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Bob Devaney #2

The Ten Greatest Coaches in NU History

Staff writer

Published: Wednesday, October 6, 1999

Updated: Saturday, November 29, 2008 04:11

Jeff Kinney remembers the scene in the Nebraska locker room on that gray November day in 1971 when NU was battling Oklahoma in "The Game of the Century."

The No. 1 Cornhuskers were down 17-14 to their arch rival and second-ranked Sooners at Oklahoma and had just given up a late-second-quarter touchdown drive that gave OU its first lead of the game.

Into the locker room stormed a short, pudgy, puffy-eyed Irishman named Bob Devaney - wearing a red jacket, red hat and incredibly red face. A coach who one of his assistants once described as "someone who thought you had to be half-mad to play football," Devaney was beyond mad. He was steaming.

"He was really, really fired up," said Kinney, NU's running back at the time and now a Husker legend. "I don't remember exactly what he said, but you could hear him screaming. He said a few words to everybody, and you knew he meant what he said."

The message must have come across, because Nebraska refused to lose. Kinney crashed through defenders all afternoon and scored all three of NU's second-half touchdowns, including a 2-yard plunge with 1:38 left that gave the Huskers their biggest win in school history - a 35-31 heart-stopper that is still considered by many the greatest college football game ever played.

That's just one Bob Devaney story. And those who knew Devaney best during his 11-year stint as Nebraska's head football coach can tell you dozens of others.

But the "Game of the Century" defined Devaney - a fiery bulldog who had the persona to affect and inspire everyone around him. And to win.

For that, Bob Devaney was voted the No. 2 all-time greatest coach in Nebraska athletics history by the Daily Nebraskan. His greatness and significance to the Nebraska football program, athletic program, university and state go well beyond the glossy 101-20-2 record he posted from 1962-72.

It went straight to the heart of the people he surrounded.

Kinney - who compared Devaney's 1968 visit to his hometown of McCook to recruit him to "having the president of the United States come to town" - said Devaney had a knack for inspiring his players to achieve.

"In the time and place I grew up, the head coach was the kind of guy you revered and respected," Kinney said. "You always sought Bob's approval. He knew the right words to say at the right time."

Devaney inspired not only 101 victories, eight Big Eight championships and two national championships, he inspired a state full of football fans starved for a winner.

Few could comprehend in the winter of 1962 - when the Michigan native stepped off the train in Lincoln from Wyoming to inherit a program that had suffered 17 losing seasons in 21 years - that he would become what former NU Sports Information Director Don Bryant called "one of the three most important people in the University of Nebraska's history."

Thanks to Devaney, Nebraska has a powerhouse football program that boasts 37 consecutive winning seasons, five national championships and 230 consecutive Memorial Stadium sellouts.

Thanks to Devaney, who served as NU's innovative Athletic Director from 1967-93, NU has one of the most highly-funded, best-facilitated, most-respected and successful student-athlete programs in the nation.

And thanks to Devaney, Nebraska became known for more than just a state of open plains and fields of corn. That "Sea of Red," of 77,000 screaming faithful on Saturdays in the fall? The pride of nearly 2 million Nebraskans chewing peoples' ears off about "their" football team? It all started with Devaney.

"Bob was probably the most important coach ever at Nebraska," said No. 1 Nebraska Coach and Devaney's successor, Tom Osborne.

"He turned the program around and brought it to new heights. His influence was greater than anything I was able to contribute."

Devaney's impact was immediate.

Before he arrived, NU had trudged through several seasons of conservative, downright boring - not to mention losing - football. So in his first game as NU's coach, at home, Devaney called a pass on the first play. The pass fell incomplete.

"And the whole stadium went nuts," Bryant said. "He knew what the fans wanted and got them on his side right away."

NU won nine games in his first season and a conference championship in his second. The next three years, Devaney contended for the national title but fell short. However, by 1967 and '68, fans were calling for his head after two poor 6-4 seasons.

The bulldog fought back. Devaney captured the elusive national title in 1970 and repeated the feat in '71 - beating his old nemesis, legendary Alabama Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant in the Orange Bowl, to establish himself as a legend.

But it was Devaney's personality, not his accomplishments, that his former players, coaches and peers will remember him by.

"He was a man of a million jokes," current NU head coach and former fullback Frank Solich said. "You felt comfortable around him. As a player, he demanded that you play well, but he was light-hearted in a lot of ways. He made the game fun."

One Devaney story that personified his legacy occurred in a game against Southern California in Lincoln.

In the first half, the road team Trojans had been flagged for a few more penalties than USC Coach John McKay believed they deserved. At halftime, as McKay bitterly stomped toward the locker room and muttered to himself, he felt a hand slap him on the shoulder. It was Devaney's.

McKay turned around and looked at the grinning, red-faced Irishman.

"Well, John," Devaney said rather sheepishly. "How did you like my brother's officiating?"

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