LINCOLN — Nebraska waited until 1970 for its first college football national championship — and would win four more over the following 27 years — but former Husker quarterback Bob Churchich still admits his trouble letting go of 1965.
NU took a 10-0 record and No. 3 ranking into the Orange Bowl under Bob Devaney. Some things happened earlier on New Year’s Day that left open the door if the Huskers could beat No. 4 Alabama.
Alas, Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide raced to a 24-7 halftime lead, fought off a Churchich-led comeback and won 39-28 before a crowd of 72,214.
Fifty years have passed. Still ...
“I knew we had a good nucleus of guys coming back for the ’66 team, but that loss there in the Orange Bowl, not being the first team to bring a national championship to Nebraska and for Coach Devaney, that still haunts me,” Churchich said. “I think about it often.”
Churchich lived through a series of near-misses during his Nebraska career from 1964 to ’66, with the Huskers starting 9-0, 10-0 and 9-0 in those three seasons. Two streaks were stopped by narrow defeats at Oklahoma, and those years ended with losses in the Cotton, Orange and Sugar Bowls.
That was something that Devaney, ever the jokester, made sure to point out at one of his annual banquets in the late 1980s when he introduced Churchich as “my only quarterback to lose three bowl games.”
“I stopped going to his banquets,” he said.
Churchich helped Omaha North to the 1961 Class A state championship and was a football and baseball star heading to Lincoln. He played again briefly in his hometown with the semi-pro Omaha Mustangs in 1968 and ’69.
Churchich has lived in Boulder, Colorado, since 1974, serving as owner and president of Churchich Recreation until recently turning over the operation to his son, Chris.
Some other thoughts from Churchich, who was briefly the Huskers’ career passing leader (2,434 yards) but now ranks No. 14:
Q: Did you at least savor your school record a little until Jerry Tagge broke it?
A: It didn’t take long for it to go away, did it? I know records are made to be broken. It’s just the advent in the change of the game. Look what they put up now.
Q: Freeman White was a 6-foot-5, 220-pound receiver for you. How easy was it to find No. 85?
A: I had two good bookends, with Tony Jeter, too, my junior year. You could put the ball up in the air and they’d go get it. A lot of hook patterns, out patterns ... not a lot of really deep shots.
Q: What did you expect out of your football career at Nebraska?
A: The main thing is I really wanted to get a scholarship to play baseball, and football was more or less an afterthought. Tony Sharpe, the baseball coach at the time, just didn’t offer full scholarships. Coach Devaney says, “You can play baseball, if you’re my starting quarterback.” He probably thought, “This kid’s not going to be my starting quarterback.” But football was just a vehicle to get there. (Churchich was a baseball All-American in 1966).
Q: After getting to play in all the major bowls but the Rose, could you say any one of those was your favorite?
A: I was so young, 18 years old, in the Cotton Bowl, and having all the senior guys I felt like I was just on for the ride. The Orange Bowl was probably my favorite of the three games because we were actually playing for the national championship.
Q: With Tom Osborne just getting his feet wet on Bob’s staff, do you remember much about his input at the time?
A: Tom worked mostly with the ends. He brought a little bit of the pro-style influence to us in a spread where we put out the ends and put the halfbacks in the slot. We ran some offense out of that, not our base offense, but the start of really getting a passing game going.
Q: What was it like watching from close range with Frank Solich when you handed off to the fullback?
A: Pound for pound the toughest guy I ever played with. He’d hit that line, they’d hit him in the mouth, and he’d jump right back up and be ready to go again. I remember one time, against Oklahoma State, we ran him about eight straight times, and each time coming back his face was a little bloodier. I was trying to get the attention of somebody on the sideline, and he grabbed my arm and said, “I’ll tell you when I’m ready to come out,” and he said it with an expletive. He was about 145 (pounds), even if the program said 158.
Q: Was the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry just as good in the 1960s as the ’70s and ’80s?
A: I think it really blossomed there in the ’60s, obviously being Thanksgiving Day, the national game.
Q: Did you have a favorite Nebraska quarterback in following years? Or somebody you thought maybe played the most like you?
A: (Gerry) Gdowski, I really always admired him. Just a real cool customer, smoother quarterback. He didn’t play a lot, but I liked him a lot. But there are so many good ones.
Q: Did some old North High pride come out watching the Vikings win the last two Class A state football championships?
A: Absolutely. It’s fascinating. The coach there (Larry Martin) has just really gotten the kids there to respond. And (Principal) Gene Haynes, he’s Mr. North Omaha.
Q: If not Nebraska, where would you have gone to school?
A: I did have some scholarship offers to schools from the Southwest that included baseball. There was Cal and Arizona, then Minnesota and Iowa State. My second choice was maybe Iowa State, because I wanted to stay pretty close to home.
Q: Summers were quite different back then, minus the workout programs, right?
A: Now the kids, in my mind, they don’t have a life to really enjoy. I came back to Omaha and worked ... dragged ballfields in the summer. The summer before my senior year I coached a Legion baseball team down at Offutt Air Force Base. We were pretty good. The toughest part of it was dealing with the majors and colonels, and them wanting their son to be playing this position or that position.
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