Jim Baffico and national title trophy that his brother presented to Nebraska.
By Randy York
While a nationwide television audience tunes into Saturday night’s Nebraska-Michigan game that will celebrate 50 consecutive years of Memorial Stadium sellouts, the man that literally kicked off the golden age of Nebraska football will be perched, by himself, in his second-floor media room in Montclair, N.J.
“We have a 60-inch screen that will bring all the colors I need in beautiful high-definition,” said James A. Baffico, who is the only man in the world that can say he literally, truly, actually kicked off the Bob Devaney Era in 1962. We’ll get to that shortly because it explains why Baffico wants to soak in every second of the game by himself and in the privacy of his favorite room. “My wife,” he said, “is even going take Sampson, our new black-and-tan coonhound that we just rescued, into another room so she can work with him, and I can concentrate on what I’m expecting to be another fabulous TV experience. It’s certainly a lot different than the primitive black-and-white colors we grew up with.”
Not one of Nebraska’s 323 consecutive home sellouts has involved Michigan, college football’s all-time leader with 900 wins. Saturday will mark the Wolverines’ first visit ever to Memorial Stadium and their first trip to Nebraska since the two teams battled to a 6-6 tie in 1911, 12 years before Memorial Stadium was built. With that backdrop, rewind to 1962 when Baffico’s booming kickoff not only brought Husker fans to their feet in a 53-0 thrashing of South Dakota in Devaney’s debut, but also set the tone for a new era of Big Red Football.
After 14 non-winning seasons in the previous 15 years, that kick lit the torch for Nebraska’s most explosive game in 18 years, and for Big Red fans, energy began to replace apathy. Nebraska followed its 1962 season-opener with a 25-13 upset of mighty Michigan in the Big House. Call that Reason No. 1 why Baffico will be singularly focused on Saturday night’s nationally televised game on ESPN2.
He Earned His Ph.D. from Michigan in 1970
Reason No. 2 is Baffico’s personal desire to watch history unfold because he has a connection to both schools. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Nebraska and a Ph.D. from Michigan in 1972. There is no question, however, where his loyalty lies when the Wolverines come to Lincoln.
Jim Baffico still bleeds red. He still remembers playing in the upset at Ann Arbor, and he can’t wait to return to the stadium where he launched the Devaney Era with a kick that went so far back in the end zone that it bounced over the end line before anyone could touch it.
“As I ran down the field with the kickoff team that day, I’m not sure my feet ever touched the ground,” Baffico said. “I just felt like I was flying. And I still remember a distinctive audible ‘Whoa!’ from the crowd (which was only 26,953 – nearly 10,000 short of capacity). It was pretty clear to me what that ‘Whoa!’ meant. It meant ‘This is the new Nebraska football? This is what Bob Devaney, our new coach, can produce? Hey, if it is, I’m on board! Count on me coming back every Saturday!’”
Fifty years later, Baffico still hears that “Whoa!” in his head. “I think of it every Saturday when I’m pacing the media room with my stomach churning prior to another Big Red kickoff,” he said. So now seems as good a time as any to acknowledge that as much as Baffico prospered in 1962, he failed a year later. “I didn’t go to class,” he said. “I wasted my opportunity … squandered it, really. I was young and dumb and on my own and made painfully stupid mistakes.”
He Overcame a Weakness: Being a Prima Donna
Transferring to Nebraska as an All-American offensive lineman from City College of San Francisco, Baffico played only his junior year for Devaney because “I was a prima donna, fat-headed and oh-so-special,” he said. “I got 15 spring semester hours of F’s. I blew it, and like everything else in Nebraska, when you blow it, you accept the consequences, live with them and try to learn from them.”
Fortunately, Baffico’s Nebraska failures spurred his substantial lifetime successes, and Devaney was the first to help him see the folly of his errant ways. In the midst of his pro football career with the Buffalo Bills and Toronto Argonauts, Baffico returned to Lincoln to finish his degree, using his pro wages and an internship under Devaney to pay the bills.
“I graduated in 1967 and left with a master’s degree in 1969,” Baffico said. “Coach Devaney was incredibly helpful through every one of my struggles. He even allowed me to be a graduate assistant. His guidance and support provided the beacon I so desperately needed. Eventually, everything worked out and probably for the best, too.”
Baffico is 70 now, half a century beyond the failures that forced an honest self-evaluation and led to his prosperous transformation. Converting his faults and flaws into spirit, resolve and life-changing lessons, Baffico began to soar academically, personally and professionally. His broad educational background includes studies in economics, creative writing, anthropology, acting, directing and dramatic literature. His combination of skills led to a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which he used to pursue his doctorate at Michigan. Baffico became an assistant professor and head of the directing program at Carnegie-Mellon University and headed the acting and directing areas at the University of Georgia. He won two Emmy Awards as best director for All My Children and appeared in films with the likes of Mia Farrow, Ed Harris, Tom Cruise, Griffen Dunne, Craig T. Nelson and Gary Busey. He also acted in such television series as Spenser for Hire, Dream Street, Law & Order, Law & Order: CI and The Wire on HBO.
To This Day, Baffico Has Delusions of Grandeur
“I’ve always been proud of the fact that I had a small part in the beginning of this magnificent thing that is Cornhusker Football,” Baffico said. “I watch the games and still feel as if I’m in uniform and awaiting my turn in action. The truth is, I sometimes think I could actually get in there and play a bit. And then the second thought is, ‘Yeah, but at 70, how would you do? You’d get killed. Get real! … but maybe not … I still work out!’
“You have to laugh at that and really laugh hard,” Baffico said. “But you know, I’ll bet many of my old teammates think the same thing occasionally. And that’s why I put on the Blackshirt Tee. I feel this deep emotional connection well up inside. Once a Cornhusker, always a Cornhusker. Or as the old fight song says, ‘And ‘twill always stir a Cornhusker, the old Scarlet and Cream!’”
Even though Baffico overcame his own list of shortfalls in the 1960s, he recovered nicely and was thrilled when his brother, Paul Baffico, invited him to join the 1997 national championship trophy presentation to Tom Osborne and Nebraska, his alma mater. “My brother was president and CEO of Sears Automotive at the time,” Jim Baffico said. “I was really touched when he asked me to join him in Lincoln. I was so proud that Coach Devaney’s successor won his own national title and then two more after that …Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne … two Hall-of-Fame coaches, back-to-back. Great university, great tradition, and I’m proud to have been a very small part of it.”
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