nebraska’s next athletic director — the job had been open for almost a year. The NU Board of Regents made it official Dec. 1, one day after they fired Jennings.

Who would Tippy pick as football coach?

A three-sport star at Ohio State in the 1930s, Dye made his professional mark coaching college basketball. In 1959, he took over as athletic director at Wichita State.

That’s where he first hired Hank Foldberg.

Foldberg, a former All-American at Army, immediately turned around the Wheatshockers. He led Wichita to 8-2 seasons in 1960 and ’61, earning Missouri Valley coach of the year.

Nebraska had been watching. The week Jennings was fired, Foldberg flew to Lincoln and met with NU Chancellor Clifford Hardin. Dye, Foldberg and their wives visited Nebraska again Dec. 4.

The pair had worked magic together in Wichita. Why not Lincoln?

One problem: Foldberg also had his eye on the coaching opening at Texas A&M, where he started college.

Fans and reporters didn’t limit their speculation to Foldberg.

Initial reports mentioned Clay Stapleton of Iowa State; Harold Lahar of Houston; Bob Snyder, formerly of the L.A. Rams; Utah’s Ray Nagel; Utah State coach John Ralston; even Otto Graham.

On Dec. 1 — the same day Fidel Castro announced to the world he was a Marxist — 10 Omaha high school coaches wrote a letter to Hardin recommending Husker assistant Cletus Fischer.

On Dec. 13 — the same day 19-year-old Cassius Clay declared, “I want Sonny Liston” — Dye held a press conference, where he confirmed that Foldberg was mulling an offer.

Two days later, JFK announced increased aid (but no combat troops) to an obscure country in Southeast Asia. And Hank Foldberg told his players he was leaving for Texas A&M.

Nebraska returned to the drawing board.

* * *

Chancellor Hardin worked a connection.

The former dean of agriculture at Michigan State knew Spartans coach Duffy Daugherty. He made a call. Rumor had it that Duffy was looking for a change of scenery. Would he be interested in coming to Nebraska? 

No, Daugherty said. But there’s a guy at Wyoming you should contact. When Nebraska did, Devaney needed coaxing. Daugherty told him Nebraska was a place he could win a national championship.

NU Regent Clarence Swanson, a former Husker All-American, put it another way: “Bob, if you come here and win, you’ll never be sorry. These people want to win that much.”

Dec. 18: Newspapers publish a rumor that Nebraska has offered Utah State’s Ralston. He denies it.

Dec. 23: Ralston says he still wants the Nebraska job, but “I have a feeling there is another coach Tippy Dye is more interested in.”

Dec. 28: Devaney, upon returning from his secret trip to Lincoln, makes his first public comments about NU.

“I think the Nebraska job presents a real challenge and it would be a good opportunity.”

The same day, Dye says only three coaches — all from the Skyline Conference — are still candidates: Ralston, Nagel and Devaney.

“I plan to do quite a bit of thinking about it this weekend,” Dye said.

Jan. 2, 1962: Nebraska fans open The World-Herald to find Gregg McBride’s report from California, where he was covering the Rose Bowl.

Coach Bob Devaney is the new Cornhusker mentor and his selection will be announced Saturday.

Then ... nothing happened.

Devaney, Dye and 1.5 million Nebraskans spent the next month waiting for Wyoming to let the coach out of his contract.

Meanwhile, Jack Nicklaus began his pro career, earning $33.33 at the L.A. Open. Jackie Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. JFK delivered the State of the Union, emphasizing the need for Medicare.

Devaney didn’t sit still. He returned to Nebraska on a Union Pacific sleeper and formally met the press.

He ran into Bill Jennings on the second floor of the NU Coliseum. “The first thing you ought to do is get some offices and get rid of this one,” said Jennings, who was leaving to be an assistant at Kansas.

Jennings was right. The baseball field was bad. So was the swimming pool and the training table. No study area. No radios in the cars. 

It shook Devaney so much that he called the Wyoming athletic director and asked if his old job was still available. It was. Devaney had a decision to make: Return to Laramie, where he could live out his days as a legend. Or stick it out and try to fix Nebraska football. 

He stayed.

He recruited his first Huskers. He spoke to his first booster clubs. When businessmen in Omaha gave him a standing ovation, Devaney quipped:

“I know why you stand up that way,” he said. “You can take better aim.”

That same month, Devaney was back in Laramie when he received a letter from a 24-year-old Washington Redskins wide receiver, who requested a position on Devaney’s staff.

Devaney told Tom Osborne to come meet him once he took over in Lincoln. Later, he told Osborne he had all the coaches he needed. But he was having trouble controlling Selleck Quadrangle. Players had been causing trouble.

“If I would move into the dorm and ride herd on them, he would give me meals on the training table,” Osborne recalled. “So I said, ‘Well, OK.’ ”

On Feb. 2, Devaney waited six hours outside a Laramie conference room for Wyoming’s Board of Trustees to adjourn. Finally, they set him free.

Said one trustee: “We just wanted to make him sweat a little.”

* * *

Dye made one thing clear from the start of his coaching search: He wanted someone with a head coaching pedigree, not someone who needed to learn on the job.

Devaney, who already had a proven system and staff, wasted no time that spring.

» He demanded that scholarship players prioritize spring football, rather than participating in other varsity sports. Too many guys were playing baseball and running track.

» He demanded university cooperation in building class schedules so players could attend practice every day. Too many guys were missing drills for class.

» He replaced the spring varsity-alumni matchup with an intra-squad scrimmage. The modern spring game was born.

» He installed a new offense: an unbalanced line with a full-house backfield, similar to the wishbone.

“In the wishbone, the fullback would be tighter,” Osborne said. “In this offense, the lead blockers often were the halfbacks. The fullback was sometimes a smaller guy who carried the ball a lot.”

» He asked Osborne, who seven years later would modernize Devaney’s offense, to come out to spring practices and help coach the freshman receivers.

» Perhaps most important, Devaney shortened practices. Under Jennings, players often drilled for three or four hours in full pads, guided by a spotlight hanging from the Coliseum.

Devaney limited workouts to a maximum of two hours, usually in half pads. His charisma boosted morale.

“We work and we work hard,” lineman Bob Taucher said. “But Coach Devaney always has something funny to say at just the right time.”

Devaney had plenty of talent left over from Jennings. Bob Brown, Lloyd Voss, Larry Kramer, Dennis Claridge, Kent McCloughan and others became pros. Devaney maximized their ability.

Before the first game, The World-Herald’s Wally Provost wrote:

“The new coaching administration at Nebraska has blown out the old atmosphere of wistful hope and substituted aggressiveness and determination.”

Devaney, whose initial salary was $17,000, tried to lower expectations:

“We’re making no promises. ... We hope our fans will be happy with three or four wins. They have been in the past.”

Attendance for the ’62 opener was 26,953 — Memorial Stadium didn’t yet have seating in the north and south end zones. On the first snap, Claridge dropped to pass and threw incomplete. The fans gave the Huskers a standing ovation.

Devaney turned to an assistant, jerked his thumb toward the crowd and said, “That’ll show ’em we mean business.”

Nebraska beat South Dakota 53-0, the Huskers’ largest point total in 17 years.

Next up: Michigan.

* * *

In Washington that September weekend, JFK federalized the Mississippi National Guard as James Meredith prepared to be Ole Miss’ first black student.

In Ann Arbor, the Huskers stepped into the Big House, where Wolverine fans anticipated an easy victory for their 10-point favorites.

Thunder Thornton, nursing a dislocated shoulder, didn’t play the scoreless first quarter. Then the senior fullback took over. He threw crushing blocks and scored two second-half touchdowns.

A Detroit columnist described the upset: “An itinerant band of Cornhuskers paid their first visit to Michigan in 45 years Saturday, looking for work. They found a fertile field ready for shuckin’. And, man, how they shucked it.”

Devaney, who grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, would say until the day he died that Michigan 1962 was the most important win of his career.

By the time he stepped down as coach in 1972, Nebraska had doubled the size of Memorial Stadium. Sold out 59 consecutive home games. Captured two national titles. Produced a Heisman winner. Won the greatest game in college football history. Started wearing black shirts at practice and helmets with a red letter “N.”

Meanwhile, Hank Foldberg was selling real estate — Texas A&M fired him after three miserable seasons.

On the night of Sept. 29, 1962, nobody knew how history would unfold. But Nebraskans sensed their moment.

They turned their Chevy Impalas, Dodge Darts and Ford Thunderbirds toward the same airport Mr. Roberts had flown into nine months earlier. And when Devaney’s Huskers returned from Michigan, 2,500 fans cheered them. Thousands more were stalled in traffic.

Headlights shined in the night, as far as the eye could see.

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Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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