History of Nebraska Football
By Mike Babcock
Fans celebrated by waving banners of old gold. "The score stood 10 to nothing in the state university's favor and great and loud were the yells that filled the atmosphere," a newspaper account said.
The date was Nov. 27, 1890. The state university was Nebraska, which had just defeated a team representing the Omaha YMCA. The game, composed of a 35-minute first half and a 43-minute second half, was played in Omaha. So began Nebraska's rich football tradition.
It was an abbreviated opening "season." Nebraska's first football team played only one other game, in February of 1891, an 18-0 victory against Doane College in Crete, Neb. Whether or not Dr. Langdon Frothingham, the team's "coach," was still at Nebraska when the team traveled to Crete is unclear. Frothingham, a new faculty member from Harvard, was made the coach primarily because he had brought a football with him. He returned to Boston in 1891, probably before that second game.
Nebraska didn't actually have a football coach until 1893, when Frank Crawford was hired for an amount reported to have been between $300 and $500. His salary included room and board. Crawford also played quarterback in at least one game during his brief tenure as coach.
Nebraska's first game against an opponent from outside the state was in 1891, when Iowa won a game played in Omaha, 22-0. The first victory against an out-of-state opponent came in 1892, when George Flippin led Nebraska past Illinois at Lincoln. The score was 6-0.
Flippin was the first African-American athlete at Nebraska and only the fifth black athlete at a predominantly white university. Because of Flippin's presence on the roster, Missouri refused to play a scheduled game with Nebraska at Omaha in 1892. The result was a 1-0 forfeit.
In the early years, Nebraska's football team had several nicknames, including Tree-planters, Rattlesnake Boys, Antelopes, Old Gold Knights (which didn't work well after the school colors were made scarlet and cream around 1900) and Bugeaters. The team was first called Cornhuskers in 1899. Charles "Cy" Sherman, sports editor of the Nebraska State Journal at the time, assigned the nickname.
Sherman, who later gained national prominence as the sports editor of The Lincoln Star, was known as the "father of the Cornhuskers" and was made an honorary member of the Nebraska letterman's club.
Nebraska was an independent football power in the Midwest by then, under the direction of Coach Walter C. "Bummy" Booth.
"Nebraska occupies a unique position in western football," a newspaper account in 1903 said.
"Too strong to find fearful competitors, the Cornhuskers can almost weep with Alexander the Great because they have no more teams to conquer."
Booth coached Nebraska from 1900 to 1905, with his teams compiling a 46-8-1 record. In 1902, a team featuring Johnny Bender and Charles Borg went undefeated, untied and unscored upon. Booth's teams produced a 24-game winning streak - 27 counting exhibition victories against Lincoln High School. The 24-game winning streak stood as a school record until the 1995 season, when a 62-24 victory against Florida in the Fiesta Bowl game extended a Cornhusker winning streak to 25.
The streak reached 26 before ending at Arizona State in 1996.
Booth, a Princeton graduate, "raised Nebraska from a second-rate team among those of the Missouri Valley to a position where even the leaders of the Conference look upon her as an opponent to be feared," according to the university's student newspaper in 1905.
Booth's coaching success was soon overshadowed when Ewald O. "Jumbo" Stiehm was hired as coach in 1911. Stiehm's teams, the "Stiehm Rollers," were a combined 35-2-3 in five seasons. He remains the winningest football coach by percentage (.913) in school history.
The "Stiehm Rollers" won five Missouri Valley Conference championships and had a school-record 34-game unbeaten streak. In 1914, they were 7-0-1 and argued that they were deserving of a mythical national title. In 1915, they were even better, going 8-0 and again claiming the right to be called national champions. The Cornhuskers were considered to play in the Rose Bowl game after the 1915 season, but the university's athletic board voted to turn down any such invitation.
During Stiehm's tenure as coach, Nebraska produced its first official All-America players - Vic Halligan and Guy Chamberlin, "The Champ." Chamberlin, who came from Blue Springs, Neb., played two years at Nebraska Wesleyan before being enticed to transfer to Nebraska.
Stiehm left NU after the 1915 season because the university turned down his demand that he be paid an annual salary of $4,250 to serve as football coach and athletic director - he also coached the basketball team. The Cornhuskers quickly overcame his departure and continued to enjoy national respect. After Coach Fred Dawson's first team defeated Pittsburgh (coached by Pop Warner) 10-0 in 1921, an Eastern newspaper described the mighty Cornhuskers as "Mankilling Mastodons."
As with everything else in this country, Cornhusker football felt the profound effects of World War I. But the end of the war ushered in the Roaring '20s, a time not only of prohibition, flappers and Model T Fords but one in which Nebraska and Notre Dame regularly played football against each other. An 11-game series involving the schools began with a 20-19 Cornhusker victory in Lincoln in 1915 and ended with Nebraska's 17-0 victory at Memorial Stadium in 1925.
The Cornhuskers' only loss in 1921 was against the Fighting Irish, 7-0 at Lincoln. NU handed Notre Dame its only defeat in 1922, winning at South Bend, 14-6, and setting the stage for what was probably the greatest drama of Cornhusker football during the Roaring '20s. On Nov. 10, 1923, before what one newspaper called "the greatest crowd ever assembled in the Missouri Valley to witness a football game" at Memorial Stadium, Nebraska defeated Knute Rockne's "wonder team." The score was 14-7, and the Cornhusker star was Ed Weir, a sophomore from Superior, Neb., who would earn All-America recognition in both 1924 and 1925. Weir led the way to a similarly impressive 14-0 victory against Illinois and Red Grange in the 1925 season-opener at Champaign, Ill.
On Oct. 13, 1923, Nebraska played its first game in Memorial Stadium, which replaced a field that ran east and west just to the south of Memorial Stadium. The Nebraska Athletic Field had been used since 1909. It could accommodate, at most, approximately 10,000 fans, which wasn't enough, given the growing popularity of Nebraska football. The Cornhuskers defeated Oklahoma 24-0 that day in 1923. It would have been an appropriate way to dedicate the stadium. The problem was, the Cornhuskers' new home wasn't officially dedicated until a week later, with a scoreless tie against Kansas. A newspaper account attributed the tie to a "stadium dedication jinx." A year earlier, Nebraska had spoiled the dedication of a new stadium at Kansas by defeating the Jayhawks 28-0.
Dawson, whose teams won three Missouri Valley Conference titles, was succeeded as coach by E.E. Bearg in 1925. Four years later, D.X. Bible arrived.
Bible, who came from Texas A&M, wasn't Nebraska's first choice to replace Bearg. Nebraska tried to lure Rockne from Notre Dame. He declined and suggested the Cornhuskers approach Bible, who had turned A&M into a Southwest Conference powerhouse.
Bible coached the Cornhuskers from 1929 to 1936. His teams won six Big Six titles and featured a number of All-Americans, among them Ray Richards, Hugh Rhea, Lawrence Ely, George Sauer and Sam Francis. Bible's best team probably was the one in 1933, the year Sauer earned All-America recognition. The Cornhuskers finished 8-1, their only loss coming at Pittsburgh.
After the 1936 season, in which Nebraska ranked No. 9 in the first Associated Press poll, Bible left in the same direction from which he had come, accepting a job at Texas. Bible was quickly replaced by Major Lawrence McCeney "Biff" Jones, who had coached at Army, LSU and Oklahoma.
Cornhusker football was important to the state in the late 1930s. With the Great Depression coming to an end, it gave Nebraskans something in which to take pride. Bowl games are taken for granted by Nebraska fans now. The Cornhuskers made an NCAA-record 35 consecutive bowl trips from 1969 to 2003. But Nebraska had never been to a postseason bowl when Jones' fourth team accepted an invitation to play in the Rose Bowl game on Jan. 1, 1941.
The celebration that followed the acceptance of the school's first bowl bid lasted 24 hours in Lincoln, according to newspaper reports. University classes were canceled, and students stormed the state capitol, demanding that the governor lead the singing of the school song, "There Is No Place Like Nebraska."
The 1940 team featured All-Americans Warren Alfson and Forrest Behm. Though it lost, 21-13, to a Stanford team that featured quarterback Frankie Albert and the innovative T-formation offense, it retains a special place in Cornhusker history. Hall of Fame Coach Bob Devaney used to joke that he'd been in the state several years before he found out the Cornhuskers had lost the 1941 Rose Bowl game.
Jones left for military service after a 4-5 season in 1941, the first in a string of losing seasons that didn't end until 1950. After Jones' departure, Nebraska had six head coaches in the next eight years. Among the six was A.J. Lewandowski, a four-sport Cornhusker letterman who, at one time, served not only as head football coach but also head basketball coach, athletic director and athletic department business manager. One of the few bright spots, during an otherwise glum period, was Tom "Train Wreck" Novak, who earned All-America recognition as a senior on a 4-5 team in 1949. Novak's jersey number (60) was the first to be retired by Nebraska.
The 1949 team was the first to be coached by Bill Glassford, who produced three winning seasons in his seven years. Glassford's best team was the one in 1950, which featured Bobby Reynolds, a sophomore from Grand Island, Neb., who rushed for 1,342 yards and scored 157 points. The 1950 Cornhuskers were 6-2-1 and finished second in the Big Seven Conference.
Reynolds was hampered by injuries as a junior and senior and couldn't duplicate the offensive statistics that earned him national recognition and the nickname "Mr. Touchdown" as a sophomore.
Glassford's 1954 team also finished second in the conference and earned a trip to the Orange Bowl because Big Seven champion Oklahoma, in the midst of an NCAA-record 47-game winning streak, wasn't allowed to make a return trip to the bowl under a "no-repeat" rule. Nebraska, which had lost to Coach Bud Wilkinson's Sooners 55-7, didn't fare much better in Miami, losing to Duke 34-7.
Glassford resigned, after considerable controversy and a player revolt, following the 1955 season. Six losing seasons, the last five under Coach Bill Jennings, followed. Jennings was a popular assistant under Pete Elliott, who spent only one season as head coach.
Though Jennings' teams never produced winning records, they had a knack for dramatic upsets, the most notable being a 25-21 Homecoming victory against Oklahoma on Halloween in 1959. The victory ended the Sooners' record of 74 consecutive conference games without defeat. They had won 44 consecutive conference games.
The Cornhuskers opened the 1960 season by defeating fourth-ranked Texas in Austin, 14-13. But such upsets couldn't salvage Jennings' job, and he resigned after a 3-6-1 record in 1961.
Devaney was hired by Athletic Director William H. "Tippy" Dye after a search based on Dye's stated goals of Nebraska's being No. 1 in the nation in football and getting the best football coach in the country, regardless of who he was or where he was. Both goals were achieved.
Jennings was an excellent recruiter, and Devaney inherited talented players when he arrived from Wyoming in 1962. That was apparent from the beginning as Devaney turned the program around immediately. Despite a 47-8-0 record and five bowl appearances in his first five seasons at Nebraska, Devaney had detractors following 6-4 records in 1967 and 1968. The Cornhuskers' recruiting efforts fell off, and some boosters wanted Devaney and his staff fired.
In 1969, the offense was redesigned. The Cornhuskers went to an I-formation with a balanced line, at the suggestion of then-assistant coach Tom Osborne, and recruiting picked up because of the change in offensive philosophy. Nebraska began an NCAA-record streak of nine-win seasons in 1969 (which reached 33 before ending in 2002) and set the stage for back-to-back national championships in 1970 and 1971.
The Cornhuskers won their final seven games in 1969, including a victory against Georgia in the Sun Bowl, to initiate a 32-game unbeaten streak that didn't end until the first game of the 1972 season, Devaney's last year as head coach. He had planned to retire as coach after the 1971 season but was convinced to stay one more year to try to win an unprecedented third consecutive national title.
The first championship season, in 1970, came on the heels of a 17-12 victory against Louisiana State in the Orange Bowl. Nebraska went into the game ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, but both teams ahead of the Cornhuskers lost that day. There was no such suspense in 1971. Nebraska began the season ranked No. 2 by the Associated Press and moved up to No. 1 after a 34-7 victory in its opener against Oregon. The Cornhuskers remained atop the AP poll all season, as they defeated second-ranked Oklahoma in what was, and still is, called the "Game of the Century" on Thanksgiving Day in Norman, Okla., and wrapped up the title by defeating second-ranked Alabama 38-6 in the Orange Bowl game on New Year’s night.
Big Eight Conference teams finished an unprecedented first (Nebraska), second (Oklahoma) and third (Colorado) in the final AP poll for the 1971 season. The Cornhuskers' Larry Jacobson was voted the Outland Trophy winner. The 1971 Nebraska team is widely regarded as being among the best in college football history.
Cornhusker All-Americans became commonplace during Devaney's tenure as coach. Among the 18 who received such recognition were Johnny Rodgers, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1972, and Rich Glover, who won the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award that same season.
Devaney, who succeeded Dye as athletic director, picked his own successor as coach - Osborne. And the success continued, uninterrupted. Under Osborne, the Cornhuskers won or shared 13 conference championships and won national championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997.
The 1994 season began in late August at the Kickoff Classic and concluded with a dramatic, come-from-behind, 24-17 victory against Miami in the Orange Bowl game to clinch Osborne’s first national championship. The season was full of memorable moments, including a much-publicized quarterback situation, with three different quarterbacks starting games during the season. At the start of the year, Tommie Frazier led the Huskers. But he was sidelined in midseason by a blood clot problem in his leg. In Frazier's absence, Brook Berringer became the starter. Berringer had problems of his own, suffering a partially collapsed lung, which led to walk-on Matt Turman taking his turn as the starter. Through it all, a dominating offensive line led by Outland Trophy winner Zach Wiegert, and a punishing defense carried the Cornhuskers and allowed them to claim the school's first national championship in 23 seasons.
In 1995, Nebraska became only the ninth major program to win back-to-back national championships since the Associated Press established its rankings in 1936. The Cornhuskers overwhelmed every opponent, including No. 2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl game, with an offense that averaged 399.8 rushing yards per game and an aggressive and opportunistic defense.
According to the computer rankings of Jeff Sagarin, published regularly in USA Today, the 1995 Nebraska team was the best in modern collegiate history (post-1956). The 1971 Cornhuskers were a close second in Sagarin's rankings, and the 1972 team, despite finishing 9-2-1, was 10th.
The 1995 national championship might have been an unprecedented third in a row for Nebraska if Byron Bennett's 45-yard field goal attempt with one second remaining in the 1994 Orange Bowl game had been successful. The kick sailed wide left and heavily favored Florida State escaped with an 18-16 victory against a Cornhusker team that had gone through the regular season undefeated and untied.
A restructured defense, which included Butkus Award-winning outside linebacker Trev Alberts, helped put Nebraska in a position to play for the 1993 season’s national championship.
The last time an Osborne-coached team had been in a position to win a national title was in 1983, when the Huskers began the season in the first Kickoff Classic ranked No. 1. After 12 consecutive victories, a missed two-point conversion at the end of the Orange Bowl game against Miami cost Nebraska the national title, 31-30. But Osborne's decision to go for two points, instead of settling for an almost-certain tie, earned him national respect. The 1983 team, nicknamed "The Scoring Explosion," featured a backfield that included the "Triplets" - Turner Gill, Mike Rozier and Irving Fryar.
Rozier set the school record for rushing yards in a season, gaining 2,148 to lead the nation, and was awarded the second Heisman Trophy in Cornhusker history. Offensive guard Dean Steinkuhler became Nebraska's third winner of both the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award in 1983. Dave Rimington won both awards (the Outland was his second) in 1982, playing for a team that probably was more balanced, overall, than the 1983 team. The 1982 Cornhuskers also finished with a 12-1 record, but their loss came early in the season, 27-24 to Penn State at State College, Pa. That Nebraska team was ranked No. 3 in the final national polls of both major wire services.
Nebraska won three consecutive Big Eight championships from 1981 to 1983 and shared the title with Oklahoma in 1984. The Cornhuskers entered the Big 12 as winners of the last five Big Eight titles and reached the first Big 12 Championship Game in St. Louis. Had they not been upset by Texas, they would have played for yet another national championship in the 1997 Sugar Bowl game.
Nebraska returned to the Big 12 playoff in 1997 and defeated Texas A&M for its first title in the new conference on the way to becoming only the second major college program since national rankings were established by the Associated Press to win three national titles in four seasons. Notre Dame won national championships in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
A 27-14 victory at Washington, which was ranked No. 2 or No. 3 in the nation depending on the poll, certified the Cornhuskers as national championship contenders. A 45-38 overtime victory at Missouri kept their title hopes alive. And a 42-17 victory against No. 3 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl boosted them to the top of the USA Today/ESPN coaches’ poll.
The Missouri game was the most memorable. The Cornhuskers trailed 38-31 with 1:02 remaining, no timeouts and a first down at their own 33-yard line. Quarterback Scott Frost took them down the field in seven plays, all passes, the last deflected by Shevin Wiggins and caught by Matt Davison.
Davison's cradling of the ball in the end zone, with no time remaining, immediately went down among the greatest plays in Nebraska football history, along with Rodgers' punt return for a touchdown in the 1971 "Game of the Century" and Jerry Tagge's stretch for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the 1971 Orange Bowl game to give the Cornhuskers their first national championship.
But the 1997 season's most significant event occurred on Dec. 10, when Osborne announced he would step aside after the bowl game, to be replaced by long-time assistant Frank Solich, a three-year Cornhusker letterman as a fullback for Devaney and a co-captain as a senior in 1965.
Osborne was head coach for 25 years, the longest tenure in school history. He was Nebraska's 25th head coach, not counting Frothingham, who was probably the "coach" of the 1890 team in name only. Under Osborne's direction, the program achieved remarkable success, exceeding any in its rich history. The Cornhuskers were 255-49-3 under Osborne, a winning percentage of .836. The 255 victories are the sixth-most all-time among major college football coaches. The winning percentage ranks fifth all-time. His achievements are such that the National Football Foundation waived its three-year waiting period so that he could be inducted into its Hall of Fame in December of 1998.
In Osborne's final five seasons, Nebraska was a combined 60-3.
"I want to make sure when I leave this program I leave it in the best shape I possibly can," Osborne said. "So I'm very anxious that anybody who is thinking about going to the University of Nebraska understands that there probably isn't a whole lot (that's) going to change. One guy's moving out. But in terms of the overall program, in terms of stability, in terms of our ability to get the job done, not much is going to change."
To that end, Osborne, with Athletic Director Bill Byrne's sanction, picked long-time assistant and former Cornhusker fullback Frank Solich as his replacement. Despite being beset by injuries, Solich's first team won nine games in 1998 to claim Nebraska's 30th consecutive bowl trip. His second team went 12-1, avenging its only loss to Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game and defeating Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl game to finish No. 2 (ESPN/Coaches) and No. 3 (AP) in the national rankings.
The 1999 team may have been Solich's best, even though the 2001 team, led by NU's third Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, played for the BCS national title in the Rose Bowl against a Miami team laden with NFL talent. The trip to Pasadena for the "granddaddy" of all bowl games was Nebraska's first since its first-ever bowl trip, following the 1940 season.
Defining plays in Crouch's Heisman Trophy dash included a 95-yard touchdown run against Missouri and a 63-yard scoring catch in a 20-10 upset of No. 2 Oklahoma.
Solich coached for two more seasons, making dramatic changes on his staff following a 7-7 record in 2002. His 2003 team went 9-3 in the regular season, before adding an Alamo Bowl win.
Despite going 58-19 (.753 winning percentage) in his six seasons at the helm of the Huskers, Solich was removed by first-year Athletic Director Steve Pederson following Nebraska's 31-22 win at Colorado on Nov. 28, 2003.
With Solich's departure, defensive coordinator Bo Pelini took the reins of the NU program for the Huskers' 2003 Alamo Bowl battle against Michigan State. Pelini's defense, which tied a school record by forcing 47 turnovers, including a school-record and nation-leading 32 interceptions and a nation-leading plus-23 turnover margin in 2003, silenced a high-powered Spartan passing attack in a 17-3 Husker victory.
Pelini's first stint as head coach lasted just one game. Pederson hired Bill Callahan, who had led the NFL's Oakland Raiders to Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season.
Callahan was announced as NU's 27th head coach 41 days after Solich's removal.He brought the West Coast Offense to Nebraska, and after a 5-6 record in his first season in 2004, led NU to an 8-4 mark and a 32-28 win over Michigan in the 2005 Alamo Bowl. NU won the Big 12 North Division title under Callahan in 2006, finishing with a 9-5 record after a loss to No. 10 Auburn in the 2007 Cotton Bowl.
The Huskers continued to rewrite NU's passing records with quarterbacks Sam Keller and Joe Ganz, but Nebraska's historically dominant Blackshirt defense struggled in 2007. The Huskers lost six of their final seven games to finish 5-7. Pederson was removed as NU's athletic director in October, and Chancellor Harvey Perlman brought Osborne back as the Huskers' new athletic director. Osborne replaced Callahan, who had led NU to its first two losing seasons in more than 45 years. Just eight days after Callahan was removed and just nine days after NU's season-ending 65-51 loss to Colorado, Pelini and his hard-hitting defensive style returned to Nebraska.
Osborne officially introduced Pelini as NU's head coach on Dec. 2, 2007, a day after Pelini's LSU defense helped the Tigers to the SEC title. Five weeks later, Pelini guided a swarming LSU squad to a win in the BCS National Championship Game.
Nebraska was 9-4 in Pelini's first season in 2008, capped by a Gator Bowl victory over Clemson. Pelini's Huskers, powered by a stifling defense led by Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski and Bednarik award-winning defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, won the Big 12 North in 2009. Along the way, the Huskers celebrated the NCAA-record 300th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium with a 55-0 shutout of Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 26, 2009. Nebraska also capped a 10-win season with a 33-0 win over Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. NU added a 10-win season and a Big 12 North title in 2010, after announcing it would be Nebraska's last season in the Big 12.
Nebraska moved to the Big Ten Conference in 2011 and has compiled nine or 10 wins in each of its four seasons in the conference. The highlight of NU's time in the Big Ten Conference was an appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game in 2012, when NU notched a 10-4 overall record.
Following the 2014 regular season, Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst replaced Pelini with Mike Riley, a veteran of 40 years in the coaching profession. Riley came to the Huskers after 14 successful seasons at Oregon State, along with time as a head coach in the National Football League and Canadian Football League.
In Riley's first two seasons the Huskers have made bowl trips, including a 37-29 victory over UCLA at the Foster Farms Bowl in 2015.
Nebraska starts its 128th season of football in 2017.