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The most successful Big Ten Conference coach in Rose Bowl history had a recent knee replacement. Despite being dramatically limited in terms of mobility, he was making arrangements late Monday afternoon to fly privately to Lincoln. He refuses to miss Wednesday’s visitation and Thursday’s funeral for one of the most important people in his life … the man who convinced him that Arizona State, Virginia, West Virginia and Wake Forest were good schools, but they were no place like Nebraska.
“John Melton was not a great football mind, but he was a great recruiter and a real character,” Barry Alvarez said in a telephone conversation. “He wasn’t a head coach, but he was one of college football’s most loyal assistants. Don’t get me wrong. He understood the game and knew how to make adjustments during the game. But his best strength, by far, was recruiting. He recruited so many great players, and they all loved him, partly because he was such a character.”
Count Alvarez as the captain of that camp of players after Melton recruited him from the same high school he graduated from in Burgettstown, Pa. Melton was a member of Bob Devaney’s staff at the time and like his Irish boss, “John always had a one-liner that could crack you up,” Alvarez said. “That’s why everyone wanted to watch film when he was giving his analysis. He would tell you what happened, but he would make you laugh every time you took the time to watch.”
Melton Had the Ability to Laugh at Himself
Melton died unexpectedly and suddenly Saturday while working in his backyard in Eagle, Neb. He was 86, but his sense of humor made him seem younger. Nebraska Athletic Director Emeritus Tom Osborne always has appreciated Melton’s ability to laugh at himself, and Alvarez is another big fan of his self-deprecating personality.
“Recruiting was different back in the ‘60s,” Alvarez said. “Coach Melton came to see me and my parents in Pennsylvania the day after Nebraska played in the Orange Bowl. I was just getting out of basketball practice, and a bunch of big snowflakes were coming down. John shivered when he met me and said he forgot how cold it was in Burgettstown. I told him: ‘Coach, the temperature is 32 degrees. That’s why I’m wearing a light jacket. You mean, it doesn’t get cold like this in Nebraska?’”
Alvarez will never forget Melton’s comeback. “It gets cold sometimes,” he told Alvarez. “But in Nebraska, it’s a dry kind of cold, not a wet kind of cold.”
Alvarez became an All-Big Eight linebacker for the Huskers in 1968, a season when the Blackshirts led the nation in total defense. He laughs out loud just thinking about the characters recruited by a character himself. “I mean, John recruited (All-America end) Tony Jeter and (running back) Harry ‘Light Horse’ Wilson,” Alvarez pointed out. “He recruited all those players from Green Bay that played on Bob’s national championship teams – Jerry Tagge, Dave Mason, Jim Anderson and Dennis Gutzman.
Melton Recruited Iowa with Amazing Results
“John owned Iowa when he was recruiting for Devaney,” Alvarez said. “Everyone wanted Roger Craig and Jamie Williams, but John was the one who got their signatures. He was the one who recruited Scott Raridon and Steve McWhirter. He was one of those guys who could list all the positives of Nebraska, and after he did it, he could make you feel something without saying it. He could make you feel like if you didn’t choose Nebraska, you’d be a fool.”
Alvarez remembers how fiery Melton could be as a coach, and, according to Osborne, it didn’t make any difference what the score was. Nebraska could be 40 points ahead, and Melton would still get fired up like the Huskers were behind. Jim Ross was the first assistant to follow Devaney from Wyoming to Lincoln, and Melton was the second. Carl Selmer and Mike Corgan stayed in Laramie to see if either might follow Lloyd Eaton at Wyoming as head coach. They did not, so they joined Devaney’s staff in Lincoln. Devaney also retained Clete Fischer and George Kelly from the existing staff after Bill Jennings was fired, and his last two hires were two graduate assistants - Dallas Dyer and Osborne.
“Nebraska had a lot of excellent coaches, and it’s always sad to see them go,” Alvarez said. “Bob’s gone, Mike’s gone, Clete’s gone, George is gone, Jim’s gone and now John’s gone. Those guys helped put Nebraska football on the map. They’re all important parts of Nebraska history. They worked together, laughed together and won together.”
Laughter: Melton’s Ultimate Sign of Respect
About five years ago, Burgettstown was celebrating a state championship football team and asked Melton to be the featured speaker. Alvarez arranged for private flights to accommodate that request. “John had the whole room laughing and thoroughly entertained,” said Alvarez, who also invited Melton and Margie, his widow, as personal guests for the Nebraska-Wisconsin game in 2011 in Madison. At a luncheon on the Friday before the nationally televised night game, Wisconsin’s Hall of Fame football coach/athletic director introduced Melton to a large room full of Badger fans. Alvarez also allowed the emcee to show a film of him intercepting a pass against Wisconsin when he was a linebacker at Nebraska playing for Melton.
Melton told the emcee it was an easy play for the announcer to describe his runback on that interception. “Alvarez intercepts the ball. He’s at the 40, the 39, the 38,” Alvarez said, laughing. “John was an intense guy, but a funny guy and a creative guy. He always had people laughing.”
Melton’s funeral will be Thursday at 11 a.m. at First Plymouth Church in Lincoln. Poignant memories will be shared, tears will be shed and laughter will be an important sign of respect to honor Melton’s memory. He was, after all, a man who truly felt that a day without laughter was a day wasted.
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