A look back at 40 years of college football memories

Tom Shatel says Tom Osborne once looked over his shoulder in a press box and pointed out a misspelled word — a moment re-enacted above.

You never forget that night you fell in love at a truck stop.

It was late on Saturday night, Nov. 18, 1978. I left Memorial Stadium for the first time. Tenth Street was one way and confusing. I made a wrong turn and lost my friends.

When you’re on the road for your student paper, your accommodations are simple: You stay on another scribe’s floor.

When you lose said scribes, and it’s near midnight, you head home. Kansas City.

I was an hour into the drive on I-29 and needed to stop. I saw the bright lights of a truck stop, and 39 years later, I’m guessing this must have been Nebraska City.

There, outside the main door of the truck stop, was a beautiful sight. A fresh pile of Sunday Omaha World-Heralds, black and white and splashed with bright red.

I bought one and took the giant paper back to my car, where I spent the next 40 minutes or so reading every account of the Missouri-Nebraska game I had just covered.

I can still see the massive photos, showing holes in the line of scrimmage, arrows pointing toward specific players. The columns, the quotes, the reaction. Magical stuff.

The one story that has stayed with me all these years was the sidebar on Nebraska I-back Rick Berns, who always ran like he was going through a burning house. World-Herald scribe Larry Porter described in vivid detail the “red claw marks” on Berns’ back as he peeled off his jersey in the training room.

Yeah, I think I want to do this the rest of my life.

This journey actually started a year earlier, in 1977. Forty years ago. I was a sophomore at Missouri, covering MU football for The Maneater, one of the school papers.

I don’t know where you were in 1977, but I know where some of you weren’t. Last week at Big Ten media days in Chicago, I was describing a Husker football story from the 1980s to a reporter and the wise guy cracked, “I wasn’t born yet.”

After I wiped the red off my face, I started thinking about how long I’ve been following Saturday’s Game. Man, I’m old.

Say this: I remember when every college football game east of Colorado started at 1 or 1:30 p.m. When there were only two or three games on TV every week. None at night. And every game was played on Saturday.

I remember when Tom Osborne threw the ball, couldn’t win the big one, went for two, couldn’t win the big one and then won a bunch of big ones.

You get my drift. Anyway, a colleague suggested I go back and list my favorite games, people, places from the last 40 years. Naturally, I include press box food.

Don’t worry. I don’t live in the past. I’m a time traveler.

Let’s go back, shall we?

» Five favorite coaches I covered (in order): Osborne, Barry Switzer, Pat Jones, Jim Walden, Jim Dickey.

It’s hard to beat Switzer, but Osborne was such a fascinating character, with a sense of humor that you had to listen for, and his career track was great material.

» Worst piece of equipment: The telecopier. This was essentially the first fax machine back in the 1978-81 era. Only worse.

This contraption had a slot where you put the typewritten pages in, it had to catch just right, and then you dialed the phone number back at the newsroom, you hit a button and the paper spun over and over as it was transported to the newsroom.

No, this is not sci-fi.

Some schools had a telecopier you could use. Some didn’t. The thing came in a giant black suitcase and weighed like 500 pounds. I still have nightmares of the paper sliding out in mid-transport.

» Favorite ritual: Going to Nebraska football practice in the early ’90s. It was usually me, World-Herald scribe Lee Barfknecht and Ken Hambleton of the Journal Star. Occasionally there was a fourth.

When I see today’s postpractice scrum, with 30 to 35 media types smothering Nebraska’s seven- and nine-win teams, I think: Man, a few of us had that NU dynasty all to ourselves.

The best part: After he had answered the last question, Osborne took off on his nightly jog around the football field. I can still see that tall figure going round and round.

» Best assist: One of my jobs in college was as correspondent for the United Press International wire service. I sent daily practice reports to UPI and wrote a feature once a week.

In 1978, I sent in an interview with Russ Calabrese, Missouri’s brash cornerback. Calabrese was an Italian kid who grew up in Chicago. The week before MU traveled to play Joe Montana and Notre Dame seemed a good time to check in.

Well, “Brese” went off on the Irish, saying he never liked ND, didn’t like Irish people.

Would that pass inspection today? Who knows?

UPI sent it out and both Chicago dailies ran it days before the game. Guess who read it.

Late in the game, the score was 0-0 but Montana was driving. He hit his favorite receiver, Kris Haines, beating Calabrese at the 3-yard line. On his way back to the huddle, Haines slapped Calabrese on the helmet, no doubt spurred on by his comments in my story. Haines got a 15-yard penalty. The ball went back to the 18. ND missed a field goal. Missouri drove for a field goal and had its upset.

I should have lettered that year, right?

» Best slap in the face: In 1996, I could have gotten flagged for piling on. Nebraska lost its first game in three years at Arizona State 19-0 on a surreal evening in the desert.

I handed the bill to first-year quarterback Scott Frost, who didn’t have a great game but certainly wasn’t alone. Never mind ASU planned brilliantly and quarterback Jake Plummer played great and NU was reloading after back-to-back titles.

My old friend Milt Tenopir, Nebraska’s offensive line coach, grabbed me and told me I was out of bounds. He pointed out all the things his rebuilt line had done wrong.

It was a good lesson in Football 101: Teams usually win and lose as a team. It’s never one guy’s fault. That was a lesson I never forgot.

» Best players I saw (in order): Marcus Dupree, Tommie Frazier, Billy Sims, Kellen Winslow, Dave Rimington

» Greatest game I covered: The 1984 Orange Bowl. For the stakes, the history and the moment at the end, it was everything a great game should be. Even in defeat, Nebraska and Osborne won.

» Second-best ending to a game I covered: In a close race, I’ll give it to the 1987 Kansas at Kansas State game, the aptly named “Toilet Bowl.” They had one win between them, and they were each other’s last chance for a victory that season. The game ended 17-17 with a game-winning field goal being blocked and both teams diving after it as it bounced out of bounds at the buzzer.

» Best story that never made the paper: Before the 1984 Orange Bowl, I did a lengthy profile on Osborne that was to run in the Kansas City Star’s p.m. edition after Nebraska won. Oops. I still wrote a fresh story on Osborne’s legacy, but it was now intertwined with Miami. Tom’s life story would have to wait.

» Best introduction to a coach: The first time I met Osborne, it was the morning of 1988 Nebraska at Kansas State. Osborne wanted to talk to me about a story I’d done and sought me out. It was in the middle of the Manhattan Holidome. I was sitting in a hot tub.

“Hi, Tom. I’m Tom Osborne.”

» Favorite way to spend a Friday: Sitting in Switzer’s office, the day before Oklahoma 77, Missouri 0. As his team went through a walkthrough down on Owen Field, Switzer sat in his office, boots propped up on his desk, puffing on a cigar and telling me about his rough childhood.

» Best prediction: Based totally on a hunch after reading Osborne’s body language at a press conference after the 1997 Big 12 title win, I wrote that the coach sounded like someone who was about to retire from coaching. The next day, Osborne did it.

» Best free meal: In the 1970s and ’80s, schools in the Big Eight often had a press party the night before the game. Nebraska hosted at the Lincoln Legion Club on O Street. It was a great place to talk with school officials and athletic directors (like Bob Devaney), and occasionally a coach would show up. The last press party I attended was in 2002 at Penn State. Joe Paterno was on hand and entertained us with stories about Bear Bryant.

» Best press box food: Every year Kansas State would have the Kansas Pork Queen show up at a game and serve the Kansas pork meal in the press box. She even wore her crown and sash. How can you beat that?

» Game that still does not compute: Iowa State 19, Nebraska 10 in 1992. I could have outrun ISU quarterback Marv Seiler. Maybe.

» Best proofreader: One year after doing his postgame radio show in the press box, Osborne walked past press row. Suddenly, I felt someone looking over my shoulder.

“You misspelled a word.”

» Favorite bowl trip: I covered 13 Orange Bowls and it was like an annual trip. I always loved the old Orange Bowl, which was so quirky and loud it was like a basketball barn.

» Longest trip: Nebraska and Kansas State, separated by a couple of hours in the car, took Eric Olson and me to Tokyo for the Japan Bowl in December 1992. When Nebraska scored, fans waved purple pom-poms. When K-State scored, they waved the red.

» Best group of players to cover: The 1993-95 Nebraska teams, all three of them. Characters with character.

» Hardest thing I’ve had to write: Brook Berringer’s death.

No. 2: Why Lawrence Phillips should not have been brought back to play. I believed in my heart in this one. But knowing how it would play in this state, I can’t lie: That was a tough one.

» Favorite traditions: There are so many in the Big Eight. Nebraska balloons. Ralphie running on the field. But I’ll never forget my first trip to Iowa State in 1977. They used to have a giant bell in the end zone that rang when the Cyclones won. In the days of Earle Bruce, it rang a lot.

» Favorite phone call at home: When Bo Pelini called and apologized for his rant that went public on Deadspin. I told him no problem, I’ve been cussed out before. I started talking about Norm Stewart, the old Missouri basketball coach. Bo said he almost played basketball for Norm but chose football at Ohio State.

» Coolest venues I visited outside the Big Eight: There have been several, including Florida State at Auburn when I worked in Dallas in 1990. But at the top have to be the two Ohio State-Michigan games I covered in 1996-97.

» Best atmosphere: Oklahoma-Texas in Dallas, and I recommend this to every college football fan everywhere.

» Favorite player interview: Kansas quarterback Kelly Donohoe, a native of O’Neill, Nebraska, talking about playing against the Huskers. I showed Donohoe a photo on the cover of the Nebraska media guide of him getting sacked. He said, “I always wanted to be on the Nebraska media guide.”

» Favorite postgame interview: After Alabama beat Mizzou in 1978, we were told that Bear Bryant would do his postgame interview on the  ’Bama team bus. The writers boarded the bus and sat in all the seats. Finally the Bear himself climbed up into the bus. He stood at the front and talked into the driver’s microphone, answering questions and discussing the game in a gravel voice while puffing on a Marlboro. Outstanding.

» Best mascot fight: In 1978, I looked down at the end zone at Faurot Field at Missouri during a timeout and saw Truman the Tiger squaring off against Cy the Clone. The Tiger mascot was a black belt in judo and was karate kicking the giant bird. Don’t know why, but this was a serious tussle. And hilarious.

» Best play I never saw: At the end of the 1997 Nebraska-Missouri game, I stood on the Husker sideline on the south end, next to longtime Nebraska writer Mike Babcock. We were discussing how the loss would impact NU in the polls. We watched Frost take the snap on the last play and throw the ball into the far north end zone. All we could see was a mass of bodies and a ball popping up in the air.

Nice catch, Matt Davison. Could you describe it for me, please?

» Favorite sports writer hangouts: All of them. P.O. Pear’s before a game in Lincoln, Barry’s after the game.

» Best engagement announcement: I proposed Dec. 31, 1997. The next day at the presser before Osborne’s final game in the Orange Bowl, a writer told him about my news. I asked the last question, about how the coaches poll might treat him if he won.

After his answer, he said, “By the way, I understand that Tom got engaged last night ...

“Now there’s an upset.”

It’s probably an upset that I’ve lasted 40 years. So much has changed in college football, from wacky conference alignments to spread offenses to the influence of TV and TV revenue, stretching the game and fans so thin.

There’s more media than ever, more interviews seem to be staged, it’s almost unheard of to have a lunch or drink with a coach and relationships are harder to build. But still possible. Even in this world of texting, one thing that will never change is effort and passion. Coaches still respect that.

I think about all those people covering Husker practice, and everyone on message boards and Twitter and all that stuff. They’re there because they love college football. Forty years later, a common thread to the past.

You can stretch college football and pull it and toss it around the realignment machine. And it’s still a great game. The greatest.

There’s something about it. I still get excited about driving to practices, still get juiced Saturday mornings, whenever they kickoff. Still love writing the games and stories and hope you still love reading them.

I look forward to the next 40 years. College football might be a video game in 40 years, played in the ESPN and Fox Conferences by cyber bots who still aren’t getting paid.

See you at a truck stop in the future.

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