The date: Sept. 8, 1973. The opponent: UCLA. Tom Osborne, 36, would make his Nebraska head coaching debut in a home game that was moved up a week to accommodate an ABC national telecast. That decision also would complicate the second to last day of the Nebraska State Fair, which created a combined traffic jam of some 135,000 people in the same basic area. It was a day most of us will never forget, and Mike Babcock takes us back to that scene 39 years ago in his "How It Was: Games Remembered"series for Huskers Illustrated.
Babcock's story helps recall how two unexpected Huskers emerged as THE stars from that nationally televised game that also featured a UCLA quarterback, Mark Harmon, who's still highly recognized today without his helmet on. That's because he plays Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on the television series NCIS. Babcock's memory jogs mine, and I recall how media savvy Harmon was that summer when I wrote a column about his dating a Lincoln girl before that historic season opener. Somehow, that column drew attention on the West Coast, too.
Fortunately, NU defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin put the brakes on UCLA's speed and wishbone in that rare 3:50 p.m. kickoff. The Huskers won, 40-13, and the two stars who emerged out of the shadows that day became the Associated Press's Co-National Backs of the Week. Star No. 1 was Steve Runty, a walk-on quarterback from Ogallala, Neb. He replaced double-injured Dave Humm(knee, infected elbow) as NU's starter. Babcock's story points out how UCLA Coach Pepper Rodgers had wasted most of his team's preparation on how to defend Humm, a classic drop-back passer. Instead, the Bruins got Runty, who would roll out of the pocket and create all sorts of havoc that day.
The chief benefactor of Runty's unforeseen mobility was Star No. 2 - Touchdown Tony Davis, the hard-charging Tecumseh, Neb., sophomore I-back who could plant and run then like Rex Burkhead does now. In his varsity debut that day, Davis rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns. Who can forget how Davis punched the chain-link fence after scoring his second touchdown? I remember that game for one more reason. Randy Borg, a sophomore walk-on from Alliance, Neb., made his debut as the successor to punt return man extraordinaire Johnny "The Jet" Rodgers. With Nebraska leading, 7-0, Borg returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown. Two years earlier, I had advised Borg and his parents to accept a small college football scholarship instead of trying to beat the odds of walking on at Nebraska. Fortunately, Borg's dream to be a Husker had more motivational power than a 24-year-old writer's advice. The minute Borg reached the end zone on that punt return, I made a vow to myself - from now on, always encourage a young man to chase what's in his head rather than what might in yours.
Four decades later, you find irony in Nebraska steamrolling UCLA in Osborne's head coaching debut. Why? Because he patterned most of his career after a man, a coach and a legend ... none other than UCLA's John Wooden.