50 Years Later: Q&A with Dennis Claridge
Randy York's N-Sider Blog
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Last Saturday, two hours before Nebraska and Michigan kicked off a nationally televised game, four Husker quarterbacks signed autographs at Husker Nation Pavilion. Dennis Claridge (1960s), Jerry Tagge (1970s), Craig Sundberg (1980s) and Tommie Frazier (1990s) accommodated Big Red fan requests to help Nebraska commemorate 50 Years of Sellouts: 5-Plus Decades of Excellence. Representing the most recent decade was quarterback Joe Ganz, an offensive intern on Bo Pelini's coaching staff. Because of game-day responsibilities, Ganz signed an 8x10-inch graphic that was handed out at the Pavilion. A quarterback and punter from Robbinsdale, Minn., Claridge became Bob Devaney's first quarterback starter at Nebraska. He led the 1962 Huskers to a 9-2 record and Nebraska's first ever bowl game win. The N-Sider asked Claridge if he would look back half a century at life in general and football in particular. A season ticket holder for both football and men's basketball, Claridge was kind enough to oblige.
Q: Do you have a Facebook or Twitter account?
A: Are you kidding me? I have no desire to have either.
Q: What music do you enjoy listening to most?
A: Country music and old country mostly. Waylon Jennings was always my favorite. I saw him in Las Vegas in the early '70s before he was popular. He was playing in a lounge show at the Golden Nugget. I was visiting my parents, and when I heard him, I went home, got (wife) Rhoda and took her to see him. That's when I became a country fan. I like most country at least 10 years or older.
Q: What's the one thing you learned from participating in college athletics?
A: I've learned lots of different things. The biggest thing is what that little ball has done to influence my life and all of it in a positive way. It's opened multitudes of doors. If I hadn't been a football player, I might not have gotten into dental school. If I hadn't been a football player, I might not have gotten into orthodontics school. The people you meet and the friends you make are just incredible.
Q: What was the most difficult part of playing for Bob Devaney?
A: For me, that's simple. I wish I could have had another year with him. It was a joy, and I didn't appreciate it enough at the time. I was too immature at that age to understand the privilege I had.
Q: What was the highlight of your athletic career?
A: It has to be the (1964) Orange Bowl, and I say that because that's what everybody recommends. The thing I'm proudest of is being an Academic All-American, and I thank (Sports Information Director) Don Bryant for that. He must have had some IOU's or something there to make that happen.
Q: What teammates have you remained in contact with over the years?
A: Lloyd Voss came to see us about every other year, and we enjoyed that. He had a liver transplant and died about three years ago. Dennis Stuewe comes by about every three or four years. I play golf quite a bit with Dwain Carlson and John Kirby. Other than that, unless there's a reunion or an organization reaches out to you, that's about it. We all mature and grow and get into our fields of work and gain different friends.
Q: Is there any funny incident that comes to mind when you think back to your playing days?
A: Oh jeepers. The one that comes to mind was after beating Miami in the Gotham Bowl, and some sportswriter said: "Coach Devaney, why don't you kiss Claridge?" And Devaney said: "Back in Nebraska, we kiss girls." There were others, but that was probably as good as any. I wish I could relate just half of Bob's talks because he always had people in stitches. I'd pay money to have some of those moments recorded.
Q: What do you remember about your touchdown run against Auburn in the '64 Orange Bowl?
A: My son told me the run was on film on HuskerMax, and I hadn't seen that rerun since 1964. I looked at it and ran it back about three or four times and just said 'Wow!' It was surprising.
Q: What do you remember most about the Gotham Bowl?
A: I remember that there wasn't anybody there. You hear stories about there being 3,000 people there, but I swear there were 500 people there or less. That wouldn't show up much in Yankee Stadium. Basically, no one was there except a band. The field was frozen and Yankee Stadium was downhill. There was a slight slope. I remember intercepting a George Mira pass and remember Willie Ross returning a kickoff for 92 yards and a touchdown. I know when we had the awards ceremony and everything leading up to it was cowed to Miami. They were the ones always acknowledged first and got all the "stuff." By the time we got there, they ran out of watches, and I remember (trainer) George Sullivan giving his watch to one of our players because there weren't enough to go around.
Q: Who were your closest friends among Husker teammates?
A: I roomed with Kent McCloughan and Dennis Stuewe most of the time on road trips. Lloyd Voss and John Kirby were very, very good friends. (The late) Bill Thornton was a guy I always admired. He was one of the two best football players I was ever around, pro or college. The other was Ray Nitschke with the Packers.
Q: What did you think when Bill Jennings was fired and Bob Devaney was hired?
A: At that time of your life, you like continuity and don't like abrupt change. It disrupts the way things are. I was scared. I was nervous. I didn't know if this guy (Devaney) would do something different that I didn't do. You don't know what someone's like until you work with them. It turned out great because when Bob came, he said, "I don't know any of you. You're all starting on page one, and those of you who are on the fourth team will be given an opportunity to be on the first team, and those of you on first are going to move down and work your way up." With Bob, everyone gets an even shot. When he and Jim Ross came in, they pretty much told us in a meeting what was going to happen. Bob couldn't have done it without Jim. The personalities of all those guys really mixed well. They were all so different. Mike Corgan. Carl Selmer. They were good people, good coaches, solid individuals.
Q: What was the fan support like in the early 1960s?
A: The stadium held about 35,000 or 36,000. The first year for a major game we probably sold seats between the 40-yard lines. I think the fan support was there. They were just waiting for something to get excited about. We sold out the Missouri game for Homecoming in '62 and the sellout streak started. We didn't win that game, but they were seeing enough positive things to keep it going and here we are 50 years later, and it's still going.
Q: How many Husker games do you see now?
A: We go to most of them. My wife and son are major fans just like I am.
Q: Are you in favor of a playoff system for college football?
A: I like the bowl system, and I don't believe in a playoff. We've already diluted the bowl system. Remember when we were co-champs with Michigan in 1997? What's the matter with two teams with 100 players on each team getting national championship rings? They were all No. 1, and they will all be remembered by their fans forever.
Q: What's your opinion of Nebraska's decision to move to the Big Ten?
A: I think it was the best of all worlds, and I think Nebraska will thrive. I think it will take us another two or three years in most of the sports to acclimate and figure out our place and I think we'll do well. The Big Ten is a great place for us academically and everyplace else. It couldn't be better. There is no down side that I can see ... period. I think Tom (Osborne) knew, and I think Harvey (Perlman) knew that the other culture was not working for us, and it wasn't going to. I think we will be thankful for a long time that both of them helped us make this move.
Q: What was it like playing both offense and defense?
A: First of all, I was a better offensive player than I was a defensive guy. But if you like to play football, there is nothing like playing and not coming off the field. If that's your love, then it is awesome. I think for a couple of years I mostly came out when it was a punt return or kick return. As a senior, they changed the rules and you could sub two people in and I think Ron Michka, the center, came out and I came out. Defensive guys came in and took our place. As a sophomore and a junior, I loved every minute of it. There are some guys that thrive on contact. Guys like Jerry Murtaugh relish it. I could do it and did it and enjoyed it, but I didn't relish it. There is a big difference between guys that want to put a helmet into somebody whether they have the ball or not. That's just part of their physical make-up.
Q: Did you pick your jersey number at Nebraska or was it assigned?
A: My number was assigned. Bill Jennings had three backs and he wanted the running backs in the teens. He wanted his quarterbacks in the 20s and I was No. 24. When Devaney came in, it changed. The backs were in the 20s, 30s and 40s and the quarterbacks were in the teens. I was No. 14.
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Voices from Husker Nation
As a teenager 20 years ago, I was told who my orthodontist was and of his past fame, but I didn't know his full history since it was way, way before my time. You wouldn't think a football player would make the best orthodontist since he has to have his huge hands in your mouth but he did alright. I enjoyed reading this interview as I do any that take you back in time and almost let you re-live a time that was so long ago. We never discussed football in the three years I visited Dennis Claridge, so mostly I enjoyed how this puts more pieces of the puzzle together for me to understand just who I was privileged enough to have as my orthodontist. Scott Haydon, Lincoln, Nebraska
What a great memory and story! I was a fraternity brother of Dennis Claridge, Kent McCloughan, and Dennis Steuwe, and I was a late addition that played on the 1962 football team with them. The Gotham Bowl was a special treat for me because my hometown was Williamsville, New York (outside of Buffalo) and my childhood dream was to play in Yankee Stadium (I played three years of baseball at Nebraska). The attendance of the game was horrible - but was caused primarily by a 9 week old newspaper strike prior to the game and 14 degree weather. Denny's recollection of the poor attendance is completely accurate - I had 32 of my relatives from White Plains in the audience - almost 5% of the crowd! Another highlight of that New York trip was that all of the seniors were allowed to attend The Tonight Show on NBC where a new Nebraska comedian, Johnny Carson, was just starting out. We were part of the Name That Tune piece where we sang There is No Place Like Nebraska. Lastly, later in 1964 Dennis Claridge and several other graduated football players came to Buffalo, New York to play in an all-star football game (their first as pros) in the old Offerman football stadium. They all brought their wives, and we went to a postgame celebration where I attended with a blind date, Nathalie, who became my wife after getting the full Nebraska indoctrination. Today, I have two season tickets and attend about four home games each year and one away game. I have lived in the Atlanta area for the past 30 years and one of my favorite highlights was attending Nebraska's 300 Consecutive Sellout Celebration a few years ago. Thanks. Erny Bonistall, Norcross, Georgia
Thanks for the memories! I certainly enjoyed reading your interview with Dennis Claridge. He was a "hero" of mine, along with Frank Solich, when I was in high school. I attended NU for three semesters in the mid-1960s before going off to the Navy, marrying a California girl and settling in California. I'm a Husker forever and don't have Twitter or Facebook accounts either! Warm regards, Dave Minette, San Diego, California (formerly of Columbus, Neb.)
I was one of the lucky ones to get a Dennis Claridge autograph before the Michigan game on Saturday. He signed a 1963 schedule poster which has a picture of Bob Devaney, Bob Brown and him. Devaney signed it years ago. As one other fan said, Dennis Claridge was my "hero" growing up. When I saw that he was signing autographs before the Michigan game, I told my wife that we had to go, so all other pre-game plans were put on hold. It was a journey back to my childhood for those few brief moments. The 1962 game (at age 11) against Iowa State was my first Nebraska game with my dad (recently deceased) at Memorial Stadium. My second was Nebraska's 1963 game against Oklahoma - Nebraska's first Big Eight championship. I sat literally (on the grass) right behind the end line under the goal post, in the south end zone knot-hole section. And the memories go on and on from there. But it was Dennis Claridge and those early Devaney teams that made me fall in love with Memorial Stadium and the Huskers. I like to change a line from Field of Dreams to make my point: Is this heaven? No, this is Nebraska! Mark Empson, Chappell, Nebraska
I enjoyed your column on Dennis Claridge. It reminded me of my dad taking me to Nebraska in the 1960s and being able to attend games at Memorial Stadium as a Band Day member. Your columns are great. Spud Spiegel, Huntsville, Alabama