Randy York’s N-Sider
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Fifty Years Later, Whitehead Still on Board Saturday, when 11-2 Nebraska hosts third-ranked Kansas before a sold-out crowd and a national television audience, Bus Whitehead will enter the building, go to his last-row seats in the B Section behind the Nebraska bench, look up at the scoreboard and think what he thinks before every game – We’re going to win! “Darn right, we’re going to win,” says Bus, who will celebrate his 80th birthday the next day. “I always think we’re going to win at home, even when we play Kansas. This is Bill Self’s best team at KU. They might make us pay like they did last year when they kept breaking our trap. But I’m an optimist. I think you should win every game on your home floor.” In the history of the Devaney Center, Nebraska has won 378 of 496 games – a winning percentage of .762. Whitehead estimates he’s seen at least 95 percent of those games, plus hundreds more at the old NU Coliseum where he played, starred, coached, announced and became one of the foremost fixtures among Husker fans.
It’s the Golden Anniversary year of Nebraska’s two greatest basketball wins ever, so forgive a Husker Hall of Fame player and perhaps NU’s biggest fan for doing what he’s done nearly 500 times since they opened the doors of the Bob Devaney Sports Center in 1976.
Fifty Years Later, Whitehead Still on Board
Saturday, when 11-2 Nebraska hosts third-ranked Kansas before a sold-out crowd and a national television audience, Bus Whitehead will enter the building, go to his last-row seats in the B Section behind the Nebraska bench, look up at the scoreboard and think what he thinks before every game – We’re going to win!
“Darn right, we’re going to win,” says Bus, who will celebrate his 80th birthday the next day. “I always think we’re going to win at home, even when we play Kansas. This is Bill Self’s best team at KU. They might make us pay like they did last year when they kept breaking our trap. But I’m an optimist. I think you should win every game on your home floor.”
In the history of the Devaney Center, Nebraska has won 378 of 496 games – a winning percentage of .762. Whitehead estimates he’s seen at least 95 percent of those games, plus hundreds more at the old NU Coliseum where he played, starred, coached, announced and became one of the foremost fixtures among Husker fans.
His character, charisma and personality command every room he enters, but his entrance isn’t so easy anymore. An iron-related disease got the best of his right foot, so Jerry Fisher, the former Lincoln golf pro and ex-NU women’s golf coach, helps Bus get to his seat and settled in. Fisher works for Whitehead Oil Co. (WOC). So does son-in-law Kent Jaggers, the company’s Chief Financial Officer and his wife, Lesley, who works part-time in accounting at WOC. The family, including twins Kyle and Avery, moved back to Lincoln four years ago to spend more time with Bus and his wife, Jeannie.
“My dad is a real a fighter,” says Mark, who runs the family business. “He just gets up and goes. He hasn’t missed a basketball game this season. In the winter time, his whole social calendar revolves around Nebraska basketball. That’s the way it’s always been. There were times he’d spend playing golf in Palm Desert, Calif., so he missed some home games. But he wouldn’t think of that now.”
“I don’t know when I’ve been more excited about Nebraska athletics than I am now,” Bus says. “With Tom Osborne, Bo Pelini and Doc Sadler on the same team, I can’t imagine anyone outhustling us on the football field or the basketball court.”
Height and hustle were Bus Whitehead hallmarks when he played for Scottsbluff High School. Then he became a two-time first-team All-Big Seven Conference player and the catalyst for the Huskers’ 1949 and 1950 league title teams. In 1950, he averaged a then-school record 15.7 points a game and was named to the District V All-America team by Collier’s Magazine. He also was the first Cornhusker selected to play in the East-West All-Star Game in New York’s Madison Square Garden, where he played against Hall of Famer Bob Cousy. When Bus graduated from Nebraska, he held nine school scoring records.
Whitehead also was named the captain of NU’s all-time basketball team and earned the first Distinguished Hall of Fame Alumni Award in 2003.
“I’m really proud of all my dad’s accomplishments,” Mark said. “But I’m even prouder of what he’s done as a family man and a leader in this community. He played three years with the Phillips 66ers before coming back to Lincoln to work for Phillips 66. Few people know this, but he was the company’s National Salesperson of the Year two years in a row before he established Whitehead Oil Company in 1959. He’s always been a hard worker. I think that’s why he likes watching hard-working Nebraska teams play.”
In addition to operating a highly successful business, Whitehead served as a Nebraska assistant basketball coach under Jerry Bush and spent 18 years as a radio analyst for Husker games with Bob Zenner, among others.
It’s been nearly 50 years since Bus saw Nebraska pull off the two biggest upsets in its history – a 43-41 win over Wilt Chamberlain and fourth-ranked Kansas on Feb. 22, 1958, in the Coliseum (12 days after Wilt had scored 46 points in a 102-46 KU rout of the Huskers in Lawrence). In Nebraska’s next game, on March 3, 1958, the Huskers delivered an even bigger upset with a 55-48 stunner over top-ranked Kansas State, led by Omaha native and Olympian and later NBA star Bob Boozer.
“I’ve seen Nebraska surprise people in basketball more than most remember,” Whitehead said. “K-State wasn’t the only No. 1 team we beat. We also beat a top-ranked Michigan team (in 1964) and a top-ranked Missouri team (in 1982). We lost two close ones to Kansas when they were unbeaten and ranked No. 1 (98-93 in 1990 and 82-77 in overtime in 1997). I think we’ve beaten KU several times when they were ranked in the top 10 (1966, 1978, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994).”
When No. 1 KU came to Lincoln in 2002, a sellout crowd watched Nebraska hit a school-record 18 3-point shots, only to see the effort spoiled when KU freshman Keith Langford hit a late 3-pointer to pull out an 88-87 win. Nebraska also took an unbeaten, second-ranked KU team to the wire before losing, 59-57, three years ago in Lawrence. Husker Corey Simms’ three-point shot rimmed out at the buzzer in that one.
“Upsets can always happen, especially when you have a defensive-minded coach like Doc,” Whitehead said, knowing that Nebraska’s scoring defense, which is ranked No. 2 nationally, will get its stiffest test since the Huskers upset No. 16 Oregon last month in Omaha.
Ball security will be the key. The Huskers committed a season-low seven turnovers against the Ducks, who returned four starters from last year’s NCAA Elite Eight team. Nebraska went the last 14 ½ minutes of that overtime game without a turnover.
Whitehead will be dreaming big when he takes his seat Saturday night with his daughter, Sydney Uthoff, and her husband, Steve, who, along with daughter Brittany, are visiting this weekend from Houston.
“We suggested a big 80th birthday party on Sunday,” Mark said.
“I vetoed that idea,” Bus said, opting for a family birthday celebration Sunday night at the Lincoln Country Club. Daughter Lesley planned the event for 17 people, and it will include more family members from Kearney and Gering.
“The best birthday present I can think of would be to beat Kansas,” Bus said. “When I sit down, that’s what I’ll be expecting. You don’t ever want to quit dreaming.”
How many of you believe like the constant optimist? Can Nebraska spring another upset of KU? Let us know what you think. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to wish one of our all-time Nebraska greats a happy 80th birthday.
The Voices of Husker Nation
"Thought you might be interested in an ironic footnote to something that came after one of Nebraska’s most historic basketball upsets in 1958. The students convinced the chancellor to call off classes the next Monday. He reluctantly agreed, but with the stipulation that classes wouldn't be called off again until Nebraska defeated Oklahoma in football. The chancellor thought he was safe on that one, but just a year later, the Husker football team, coached by Bill Jennings, pulled off what is still considered to be Nebraska’s greatest upset ever – a 25-21 win over Oklahoma and Bud Wilkinson in a Halloween Homecoming game in Lincoln. Nebraska hadn’t beaten Oklahoma in 17 years, and the Sooners were riding an incredible 74-game conference winning streak.
Living in York, I remember the 1958 Kansas game being televised by Channel 10, a last-minute deal as I recall. And I fell asleep on the couch watching it. I would have been 11 years old. I woke up in time to see Jim Kubacki's game-winner. Even if it didn't happen that way, I'm sticking to the story. Oh yes, my dad and I were at the Michigan game in 1964, sitting way up in those seats on the end of the Coliseum. I still have the program from that game, when Fabulous Fred Hare flipped the winning shot back up over his shoulder to knock off Cazzie Russell and a very physical Michigan team. Mike Babcock, Lincoln