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In 1995, when Nick Saban was head coach at Michigan State, defending national champion Nebraska, coached by Tom Osborne, beat Saban’s Spartans, 50-10. As Saban walked off his own stadium’s turf in East Lansing that day, Osborne made sure he patted him on the back and told him something he needed to hear – that his team was not nearly as bad as he was thinking it might be.
Saban remembered that 17-year-old experience this week in Miami when his Alabama Crimson Tide crushed Notre Dame, 42-14, in the BCS national championship game at the Orange Bowl. Getting encouragement from a legend after being on the wrong end of a lopsided game was emotional fodder for a young coach trying to make his mark.
Now that he’s building his own dynasty, recruiting future NFL talent and dominating college football’s hottest conference, Saban might be interested to learn about another Osborne observation that takes us all the way back to 1971 – the year Nebraska outlasted Oklahoma, 35-31, in the Game of the Century and then, in its next game, the Huskers steamrolled Alabama, 38-6. Talk about a national championship mismatch. Bear Bryant’s No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide were simply no match for Bob Devaney’s No. 1-ranked Cornhuskers.
Johnny Rodgers electrified 78,151 Orange Bowl fans with a 77-yard first-quarter punt-return touchdown and by the time Gary Dixon scored a short touchdown, Nebraska’s legend was leading Bama’s legend, 28-0, and there were still nine minutes remaining before halftime!
While the offense exploded, thanks in part to fullback Bill Olds’ bruising style of running and blocking, the Blackshirts – led by the likes of Rich Glover, Willie Harper, Jim Branch and John Adkins – were keeping Alabama All-America running back Johnny Musso in check and out of the end zone.
“That game was a big deal to Bob,” Osborne said, pointing out that Steve Sloan and Kenny Stabler-led ‘Bama teams had beaten previous Devaney-coached teams in the 1966 Orange Bowl (39-28) and the 1967 Sugar Bowl (34-7).
It’s Time to Climb into a Time Machine
It’s hard to imagine that a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game four decades ago was even more lopsided than Monday night’s Alabama-Notre Dame “showdown”. It’s even more difficult to climb inside the time machine and realize the dramatic cultural differences in each team’s skin color.
Rodgers, Dixon, Olds, Glover, Harper, Branch and Adkins – all African-Americans – were making plays all over the Orange Bowl field. At that time, heavily influenced by a game a year earlier when Sam “Bam” Cunningham and a USC all-African-American backfield beat Bear’s Alabama team by three touchdowns, Southeastern Conference teams were in their earliest stages of integration.
With its deep Southern roots, it’s not surprising that the SEC was the last major conference in America to be integrated, according to Dr. Richard Lapchick, author of the book 100 Pioneers: African-Americans Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport.
“I know people talk about how USC beat Alabama in Birmingham the year before we beat Alabama rather soundly in Miami, but I also know that our game in that Orange Bowl was a big factor that began to erode the color barriers even more in the South,” Osborne told me this week.
There’s a reason why Devaney’s offensive coordinator in 1971 feels that way. “I remember some Alabama assistant coaches coming up to me after the game and asking where we got all of our good black players,” Osborne recalled this week. “I told them that there were a lot of good black football players right there in the state of Alabama, and they looked at me and just didn’t believe me.”
Huskers’ Black Players from All Over America
For the record, Nebraska had no Alabama natives on that 1971 team, which The Sporting News recently voted “The Greatest College Football Team of All-Time”. Nebraska’s black players were from all over America. Rodgers was from Omaha; Dixon from Oxnard, Calif.; Olds from Kansas City; Glover from Jersey City, N.J.; Harper from Toledo; Branch from Chicago; and Adkins from Lynchburg, Va.
Make no mistake. Osborne eventually hired Jack Pierce as an assistant coach who recruited more than his fair share of African-American players from the South, including Alabama, after coaching prep football there before moving to Lincoln.
Remember Andra Franklin? He was a first-team All-Big Eight fullback in 1980 and became a member of the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame 10 years later after being drafted in the NFL’s second round and playing four years for the Miami Dolphins.
Remember Jeff Merrell? He was a three-year NU letter-winning middle guard from Huntsville, Ala. “I was coaching at Anniston High School when Jeff played for Butler High School,” Pierce recalled Thursday. “Jeff stopped Andra three straight times on a goal-line stand, and they beat us by four points in the state championship game. I’ve never seen one guy do something like that before or since.”
Remember Dwayne Harris? He was the Husker defensive end from Bessemer, Ala., and absolutely pivotal to Osborne’s first of three national championship teams. After Miami went up 17-7 in the third quarter of the 1995 Orange Bowl, Nebraska went three-and-out. Shortly thereafter, Harris tackled Miami quarterback Frank Costa for a safety on a second down from the Miami 4-yard line. The play allowed the Huskers to cut Miami’s margin to 17-9, and Nebraska went on to sack Costa five times in that game. Harris had three of those five for 11 yards in losses, counting the safety. He finished that historic game with six tackles.
Nebraska Played Meaningful Role in ‘Bama Change
We could go on, but the only point that truly matters is that Nebraska, in some measure, played a meaningful role that helped Alabama see, and, perhaps, even understand the merits of a fully integrated football team 41 years ago.
“If memory serves, I think Alabama had one African-American player on that 1971 team we beat in the Orange Bowl,” Osborne said. “I do know that it wasn’t long after that game that Alabama started putting a lot more effort into finding and recruiting black players.”
Because of Osborne’s encouragement in 1995, Saban invited Osborne to speak at a coaching clinic in Alabama a few years ago. The two coaches developed a decent friendship and still find time to talk on the phone. “I know this,” Osborne said. “Nick Saban is a great recruiter, and I’ve shared some of his thoughts on recruiting with all of our coaches across all of our sports.”
The N-Sider has more stories on the Nebraska-Alabama relationship, and we will tell those stories while Osborne serves the first half of this year as Nebraska’s Athletic Director Emeritus. While we wait for more wisdom based on historical context, let’s go back to December, 2007, when ESPN ran an extensive vote to determine who was the “Greatest College Football Coach of All Time”.
Even though he trailed in a national showdown of brisk online voting, Osborne, NU’s interim athletic director at the time, finished with 52 percent of the final vote. Bear Bryant was second with 37 percent, followed by Eddie Robinson (4 percent), Joe Paterno (3 percent) and four coaches who each received 1 percent of that vote – Bobby Bowden, Woody Hayes, Barry Switzer and Knute Rockne.
Osborne Puts Truth Ahead of Winning, Losing
We all know that Alabama is building a dynasty to rival Osborne’s 60-3 run over five consecutive seasons. We also know that Saban is positioning himself to go beyond a Husker legend that played a vital role on a team that helped the Crimson Tide change its culture and move into a braver and an infinitely better world than the one they were experiencing four decades ago.
Nebraska’s second straight national title in 1971 was the worst loss in Bear Bryant’s Alabama career. A Nebraska assistant, a coach I know but whose name I will not divulge, told Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins four decades ago that “We could have beat Alabama bad but Bob isn’t that kind of guy.”
Read the SI account at the top of this column. Jenkins wrote that The Bear came into that game with “all the glamor and stature that any football situation or game ever needs.” It was something Devaney never had until that life-changing experience for both Hall-of-Fame legends. Bear told Jenkins the Huskers “might have been the greatest (team) I’ve ever seen.” One thing seemed more certain. That humbling experience reset Bear Bryant’s recruiting dial, and Nick Saban is still mastering the lesson that was learned when the moon over Miami went down that night, and a college football powerhouse started its way back up to the top.
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Voices from Husker Nation
I can confirm the accuracy of your story from another perspective. I was traveling in Alabama sometime in the early '80s and met a group of African-Americans in a business setting, and the conversation turned to football. I noted how Nebraska beat Alabama for the 1971 National Championship, at which point these guys stopped me while saying: "Hey, wait a minute, every African-American in Alabama was cheering for Nebraska that night because you (Nebraska) played black players. We wanted Nebraska to win!" They then told me about going into a locked room so no one could see or hear them cheering for Nebraska. I have to tell you that made me really proud to be a Nebraska fan! I have never forgotten that story and have told it often about the change I have witnessed in college football. My son finds it hard to believe that I can remember when the SEC and Southern schools didn't have any black players. He just shakes his head. Or maybe he just thinks I am really, really old. Happy New Year and thanks for the great story. Stuart Jenkins, Goleta, California
I enjoyed your article about “Was Nebraska a Catalyst in ‘Bama Dynasty?”. You spoke about Nebraska’s 38-6 beat-down of Alabama in the Orange Bowl. I was there as a member of the UNL marching band. I purchased some white freezer paper from my hometown grocer in Hartington (Neb.) and made a 15-foot sign that read: “Bama’s Stallion Is a Gelding”. After halftime, two friends from the band and I started walking around the perimeter of the field holding the sign. We received some great cheers and applause from Husker fans, but nothing good from the ‘Bama fans. We were part way past an Alabama section when a police officer stopped me and said: “Son, I don’t think you want to go any farther in front of those fans”. So we laughed and cheered and hustled back to the “safety” of the band section. Thanks for the good memories and your excellent writing. Roger Christensen, Gering, Nebraska
If I had become a writer some 30-odd years ago instead of a carpenter, I hope I would have been just like you. I love your articles. Thank you. Cal Bretz, Billings, Montana
Thanks for a great history lesson that I never even knew existed! That time machine you mentioned beats pretty dadgum fast. I lived through it, but forgot about it and still can't believe all of it happened just four decades ago. Seems more like 80 years to me! Thanks for reactivating history! Nebraska may have dealt 'Bama its worst loss in history, but it also has to be considered the Tide's best loss ever. I honestly had no idea that Nebraska played such an important historical role. When reality bites, things change. Congratulations, Alabama! You owe us! Steve Thomas, Denver, Colorado