Leaving work Friday evening, I looked at the south wall in my office before turning out the light and happened to catch a glimpse of Bob Devaney. He was looking straight at me from the personally signed, limited-edition portrait I once bought at a silent auction. The print, a tribute to Nebraska’s legendary coach, shows Devaney among the clouds and rather majestically portrays him hovering over another full house at Memorial Stadium. The 2x3-foot print is hand-signed in gold and served as a friendly reminder not to let this week conclude without reflecting back on the life and times of one Robert S. Devaney, the Hall-of-Fame coach with a quick Irish wit, a brilliant coaching mind and a legacy so gigantic it always will live deep in the hearts of all true-blue Big Red fans.
Coach Devaney died in a Lincoln retirement home on May 8, 1997, prompting many of us to remember the man who planted the seeds for Nebraska’s unequaled, unmatched and unprecedented half century of college football excellence. I use those superlatives in the same sentence to drive home a simple fact – Nebraska may be located in Middle America, but no one’s even come close to the Cornhuskers’ level of consistency at Memorial Stadium, the only facility in the history of college football that’s been sold out for 50 consecutive years. The magic Devaney brought to Lincoln enabled Nebraska's turnaround.
The charts below, the result of research compiled by Joe Hudson, tell a fascinating story. Hudson, who retired from his job as a Denver Post copy editor to devote his full-time talents to HuskerMax.com, shares this information with the N-Sider not only to explain Devaney’s legacy, but also to help me reinforce the theme of that valued print hanging in my office with this perfect caption:
He Built It … And They Came
They came in droves … 23,706,977 Husker fans over the last 49 years and seven more consecutive sellouts coming to The House that Bob Built this fall. Yes, Devaney’s arrival was straight out of a Hollywood script – one that no one could believe. Yet here we are, 50 years later, counting down a football season like rock-N-rollers counting down hits on American Bandstand or Dick Clark counting down New Year’s Eve at Times Square. The late Bob Devaney is, was and always will be as iconic to Nebraska as the late Dick Clark was to America. Neither legend will ever leave the collective psyches of all of us who grew up with them.
Please consider The House That Bob Built and what he inherited the minute he set foot in Lincoln. From 1941 to 1961, here were the teams with the most losses in all of college football for those two decades: 1) Kansas State, 152 losses; 2) Nebraska, 125;3) Idaho, 117; 4-5) Columbia and Montana, 116 each; 6) North Carolina State, 115; 7) Richmond, 114; 8) New Mexico State, 113; 9-10) Indiana and Brigham Young, 111 each.
Now look at the teams with the most wins in college football over the past 50 years since Devaney arrived in Lincoln: 1) Nebraska, 480 (78.969 percent);2) Oklahoma, 440; 3) Penn State, 437; 4) Texas, 427; 5)Ohio State, 425; 6-7) Alabama and Michigan 422 each; 8) Southern Cal, 413; 9) Florida, 408; 10-tie) Georgia and Tennessee, 400 each.
Mind-boggling, isn’t it? Nebraska goes from the second worst team in the country from 1941-61 to the nation’s best team for the next 50 years (1961-2011). Let the record show that the early stages of Nebraska’s amazing bounce back is chronicled mostly in black-and-white, followed by techni-color and now, of course, high-definition. How, you might ask, can something so revolutionary happen so quickly? The most astute Nebraska fans with a penchant for history know which game Devaney targeted and used to re-chart the course of a program mired in mediocrity. In just his second game as Nebraska’s head coach, Devaney’s Cornhuskers beat Michigan at the Big House. That Sept. 29, 1962 game in his home state became the catalyst for Nebraska to transform itself from a program that had lost 125 games in the previous two decades to one that has made an unparalleled college football run with 480 wins since.
Nebraska deserves a gold record for its 50 years of unrivaled and unsurpassed excellence. It all began with Devaney’s arrival and was classically reinforced when he bypassed friends who were closer to him on the staff so he could pass the torch to Tom Osborne, his hand-picked successor. In my opinion, a No. 15 Devaney is a few spots lower than he should be in the Bleacher Report’sTop 50 College Football Coaches of All Time. Multi-media writers who’ve built an audience of almost 30 million unique monthly visitors are entitled to their opinions, but so am I, and I would submit that Osborne, even at No. 3 is a spot or two below where he belongs. But I gladly settle for where he ended up on this list – behind No. 1 Paul “Bear” Bryant and No. 2 Knute Rockne … not exactly bad company.
I can’t imagine what Nebraska football would be like if Devaney had not left his Michigan State assistant’s job to become head coach at Wyoming and then sneak into Lincoln under a cloak of secrecy five years later. In Sunday’s N-Sider Blog we will, in fact, reveal a secret that’s been kept under wraps for half a century but will become an historic footnote for a man that I believe deserves long-overdue credit for Nebraska landing Devaney. His name will surprise you. It may even shock you, so check back with us Sunday.