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Original Issue


Nebraska football was once flat as a wheatfield, but since Bob Devaney took over in 1962 he has built a mountain of winners, including last year's undefeated national champion

First-Class Section of Coaches

It seems as if they have been there along the sidelines on Saturday afternoons all their lives—Ara, Bear, Woody and the other members of college football's coaching aristocracy. The eight who are shown on the following pages have been at it a total of 147 years, have won 1,076 games and at least a share of every national title for the last 10 years. Now, as another season begins, they are back once again, pacing, cheering, agonizing, ready to collect more victories. And chances are, when it is over, one of them will have the game's biggest prize, the No. I team.

Ara Parseghian's seven-year record at Notre Dame is 58 wins, 10 losses—and improving all the time.

Darrell Royal had a third national title lassoed until his Texas Longhorns got hooked in the Cotton Bowl.

To the glittering football heritage at USC, John McKay has contributed two national championships.

At age 58, could Woody Hayes be grasping at straws? No chance. Since 1968 Ohio State has been 27-2.

In his legendary 26-year career, half of it spent at Alabama, Bear Bryant has won 199 games.

Sure, Frank Broyles looks smug. In his 14 seasons at Arkansas, no one has eaten high off the Hog.

Shug Jordan, 60, is all Auburn: class of '32, an assistant for 12 years and head coach since 1951.

When Bob Devaney of Nebraska (left) tells the true story of Bob Devaney's climb to the top of the coaching profession, all the lightning strokes of genius are left out. The gaffes, however, glow like zircons in the chronology of his account. It is Devaney's style to remind you that in the first game he played for little Alma (Mich.) College in 1936 he had three teeth knocked out, cleanly, and that he never intended to become a coach at all. He was an economics major. Some economics majors learn more than others. He left Alma owing the school $350 and had had to wait tables, pump gas and sweep the gym floor to finish that close to even.

Picking up the thread from there, Devaney says that when he was the baseball coach at Saginaw (Mich.) High he had a pitcher named Bob Buhl who, Devaney concluded, could not pitch in that cool Michigan weather. In a spasm of inspiration, Devaney converted Buhl into a weak-hitting first baseman. Buhl eventually converted back and went on to become a big winner with the Milwaukee Braves during their glory days in the late '50s. "That," says Bob Devaney, "tells you the kind of baseball coach I was."

At Big Beaver High in Birmingham, Mich., his first stop after graduating from Alma, Devaney also coached football and basketball and taught six subjects a day—civics, history, biology, etc. On the basis of a 60 to 70 hour week, he once told The Omaha World-Herald, he made 50¢ an hour and deserved every penny. He said that the kids of Big Beaver "did not have much interest in athletics." The football team had not won a game in four years and the turnout was so sparse Devaney had to scrimmage with the players. His basketball team practiced in a gym, but the gym was in another town and Devaney's wife Phyllis took a teaching job to help pay for a car to take the team to practice. "We did not win any state championships in basketball," said Devaney. "I remember the car better than I do the basketball team."

Once paid for, the car was demolished when intersected by a streetcar in downtown Detroit. "We weren't sly enough to pretend we were injured and sue the streetcar company for $50,000," Devaney said. "All we got out of it was $25 for the car."

Devaney said he found out at Big Beaver how little he knew about football coaching. He discovered there was more to it than you block that man and you block this one. After that he moved around Michigan some, to Saginaw, to Keego Harbor, logging coaching years, and wound up at Alpena High, hard by Lake Huron where the cold mist settles on a fall night and where he won a remarkable 52 of 61 games with athletes who disappeared back into the mist and were never heard from again. Asked if any of those could have become successful college players, Devaney replied: "Dick So-and-So was a great athlete at Alpena and would have been outstanding in college except he wouldn't go to class."

Devaney had been a coach 14 years and seemed on his way to that special purgatory for highly respected, grossly underpaid career high school coaches when he was summoned to Michigan State, "where my real life began." He was a shot in the dark, he says. Duffy Daugherty called on a summer afternoon "when I just happened to be in from the lake. If he had not reached me, he'd have called somebody else. I have no illusions about that. But I had made up my mind. I was 37. If a break didn't come before I was 40 I was going to go back and get my Masters and take a boring administrative job somewhere."

Eventually, Devaney got another call (he was 41 then) to become head coach at the University of Wyoming where he continued the tradition of winning teams, by accident, of course, and was lauded and loved and given a "lifetime contract." He said the secret of his success at Wyoming was being able to bring in some renegade athletes to go with a few incumbent "orangatangs"—he used the word affectionately—who could play the game. He said the president was sympathetic to his needs. The president was from the South and used to talk about the good old days when college players got paid off behind the chicken coop. It was, however, no easy task to keep prospects in Laramie once they set foot there, so Devaney stationed coaches at the airport and bus and railroad depots in case anyone decided to keep going after taking a look around.

"I learned to love Wyoming, but I had some embarrassing moments," says Devaney. One of his harder-headed players, a New Yorker, refused to show his I.D. card to a policeman when approached while lounging in a hotel lobby one night before a game. A row started. Devaney and a few others interceded, and "we all got taken down to the station. I offered a sound defense argument and about had it all straightened out, too, when I pressed my luck. They said the player would have to stay in jail overnight. I said, 'If he stays, we all stay.' So they locked us up. It was headlines the next day."

The road back to Laramie from recruiting trips and late-ending banquets was treacherous, Devaney said. One night he dozed and his university-owned automobile, left to its own devices, headed down the side of a cliff. "I thought I was driving hell out of it, too, and when we got to the bottom and I got out to look at the car I realized we had rolled over three or four times." Abashed, he explained to the administration that a deer had run across his path.

Devaney declared his life over at Wyoming in 1962 and accepted the challenge at Nebraska. By now he was 46 years old, but as Pepper Rodgers of UCLA says, "Devaney's young, no matter how old he is." Soon Devaney had a reputation for being a fantastic recruiter. He says it was nothing special, he was just loath to deprive a boy of the opportunity of playing football in Nebraska just because he happened to live on Long Island. He made Nebraska a national institution. A smart, exceptionally quick-witted man, he could talk crop rotation with farmers and profit and loss with financiers—if their sons were football players. He says he found recruiting very educational. In a West Virginia tenement one night he sat in the living room listening to the mother of a hot prospect play Bringing in the Sheaves on the family piano.

"Is it true," Devaney was asked, "that you have gone so far as to sing hymns with a mother to get her boy to go to Nebraska?"

"Yes, I did that," Devaney replied. "The mother came to Nebraska and the boy enrolled at Missouri."

Turning back six years of intransigent failure at football at Nebraska, Devaney took his very first team of Cornhuskers to an 8-2 record and the Gotham Bowl, where Miami's George Mira passed them silly for 320 yards. Still, Nebraska won 36-34. "You have made me famous," Devaney told his team. "I've received a number of offers to lecture on defense."

For the first time in his long life as a coach, Devaney says, he began to get national recognition. A magazine writer from the East came out and took one look at Devaney's original wardrobe, his cavalier disregard for fit, his unique color blending, and compared him to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Devaney announced that he was furious. "Tell that guy I'm going to sue him and his magazine for defamation," he said. Then he smiled. "Of course, he will be able to offer the perfect defense. The truth."

Devaney got a lot of mileage out of that episode at subsequent gatherings of press people where, invariably, he was chided about his now publicized lack of style. "I won't say the writer drank a lot while he was out here, although it was mostly my liquor," he says, "but a terrible thing happened. After he wrote the story he died. They cremated him and it took three days to put out the flame."

Now, in the fall of his 38th year of coaching, the Bob Devaney of Big Beaver, Alpena and Laramie, the same Bob Devaney who tells these un-Homeric stories that endear him to friends and luncheon audiences across the country, is the same Bob Devaney who keeps coaches like Vince Gibson awake nights. Gibson is the coach at Kansas State and he says he wakes up at 2:30 in the morning and tries to read a book and can't because all he can think about is "how are we going to beat Nebraska?" It's all Devaney's fault, Gibson says.

Looking back, through the mists and over the cliffs of his stumbling-ever-upward pursuit of the laureate, it is now clear that under Devaney Nebraska would inevitably win a national championship, which it did last New Year's night by defeating LSU in the Orange Bowl to climax an unbeaten season. Even then, Devaney was reluctant to leave well enough alone, Notre Dame had knocked off top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl that afternoon. Though the Irish had lost a game and Nebraska had only one tie against its record. Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian lobbied for his team as No. 1 on the grounds of its having accepted "the greater challenge." "Not even the Pope could vote for Notre Dame," Devaney said. Parseghian leaped on the remark, calling it "poor taste." Devaney, alas, had succeeded in riling the Catholics.

"I was afraid Ara's comments might influence the vote, but the writers were too smart to take some coach's word," said Devaney, his Irish blue eyes smiling after the AP picked Nebraska No. 1 anyway. "Coaches don't know anything about rankings."

The fact slips up on you, but Bob Devaney—that unpretentious, unassuming man, that broad pleasant potato face, that dumpy baker's build—is now the winningest coach in college football. Which is to say that among those with at least 10 years' experience he has won with greater regularity than anyone, a .791 percentage on 114 victories, 28 losses and six ties. Actually, Devaney has been the winningest, the president of the lodge, for six years, and the members below him have neon names like Bryant and Hayes and McKay and Royal. And Parseghian.

To tell of the transformation of Nebraska football since he came is to tell of a man working a miracle, a resurrection from the dead. Out of the depths of 17 losing seasons in the previous 21 under his predecessors, the Corn-huskers have soared to nine straight winning seasons under Devaney. In those previous 21 years they went to one bowl game; Devaney has taken them to seven. They have twice had undefeated regular seasons; before that, the last unbeaten Nebraska team was in 1915. They have won or shared six Big Eight championships, and Devaney has been conference Coach of the Year four times. Big Ten teams that used to come to Lincoln to give Nebraska lessons in the sport came and were themselves strongly rebuked; they have lost nine out of nine in games with Devaney's teams, and by such scores as 42-14 and 37-0.

Sepulchral old Memorial Stadium, built on the Lincoln campus in 1923, has seen three additions, a handsome new press box and a $250,000 counterpane of Astro Turf since Devaney, and every bolt and synthetic thread is being paid for out of athletic department funds. The team averages more than 67,000 fans a game (fourth high in the nation). All home games are sold out in January. Season tickets are precious jewels, impossible to beg or borrow. The story is told of friends of a deceased season ticket holder dropping by the house after the funeral to check on the disposition of his seats. It is an old story, but in the case of Nebraska probably true. Rather than miss a game, a millionaire fan named F. L. Cappart flies in from Vicks-burg, Miss, in his private jet every week. Cappart has been known to drop everything to fly to Lincoln for a kickoff. Once when he dropped everything he was in Turkey.

Devaney was chosen Man of the Year, 1970, by The Omaha World-Herald, which defended the choice by pointing out that 1970 "was a year people needed something...solid to rely on." Chancellor D. B. Varner said it was his job to make the university as good in education as Devaney had made it in football. Support clubs and "beef clubs" sprang up like cornstalks throughout the state, contributing thousands to the million-dollar football budget and tons of raw meat to the team training table. On "O" street in downtown Lincoln, a plain Jane town of 150,000 in the Nebraska breadbasket, a fan could buy a rug, a sticker, a pen, a paperweight, or a whiskey bottle in the form of a "1," or a Go, Big Red wristwatch for $14.95 at Sartor Hamann's jewelry store.

Perhaps because he knew struggle longer than most who have found great achievement, and perhaps because he does not yet realize how capable he really is, Devaney handles his popularity with a kind of droll gingerliness, as if it were forged in smoke by a skywriter and subject to the first alien breeze. He has said that Nebraska fans are "understanding in defeat, but I would not want to put them to a serious test."

His personal panoply has improved immeasurably over the years (Willy Loman is now a fashion plate in smart checks and matching colors), but otherwise he has resisted any form of pretension. His telephone numbers are in the book. With the exception of the Nebraska-red drapes, red carpeting, red desk, red sheepskin rug, etc., his office is unspectacular, homey rather than huge, and the door is open to a casual flow of traffic—secretaries, assistant coaches, players in for a chat. On the wall directly below the prized No. 1 plaque from President Nixon is a cartoon of two derelicts sitting on a sidewalk, commiserating over their fate. One bum is saying to the other, "Then we lost our sixth game to Keen State...."

Devaney still lives in a smallish, modestly appointed home on an elm-lined middle-class street in Lincoln, not yielding to the pressures (and the entreaties of Phyllis Devaney) to build something grand. And of an evening when he takes up his glass of milk and bourbon, that peculiar combination of aged license and scrupulous youth that somehow typifies him, takes it there in his basement den where Phyllis has tastefully assembled his crowd of trophies, the chances are he would rather talk about the days when he made $35 every two weeks doing "nonscientific" piecework in a Chevrolet foundry. Or about his grandfather the tugboat captain. Or his Irish father (the name is De-van-ey, not De-vane-y) who worked the ore boats on the Great Lakes and wasn't home much. Or the time he tried boxing and "got whopped enough to realize it was not going to be my life's work." Or the time Phyllis wrote the term paper for him when they were at Alma, and she got a C in the course and he got a B.

And when he finally gets around to analyzing his progress he will say that "situations trigger success," that coaches are lucky to hit fields that are ripe for seed, how this happened to lucky Bob Devaney at Alpena and Laramie and Lincoln. "I've worked hard. I've had my share of the dry heaves on Saturday morning. But I have been at the right place at the right time," he says.

This is a tidy oversimplification, of course. Football is a coach's game. Many coaches get good material; most coaches work long hours. A few are iconoclasts who contribute to the science of the sport, but not even these are assured winning records. The thing that separates the Devaneys (and the Bryants, McKays, Royals, et al.) from the journeyman of the trade is a gift they cannot alter much if they have it, cannot seem to acquire if they don't, and usually can't define or explain even to themselves. But Pepper Rodgers describes Devaney as "a man I would like even if he weren't a coach," and this is how he explains the gift:

"To be a successful coach, what do you have to have? A good staff, with good morale, that's first. Most of Devaney's assistants have been with him since he was at Wyoming. He pays them good. He relies on them. [Rodgers did not say it, but when Devaney was offered the head coaching job at Miami he did a remarkable thing—he put it to a vote of his assistants. They voted to stay at Nebraska.] Head coaches don't coach much on the field anymore, so you've got to have guys who are loyal and won't watch the clock. Next, you have to have a good athletic director. He's the athletic director. He's a good one.

"And then, then you've got to have a rapport with players. That's the key to the whole thing. You can have the best players in the world and lose if they won't play for you. It's like the dogfood salesman. His boss says, 'We've got the best dogfood on the market, right?' 'Right.' 'And the best salesmen, right?' 'Right.' 'Well, how come we don't sell more dogfood?' The salesman says, 'Well, I guess it's because the damn dogs won't eat it.' At Nebraska, the good players play for Devaney."

Bob Devaney coaching players, and players responding, is the stuff cocktail hours are hung on in Lincoln. A favorite involves Bob Brown, the All-Pro tackle who was on Devaney's 1962 and 1963 teams. Brown had a reputation for malingering. He made crises out of minor bruises. He missed practices. Finally, in the spring, Devaney picked up his uniform, and Brown came to his office to find out why. Devaney, deadpan, told him the coaches had decided that Brown should give up contact sports. "We recommend golf, or maybe tennis, where you can use your strength without getting hurt." Brown was 6'4", 269 pounds. He cried for reinstatement. That fall Brown made All-Big Eight and the next year All-America.

Devaney does not lay down hard rules of deportment for his athletes, rules that would back him into corners. Coaches who have done that lately, he says, "are coaches who wound up losing face or losing their job." He does not try to regulate dress or hair, but the athlete who persists in being shaggy is fair game for the well-honed, and highly effective, Devaney needle.

It was not publicized, but a group of his black athletes came to Devaney with a "suggestion" list a couple years ago. Devaney has a reputation for being color-blind—he stacks blacks at a position if they are best at that position, but he is just as liable to mix the batter. He alternated his two tailbacks last year, and both were stars and one was black (Joe Orduna) and one was white (Jeff Kinney). Orduna is married to a white girl. Devaney says they make a fine-looking couple. One of his coaches, Bill (Thunder) Thornton, is black. Thornton played for Devaney.

The black caucus found it had nothing to argue about. When it was suggested blacks be assigned roommates by position, Devaney said fine. After a while the blacks asked if they could choose their own roommates. Devaney does not let small bones catch in his throat. He said that was O.K., too. When it was suggested that he made Orduna carry the ball too much, wearing him out, Devaney said, "All right, I won't have Joe carry the ball so much anymore." Orduna came to him privately. "Coach, I like to carry the ball," he said. Problem solved.

Vince Gibson says there "isn't a phony bone in Bob Devaney's body," and that this communicates to his players. They become willing subjects for his coaching impulses. For three years now the quarterbacking at Nebraska has been a cooperative venture between Jerry Tagge and Van Brownson. No complaints. "You don't know how tough coaching is until you've tried something like that and gotten away with it," says Gibson.

Boiled down, Devaney's ability with players would seem to be a matter of caring. He cares that his athletes graduate, and 75% do, an impressive number. He has been known to put lesser lights on traveling rosters just because the game was being played in their home town. "You would absolutely die for Coach Devaney," says one former player, recalling a "moving experience" at a luncheon before the Sun Bowl game in El Paso when Devaney was introduced and received a three-minute standing ovation—from his own players.

No real romance is complete without spats, of course. Devaney has been known to suspend recalcitrants—kick them off the team, deprive them of bowl trips—but he has a revivalist's zeal for the redeeming power of football and he holds to the doctrine of the second chance. Ironically, this gets him in the soup when it appears his humanitarianism may be self-serving. He refused recently to yield to pressure from some quarters that he banish star Flankerback Johnny Rodgers, the team's leading pass catcher and kick returner who had been involved in a gas station holdup in May of 1970. In court, Rodgers received two years' probation. A student-faculty committee took no action. Devaney deliberated, then also put Rodgers on probation, leaving him free to play this year. Reaction was mixed; there were some snickers in Missouri. Privately, Devaney said it would have been much simpler if Rodgers had been a fourth-team scrub. Then he would have given him his second chance and dismissed the case.

Because Devaney does not seem to take himself too seriously is not to say that he does not take himself seriously enough. He is a man of firm opinions, firmly held. He went before the Nebraska Unicameral last session at its request to speak for a new field house, and now Nebraska cigarette smokers are paying 5¢ a pack more in order for the school to get one. He does not back away from fights. He is at a standing simmer these days over a former Omaha sports editor who, after the 1969 season, polled Nebraska players on their choice for his successor. ("Who the hell says I'm retiring?" Devaney wanted to know.) In the Coaches All-America game at Lubbock this June he got into a shouting match with a younger, burlier game official who, Devaney felt, was blind to some unnecessary roughness. Bad words multiplied and for one appalling moment it appeared that a national television audience was going to see a fistfight between a respected college coach and a game official. Tempers cooled. The next day a friend said, "Hey, Bob, I didn't know you were that tough." "I'm not," said Devaney. "I was just bluffing."

Other coaches admire Devaney, says Rodgers, "because he stands up for the game. He says what everybody else wishes they had the guts to say." Devaney is an outspoken opponent of the NCAA's 1.6 rule (eligibility for incoming scholarship athletes based on a projected grade average of 1.6). He feels it is not a true barometer for a kid who may develop late, especially hurting the black athletes. He is even less enthusiastic about proposed legislation that would limit scholarships to "need." The worms in that one, he says, are too numerous to count.

"How will you prove financial need? You will have to get personal financial statements from parents who won't want to give them. You'll have to use a cost-of-living index for every part of the country. A man making $15,000 in Fayetteville, Ark. can afford a lot more in life than a man making $15,000 in downtown Manhattan. What if you give a dentist's son a scholarship? Maybe the dentist hasn't pulled many teeth lately. But coaches will holler. They'll be at each other's throats."

What criteria, then, would Devaney use for aid?

Big smile. "That the boy be a good football player." Pause. Then, "And that he be in the upper two-thirds of his graduating class, or can pass an entrance exam. That's all. Simple as that."

There is no such thing as a "typical Devaney team." Like most good coaches, he adjusts to the available talent. At Wyoming his teams were quick and exciting; his early Nebraska teams were characterized by thick necks and slow feet. Twice embarrassed by smaller, faster Alabama teams in bowl games, Devaney himself began to sacrifice size for speed, and suffered through two mediocre years (6-4 in both 1967 and '68). Lately he has had size and speed, and a high-percentage passing game the concept and execution of which amazes Gibson. Nebraska completed 61% of its passes in 1970. "Unbelievable," says Gibson. "No wonder I can't sleep."

Pepper Rodgers depicts Devaney as a "positive kind of coach," a man unafraid to take a chance. "Our third year at Kansas we had Nebraska by three points, two minutes to play, and Nebraska with fourth down and 13 on its own 20, or thereabouts. Most coaches would have punted and hoped for a break. Not Devaney. Tagge ran all around and finally threw an incomplete pass. Interference was called and we got an additional 15-yard penalty for protesting, and when it was over they had a first down on our 12. They scored. And we lost."

It is unlikely that Bob Devaney's Nebraska team for 1971 will be any more accommodating than it was as a national champion in 1970—a big, fast, well-balanced team with a strong will to defend ground won. Devaney does not mind talking about these possibilities in the privacy of his den, surrounded by all those replica "1's," but his interest will wane and then he is likely to lapse into a whimsical recollection of those bowl games with Alabama and how Bear Bryant, after winning the first one 39-28 in Miami, had called the next year and said, "Let's get together and have some more fun, Bob." And how Bob agreed, and they got together in New Orleans, and Alabama won 34-7. And how a couple years later Bryant called again, suggesting they get together once more.

"I said, 'Which bowl did you have in mind, Bear?' and he said, 'Well, we were thinking about the Liberty Bowl.' I said, 'Gee, sounds great.' The next day we signed to go to the Sun Bowl."

But for pure Devaney, the gem was collected by John McKay of USC one year when McKay's team was playing in Lincoln. In the first half, USC was penalized four times for pass interference. Though ahead, McKay was livid. Muttering to himself as the teams broke for the dressing rooms, McKay suddenly found himself side by side with Devaney. He says Devaney grinned, rather sheepishly he felt, and said, "Well, John, how do you like my brother's officiating?"