Pelini Reminds Former Devaney Players of Their Old Coach
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Most people who watch practice focus on the players. Last week, Jim McFarland focused on Bo Pelini. He watched Nebraska’s head football coach move from one station to another, watching, listening, thinking and saying something only when it mattered.
Lynn Senkbeil, another Nebraska Hall of Fame football player from the mid-1960s, was with McFarland and Kirby, and they were all voicing the same thing . . . Bo Pelini reminds them of Bob Devaney.
Senkbeil agrees. "When Devaney and his staff came here in ’62, Nebraska hadn’t won a conference football championship since 1940," he pointed out. "There were great expectations for a coach and a staff from a state that really didn’t know what Big Red football was all about yet. But that staff won Big Eight titles in 1963, '64, '65 and '66. I was there from '62 through '66, and yes, Devaney had a staff that he allowed to run the program because he trusted them. Yet he always knew what each coach was doing, whether he came into a group session or decided to observe different drills. I think Devaney will be smiling this week as the new era opens and Nebraska football gets back on track."
Loyalty Was Incredible Between Devaney, Players, Coaches
Similarities between Bob and Bo appear strong, even though Devaney assumed more the role of a CEO, while Pelini is very much hands-on in his approach. "There was incredible loyalty between Bob and his coaching staff and Bob and his players," McFarland said. "I haven’t seen enough to know for sure that’s what’s going to happen between Bo and his staff and between him and his players. But everything you see, hear and read seems to point to that.
"Devaney always believed you win with defense and by controlling the football," McFarland pointed out. "I think that’s what you’re going to see with Pelini, too, even though we’re going to run the spread offense and I think run it very well. Coach Pelini spent a lot of time with the offense during the practice we watched. I’d love to hear some of his brainstorms with Sean Watson."
With Pelini at the helm. McFarland thinks the Huskers will draw together like they did under Devaney. "When you insult anyone on this team, you likely insult everyone," he said. "I don’t think you’re going to see any 70-something to 30-something games this year. You’re going to see incredible effort offensively, defensively and on special teams because we’re going back to the way we were – back to: ‘I play for Nebraska,’ not ‘I play at Nebraska.’"
McFarland laughs trying to explain what that means. "All-out intensity all the time," he said. "I remember being on the scout team in 1967. Wayne Meylan (Nebraska’s two-time All-American middle guard in 1966-67) was the leader of our Blackshirts, and they would knock us around when we’d run the other team’s plays. They were expected to dominate those drills. In fact, if we ran a successful play during a drill, they’d have us run the same play again so the Black Shirts knew how to stop it."
Physical football is the hallmark of Nebraska. "I love seeing Barney Cotton and Marvin Sanders and Jeff Jamrog – guys who played here – back on that coaching staff," McFarland said. "I love seeing Ron Brown on the field, bringing that incredible passion back that we’d lost. Everyone on that coaching staff knows the new, basic mission – to create a great college football program again – a program based on discipline, trust and a faith in each other . . . every day, all year long."
Nebraska’s College System Still the Best Preparation for NFL
Things have gone back to the way it used to be. "Out-of-state players will come here to fight for a job and become part of one of the greatest traditions in all of college football," McFarland said. "And guess what? When that time comes to be a pro, they’ll be better prepared for the NFL than they would be almost anywhere else."
McFarland should know. The 60-year-old Lincoln attorney is one of nine ex-pro players on the NFL Retired Players Steering Committee. Serving a three-year term, his group helps advise the NFL Players Association and advocates better benefits for retired players who, through no fault of their own, have had a hard time adjusting to life after football.
"Injuries are taking their toll on NFL players from the 1950s, '60s and '70s," McFarland said. "We’re seeing post-concussion syndromes, joint replacement surgeries, and arthritic conditions that we pro football players never anticipated at the time we were playing."
Even more alarming are the cases of former players who once made good money and have since lost their status, their marriages and their livelihoods.
"It never gets publicized, but we’ve had research that shows almost 80 percent of players are either divorced or bankrupt two years after they leave the NFL," McFarland said. "It’s often the result of a hedonistic lifestyle many players choose. They played a very violent game where every play was like a car wreck, and they seem to take that same fatalistic attitude into their lives outside of football. They do things they shouldn’t. They take business risks they shouldn’t. Sometimes, they end up with no funds whatsoever, and they’re too proud to ask anyone for help."
Football exacts a heavy toll because, McFarland said, it is considered eight times more hazardous than any other sport. "That explains the inordinately high number of poor health conditions and financial hardships ex-NFL players now face," he added.
The average NFL pension is only $12,000 a year. "That’s below poverty level," McFarland said, adding that part of the reason the average is so low is because the average length of career in the NFL is only 3 1/2 years, and many players begin taking their pensions as soon as age 45, so their benefits are significantly reduced.
McFarland is sold on Nebraska’s overall approach to football, academics and life skills. "Even when I played for Coach Devaney and Coach Osborne, the program was designed to make you a better person," he said. "The priority was to make you a better student and a better athlete. Coach Devaney and Coach Osborne always supported players who had the ability to play professionally. But in my view, their primary goal was not to develop pro players. They wanted you to develop as a student-athlete, so you would be successful regardless of what career you selected after football."
With Nebraska Life Skills Program, Transition Gets Easier
Osborne, Nebraska’s first full-time academic counselor, promotes athletic and academic balance in all sports and is more focused than ever to help make Nebraska a national leader in life skills training. The program provides proactive education, resources and support throughout college and beyond. Nebraska’s life skill services foster transition to life after athletics, encourage responsible decision-making, promote career development and demonstrate the value of volunteerism.
"There’s a lot of focus on winning and championships and money, and that’s all part of college athletics," Osborne said. "But essentially, if your student-athletes don’t grow and become better people, I think it’s primarily for naught. You’ve simply created people who are great athletes, but are totally self-serving, and you haven’t really accomplished much."
Osborne’s unique brand of leadership is no surprise to McFarland, who admitted he didn’t realize the greatness of his ex-position coach until later in life. "Coach Osborne exemplified all the simple, important virtues that I just took for granted at the time – honesty, integrity, discipline, compassion, judgment, forgiveness, even a wry sense of humor," McFarland said.
"After playing in the NFL and following Coach Osborne’s career for all those years, I realized that the types of virtues he taught – and more importantly practiced throughout his life – were often lacking in the other coaches and people I’ve met. Over the 43 years that I have now known Coach Osborne, I can say that he has had a more positive impact on my life than any other person. More importantly, I know he has had an even more positive impact on so many other players, coaches and even fans by being such an exemplary role model for others. He lives his life and practices his faith as an unpretentious and humble follower of Christ, but he has never been overbearing about it to anyone."
A few weeks ago, while running over the lunch hour with a good friend and running partner, McFarland discussed the mistakes he’d made in his life. "But I did not make a lot more mistakes or yield to many more temptations, not because I’m virtuous, but because I tried to never have Coach Osborne be embarrassed by my behavior," McFarland said. "I may not have completely succeeded in my goal, but I know I could have erred much more if I hadn’t tried to follow his example."
McFarland is grateful Osborne didn’t give up on him as a player, and he didn’t give up on Osborne. There was a time when he came dangerously close to leaving the program as a frustrated walk-on.
McFarland Gave Walking On One More Try, and It Paid Off
The late York Hinman Jr., a North Platte oil distributor who helped steer two North Platte natives to Nebraska – All-America defensive back Larry Wachholtz and fullback Pete Tatman – also helped convince McFarland to walk on as a quarterback and split end on the 1965 Nebraska freshman team. It didn’t work out, and McFarland played baseball his sophomore year. Success there was also modest, so McFarland asked Osborne if he could walk on a second time as a tight end in 1967.
True to his nature, Osborne said, sure, but he set parameters. "You have some potential," he told McFarland, "but you will be on the scout team throughout the fall. It will be no bed of roses, but if you work hard, we’ll see what you can do."
McFarland’s redshirt season was tough duty, but Osborne kept encouraging him that there would be opportunity the next spring. Still, he would start spring practice as either No. 3 or No. 4 on the depth chart.
McFarland remembers sitting by himself in the freshman locker room in the North Field House after a miserable practice one nasty November evening. He was a discouraged, third-year player who had just been pummeled again by the Blackshirts on a cold, dreary day in a long, drawn-out, mediocre season. He was tired, sore and feeling sorry for himself.
"I’d stayed out late catching balls after practice that night, and I was the only player who hadn’t showered," he recalled. "I was just sitting there, holding my head in my hands and asking myself why I keep hitting my head against the wall every day like this. I was sitting there thinking I need to quit and quit soon."
Devaney Walked By, Backtracked and Motivated a Discouraged Player
Then Devaney walked by. He had to walk through the freshman locker room to get to his own locker at the west end of the North Field House. "As I was staring at the floor, I glanced up to see Coach Devaney walking by my locker. We caught each other’s eye," McFarland recalled. "He kept going, and I thought to myself: ‘I bet he doesn’t even remember who I am.’"
Five seconds later, Devaney backtracked and poked his head around the row of lockers. "You know, Jim McFarland, I’ve been watching you in practice. If you stick with it and keep working hard, you’re going to play a lot of football for us next year."
It was the ultimate shot of emotional adrenaline. "It gave me a real boost because it confirmed everything Coach Osborne had been telling me," he said. "I think Coach Devaney identified with me. He wasn’t a great football player himself at a small college in Michigan. He knew how hard it was to see the playing field. When he saw me slumped over staring at the floor, I think he knew exactly what I was thinking."
Within seconds of Devaney’s remarks, McFarland had a motivational transformation. "From that moment forward, I knew it didn’t matter that I wasn’t on scholarship. I knew it didn’t matter that I was still on the scout team in my third year. I was finally on the radar, and I was going to put forth every ounce of energy I had in me to validate the talent I had."
With Osborne coaching the receivers, preparation was intense. Receivers were usually the first group on the field, catching passes in drills before practice, and they were the last to leave the field after working on pass patterns with the quarterbacks and Coach Osborne.
He Went Into Each Game Feeling Fully Prepared to Play
"Coach Osborne stressed a total approach to learning the game plan," McFarland recalled. "We practiced our assignments on the field, and we had written tests every Friday before the Saturday games to make sure that we understood our assignments. I always felt when I took the field that no matter what happened during the game, I had – with Coach Osborne’s teaching and coaching – prepared myself as best that I could to play the game."
McFarland says Ron Brown’s philosophy coaching tight ends seems to mirror Osborne’s."They both stress going hard on every play because you never know when a particular play will become the key play in the game," he said. "That applies both to blocking, particularly downfield, and to running every pass route as if the ball is going to be thrown to you on that particular play, even though you might not be the primary receiver."
McFarland’s fondest memory is probably the first game he started at tight end – the 1968 season opener against Wyoming, which had lost only one game the previous season – 20-13 to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
Early in the fourth quarter, Wyoming – the same school Devaney coached before heading to Nebraska six years earlier – was leading the Huskers, 10-3.
On Nebraska’s only touchdown drive of the game, McFarland ran a pattern downfield. Quarterback Ernie Sigler was forced to scramble and ran around McFarland’s end, so McFarland peeled back and threw a good block on a Wyoming linebacker who was chasing Sigler, enabling him to pick up a first down.
Shortly thereafter, Nebraska ran an option left pass. McFarland was to run deep and clear the area for running back Joe Orduna, who was the primary receiver in the flat area near the sideline. McFarland ran his pattern hard and surprisingly, both defensive backs covered Orduna. McFarland’s 17-yard touchdown catch with 10:46 remaining in the game helped Nebraska fans breathe easier with a 10-10 tie. The Huskers won, 13-10, on a then-record 51-yard field goal by Paul Rogers with 21 seconds remaining.
McFarland a Classic Rags-to-Riches Walk-On Story
In nine months, McFarland had gone from a down-the-line, nearly ready-to-quit scout teamer to opening-game hero. Still, the Huskers finished with another 6-4 season in 1968 just like they had in 1967.
Before McFarland’s senior season, Devaney decided changes were in order. He named Osborne his new offensive coordinator, and the sails were set for a more positive direction. The Huskers finished 9-2 in 1969, losing their opener to USC (31-21). After also losing at Missouri (17-7), they won their last seven games, including a 44-14 win at Oklahoma and a 45-6 win over Georgia in the Sun Bowl.
You know the rest of the story. As McFarland took off for the NFL, Nebraska followed that turnaround season with back-to-back national championships in 1970 and 1971.
McFarland, as well as anyone, knows the pivot point value in any turnaround. It’s often what sets the stage for the ultimate prize.
This season, Pelini’s first as head coach, goes beyond wins and losses. "It’s all about getting this program back on track," McFarland said.
"Bob was a fiery Irishman, and you can just tell that Bo is somewhat tempermental, too," McFarland said. "Whenever referees made questionable calls or non-calls in his view, Coach Devaney defended his players. He supported us in almost all areas, whether we were dealing with sportswriters, professors or critical fans. He did not hesitate to give constructive criticism when he thought we deserved it. But when any of us were criticized by others outside the program, he was always there to defend us. I think Coach Pelini appears like Coach Devaney in that regard. In my view so far, Coach Pelini has the same, general overt loyalty and support for his players that Coach Devaney provided for us."
Kirby, a member of the last NU "two-platoon football" class that played both offense and defense (1961-63), said things were different 45 years ago, but he sees "the same Pelini/Devaney parallel vision as Jim does. It’s as straight as it can be."
"He lets his assistants do almost all the coaching," McFarland said. "It was a very snappy practice, very well organized. There was a lot of spirit, a lot of camaraderie. Make no mistake, everyone on the field knew where Coach Pelini was at all times, and from what I can tell, the players really identify with him."
McFarland was a tight end who came close to quitting Nebraska’s football team in the late 1960s as a frustrated walk-on, but he stayed, played, prospered and went on to play six years with the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Dolphins. At the same practice, he was standing next to John Kirby, an ex-Husker offensive guard who played seven years with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants.
Voices from Husker Nation
This article says it all about the roots of Nebraska football - the roots that we have happily returned to since the arrival of Bo Pelini as head coach. Ri Edwards, Yuba City, California
Langston Coleman. I.M. Hipp. Jarvis Redwine. Derrie Nelson. Andy Means.Those were just some of my all-time favorite walk-on stories, but Jim McFarland ranks right up there now after reading what he went through to get to the playing field. He's also distinguished himself after his pro career. His story on Devaney passing through the locker room, backtracking and then giving him an encouraging word is one of the best anecdotes I've ever heard. Thanks for sharing. Steve Sanders, Omaha, Nebraska