Randy York’s N-Sider
The night before John Melton's memorial service at Lincoln’s First Plymouth Congregational Church is an appropriate time to ask Husker Nation to sit down, chill a bit and read about the ultra-rocky relationship between the late Bob Devaney and Jerry Murtaugh, an All-America linebacker and co-captain on Devaney’s first national championship team. The time is right because Murtaugh plans to spill the beans about Devaney’s disdain for him when he speaks at the funeral anyway.
Timing is one of life’s greatest ironies. Nebraska Athletic Director Emeritus Tom Osborne regrettably had to tape his message for Melton’s funeral because he could not change an out-of-the-country retirement gift for his entire family. Margie Melton, John’s widow, asked Murtaugh, who has remained very close with his old linebacker coach, to speak from five to eight minutes at her husband’s memorial service.
Murtaugh will speak from the heart to honor a man he has made a point to see every month for years upon years, along with Van Brownson and others. As the years went by, players joined Melton in his dream backyard facing hole No. 7 at Woodland Hills in Eagle, Neb., where there’s a sanctuary nestled among at least one tree more than 100 years old. The former Huskers would join their favorite Nebraska coach in a group of Adirondack chairs and cover every topic you can imagine – politics, religion and everything in between. But somehow, the conversation would always end up relating to Big Red football – what it was like way back when, how it's going now and what might happen in the future.
Melton: Murtaugh Caused Multiple Problems
“John always told me I was the only guy who got him fired and caused his first heart attack, and I’m very proud of that because he was the one who always came to my rescue when Bob Devaney had had enough of me,” Murtaugh said, pointing to Melton’s knack to be incredibly loyal to both at the same time. That was no small feat, especially when Devaney fired Melton twice for the same reason – his inability to control a superior athlete from North Omaha who simply could not stay out of T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
Both firings lasted only one day, but they were intended to make a serious point for Murtaugh, who remains Nebraska’s second all-time leading tackler, even though it's been more than four decades since he last pulled an authentic Blackshirt over his head. “I just couldn’t stop hitting quarterbacks, even when they were off-limits in certain drills,” he said. “Bob never liked me, but that was only one of several reasons why.”
Devaney’s war with Murtaugh was never-ending. Truth be told, the roots of their fractured relationship traces back to Devaney’s recruitment of a physical linebacker who had five sisters and four brothers. All the Southern schools, plus Notre Dame, Southern Cal and Oklahoma recruited Murtaugh, who didn’t see Nebraska’s Hall-of-Fame head football coach and iconic trailblazer any differently than other head coaches pursuing him. Finally, when Murtaugh had given OU an oral commitment without so much as a visit – and was contemplating switching that decision to Colorado – Devaney and Murtaugh sat down and had a heart-to-heart talk in Omaha.
Devaney Helped Turn His World Right Side Up
Devaney told Murtaugh that the Big Eight pendulum was swinging and if he wound up at Oklahoma, he was going to miss playing in front of his family every week when Nebraska was winning the Big Eight and beating OU down the stretch.”He told me I was going to be an unknown,” said Murtaugh, who changed his focus and signed his National Letter of Intent with Nebraska, but continued to torment his head coach throughout his career.
Barry Alvarez, an All-Big Eight Husker linebacker in 1968, remembers Murtaugh's refusal to go to Nebraska’s 1971 Orange Bowl game unless his infant daughter could make the trip as well. Devaney said no. Melton said no. Everybody said no. Wednesday I asked Murtaugh if that was true. “Yes,” he said. “I was bound and determined not to go. In fact, I refused. Coach Melton got so frustrated, he could hardly talk, but he found a way to get me to go. He asked his first wife (the late Bev Melton) to talk to me. She knew I had my mind set, and she finally quit arguing my point and said: ‘I understand why you’re upset. Don’t go to play for Coach Devaney or for John. Go to Miami for your teammates. Go for the state of Nebraska. Go to help Nebraska win its first-ever national championship.’”
Somehow, Bev Melton cracked a hard-headed skull that was otherwise impenetrable. “She’s the only reason I went to Miami,” Murtaugh said. “When I got there, I was still irritated and went up and told Mrs. Melton: ‘You’re the only reason I’m here, and you’re the only one who could talk me into it. Thank you!’”
Not His Greatest Game, but He Learned From It
Murtaugh’s Orange Bowl performance reflected his attitude. “I think I only had seven tackles,” he said. “LSU took good care of me, but they let (middle guard) Eddie Periard run loose and (defensive end) Willie Harper had the game of his life. LSU was so busy blocking me, they forgot about Eddie and Willie, who was a sophomore at the time. That game became his springboard to become an All-American himself the next year.”
Make no mistake. There were times when Melton would get every bit as mad at Murtaugh as Devaney would. “I would drive Coach Devaney and Coach Melton absolutely nuts,” Murtaugh said. “I was goofy, no question.”
Finally, during month-long family vacations together on an island near Honduras, or in a dream backyard in Eagle, Melton and Murtaugh reached a conclusion. “John finally said that you have to be half nuts to play linebacker, and you have to be half nuts to coach linebackers, so we’re all a little off the charts. We applied the same principles to guys like (Mike) Knox and (Marc) Munford and (Steve) Damkroger and Barry (Alvarez), and all the other linebackers just like them, and we concluded we were just doing the job we were called to do.”
In This Potential Footrace, Neither Would Win
Alvarez attended Wednesday night's visitation to honor the man who recruited him, and Murtaugh couldn’t help but remember what Melton would say about him and Barry. “If you two ever got in a footrace, neither one of you would win,” Melton once said, and the echo of that quip still draws healthy laughter from both former Husker linebackers.
To this day, deep inside Murtaugh’s head, he finds it difficult to view turmoil the same way his coaches did. “I didn’t see anything as a problem, but everybody else did,” he said, adding that, if Devaney were still alive, the two would still clash like a set of cymbals in the Cornhusker Marching Band. “I’d still be hitting the quarterbacks that they’d be trying to protect, and Coach Devaney would still get mad and fire Coach Melton for not being able to control me. Every time Coach Devaney would get mad, Coach Melton would look at me, shake his head and repeat the same three words … ‘Jerry, Jerry, Jerry … what are we going to do with you?’”
Whenever Coach Melton would call Murtaugh by his last name, he'd feel trouble free, and that was another conclusion the two made when they'd find the time to share more stories than most family reunions.
He Was Blessed, Loved His Flowers, at Peace
“John loved it when his former players would drive to Eagle to see him and just sit around with their stogies and talk,” Margie Melton said Wednesday. “He loved that the family was coming for Father’s Day. He had his cathedral of flowers all in place and aligned in his favorite setting near the dogleg on the seventh hole. He died right there in the midst of all the roses he was caring for. His heart just stopped. There was no pain. He told me that morning how blessed we were and how beautiful everything was. He was at peace.”
Margie didn’t want to put pressure on Murtaugh to talk about a man he was so close to, but she also knows that her late husband would have wanted No. 42 to be the one to help others take a stroll back through memory lane. Since John Melton was one of Bob Devaney’s staunchest loyalists, it is only fitting that one of his best all-time players would share stories that will bring more laughter than tears.
That’s the way someone who coached for Devaney at Wyoming and Nebraska would want people to remember the role he played in a state that he dearly loved.
Devaney and Murtaugh Finally Saw Eye-to-Eye
We’re compelled to end this column with an important footnote. “Coach Devaney and I never saw eye-to-eye in the four years I was at Nebraska,” said Murtaugh, who who hosts a Legends radio show in Omaha. “There was a reason we clashed. Bob was Irish Catholic, and so am I, so we were both too darned stubborn. At his retirement party, Bob’s late wife (Phylis) finally got the two of us together, and we had a great conversation. Bob told me that everyone thought he was a great football coach and that he really wasn’t. He told me he just hired the nine greatest assistants in the country, and he insisted they were the ones who made the national championships happen, not him.”
As Murtaugh prepares to honor one of those nine coaches Thursday, he knows exactly what Devaney meant. “We lost one of our best,” Murtaugh said. “He worked for a coach who knew it wasn’t about him, and we played for an assistant who felt the same way. We’ve all been truly blessed. There’s absolutely no question about that.”
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Voices from Husker Nation
Thanks for an informative and entertaining article which matches that great era of college football. You also used one of my all-time favorite Husker coach/captains photo that graced the front of a game program each year! This particular photo of Schneiss, Devaney and Murtaugh was from the 1970 Nebraska-Army game – a photo that also appeared on the cover of the old Nebraska Farmer magazine. My favorite John Melton story, which aired on a Paul Harvey broadcast, followed Nebraska’s 1986 last-second loss to Oklahoma in Lincoln. Melton told reporters afterwards that he slept like a baby the night following the game. "I woke up every two hours and cried," he said. Kevin Horn, Alliance, Nebraska
Terrific article on Murtaugh, Devaney and Melton! Thank you, as always, for your insight into the program. Marilyn Tallman, Jackson, Nebraska
I just love the way you tell a story for the same reason I love Public Radio, Public TV and CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Karault and now Charles Osgood. All too often the media seems to be in a rush to say it quick, dumb it down, and suck the heart right out of it all. You are a master of word choice, phrase usage, and paragraph placement. You seem to slow things down to a pace where we can sit in our easy chairs and soak it all in. You are "Old School" in the best sense of the word. Thanks for the great column. I felt as if I was "On The Road" with Charles Kuralt, relaxing in one of those Adirondack chairs amongst the flowers with Melton, Murtaugh and Devaney. Cheers! John Ilgenfritz, Helena, Montana
What a great guy and a great coach with a tremendous sense of humor. Coach Melton always brought a smile to my face. Devaney brought a lot of great assistants to Lincoln, and they truly were the backbone of the Nebraska dynasty, and John was my all-time favorite. He will be missed. Very nice article. Bob Jones, Omaha, Nebraska
Awesome story Mr. York! I really enjoyed reading it. Coach Melton is still my favorite NU assistant coach! He was so funny at coaching clinics whenever he spoke, but he knew how to coach linebackers! Steve Borer, Assistant Principal/AD, Seward High School, Seward, Nebraska
I played baseball in those years at UNL, and every time I saw Coach Melton, he would take the time to say hello. I never knew him real well but anyone who takes time to say hello to another person is special. Great article. It made me cry. Clayton Luther, Grand Island, Nebraska