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Editor's note: Johnny Rodgers and more than 50 of his Nebraska teammates, plus coaches and support staff from the 1971 National Championship Team, will be honored at a Friday night reunion banquet and Saturday during Nebraska's season-opener against Chattanooga.
Nebraska's first Heisman Trophy winner still marvels at what happened 40 years ago and sees a direct link to what the Huskers are trying to build now. "Winning is all about blind persistence," Johnny Rodgers says, "but it also requires an intelligent strategy to get you where you need to go."
Devaney's '67 and '68 teams each finished 6-4. They both rocked on defense, but struggled on offense. The '67 team lost, 10-0, 21-16, 10-7 and 21-14. The '68 team lost 23-13, 16-14 and 12-0 before the bottom fell out in a 47-0 loss at Oklahoma.
After his teams compiled a 47-8 record and had played in two Orange Bowls, a Sugar, a Cotton and a Gotham Bowl in his first five seasons, Devaney decided that drastic change was in order. So he promoted Tom Osborne to offensive coordinator, and man, woman and child, the renaissance was on.
"People forget where we were until we changed the course of history," Rodgers said. "We went from two mediocre seasons to 9-2 in 1969 and from there to back-to-back national championships in the Orange Bowl. We were the first Nebraska team to win a national title and then carried the torch to an even higher step the next year."
Devaney's Strategic Decision: A New Offensive Coordinator
Devaney had a simple but great strategy to make it happen. "He put Coach Osborne in charge of the offense," Rodgers said.
"When you sit back and reflect on the biggest decision Coach Devaney probably ever made, you can't help but marvel," Rodgers said. "I'm still amazed at the steps Coach Osborne took to create a whole new offense. He created the pro and the spread in the days when they didn't have a pro or a spread. And he created an audible system that was one of the very first in college football, although we didn't realize it at the time."
Reconnecting this weekend with more than 50 of his 1971 teammates celebrating their 40th national championship reunion, Rodgers says he likes to look ahead even more than he enjoys looking behind. And he's hoping Nebraska's new offense has the same kind of impact on the Huskers' first season in the Big Ten Conference that Osborne's new offense had in 1969.
Rodgers says Nebraska's 2011 offense has the chance to become the building block for another rapid rise to national prominence. He also says people still aren't fully aware of Nebraska's ability to use innovation to deliver excellence in the Game of the Century.
"When we were down 31-28 and went out for our last drive, we never huddled," Rodgers recalled. "We stayed in there and executed the strategy that Tom was able to put together. It was a strategy that was second to none. When Coach Osborne called a play, we weren't trying to make it work. We knew it would work because we had answers for everything. Our deal was you could not defend everything and whatever you would give us, we were taking. We were taught to identify the weakest point of every defense and then audible into something that would exploit that weakness."
That strategy worked then, and Johnny the Jet believes it can still work now.
All-America Talent Surrounded Johnny the Jet
As much as Johnny "the Jet" Rodgers hogged the headlines and dominated the highlight film, Nebraska's first Heisman Trophy winner in 1972 would be the last man on earth to say he was the whole show during that 1971 national championship season. "You don't get called the greatest college football team ever without having superstars all around you," Rodgers said. "Wherever you looked, we had big-time talent. That's why we beat the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 teams in the nation that season."
Nebraska defeated No. 2 Oklahoma (35-31) in Norman, No. 3 Colorado (31-7) in Lincoln and No. 4 Alabama (38-6) in Miami in the Orange Bowl. All three linked Sports Illustrated game stories are worth reading. They take you back, back to where we once belonged.
Here's "The Jet's" take on five teammates that also earned All-America honors in 1971:
Quarterback Jerry Tagge: "He was a great student of the game, a great leader, a great captain and ended up an All-American. He could read a defense like no one else. He called all the plays and ran the whole show. It was like having another coach on the field. He knew where everyone was and where everyone was supposed to be. Van Brownson was a better athlete than Jerry and still is, but once Tagge got on the field, he wasn't going to come off because he simply did not make mistakes, and he brought everyone together."
I-Back Jeff Kinney: "Everybody would always say "There goes Johnny Rodgers", but I would always say "There goes Jeff Kinney." He was an All-American workhorse. He scored four touchdowns in the Game of the Century because he ran hard, he wanted the ball, and he didn't fumble. Every time he touched it, we were headed downfield. Think about it. Even if he just gained 3, 3 and then 4 yards, that's still a first down. He was reliable all the time, whether he was running, blocking, or catching the ball out of the backfield."
Middle Guard Rich Glover: "Anyone who gets 22 tackles in what people still call the greatest college football game ever played has to be an All-American, and Richie Glover was definitely an All-American. He got more tackles in the Game of the Century than some defensive linemen get in a whole season, and he was going against a first-team All-American center from Oklahoma. Richie was strong as a bull, tough as nails, and his motor never stopped. No one liked to come through the middle of our defense and find him waiting there. He'd just blow people up."
Defensive Tackle Larry Jacobson: "Larry was like Richie Glover. They both benefitted from having two great defensive ends like Willie Harper and Spider (John) Adkins. Both those guys were big, and they could really run and really hit. They were so strong and so quick, they would force all the action to the middle so guys like Richie and Jake and John Dutton and Bill Janssen could clean up. Jake cleaned up on the awards, too. He made the most important teams and in the process became our first Outland Trophy winner.
Defensive End Willie Harper: "Willie played a huge role when we won our first national championship in 1970. When we beat LSU in that national championship game, Willie had big sack late in the game, knocked their quarterback out of the game, chased down a running back, spun him around and took the ball right out of his hands. Willie was so dominant as a sophomore, nobody wanted any part of him as a junior and senior. He played 11 years for the San Francisco 49ers and has been a pastor at a church in California since he left the NFL."
Editor's note: Fans can go back in time, to 1971, listening to Lyell Bremser's booming calls of Johnny Rodgers, who could run, catch, block and even throw. KFAB's legendary play-by-play man called that magical 1971 season. After Huskers.com received permission from the Bremser family, Kevin Horn, from Husker Sports Network radio affiliate KCOW in Alliance, produced the highlights.
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