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Joe Castiglione is a Florida native, a Maryland graduate and a former Missouri athletic director. He was 14 years old when Nebraska outlasted Oklahoma, 35-31, in college football’s “Game of the Century,” and he wasn’t emotionally attached to the Huskers or Sooners in any way.
Maybe that’s why Castiglione, Oklahoma’s athletic director for 10 years, was the perfect person to suggest the first Husker-Sooner “Game of the Century” Football Reunion in Norman last weekend.
Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne has been to countless Nebraska-inspired “Game of the Century” events over the last 37 years, but he can’t remember a joint celebration. “Something like this has probably happened somewhere before, but reunions are almost always for your own team,” he said. “I would think it would be extremely rare to invite another team to a reunion.”
Especially if it’s the team that beat your team on what was, at the time, the biggest stage in the history of college football.
Castiglione wasn’t in the stands at Owen Field on that historic Thanksgiving Day in Norman, but he remembers where he was – glued to his grandmother’s black-and-white TV set in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., along with a record 55 million others.
Like everyone else, he was wondering if this much ballyhooed showdown between No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma could live up to its week-long, coast-to-coast promotion.
It did, and that’s why Castiglione, best known for hiring Bob Stoops as a first-time head football coach, was willing to go out on a limb again. He approached Osborne last spring and suggested that OU host Nebraska coaches and players from that 1971 epic battle, so the two programs could celebrate together.
Game Represents the Greatness of Nebraska-Oklahoma Rivalry
“That 1971 game transcends time, emotions and loyalties,” Castiglione said. “It represents the greatness of this rivalry, and we enjoy bringing coaches and players together from these two programs to remember and celebrate as one.”
Think about that a minute. Can you imagine being in a conference room when your athletic director suggests you throw a huge party for the school that beat one of your best all-time teams on your field and then goes on to win the national championship while you finish second?
Can you imagine wanting to honor every coach and player on that winning team and even introduce them to your own 85,000 fans at halftime of a nationally televised game the next night?
Osborne may have written the book on “More Than Winning,” but Castiglione seems to have a fairly good grasp of the big picture, too, and Nebraska’s athletic director appreciates Oklahoma’s proactive, reinvigorated approach to mutual respect between two storied programs.
“For 30 years, the Nebraska-Oklahoma winner won 28 conference championships,” Osborne pointed out. “During that same time, we also combined for nine or 10 national championships, so we built a solid foundation together and always seem to compete with a very high level of respect for each other.”
Still, Castiglione admitted there were a few OU players and coaches who wondered if a joint celebration was the right thing to do. I talked to several, who said whatever doubts they had were erased early on. It was, in fact, difficult to tell who was having more fun – the Huskers or the Sooners. They were all joking, laughing, reminiscing and pounding each other like long-lost teammates.
Nebraska and Oklahoma Pushed Each Other to Greatness
Indeed, the ‘Game of the Century’ has a hallowed history, and it seemed appropriate that so many ghosts from that game were flying so high on Halloween night. Everyone who knew they created history were willing to bring it back to life . . . the good, the bad and the ugly.
Bill Kosch, who was switched from safety to cornerback for that one and only game, wanted to meet OU wide receiver Jon Harrison, who scorched Kosch for two touchdowns and 115 yards receiving.
“I still have nightmares about that game,” Harrison told Kosch.
“I still have nightmares about you,” Kosch replied.
Kosch told Harrison that Barry Switzer, OU’s Hall of Fame coach and offensive coordinator in 1971, came up to him after the game said: “Son, as long as you play for Nebraska, we’ll pay for your scholarship.”
It never happened, of course. But Kosch uses the self-deprecating humor to offset the worst game of his career. Last month, at the Nebraska-Virginia Tech game, quarterback Jerry Tagge told Kosch to quit beating himself up. “I fumbled twice in that game, and all I had to do was hand the ball off,” Tagge said. “If I don’t fumble, the game isn’t close.”
Reverse psychology can heal emotional wounds. “Jerry convinced me that we all made mistakes out there that day, but when you’re a DB, there’s no place to hide,” Kosch said. “If that game hadn’t been so close, we wouldn’t be talking about it so much. I guess one man’s loss is another man’s gain. I was the giver and Jon Harrison was the taker. Monte Kiffin (Nebraska’s defensive coordinator) decided to gamble that Jack Mildren was more of an area thrower than a dropback passer. We all know the results. In the ‘Game of the Century’, we may have taken away some of the wishbone, but Mildren threw that day like your classic dropback passer. He threw with precision.”
17 All-Big Eight Players Were on the Field at the Same Time
This game was all about precision, speed and athleticism. Seventeen of the 22 first-team All-Big Eight players were on the field that day. The Blackshirts had seven first-teamers and four players who would go on to be consensus All-Americans – Rich Glover, Larry Jacobson, Willie Harper and John Dutton.
“People didn’t have any idea how to defend the wishbone, so I guess Monte made some changes to give Oklahoma a different look,” Osborne said. “Bill Kosch went from safety to corner and Joe Blahak from corner to safety – positions neither had played previously. We slowed them down some, but we didn’t really stop them. Fortunately, they didn’t stop us either.”
Johnny Rodgers started the day’s fireworks with a 71-yard punt return touchdown on the game’s first series. “It’s no secret. Everyone in this room – coaches, players, even athletic directors – know that Nebraska and Oklahoma pushed each other to greatness,” said Rodgers, who won the Heisman Trophy a year later. “We were always at the top, and we always made each other play at the top of our game.”
“We could never do something like this with Texas,” Switzer said with a healthy laugh, pointing out that because the Sooners and Longhorns covet most of the same recruits, the two programs have never been comfortable with each other, and they never will be.
Then Switzer said something that Dutton had never thought about before. He said that OU coaches, players and fans have never quite grasped how Nebraska has been able to beat the Sooners so often with players they never would have considered recruiting themselves.
“Switzer said they just couldn’t believe how well we played together as a team,” said Dutton, a 14-year NFL defensive lineman who was a sophomore backup for the Huskers in ‘71. “Well, it was no accident. It started at the top with Bob Devaney and went to every assistant who coached here and every player who made it to the field. We were always in better physical condition than the teams we played against, and everyone pushed everyone in practice every single day. It was a relentless mindset. From the scout team to the first team, no one would even think about losing.”
No Such Thing as a Perfect Game, but This One Came Close
Losing never entered the mind of either team in the ‘Game of the Century’. “They can quit playing now. They’ve played the perfect game,” Dave Kindred wrote 37 years ago in the Louisville Courier Journal.
“It was a great game, and I still see it the same way I saw it in 1971,” OU back Greg Pruitt said. “I will never admit that we lost that game to Nebraska. As far as I’m concerned, we were just behind when the clock ran out.”
Pruitt, the ’71 Heisman Trophy runner-up, graced the cover of the Nov. 22, 1971, issue of Sports Illustrated. He was shown nose-to-nose with Nebraska linebacker Bob Terrio underneath the headline that remains a classic: “Irresistible Oklahoma Meets Immovable Nebraska.”
“I remember all of us having a tremendous amount of confidence going into that game,” Pruitt recalled. “We had beaten USC and Texas that year, and we crushed Auburn (and Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan) in the Sugar Bowl before Nebraska killed Alabama in the Orange Bowl. Nebraska and Oklahoma were clearly the two best teams in the country that year, and Colorado finished third.”
Chuck Neinas, the Big Eight Commissioner in ‘71, told the reunion audience that the league decided to produce a 30-minute postseason highlight film of that unprecedented 1-2-3 national finish.
“We thought the climax to the film would be Bob Devaney talking about the ‘Game of the Century,’” Neinas recalled, “so I called Bob and asked him: ‘What did you tell Jerry Tagge before that final touchdown drive, knowing that this was going to be the last time you were going to get the ball and knowing the game was hanging in the balance as you got ready to send him back out on the field?’”
Neinas said he waited for Devaney to respond with something “really profound.”
‘Give the Ball to Kinney and Make Sure You Throw to Rodgers’
“But we all know Bob,” Neinas said. “He just said, ‘Well, I told Jerry Tagge to keep giving the ball to Jeff Kinney, and if he ever got in trouble to make sure he threw it to Johnny Rodgers.’”
Everyone laughed, but that’s exactly what happened. Nebraska started its last drive at its own 26-yard line, trailing, 31-28, with 7:05 to play. Osborne, Devaney’s offensive coordinator at the time, recalls calling a series of counter dive plays against OU’s 6-1 defense.
“That meant they had a middle linebacker on that last series,” Osborne said. “We had the fullback go one way, and the I-back would carry the ball the opposite way to neutralize the middle linebacker. Because of the split backfield, the middle linebacker didn’t know which way to flow, so our center (Doug Dumler) could get off and go block him. A lot of Kinney’s yards on that last drive were on that counter dive.”
Saturday, after the reunion banquet and before the NU-OU game, Dumler, an attorney who lives in Ft. Collins, Colo., was having lunch at Bricktown in Oklahoma City with his former teammates. He was asked what he remembered most about that final drive.
“It was the most amazing thing,” he said. “Right before that drive started, they called a TV timeout,” he recalled. “I was standing on the field and happened to look over behind the Oklahoma bench and out of 75,000 people in the stadium, I see my brother and his wife. I had no idea where they would be sitting. We couldn’t believe we connected with each other. I gave him the old No. 1 sign, and he gave it right back.”
Jim Anderson, Nebraska’s starting right cornerback on the 1970 and ’71 national championship teams, experienced a bit of irony of his own. After the players tossed Devaney and others in the shower to celebrate, Anderson quickly showered and dressed, so he could head right back outside.
A Solitary Figure Savors the Experience of a Lifetime
“We lockered in the southeast corner, and I went out the tunnel that comes onto the field,” he said. “I walked up and sat in the stands. Since Oklahoma lost and it was cold, their fans left in a hurry. I looked around, and I was the only person sitting in the entire stadium. I was totally alone. I wanted to take 5 or 10 minutes and soak it all in. Looking down on that field, I wanted to savor every moment of what we’d all just experienced.”
Anderson has lived in Albuquerque, N.M., for 35 years, the last 24 working in the accounting department at the University of New Mexico. He’d never been back to Norman until last weekend. He knew “something special . . . something very, very special” had happened that day. He just didn’t know it would still be relevant nearly four decades later.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “Sitting up there by myself, I just kept thinking how I couldn’t have written a better script if I tried. For a skinny little kid from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to go out and play in a game like that . . . I mean, since I didn’t go on to play pro football, this game – and beating Alabama in the Orange Bowl for another national championship – was perfect closure for my career.”
The best part about the weekend was being able to “understand, maybe more than ever, how that game transcended everything – how it rose above winners and losers and rivalries and how both teams were still able to celebrate what happened on that one afternoon 37 years later,” Anderson said. “I give a lot of credit to Joe Castiglione. He didn’t have anything to do with either team at the time, yet he’s the one who brought us all together. All I can say is ‘thank you, Oklahoma’ and we look forward to returning the favor when we re-unite in Lincoln for the next reunion.”