Randy York’s N-Sider
Sixty years ago, Robert S. "Bob" Devaney was a high school football coach in Alpena, Mich. Fifty years ago, he was in his first year as Nebraska’s head football coach. This week, the N-Sider salutes the man that Nebraska hired to breathe new life into a football program that had 17 losing seasons in the 21 years before Devaney arrived in Lincoln.
Who would have thought that an obscure high school coach would be the pivot point for a 2012 game where the University of Nebraska and the University of Michigan will play the first conference game in college football history where both teams have won at least 850 games all-time?
Yes, Michigan is the Division I college football leader with 900 all-time victories after defeating cross-state rival Michigan State, 12-10, Saturday in Ann Arbor. Nebraska ranks fourth all-time with 851 wins after bouncing back to beat Northwestern, 29-28, Saturday in Evanston.
Is there any better way for Nebraska's Athletic Department and Big Red fans to salute, celebrate and commemorate 50 consecutive years of sellout crowds at Memorial Stadium than playing the all-timer leader in Michigan's first game ever at Memorial Stadium? (The Wolverines played in Lincoln in 1911, 12 years before Memorial Stadium was built).
Tom: Bob Most Important NU Coach Ever
The sellout streak traces its roots to Devaney's first year at Nebraska in 1962. He built this football monster, and the fans came and never stopped coming a half century later. Saturday, in fact, marked the 50-year anniversary of Nebraska's last non-home football sellout - a 26-6 win over Kansas State on Oct. 20, 1962.
“Bob was the most important coach ever at Nebraska,” NU Athletic Director Tom Osborne said when he became a congressman in Nebraska’s third district.
Remarkably, Devaney, a Sagninaw, Mich., native, spent his first 13 seasons coaching football at four high schools in the Great Lakes State – Big Beaver, Keego Harbor, Saginaw and then Alpena, also the home of his alma mater, Alma College. Devaney worked three years in a foundry to earn tuition to attend Alma, where he played end and captained the football team. He graduated from Alma in 1939.
Devaney was giving serious thought to becoming a high school administrator when Biggie Munn hired him as an assistant coach at Michigan State. Devaney also worked in East Lansing under Duffy Daugherty, who recommended Devaney for the head coaching job at Wyoming and then recommended him again for the Nebraska job when NU Chancellor Clifford Hardin asked Daugherty if he was interested in Nebraska’s job.
Nine Years in East Lansing and Laramie
Devaney spent four years as a Michigan State assistant and five years as the head coach at Wyoming where his teams lost only 10 of 50 games. At Nebraska, his teams went 101-20-2, winning or sharing eight Big Eight titles and two national championships in 11 seasons. Devaney later served as Nebraska’s athletic director from 1967 to 1993 and as athletic director emeritus until 1996.
Last March, Devaney was one of 23 members inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. It was the state’s largest induction class in history. And in the minds of Big Red fans everywhere, no one loomed larger than Devaney, who died at 82 on May 10, 1997, in Lincoln. A member of the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame, Devaney was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
Ross: The Inspiration behind the Upset
Devaney’s first Husker team upset Michigan, 25-13, in Ann Arbor before 70,287 fans. It was, at the time, the largest crowd ever to watch a Nebraska regular-season football game.
“We were willing to do anything for Bob,” 1962 Nebraska quarterback Dennis Claridge said. “I remember Jim Ross getting the whole team together and telling us what that game meant to Bob.
“Coach Ross told us Bob would never ask a team to win one for him, but he made sure we knew what was at stake,” Claridge said. “He told us Bob grew up in Michigan, coached high school football in Michigan and was an assistant coach for two legendary coaches at Michigan State.
“Bob didn’t have to say a word,” Claridge pointed out. “Coach Ross said everything that needed to be said. We loved Bob, and we played very well.”
Bob Would Love Huskers in the Big Ten
The game put Nebraska on the national map and steered the Huskers toward Saturday night’s intersection with history. Just like 50 years ago, no one has to say what the Michigan game would mean to the family of Bob Devaney or to Big Red fans everywhere.
Devaney changed the course of Nebraska football history, and make no mistake. Those who knew him best insist that the fiery Irishman would have loved seeing Nebraska as a member of the same Big Ten Conference he grew up with.
Saturday night, history will be made, and we all know which side of the field the man in the red hat would favor ... the school that he helped make famous.
He’s the man who laid the foundation for an unparalleled 50 consecutive years of a sold-out Memorial Stadium. The Huskers could not have picked a more prominent rival to celebrate that incredible accomplishment.
A New Wrinkle Coming Fans' Way Soon
Nebraska and Michigan don’t need alternate uniforms to make this match-up any more special than it already is. Nebraska will, however, unveil a new wrinkle later in the week that will help Big Red fans celebrate their own milestone.
"The fans deserve all the credit in the world," Claridge said. "Through all these years, they've kept coming through those doors no matter what. I think it's neat that the Athletic Department is using the Michigan Game as a tribute to our fans, and I think it's great that our fans can show their appreciation for the program."
So stay tuned. Soak up all the history you can. Warm up every inch of your vocal chords. And prepare yourself to welcome those who spend their football Saturdays in the Big House to Our House.
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