By Randy York
When Nebraska lured Bob Devaney away from Wyoming, he became one of this state’s most popular historical figures because he won immediately, and he won big. He took the Huskers where they’d never been before – to the very top. “I thought Ben Nelson said it best at my dad’s memorial service,” offered up Pat Devaney, the daughter of Nebraska’s late head football coach. “Governor Nelson said my dad’s legacy wasn’t about football. It was about making Nebraska No. 1 in something in the country. It gave everybody a sense of pride and accomplishment, especially when so many of the players were from Nebraska. So there was a sense of ownership. Nebraska was the only Division I college football team in the state, and it brought the whole state together. It was a unifying force. Nobody had anything to argue about. It wasn’t political, and I think Governor Nelson said it very well. In fact, until I heard him say it, I never quite got it. I was totally mystified about all of the hullaballoo. I think it’s true that dad’s legacy isn’t really about football. It’s about a man coming into a state that had a little bit of an inferiority complex and showing everyone that they could compete with the best of teams from California to New York. All of a sudden, there they are. They won, and they won on their own terms. There was no handout. My dad always felt that if he hadn’t done that, somebody else would have because Nebraska has the hardest working people in the country. To him, it was never personal. He loved this state, and it loved him.”
Devaney’s pinnacle of back-to-back 1970-71 national championships indeed generated an epic power surge and created a new, refreshing statewide mindset – a proud, pounding, pleasing pursuit of excellence. Nebraska celebrates Devaney’s monumental legacy in a season-opener matching the only two Division I institutions Devaney ever served as head coach – the Wyoming Cowboys and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. “How apropos can it get to unveil a statue of my dad the day before Wyoming plays Nebraska in Memorial Stadium?” asked Mike Devaney, who’s in Lincoln this weekend with his son, Rob, to represent their late father and grandfather in the formal dedication of that statue outside Gate 20. With the Tom Osborne/Brook Berringer statue greeting Husker fans in the North Stadium entrance, who else but Devaney would welcome fans at the expanded East Stadium entrance? Devaney is, after all, the Hall-of-Fame coach who “built” Memorial Stadium into what it became. He also blazed new trails for African-American student-athletes as a coach and then carried a big torch for female student-athletes as Nebraska’s athletic director.
Omaha artist Joe Putjenter molded and sculpted the statue, which features Devaney wearing his familiar letter jacket with his cap on and a whistle hanging around his neck while he’s holding a clipboard in his left hand. “I think they’ve taken about 20 years off of dad and maybe a good 20 pounds,” said Mike Devaney with a voice and laugh that you would swear was Bob’s if you closed your eyes and listened. “Dad would say the same thing. It’s a nice tribute and relates to what he’s known for – being a football coach. It’s a unique symbol, and we’re just as happy to see the Devaney Center become a world-class facility at the same time. Dad would be happy and humble with all of it. I think the biggest change dad made at Nebraska was making football fun again. He shortened practices, was very organized and knew how to motivate in his own unique way.”
Eichorst Commissions Devaney Statue
One of the first items of business for new Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst was to prominently recognize and pay tribute to Bob Devaney at Memorial Stadium. “Coach Devaney led the charge and laid a solid foundation for the future success of Nebraska Athletics,” he said. After quietly consulting with UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman, other leaders and the Devaney family, Eichorst commissioned a statue to be built and placed at the east entrance to Memorial Stadium’s most historic gate. Through that gate, of course, pass college football’s most loyal fans who sold out the Missouri game in Devaney’s first year as Nebraska’s head coach in 1962 and have gone on to sell out 326 consecutive games, an ongoing NCAA record.
Having Devaney’s statue in front of what is believed to be the only joint on-campus academic and athletic research facility in intercollegiate athletics is appropriate in another meaningful way. Devaney hand-picked Osborne to succeed him as head coach, bypassing several coaches on his staff who went on to become head coaches themselves. “I don’t think you could find two people who live their lives so much differently in so many ways,” Mike Devaney said of his dad and Osborne, who helped spearhead the one-of-a-kind research facility. “Dad respected Tom for who he was, and I think Tom respected dad for who he was. They had a lot of respect for each other and what they could accomplish together. They never once stepped on each other’s beliefs or personal lives at all, and they both had a strong sense of loyalty to each other.”
Pat Devaney, a retired Stanford dean, is now on the board of the Stanford Historical Society. She leads the charge for their oral history program to “tell the stories about the old days of Stanford and how we’ve gone from good to great,” she said, adding that she has no doubt about how her dad took Nebraska from the depths of football despair to greatness in less than a decade and how that became the trigger to unify Nebraska’s statewide pride.
The Head Coach Carries Nebraska’s Pressure
To this day, Pat laughs about her dad being voted the most popular person in the state when he was an athletic director and insists that her dad’s ability to laugh at himself was a big part of his skill to unify. “I think it was Governor (Frank) Morrison who came up to my dad and told him that he was gaining on him as the most popular man in the state,” she recalled. Her dad’s response set the record straight. “Hey, don’t kid yourself,” Devaney told Morrison. “Tom Osborne would have been way ahead of both of us in that poll if he had beaten Oklahoma this year.”
Mike Devaney, a successful businessman based in Scottsdale, Ariz., says his dad’s humor is a spinoff from Duffy Daugherty, his college football mentor at Michigan State. “Duffy used to call my dad the Pied Piper, and I think that’s what he was. He could sit down and talk to anybody. He could be singing Irish songs in a pub with his friends or he could be in a kid’s home singing hymns with his mom. Dad always seemed to know what to do at the right time. It’s pretty amazing what Nebraska was in the 40 years before he got here and what they’ve been since he arrived.”
In the last 50 years, Nebraska leads all Division I football schools in terms of overall wins. The Huskers have won 40 more games than Oklahoma, the No. 2 team in that category over the last half century. Why is Nebraska’s record so remarkable? Because in the 21 years prior to Devaney’s arrival, the Huskers experienced only three winning seasons. No wonder his daughter was in such a hullaballoo trying to figure out what spurred such a dramatic turnaround. When her dad brought his coaches to Lincoln to inspire a new team and pull a whole state together, Big Red football became the ultimate benchmark, and really, in the minds of many, it still is.
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