LINCOLN — Two weeks ago, in a lucid moment, former Nebraska coach Bill Glassford told his son Gary he had a final wish.
He wanted to return to Memorial Stadium for a game. He wanted to take his electric wheelchair through the Tunnel Walk. He wanted to feel the crowd. He hadn’t coached the Huskers in 61 years.
Bill Glassford died of natural causes Monday at the same Scottsdale, Arizona, facility where he’d been living for the last several years. He was 102. He’d been the oldest living NFL player and, by more than two decades, the oldest living Husker football coach. He led NU from 1949-1955 and had a 31-35-3 record. After that final season with Nebraska, at 41, he retired from coaching and became an insurance salesman. He opened an office in Phoenix, spent 20 years in insurance, and retired in 1976.
“Dad had two careers,” said Gary, his only son. But Bill still followed the Huskers religiously. In a 2015 interview with The World-Herald, he said he was still a Husker booster and still occasionally kept in touch with a few of his former players — the ones he didn’t outlive.
Glassford was born March 8, 1914, in Lancaster, Ohio. He played college football at Pittsburgh — in 1936, he was an All-America guard on the Rose Bowl champion. He then had a brief pro stint with the first incarnation of the Cincinnati Bengals — who played in the second American Football League — before becoming a coach. He worked at Manhattan, Carnegie Tech and Yale before his World War II service at a Naval Air Station from 1943-46. Gary said Bill was an officer and taught survival skills.
After the war, Glassford coached New Hampshire for three seasons, finishing 19-5-1. He was then hired by Nebraska in 1949 after a second one-year stint by George “Potsy” Clark, who was also NU’s athletic director.
Glassford immediately set a tough tone by taking the team to a two-week training camp in Curtis, 220 miles west of Lincoln. Gary, then 8 years old, went as a waterboy. Camp Curtis was notoriously tough for players with multiple practices and difficult, hot conditions.
“Dad was not easy,” Gary said. “He was an old-school coach. He worked the hell out of them.”
But he was fair, Gary said. Gary had taken to squirting players with a water gun during practice, and some of them asked Bill if they could teach the boy a lesson. Bill said sure, and the players hung Gary by a hook for a little while.
During Glassford’s tenure, Nebraska did show improvement, finishing 4-5 in 1949 before going 6-2-1 in 1950 thanks in part to All-America running back Bobby Reynolds. The Huskers finished that season ranked 17th in the final Associated Press poll, losing 49-35 to No. 1 Oklahoma in the season’s final game. In 1954, Nebraska finished 6-5 and played in the Orange Bowl, losing 34-7 to Duke. It was NU’s second bowl invitation in school history.
But that 1954 season came with turmoil, too, as players circulated a petition for Glassford’s removal. He coached the team again in 1955, resigned and did not coach afterward.
“I had enough,” Glassford said in a 2015 interview with The World-Herald. “I was burnt out.”
After his retirement from the insurance industry, Glassford traveled a lot, his son said. He spent a month once in Australia. And in his later years he received cards and notes from Husker fans all over the world. Through the Internet, Nebraska fans had found him.
He still followed the team, as well, and noted the shifting tides with coaching changes. He returned in 2002 for induction to the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
“The people of Nebraska get upset because they’ve had some troubles,” Glassford said in 2015. “But that’s natural. All the Big Ten teams have troubles. Some are good and some are bad. But I believe they had good coaches. It’s just one of those things that happens in the business.”
Last summer, Glassford was still waking up at 6:15 a.m., doing leg exercises and balancing his own checkbook. Dementia hit, Gary said, and Bill began to lose his mobility. He was blind and deaf but still able to communicate, Gary said. Gary looked into trying to return for a game this season, but commercial flights would have been hard on Bill and a private jet was too costly.
Together, father and son watched the Nebraska-Oregon game. Bill paid attention for a while, Gary said, but may not have been able to see much because of his macular degeneration. He eventually fell asleep. When he awoke, the game had ended, and Gary told his dad that Nebraska had won.
“Great!” Bill Glassford said.