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Before they ever coached together at Wyoming or won national football championships at Nebraska, Bob Devaney and Jim Ross were inextricably linked. The stabilizing force behind the late Devaney's entire coaching career, Ross died last Friday at Bryan LGH West Hospital in Lincoln. He was 94.
Devaney and Ross were inseparable all the way back to their high school coaching days in Alpena, Mich., where Ross assisted Devaney in football and Devaney assisted Ross in basketball.
What a tandem. Some nights, after basketball practice, the two would jump in a car, change clothes and drive 10 miles to referee a game so they could earn some extra money.
Just as important as donning their striped shirts were the whistles and the stopwatch in the glove compartment. Once, the stopwatch wasn't there, so they improvised, using a round tire gauge that looked like a stopwatch, but was actually a decoy to make things appear official while they resorted to their own wristwatches to "time" every part of the game.
If there were any suspicious minds in the stands, none came forward to complain.
"I guess you'd call that ingenuity today," Lincoln's Larry Honeycutt said Tuesday.
Whatever it was and whenever Ross would tell similar stories for his family, "we'd all laugh so hard, our eyes would tear up," said Honeycutt, one of three Ross sons-in-law whose families join Maurine, Jim's wife of 69 years, as survivors.
Ross: The Perfect Counterbalance to Devaney
Somehow, it seems appropriate to tell another Devaney-Ross story on the eve of Ross's funeral, especially since he's the one who held court with Devaney's former cohorts at a gathering 13 years ago following the funeral of Nebraska's Hall-of-Fame football coach and former athletic director.
Jim and Maurine Ross once went to the Devaneys for dinner in Alpena. When they arrived, they asked his wife, Phyllis, where Bob was.
In the bathroom, they were told. Ten minutes later, they asked the same question and got pretty much the same answer. Another 10 minutes passed, and Devaney was still in the bathroom with no explanation.
Finally, when Devaney emerged, Ross realized what was causing the delay. Knowing that best friends would be weighing themselves that night to see who had lost the most weight in a friendly bet, Devaney had converted his bathroom into a makeshift steam room, so he could shed another pound or two. He also ran in place just to make double-dog sure he was the winner while his dinner guests waited patiently.
Devaney, of course, won the wager, and that was just fine with Ross, who, throughout his life, was the perfect counterbalance to his boss's magnificent obsession to win.
Make no mistake, though. Ross was more than Devaney's most stabilizing force when they left Michigan for Wyoming at the age of 42.
He was also a man's man, a war hero, a calm, cool and collected leader of young men and the only Husker assistant coach ever inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
In addition, Ross was the Nebraska football staff's best golfer, avid fisherman, most notable pitch player, gifted woodworker and the one with the dry sense of humor to match every bit of Irish wit that Devaney threw his way. Oh yes, there is one more thing. Ross was also a pipe smoker, just like WWII Hero General Douglas MacArthur.
This Hero Left WW II on the Pacific Beaches
An Army Staff Sergeant in the 33rd Infantry Division in the South Pacific Campaign, Ross won the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Philippine Liberation Medal with a Bronze Battle Star, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Battle Stars, the WWII Victory Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal and the Bronze Star for Gallantry.
"Jim and I talked a lot about things like academics and fishing, but I don't think I ever heard him talk about his war experience, which is kind of unusual because he was so highly decorated," said Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne, who will speak at a Celebration of Life service for Ross on Wednesday afternoon at First-Plymouth Congregational Church.
Husker coaches and players weren't the only ones who never heard Ross talk about WWII. Neither did his family. "He was a World War II history buff, but you could never get him to speak about it," said Honeycutt, his son-in-law. "He left the war where it was ... on the beaches in the Pacific."
Somewhat ironically, on the same weekend that Ross died, HBO launched "The Pacific," a heavily promoted 10-part miniseries on WWII. Interestingly, the Ross family can learn more about the Pacific battles from that miniseries than it ever heard from one of its most decorated soldiers.
"Jim was the same way about football," Honeycutt said. "He left all that on the field, so he could focus on his family. He loved being around his six grandkids and especially enjoyed his nine great grandchildren."
"The thing that stuck out about Jim was he was a balanced person," Osborne said. "Bob trusted Jim a lot because of their long history together. Whenever something came up that was a big decision, Bob looked at Jim pretty heavily for advice. Jim was always kind of a stabilizing force. Bob had a good sense of humor and liked to laugh, but he also had a temper and occasionally got upset about something. Jim was always the first one to calm the waters when that happened."
Strong Supporter for Osborne as Devaney's Successor
The biggest kicker of all about Ross may be his influence when Devaney decided to hand-select his successor following two national championships.
The staff was loaded with future Division I head coaches at the time. Devaney had sized up the list and was definitely leaning Osborne's way. As always, he asked Ross for his opinion. Devaney's right-hand man said it wasn't even close. Tom Osborne was the best football coach on the staff and also the best man for the head coaching job.
Only in later years, in private conversations with his closest friends, did Devaney reveal the process he used to determine his successor.
"Jim was a good person," Osborne said of Ross. "He was honest. He had a certain amount of empathy for people. He had good values. When he became our freshman coach, it was a good fit for him because he was a father figure for all those freshmen players."
Wednesday, former coaches Osborne, John Melton and Carl Selmer and former Husker publicist Don "Fox" Bryant, trainer George Sullivan and longtime fan Glenn Wagner will represent this remarkable man as honorary pall bearers at his funeral. Bryant will join Osborne and several grandchildren and great grandchildren as speakers.
"The Fox" couldn't help remembering when Ross was the Huskers' secondary coach, and he got to help referee a scrimmage. "When I threw a flag for pass interference, Jim ran onto the field and overruled me," Fox said. "He said there are no interference calls when he's coaching."
Osborne chuckles at the thought. "Jim really agonized when he was our secondary coach," he recalled. "He took it personally whenever someone completed a pass."
Talented Administrator, Persuasive Friend
Sullivan said Ross was just as thorough as the first key administrator in the Bob Devaney Sports Center as he was as an assistant football coach. "Bob couldn't have had a more complete and prepared assistant," Sully said, adding that Ross was the one who talked Devaney out of a pro football head coaching job that he could have had if he'd been so inclined.
"There were good reasons why Bob would send Jim to Big Eight meetings that he couldn't attend himself," Bryant said. "He was a straight shooter, a wise man with great integrity and a true gentleman. You couldn't find anyone who didn't like and respect Jim Ross."
Yes, Ross helped shape Nebraska football history, but Melton says Devaney's trusted confidant always held one over his more famous friend.
Wind the clock all the way back to Devaney just graduating from Alma College in Michigan and Ross getting his diploma from Eastern Michigan University. Ironically, even though they had played against each other in college, they did not know that they were seeking the same high school head coaching job at Newaygo, Mich. (2000 population: 1,670).
Newaygo chose Ross over Devaney.
"Jim always told Bob that he's lucky he didn't have to compete with Jim for the Wyoming job," Melton said, laughing over the phone."He never let Bob forget that.
"Look, I've known Jim Ross since 1956, and he never talked about the war. We spent a lot of time recruiting together over the years and a lot of time just getting together as friends. I didn't know he won all those medals. He spent three years in the Pacific for our country. I'm just glad he decided to come to Nebraska from Wyoming with Bob."
You can grasp the emotion in the silence of a phone connection.
Last fall, Jim and Maurine Ross attended the banquet the night before Nebraska's 300th consecutive football sellout because it honored Devaney's first team in 1962, and Ross thought it was important for him to be there.
"I just saw Jim three weeks ago in a gas station. I thought he was doing well. I'll tell you what," Melton said, his voice choking up. "This place wouldn't have been what it's been without him."
Voices from Husker Nation
In Tom Osborne's most recent book, he laments the unfortunate shift in our society from the Character Ethic to the Personality Ethic. The Personality Ethic says that you judge a man based on the size of his bank account, the clothes he wears, his outward appearance, how much financial success he achieves and how many things he can produce. The Character Ethic judges a man by his honesty, integrity, loyalty, his devotion to family, community and the positive effect he has on the people around him. Sounds like Coach Osborne had the perfect model right down the hall in Jim Ross. Jim Rose, Omaha, Nebraska
I give thanks to God for Coach Ross in my life as he recruited me at Wyoming when I was a senior at Davenport West High School in Iowa. God put us back together in the spring of my freshman year at Nebraska, and what a blessing it was to be able to thank Coach Ross last September at the 1962 Husker Team Reunion for his inspiration in my life. I know that Jim is now with Coach Devaney and all the company of heaven singing "There is no place like Nebraska." The Reverend Doug Tucker, Dickinson, Texas, (1962-63-64)
Very nice article about Coach Ross, who was a mentor to me. I always enjoyed hearing his stories about life in Michigan with Mike Corgan and Bob Devaney. Coach Osborne is right on about the stability Jim Ross provided. He was the perfect counter-balance to Coach Devaney, had a great sense of humor, and, because of those kinds of traits, was a major influence in the success of our program. Lastly, he was very well-liked and respected by his players, which is the best tribute I can think of to a man who will be missed. John Decker, Bay City, Michigan (1968-69-70)
Thanks for another touching article that makes me proud to be from Nebraska and a long-time Nebraska fan who now lives in Oregon. The passing of Jim Ross and the celebration of his life through tributes from his colleagues tells the Husker story like no other. After the recent debacles at the University of Oregon, it makes me so proud to see the overall the character of Nebraska athletics. Keep up the good work and keep those Husker human interest stories coming. I can't get enough. Go Big Red! Brad Loseke, Beaverton, Oregon
Brilliant piece on a wonderful man! Humility, integrity, work ethic and desire to be the best are the bedrock principles of Husker Nation whether Nebraska-born or moved here from Michigan. Jim Ross was truly one of the "Greatest Generation". May his family and friends find comfort in remembering his life. Mark Briggs, York, Nebraska
Coach Ross was the best role model and coach I ever had. I have wonderful memories of him, as he helped me in all areas of my life. My prayers are with his family. Dennis Thorell, Lexington, Nebraska, (1965-66)
Coach Ross was the first to meet me on my recruiting trip to Nebraska. My first impression is the same as the last - a wise, thoughtful gentleman, the kind they don't seem to make any more. We will miss you, Coach Ross. Doug Dumler, Fort Collins, Colorado (1970-71-72)
Coach Ross was one of the most influential men in my professional and personal life. As a college student athletic trainer at the University of Nebraska in the early 70's working for Paul "Schnitzy" Schneider and George "Sully" Sullivan, I was assigned to be a student trainer for freshman football working for Coach Ross. Coach Ross was a great coach and an even better person because of the way he dealt with his players. He treated all with respect, and you knew he cared about performance not only on the field, but off the field. Coach Ross treated me as a staff member, not just a student, and I looked forward to working with him every day and especially to our after practice and game discussions. Coach, I love and miss your influence. It made me a better man. My thoughts and prayers are with your family in this time of loss. Dennis McMeekin, Student Athletic Trainer, (1971-1976), Columbus, Nebraska
I'm a Nebraska native who chose to go to the University of Wyoming, graduating in 1962. I had Iron Mike Corgan as a PE instructor. Bob Devaney always impressed me during all-school convocations. He would stand on stage and introduce the entire football team, one-by-one, giving their hometown and a quip or two - all without notes. How ironic that Jim Ross was the confidant and long-time friend. This was a great article. Ron Peterson, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Coach Ross was a great coach and wonderful man. He was my freshman coach, and he taught me a lot. My entire family admired him, and he will be sorely missed. Our sincere condolences to Mrs. Ross and the entire Ross Family. Budge Porter, Valley, Nebraska, (1978)
Coach Ross was one of handful of people that I can truly say impacted my life. He was firm with me and usually said no to my requests at first, causing me to work harder to be worthy of his support. He will be missed, but not forgotten. Boyd Epley, Colorado Springs, Colorado
My condolences to Coach Ross's family. I am living in Chicago and could not attend the services in person, but I did have the great pleasure and luck to be part of the first freshman class recruited by Coach Devaney and his staff. Although not coached by Coach Ross, I received some of those famous low-keyed jabs that he was famous for. During the times I was able to see him when I returned to Lincoln, he always remembered me and was generous with his time. He was a good man and a great coach. Fred Duda, Chicago, Illinois, (1963-64-65)
Jim Ross was one amazing fellow. He was a true leader and always there if you needed him. He could guide just about any situation to harmony, always had a sense of humor and loved to laugh, but you knew when it was time to be serious. If I had only one thing to say to Coach Ross, it would be to thank him for all his effort, dedication, guidance and caring for us little guys. He was a Class Act 360. My condolences, thoughts and prayers to all the Jim Ross family and friends. He will be missed but not forgotten. Bill Sloey, El Segundo, California, (1971-72)
Jim was one of the nicest people I have ever known. He was a patient, a friend, a mentor, and a great role model. I feel lucky to have known him. My thoughts and prayers go to all of Jim's family. Dr. Al Domina, Lincoln, Nebraska
After reading the many condolences, I can truly say Coach Ross was loved and respected by all who knew him. Add my name to that list, and I know that someday we will all have a chance to tell him ourselves. Till then, my prayers go to his family because I know they are going to miss him as we do. God bless all who had the good fortune to know him. John Starkebaum, Haxtun, Colorado, (1972-73-74)
Wow. Coach Ross helped me to stay positive in so many ways! Beyond the football field he would always talk to me about how my studies were going. If there was a concern, he would make sure I got it straightened out at study hall. He was so genuine even years and years after I graduated and returned to visit. He would be right up front and always say hello. Thank you, Coach!! Bruce Weber, (1970-71)
A wonderful story about a true Nebraska icon. It was also great to read the responses of former Huskers from across the country, which certainly enhances Ross' legacy. I only wish I could have heard Tom Osborne's tribute at the memorial service. Kevin Horn, Alliance, Nebraska