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Nebraska football fans will be hunting for copies of next week's issue of Sporting News The Magazine because it features a cover photo of someone you'll recognize. He's wearing his fabled No. 20 jersey and an old-fashioned facemask. Yes, this cover shows Johnny Rodgers being greeted by Paul Schneider, Nebraska's late trainer, with a bear hug after "The Jet" returned to the sidelines following another electrifying touchdown.
In a letter personally addressed to him, Rodgers calculatingly surprised 56 Husker teammates representing 21 states Friday night at Nebraska's Champions Club. During a speech to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Nebraska's first perfect record and second national championship, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner was interrupted and handed an official letter on Sporting News stationary.
It came from Editor-in-Chief Garry D. Howard of the Charlotte, N.C.-based national publication. Howard wrote: "While we didn't intend to announce this until Sporting News the Magazine hit newsstands next week, we just couldn't miss this special opportunity to announce to you tonight this fact: "The 1971 Cornhusker football team has been named by The Sporting News - in a vote of some of the biggest names in college football - the best team in 125 years of collegiate football ... the absolute best ... top of the heap ...A-No. 1!"
The instant Rodgers started spreading the news, the entire room stood up and gave a rather rousing ovation, especially considering that co-captain Jerry Tagge joked before Rodgers spoke that most had spent the evening talking about grandkids and social security benefits.
On the eve of Nebraska's first-ever game as a member of the storied Big Ten Conference, NU Athletic Director Tom Osborne hosted the reunion and may have known what was coming next when Rodgers read from Sporting News letter.
"...the 1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers won this vote quite handily, by the way, placing well ahead of Nebraska's 1995 team led by All-American quarterback Tommie Frazier ... voted No. 4, and in front of some very deserving teams in the 1972 USC Trojans (No. 2), the 1974 Oklahoma Sooners (No. 3) and the 1956 Sooners (No. 5)."
'71 Team Holds Special Place in Osborne's Heart
When Osborne's '95 Husker team was mentioned, there was laughter in the room, causing Rodgers to look at his one-time position coach and offensive coordinator at the head table and say: "Coach, I'm not making this up. I'm reading what they wrote."
Osborne laughed. The day before, though, in front of a packed Huskers Athletic Fund Luncheon at a downtown Lincoln hotel, he choked up talking about the 1971 team. Explaining how Nebraska followed a 35-31 Game of the Century win over Oklahoma with a 38-6 triumph over an unbeaten Bear Bryant-coached Alabama team in the Orange Bowl, Osborne said: "That was a big moment for Bob Devaney, so I will always remember that. We had a heck of an offense, a heck of a defense and a great kicking game. Johnny Rodgers was worth seven to 10 points a game that season in the kicking game alone."
Osborne was funny and under control Friday night, reminding the now senior citizen Huskers that they were finishing the banquet before 8 o'clock so they could prepare for Saturday's festivities, which include signing autographs at Husker Nation Pavilion from noon to 1:30 p.m., helping to form a line for Nebraska's historic Tunnel Walk entrance onto the field and being honored at halftime following a four-minute video that drips with history and nostalgia.
Forty years after their amazing accomplishment, Husker players know that any "best ever" tag is subjective and can be challenged, but many feel fairly strongly that The Sporting News is right on in its comparative analysis. Here are some members of the '71 team who came to this weekend's reunion feeling Nebraska still deserves the "best ever" designation:
Outland Trophy winner Larry Jacobson: "We had 25 guys from that team make it to the pros. We spent 140 total years in the pros with 115 in the NFL; 12 of our 22 starting positions made All-Big Eight (seven on defense; five on offense); five were drafted in the NFL's first round and four were consensus All-Americans; Johnny, of course, won the Heisman; two of us won the Outland; to win the national championship, we had to beat the 2nd, 3rd and 4th-ranked teams, not just one or two of them; we shut-out three teams and seven other teams only scored 7 points or less on us; only three teams scored more than one touchdown against us, while our scores ranged from 31 to 55 points; our lowest scoring game of the season was a 31-7 win over the team that finished third in the final poll; and the only game we trailed in all season was Oklahoma."
Third-Team All-America Offensive Tackle Carl Johnson: I strongly believe we were the best ever. When the pre-season rankings came out, we were No. 1. Everybody was gunning for us each week, and we ran the table to go 13-0. At the end of the season, we were still rated No. 1, Oklahoma No. 2 and Colorado No. 3. Nebraska was the only team to beat Oklahoma. Nebraska and Oklahoma were the only teams to beat Colorado. Many fans make the argument as to who they believe was the best college football team ever. However, our team was named the "Greatest College Football Team" at least three times from various football writers and/or coaches polls in the 29 years prior to 2000. In 1999, we were voted the Team of the Century. I think we have a pretty good case! The way I see it, we had Coach Devaney's spunk, Coach Osborne's dedication and commitment and Coach (Monte) Kiffin's nastiness."
Kicker Rich Sanger: I think our team was the best ever simply by handling all comers. Only because of the size difference, today's teams would probably handle our team, but even with the size difference, they would be in for a battle. This entire group of guys was extremely talented and focused. The coaching staff was the best in football, hands down. They probably forgot more football than our competitors knew. In a battle of the wits, the opponents' coaches were comparatively unarmed!
Switzer Knew Huskers Would 'Roll' Tide
Nebraska had another surprise supporter in the room Friday night - Barry Switzer, the Oklahoma coach that wanted to be "The last man standing" in the Game of the Century, but lost because of star-studded performances from Rodgers, Kinney, Glover and others. Switzer "attended" the reunion via video and declared that both teams knew the 1971 national championship game was played on Thanksgiving Day in Norman.
He reminisced about his Sooners leading Auburn, 32-0, at halftime of the Sugar Bowl that year and telling one of his assistant coaches he wondered what Alabama was thinking watching that game and knowing they had to play Nebraska that night.
"We were a machine in 1971," walk-on defensive end John Hyland said. "We had a swagger, a confidence, a great defense and a potent offense. They were, for all purposes, both ahead of their time. I mean, Monte Kiffin was our defensive coordinator (Can you say Tampa 2?), and people forget who started the spread offense - our offensive coordinator, Dr. Tom Osborne. He helped make Johnny Rodgers famous and win the Heisman."
Even though all eyes were on Johnny as a speaker, not to mention his phenomenal punt returns during continuous video highlights, Rodgers defrayed the attention. "You don't win a Heisman or a national championship without a great team," he said before being interrupted, then opening an envelope to announce the biggest news of the night.
Rodgers Gave Game Ball to Dying Teammate
In 1971, the Huskers had walk-ons and superstars. They had players who were recruited from across the country, and they had a teammate who was dying from cancer yet still gave them strength.
Friday night's room got quiet when Rodgers mentioned how Devaney dispatched an ambulance, so the late Rex Lowe could join his teammates in Miami for its last hurrah. It made for an emotional locker room, and Johnny the Jet made sure that Lowe, a wide receiver who was weakening by the day, got the game ball. Two weeks later, he died.
The memory of Lowe and thoughts of seven other deceased teammates live on because they were, are and always will be a big part of a team that's excited to be re-anointed best team ever.
That's one thing that'll never get old ... for any of them.
Randy (Please include your residence with your comment)
Voices from Husker Nation
Man, woman and child, did Johnny Rodgers put me in the aisle Saturday. Yes, the 40-year-old film on Nebraska's big screen at halftime brought back great memories for all of us sitting in the South Stadium and everywhere else. It choked me up, and several people around me, so I can only imagine how those 56 players on the field felt. Congratulations, "Best team in 125 years of college football" and make sure you come back again soon! You may be the biggest treasure in our all-time treasure chest. Steve Harris, Omaha, Nebraska
Editor's note: Players on the 1971 team have decided to hold their own private reunions on an annual basis, so maybe they'll find time to sign a few more autographs on return trips. To a man, they appreciated the heart-felt welcome from Big Red fans Saturday. It helped all of them understand how much they are still appreciated and valued in Memorial Stadium.
You can't imagine the goose bumps I had when I opened the page with The Sporting News article today. I road-tripped from Lincoln to Norman for the Game of the Century with my girlfriend and another couple. I still have my ticket stub to prove it. Jerry Tagge, John Kinsel, Stan Hegener and Tony Davis from that team were in my fraternity! I had classes with John Dutton and others. Here's the kicker (pun intended): Rich Sanger's autograph is one of few I am missing from an autographed football I have in my possession (locked away). Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne and Monte Kiffin lead the extraordinary list of more than 60 signatures on this ball that includes every player and coach in this article, plus an Brownson, Steve Runty, Rich Glover, Joe Blahak, Bob Terrio, et al. Hail Huskers! Thomas Weddingfeld, NU '74, Pender, Neb. native now living in Tucson, Arizona
I saw your article about the 1971 best team on Huskers.com. I called The Sporting News, and they couldn't tell me if it is out or already been out. They need the issue number. You say we will scramble to get it. When will it be out? Tom Van Horn, Goose Creek, South Carolina
Editor's note: The cover story on the 1971 Nebraska team will be distributed Tuesday. The editor-in-chief of the publication decided to make the announcement earlier because of the timing of the 40-year reunion of Nebraska's national championship team.