By Randy York
As a blogger in the wake of Nebraska’s sweep of the state of Michigan on back-to-back weekends, I can’t resist thinking about the limited edition portrait of Bob Devaney hanging in my office. It’s the same one I’ve mentioned before – the piece of art showing Devaney in the clouds hovering above Memorial Stadium with this caption: HE BUILT IT … AND THEY CAME.
More than 24 million Nebraska fans have come through the gates of Memorial Stadium since Devaney arrived in 1962. In this, the 50-year anniversary season that celebrates half a century of consecutive sellout crowds, many of us still see Devaney hovering over our historic stadium. I can only imagine how proud he would be with the Huskers he loved sweeping his home state. He did, after all, pledge his allegiance to Nebraska from the minute he arrived here, and he never wavered from that.
Nebraska players and certain members of the media aren’t the only ones, though, that connect back-to-back wins over Michigan and Michigan State with Devaney’s incredible legacy. His son, Mike Devaney, now 70 and living in Scottsdale, Ariz., is just as juiced about the memories of his dad and the shadows he casts on a stadium that had a 36,000-seat capacity when he got here and will have a 92,000-seat capacity next fall when the East Stadium expansion project is completed.
Huskers Honored Mike Devaney at the Michigan Game
Mike Devaney sat in a suite last weekend when he returned to Lincoln to watch the Huskers beat Michigan, 23-9. He was even introduced to an ongoing NCAA record crowd, which, unfortunately, didn’t get to hear him take a stroll down memory lane like I did.
“I wanted to come back to see the first game Michigan ever played in Memorial Stadium,” Mike said. “I’ll never forget how important it was when we beat Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1962. My dad knew Michigan wasn’t quite as good as they had been, but he also knew how tough it would be trying to beat them on the road. He always said he inherited good athletes and what he needed to do most was get them to believe in themselves.”
Beating Michigan in his second game as Nebraska’s head coach accomplished Bob Devaney’s No. 1 mission. “I think history will tell you that beating Michigan gave our players the confidence they needed to turn the program around immediately,” Mike said. “I will never forget what a fantastic game Bill ‘Thunder’ Thornton had that day.”
Flights Were Few and Radios Were ‘The View’
Mike Devaney will not forget, even though he was not at the game. “I was 20 years old and a junior in Chemical Engineering at Nebraska,” he said. “I remember listening to the game on the radio at home with my mom (the late Phyllis Devaney), my sister (Pat, retired from the faculty at Stanford and still living in Palo Alto, Calif.) and some other coaches’ wives and their families. Back in those days, flights were harder to come by, so we’d all camp out in our little brick ranch house at 41st and C Streets.”
Still a successful businessman with holdings in manufacturing, real estate and other investments, Mike Devaney looks a little like his dad, sounds exactly like him and has every bit of his Irish wit. I ask him if I’m the only one who thinks that. “I have heard that before,” he said before agreeing to provide his insight on how he believes his late father influenced not only Nebraska football, but also the university from which he graduated and the state that he still visits and loves.
“I think beating Michigan back in 1962 put Nebraska on the map,” Mike said. “It gave the team the momentum to finish 9-2 and win its first bowl game in school history. I have that same portrait of my dad in my office in Scottsdale that you have in your office. Because of that successful first season, Nebraskans identified with a winner, so they had to keep adding seats. They built it because everybody came, and I think my dad would be very proud right now seeing Nebraska as a member of the Big Ten Conference. He grew up with that conference.”
Devaney’s Roots Were Planted Deeply in Michigan
Bob Devaney “had a lot of fond memories growing up in Michigan, graduating from high school there, playing at Alma College and coaching at Michigan State with two Hall-of-Fame coaches – Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty,” Mike pointed out. “He had such a high regard for all of those experiences. I know he would have loved Nebraska beating Michigan. He liked being able to put a little heat on a great school. When we beat Michigan in ’62, it gave Nebraska the confidence that we could beat anybody.
“To this day, I think that game is what turned the tide for Nebraska, for my dad and for all the Husker fans that remain so loyal,” Mike said. “My dad came to Nebraska because it was unique situation. There was no state school to compete against or divide loyalty. Dad had the personality to rally everyone around a common denominator, and he fit right in immediately.”
Mike said his dad was like the Pied Piper. “Everywhere he would go, people would follow him,” he said. “He and Duffy could walk into a place without knowing anybody, and they would walk out of the place later knowing everyone there. He not only enjoyed what he did. He loved everyone around him. He’d talk to people, care about them and interface with them. He always remembered his roots and where he came from. He never put himself ahead of anybody, and that always played very well in a state that was down-to-earth then and is still that way today.”
A Case of One Practical Joke Spurring Another
Robert S. Devaney, of course, was the consummate practical joker, but Barry Switzer made Devaney a well-known victim of a practical joke instead of playing his usual role as perpetrator.
“I think most fans remember Barry hijacking my dad on his Friday night TV show with Dick Janda,” Mike Devaney recalled. “That was the year when the winner of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game would be heading to the Orange Bowl and eating stone crabs in Miami instead of eating tacos with the losers at the Sun Bowl in El Paso.”
Switzer brought a sack of tacos onto a live Lincoln set with Devaney and Janda to communicate to Nebraska’s AD the team he thought was heading toward the border. Mike Devaney said few know that his dad made Switzer pay for that one-upmanship. “My dad always told me he was going to get Switzer back, and he did,” Mike said. “He called the producer of a radio show Barry was going to tape, and hired a go-go dancer to hijack Barry. He got even, and it was really just a lot of innocent fun where coaches could laugh both with and at each other.”
In Days Gone By, Coaches Had Different Motives
“Back in that time period, all the coaches coached for the love of coaching,” Mike said. “The same was true of the players. In today’s environment, it’s about the money and about the job. I think that’s unfortunate, but on the other hand, I think that’s a fact of life.
“Today’s coaches don’t have the camaraderie that coaches had when my dad coached,” Mike said. “My dad was good friends with Duffy at Michigan State, Chuck Fairbanks (Oklahoma), Darrell Royal (Texas) and Charlie McClendon (LSU). They had such great respect for each other. It was very high and very real for all of them. They did all kinds of things together. They golfed. They vacationed. They talked on the phone. It was a very close-knit fraternity back then, not at all what it is today.”
As excited as Mike Devaney was about Nebraska beating Michigan, he was just as amped about the Huskers winning in East Lansing, the place that gave his dad his first big chance and put him on the launching pad for even greater success as a head coach.
Michigan State: Critical Stop in NU’s Stretch Run
“The way I look at it,” Mike told me, “East Lansing was the third in the six-game series that Nebraska has to win so they can compete for the Big Ten Championship and get a chance to play in the Rose Bowl. My dad would be very proud of everything that’s happening 50 years after he first got to Lincoln.”
For me, it’s almost ironic to lift up Bob Devaney on a wonderful Sunday when all of us in America “lost” an hour of daily sunlight through the change that took place while most of us were sleeping.
Devaney loved telling the story about the Nebraska farmer who asked him once if he would consider helping him and other farmers lobby against adding an extra hour of daylight savings time every spring.“I thought everybody liked that idea,” Devaney told the farmer. “Don’t you think an extra hour of daylight is good for everyone in the summertime?”
The farmer was adamant. “No,” he told Devaney. “There’s absolutely no good reason why we should add one more hour of daylight to our schedule every day. We work hard enough as it is.”
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