Meet Nebraska’s First Football Academic All-American

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Bob Oberlin, left, receives a special Academic All-America award from Nebraska Senior Associate Athletic Director Dennis Leblanc.
Bob Oberlin, left, receives a special Academic All-America award from Nebraska Senior Associate Athletic Director Dennis Leblanc.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

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A former three-year starting center walked the halls of Nebraska’s Hewit Academic Center last week and recalled the last two football games he played in a Husker uniform – at Hawaii on Thanksgiving weekend and in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.


It doesn’t get any better than that for a cold-weather player who, at the peak of his career, gets to swim in the Pacific Ocean one month and then, a few weeks later, takes a few dips in the Atlantic Ocean as his collegiate swan song.

Astute followers of Nebraska football know that two of the Huskers’ all-time best teams closed their seasons with back-to-back games at Hawaii and in Miami.

Nebraska’s 1971 national championship team crushed Hawaii (45-3), then flattened Alabama (38-6) in the Orange Bowl.

The Huskers’ 1982 team beat Hawaii (37-16) and followed that with a 21-20 Orange Bowl win over LSU to finish 12-1. Their only loss that season was 27-24 at Penn State, which went on to win its first national championship.

So who was the mystery man in the Hewit Center last week?  Doug Dumler from 1971? Dave Rimington from 1982?

Neither one.

Oberlin Recalls Nebraska’s First Orange Bowl

Bob Oberlin is the correct answer to this one, and to find his name you have to go all the way back to 1954 – the year that Brown vs. the Board of Education reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, and Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House.

No wonder Mr. Oberlin felt a little like Marty McFly in Back to the Future when he and former teammate and best friend Bill Holloran walked down the Hewit Center’s hallway outside the student-athlete dining facility last week.

When they spotted Oberlin’s freshly painted portrait staring back at them from the Academic All-America wall, they couldn’t help remembering what life was like from 1951 to 1954 and how they finished their Husker careers in a warm weather flurry on Waikiki and Miami Beach.

Remembering the 34-7 loss to Duke in Nebraska’s first Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1955, still isn’t all that pleasant, but the passage of time helps soften the blow.

“We left our legs on the practice field in Miami for that game,” Oberlin recalled, smiling at the picture that showed him 55 years younger. “Bill Glassford was a tough coach. He worked us extremely hard. By the time the game started, we weren’t moving all that well.”

Among the leaders on that 1954 team were quarterback Don Erway (Lincoln, Neb.), running back Willie Greenlaw (Portland, Maine) and end Andy Loehr (Turtle Creek, Pa.). Holloran, of Schuyler, was one of 36 Nebraska natives on that team’s 54-man roster.

Father Helped to Inspire Five Engineer Sons

A native of West Allis, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, Oberlin said Nebraska was “the perfect place” for him to attend college and play football. Bill Cullen, his high school coach, knew a couple of Glassford’s assistants and helped steer his smart, hard-working offensive guard to Lincoln.

“I had offers from a half dozen schools (including Michigan), but I knew Nebraska had a very good engineering school, so I saw it as a good fit for me,” Oberlin said. “My dad ran a dry cleaning business. He never finished high school, but was always telling us kids that we could do anything we wanted as long as we worked hard and made school our top priority. I had four brothers, and we all became engineers without any financial aid from our parents.”

The self-made Oberlin came to Nebraska as a solid student who knew the value of academics and athletics. “For me, football was a way to get to college, and once I got here, I was as focused on academics as football,” he said. “I saw college as my path to become an engineer.”

After earning his B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from Nebraska, Oberlin joined DuPont, where he spent 34 years in management with the world’s second largest chemical company, mostly on the East Coast. Today, he and his wife, Nadine, live on a golf course in Sarasota, Fla.

Oberlin reinforces a Nebraska success formula that’s worked for half a century – a program that combines a strong work ethic with a balanced focus on being a student and an athlete.

“The emphasis was academics first when I played here,” Oberlin said. “If any of us had to leave practice early to go to class, the coaches always let us do it.”

Oberlin and his wife marveled at the accomplishments of Husker student-athletes at the annual Nebraska Student-Athlete Recognition Banquet, where NU Athletic Director Tom Osborne explained why another name had moved to the front of Nebraska’s Academic All-America list.

Overall Excellence Makes the Heart Expand

“Being an Academic All-American back then wasn’t a very big deal, but it is now, and I think that’s great,” Oberlin said. “Attending the recognition banquet and seeing all these great young student-athletes and what they’re accomplishing in the classroom, as well as in athletics  . . . it just makes our hearts expand. We’re so proud to be Huskers.”

Oberlin is now woven into Nebraska’s nation-leading number of Academic All-Americans, making him a firm fixture in Nebraska football history.

Wherever he travels, Osborne said people associate Nebraska with academic excellence as well as athletic tradition. “I’m especially proud that Nebraska continues to lead the nation in Academic All-Americans with 268 honorees,” he pointed out.

Although Oberlin had to reach his mid-70s to become a punch line for fans of Nebraska trivial pursuit, at least the Huskers’ nation-leading total appears to be updated, accurate and reflective of one of their most differentiating factors in recruiting.

Question: Of Nebraska’s nation-leading 93 CoSIDA First-Team Football Academic All-Americans, who was the first one?

Answer: Bob Oberlin. Remember the name. It just might win you five bucks at the next family reunion when Uncle Ed insists he’s never heard of the guy.

CoSIDA: The Official Standard for National Academic Honors

The reason Nebraska’s record books did not jive for decades with the Academic All-Americans listed there now is this fundamental fact – CoSIDA (College Sports Information Directors of America) did not invent Academic All-America teams, even though it is the official standard recognized by all colleges and universities.

Oberlin made the Lester Jordan Academic All-America team, selected by SMU’s longtime publicist. Thanks to efforts from Nebraska’s Athletic Department, Oberlin became one of 22 pre-1957 Academic All-Americans from 19 schools who are now officially recognized by CoSIDA.

Not only did Oberlin find his rightful place on the 1952 and 1953 Academic All-America teams, he provided a list to CoSIDA (published in the Lincoln Journal-Star) that had Lester Jordan’s entire 1952 team. For the first time, Dick Lipe, who chairs CoSIDA’s Academic All-America Committee, had a list of all the original honorees.

And 57 years later, all will be officially recognized by CoSIDA. Oberlin feels good about Nebraska helping to pave the way for other men to share in a similar honor at their own schools. Like him, they too, most likely have not been recognized over the last half century.

And to think it all started with a simple question.

“When we came back to Lincoln for the 50th reunion of our Orange Bowl team five years ago, I wondered why my picture wasn’t up there with Nebraska’s other Academic All-Americans,” Oberlin said. “I just mentioned it to Dennis Leblanc (Senior Associate Athletic Director of Academics) at the time. I completely forgot about it until Dennis called me back and told me what all they’d gone through to make it right for me and everyone else.”

A Celebration Worthy of Waikiki and Miami Beach?

An Academic All-America honor that takes more than a half century to acknowledge formally seems like a cause worthy of celebration.

Maybe Bob Oberlin should take a trip to Hawaii, where he can jump in the Pacific Ocean, then sit on Waikiki Beach, listen to the waves roll by and ponder how Nebraska influenced his life so profoundly so long ago.

Then, he should jump on an airplane, return home to Florida and head straight to Miami, where a granddaughter will be a freshman scholarship volleyball player for the Hurricanes this fall.

Respect the past and embrace the future.

That’s so Nebraska, and it’s certainly reason enough to celebrate with a few dips in the Atlantic Ocean on Miami Beach, too . . . for old time’s sake, of course.


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