Devaney Changed Culture, Instilled Belief
Nebraska’s new football coach inherited players who were downtrodden by losing, and he couldn’t pinpoint why, because he detected plenty of talent.
To change the culture and mindset, he began emphasizing better training, and focused specifically on weight training.
He instilled confidence. He brought belief. He changed attitudes.
Of course, he’d done all of that at his previous coaching stop, too, but at a program that wasn’t going to consistently garner national attention. At Nebraska, which boasted outstanding fan support, despite the recent losing, the new coach and his staff felt strongly about the opportunity to win a national championship.
Yeah, Mike Devaney sees many similarities between his father, legendary coach Bob Devaney, and today’s coach, Scott Frost, and the initial circumstances they faced when becoming Nebraska's head coach.
“What he did down in Florida was an amazing achievement,” Mike Devaney said of Frost’s two-year run at UCF, where he produced records of 6-6 and 13-0 after inheriting a team that had gone winless the prior season. “In the two years it took him to turn that around, I don’t know that I’ve seen a better performance than that.”
What Bob Devaney did from 1962-1972, the beginning of the Big Red Renaissance, is certainly, at the very least, on par.
It’s why the late Devaney joins a group of familiar names for induction into the University of Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame, which honors its 2018 class during a dinner on Sept. 7 at 6:15 p.m. at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The seven member class includes Devaney, former football coach and Director of Athletics Tom Osborne, former football and baseball player Darin Erstad, former volleyball player Sarah Pavan, former softball player Peaches James, former gymnast Tom Schlesinger and former football player and Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier.
Tickets to the reserved seating event are $75 and can be purchased at onehuskernation.com/hall-of-fame. Deadline is Friday, Aug. 24.
Mike Devaney and his wife, Suz; daughter, Kindra Tatarsky and husband, Glenn; his son, Rob and grandchildren will attend, as will Bob Devaney’s daughter, Pat, her son, Denis and wife, Dora and grandchildren.
“It’s a nice honor, and I’m glad they’re recognizing my dad,” Mike Devaney said. “Sometimes I get the feeling that I think he’s a forgotten entity. It seems like over time, a lot of things tend to overshadow him.
“We appreciate the acknowledgment, and we always enjoy coming back to the games. We’re always treated very well.”
Devaney thought the induction occurring the same year as Frost becoming head coach made perfect sense, given the similarities between the situations both coaches faced upon taking over at Nebraska.
Before Bob Devaney arrived, Nebraska had recorded just three winning records over the previous 21 years. He immediately produced a 9-2 record in his first season in 1962, and in his first five seasons, he produced a winning percentage of 85 percent, higher than that of Osborne, his coaching successor.
Devaney also had the highest winning percentage in the country of any coach at the time of his retirement in 1972, a year after leading Nebraska to its second consecutive national championship, the first two in program history.
That fulfilled the "best case scenario" presented to Devaney when he first learned of the job.
UNL chancellor Clifford Hardin, who had been head of the agricultural department at Michigan State, called Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty to gauge his interest in replacing Bill Jennings, fired at Nebraska after going 15-34-1 over five seasons.
Daugherty said no, but told Hardin he should contact Bob Devaney, Daugherty's former assistant at Michigan State, who was then head coach at Wyoming. Daugherty then called Bob and told him he might be getting a call from Nebraska. He advised him to listen.
“He told Dad, ‘That might be a really good job. If you win, you can win national championships,’ ” Mike Devaney said.
So Bob Devaney came to Lincoln for an interview, but did so under an assumed name – Mr. Roberts. He returned home with film on the Nebraska team he would inherit, and Mike remembers watching it with his dad.
“He said, ‘You know, they have more good football players than we had at Michigan State.’ And yet they were 3-6 the year before (with one tie). He said, ‘I don’t understand why they’re not winning football games.’ ”
(Sure enough, Devaney would coach 14 players recruited by Jennings who eventually would be NFL Draft picks.)
Devaney brought most of his staff with him, including John Melton, Jim Ross, Mike Corgan and Carl Selmer. Cletus Fischer remained on staff from the Jennings era, and previous Devaney assistant Lloyd Eaton stayed behind in Laramie and became head coach. He went 57-33-2 over nine seasons.
Mike Devaney believes that because his father grew up "on the rough side of the tracks” in Saginaw, Michigan, and was an amateur boxer who considered turning professional, that Bob believed strongly in physical training. Remember, Devaney and Boyd Epley were the original founders of “Husker Power” in 1969, when Nebraska became the birthplace of strength and conditioning for collegiate athletes.
Bob Devaney’s father was a seaman who worked the oar boats on the Great Lakes, and the family lived in a rough neighborhood. Mike recalls his father telling the story of hanging at the train tracks with his buddy, and the two deciding to jump a train that took them all the way to Florida.
The local foundry wanted Bob to pitch on its softball team, so people there gave him a job.
“He went there and thought he was going to be working in the factories,” Mike Devaney said, “and this guy talked to him and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in going to college if I could get you some help?’ My dad said, ‘Sure,’ but he never thought he had a chance to do that.”
Sure enough, Bob Devaney swept floors and waited tables to pay his tuition to Alma College, where he played football, baseball and threw the javelin, all the while boxing, too, and working in the foundry.
He got married during college and graduted in 1939. The college told Bob they’d find both and him and his bride, Phyllis, jobs if he promised he would help coach. And he did.
Devaney later joined the Michigan State staff in 1953 and became head coach at Wyoming in 1957 before landing at Nebraska. Mike remembers a picture in his dad’s office of two bums sitting by railroad tracks, with one of them captioned as saying, “ …and then I lost my sixth game to Kent State.”
That, Mike said, always served his father as a reminder of his roots.
Bob Devaney, who served as Nebraska Director of Athletics from 1967-1993, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. He died in 1997, the final year of Osborne’s coaching career, one that culminated in a national championship – with Frost at quarterback.
Today, Frost, beginning his first season as head coach, inherits a program with losing records in two of its last three seasons. He’s already instilled confidence and begun changing the culture, all the while emphasizing training and weightlifting. Frost has unyielding fan support and sees an opportunity to win a championship that wasn’t realistically possible to deliver at his previous school.
Mike Devaney thinks the similarities are uncanny. Even from his home today in Scottsdale, Arizona, he can feel the energy and enthusiasm Frost has brought to Lincoln.
“I really do think he’s going to do a great job,” Mike Devaney said. “I’m really looking forward to the season.”
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