Reflecting on Nebraska’s Pivotal 1969 Sun Bowl

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The ‘69 Sun Bowl enabled NU center Glenn Patterson (72) to capture fourth- quarter memories in the Huskers’ 45-6 win over Georgia. World-Herald Photo

Omaha W-H: Trash-Talking Bulldogs No Match

1969 Sun Bowl Video from HuskerTapes.com

By Randy York

Here’s something worth its weight in college football’s magic kingdom: Which two all-time NCAA powers are ranked among the top five schools in all-time bowl appearances and will play each other next week for only the second time ever? That would be Nebraska and Georgia in Orlando’s Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day. The Huskers are tied with Tennessee for third in all-time bowl appearances with 49, 10 behind No. 1 Alabama and two behind No. 2 Texas and one ahead of No. 5 Georgia, which has 48. The ‘Dawgs, however, rank fourth all-time with 26 bowl wins, and Nebraska ranks seventh with 24. No. 6-ranked Georgia is a prohibitive favorite in only the second match-up between these two longtime national powers. The first and only time the two teams met was in the 1969 Sun Bowl. Nebraska won convincingly, 45-6, in El Paso, and here are six personal memories from that six decade ago experience:

1) The 1969 Sun Bowl provided my first bowl game byline. I was a junior at the University of Nebraska, the sports editor for the Daily Nebraskan and working 25-30 hours a week at the Journal-Star. I was thrilled to see the ’69 Huskers share the Big Eight Conference title and earn their first bowl trip in three years. Lincoln sports editor Don Forsythe asked if I planned to make the trip to El Paso, and I indicated that three friends were discussing driving straight from Lincoln to El Paso and then returning to Western Nebraska the morning after the game for Christmas break. Forsythe offered a modest stipend if I agreed to cover the Georgia locker room for the Sunday Journal and Star. I accepted the opportunity and within hours, all three fellow Alliance natives and NU students agreed to share gas money and two hotel rooms. I remember how excited I was because in that same month I learned my number in the draft for the War in Vietnam was 297, and any kind of sun sounded good to four guys who grew up in the Nebraska Panhandle. We left very early on a Thursday morning, changing drivers like clockwork for a 970-mile drive from Lincoln to El Paso. We did the same thing while traveling almost the exact same distance from El Paso to Alliance on Sunday. Yes, it was grueling, but 43 years later, I would do the same thing again.

2) The Sun Bowl game itself was a runaway from the first quarter. Nebraska’s Paul Rogers kicked four field goals (50, 32, 42 and 37 yards), and Jeff Kinney had an 11-yard touchdown run to give the Huskers an 18-0 first-quarter cushion. Georgia didn’t score until the final six minutes of the game, and history showed how that 1969 team put the Huskers back on a fast track. After beginning the season with a 31-21 loss to USC, Nebraska ended it with a 44-14 win at Oklahoma and an even more dramatic pasting of an SEC team. Even though a lot of Georgia players were barking before and during the game, humility was universal in the Dawgs’ locker room. In a Southern drawl that I will never forget, Georgia Coach Vince Dooley said afterwards that in all of his years of coaching, he had never seen a better football team than that ’69 Nebraska team.

3) Upon returning to second-semester classes in January of ’71, the rumor mill proved true. Linebacker Jerry Murtaugh and others had broken team policy in El Paso, and they were paying for their lack of judgement dearly in winter conditioning. “We had a great time in El Paso, but Coach Devaney ran us to death when we got home,” Murtaugh told author David Max, admitting that wasn’t the only reason his head coach was mad. Once he returned to Lincoln, Murtaugh started blabbing what Nebraska players and coaches were discussing privately. “Look out for us next year,” Murtaugh told the Nebraska media. “We’re going to be No. 1. We’re going to win it all.” Jeff Kinney grabbed Murtaugh by the helmet and led him straight to Devaney, who told his No. 1 tackler to keep his mouth shut. “I had to start running steps again,” Murtaugh said. “I started it off right every year. I got in trouble, but I was in great shape. Lots of steps. Lots and lots of steps. The prediction was right. I had so much faith in our players and coaches. Nobody was going to beat us.”

4) It’s important to remind everyone that Nebraska did not qualify for a bowl game after finishing 6-4 in both 1967 and ’68. El Paso launched Nebraska’s NCAA record streak of 35 consecutive bowl appearances. It was also the first of 33 straight 9-win seasons for the Huskers. The lack of ‘67 and ‘68 offensive punch was solved when Devaney selected 32-year-old Tom Osborne as his offensive coordinator. The 9-2 Huskers had young talent and hit their stride when it seemed to matter most. The ’69 Huskers had two second-team All-Americans – defensive back Dana Stephenson from Lincoln Pius X and Jim McFarland, a walk-on tight end from North Platte, Neb. Defensive back Randy Reeves (from Omaha Benson) was an Academic All-American and a National Football Foundation Hall-of-Fame Scholar-Athlete, the same award that Rex Burkhead received earlier this month. Rogers – whose four field goals in one quarter remains an NCAA record – was named the Sun Bowl’s Most Valuable Player. Murtaugh was the Sun Bowl’s Outstanding Lineman, and Kinney was a shoo-in for Big Eight Sophomore Player of the Year honors. Don’t forget that Osborne installed his famed I-formation in 1969. His innovation is reflected in the way he developed and used Kinney that season. For instance, against Big Eight co-champion Missouri (which lost 10-3 to Penn State in the Orange Bowl that year), Kinney caught eight passes for 124 yards. In Nebraska’s regular-season finale at Oklahoma, Kinney carried 35 times for 127 yards and scored three touchdowns. He also caught three passes against the Sooners and even threw a touchdown pass to Guy Ingles. The ‘69 Blackshirts were as stingy as the offense was productive, holding OU Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens to only 71 yards rushing. It was the first time in 17 games Owens didn’t score a touchdown. Murtaugh knew the Blackshirts were loaded with talent and national championship ready. And when the offense emerged, he couldn’t resist sharing his optimism with the media because he knew Osborne would maximize an offense that could chew time on the clock, keep the Blackshirts well rested and take Nebraska to a place it had never been … a national championship, let alone back-to-back national titles in 1970 and ’71. McFarland, Murtaugh and Stephenson earned first-team All-Big Eight distinction in 1969. So did Ken Geddes at middle guard and Bob Liggett at defensive tackle.

5) Murtaugh believes Devaney promoting Osborne to offensive coordinator before the ‘69 season laid the groundwork for unbeaten ’70 & ’71 seasons. Murtaugh now hosts a Legends Radio Show in Omaha on Saturdays and admits that he and Devaney fought their way through four years. “We never got along,” said Murtaugh, who found his sense of peace when the Hall-of-Fame coach and best tackler/problem child made up at Devaney’s retirement party. “Bob told me that everybody thinks he’s a great football coach, but he insisted he really wasn’t,” Murtaugh related. “Coach Devaney told me people didn’t understand how he was able to hire the nine greatest assistant coaches in the United States and would take credit for that. (Those nine were Osborne, Clete Fischer, Carl Selmer, Jim Ross, John Melton, Mike Corgan, Monte Kiffin, Warren Powers and Boyd Epley, a man Osborne convinced Devaney to hire as the first football strength coach in NCAA or NFL history). I told Coach Devaney I never realized how important those assistants were, and I’ll never forget what he said next: ‘It wasn’t me. It was them (the assistants who paved the way to national championships).’ That’s the way Coach Devaney was. He was a motivator. He got the most out of his players in terms of dedication and loyalty.”

6) Devaney also inspired the best from all of his coaches, including Osborne, whose loyalty was rewarded. When he hand-picked Osborne as his successor, Devaney bypassed close friends and capable leaders in Selmer (Miami), Kiffin (North Carolina State) and Powers (Washington State/Missouri), all of whom became Division l head coaches. Osborne and Devaney were different but had a healthy respect for each other. In an FCA meeting with Nebraska student-athletes earlier this month, Osborne recalled asking Devaney if he could say a prayer with him in the final hours before he died. When Devaney nodded yes, he had tears in his eyes. It was a precious moment for both, and Osborne still chokes up when he talks about it. The experience reinforced something Osborne understood then and feels even more strongly about now. Life is not about football or trophies or rings. Life is about faith, family and relationships. Osborne’s last day as Nebraska’s athletic director is Jan. 1, 2013. Whether the Huskers upset Georgia or lose to the Dawgs, Tom Osborne will walk out of the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium with his head held high. He has given Nebraska nothing but his very best, and we all appreciate the interim solution that became more than a 5-year journey to help a university, a city and a state that needed him.

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