H U S K E R D A N
RETURN OF THE CHAMPIONS
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A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY
Forty years ago, the world was a much different place. There were no PCs, no cell phones, no HDTV, no remote controls, no Internet or cell phones, no iPods, BlackBerrys or GPS navigation systems. Color TV was just emerging. The median household income in current U.S. dollars was $8,734. The unemployment rate stood at 3.5%. The federal debt was $381 billion. A first-class stamp was 6 cents. Richard Nixon was president and the population of the United States was 205 million.
In 1970, the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl. The New York Knicks beat my Lakers (augggh!) for the NBA championship. John Wooden's UCLA Bruins defeated Jacksonville for the NCAA collegiate basketball title. Monday Night Football premiered on ABC with Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith.
The Beatles broke up. "Midnight Cowboy" won best picture. George C. Scott won Best Actor for his performance in the movie "Patton." Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Sonny Liston died. The Record of the Year was "Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In" by the Fifth Dimension.
And during the 79 years prior to 1970, the University of Nebraska football program had never won a national championship. Twenty-six coaches tried; all had failed. But when head coach #27, Bob Devaney arrived in Lincoln in 1962, dramatic changes were about to happen.
It's true, Nebraska had fielded some good teams in those early days. Bummy Booth's 1902 and 1903 teams went 19-0-0, and Jumbo Stiehm's 1913-1915 Husker teams went 23-0-1 but despite that, there still were no national championships.
SEVEN AND 3.4
And what a mess Devaney inherited. In the 20 years prior to 1962, Nebraska averaged just 3.4 wins a year and during that span, had gone through 7 head coaches. Digest that for a minute. Husker fans were down and out, and thoughts of national championships back then were just pipe dreams.
But in 1970, in just his ninth year at Nebraska, Bob Devaney ended 80 years of frustration by leading Nebraska to its first national championship with a 17-12 Orange Bowl win over #5 LSU January 1, 1971. (Theoretically the Huskers split the national championship that year with Texas. But Darrel Royal's Longhorns were awarded the title at the end of the regular season and before their 24-11 New Year's Day loss to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.)
Members of that team were honored Saturday, August 14th during the "Legends Radio Show" hosted by Gary Java and former Husker linebacker Jerry Murtaugh at Tiger Tom's at 72nd and Military in Omaha. ("Legends" is broadcast live on 590AM from 9:00 to 10:30 every Saturday morning.)
Husker fans began arriving well before 9:00 to get autographs and to honor those players who long ago made Husker history. (Omahan Mike Gates had the players sign the hood of his Big Red 1978 (?) Ford Pinto hatchback.)
And there they were-the "1970 Legends"-quarterback Jerry Tagge, Heisman winner Johnny "The Jet" Rodgers, running back Jeff Kinney, linebacker Johnny Pitts, quarterback Van Brownson, offensive guard and tackle Wally Winter, running back Dan Schneiss, offensive guard Dick "Slippery" Rupert, left cornerback Joe Blahak, safety Dave Morock and the always funny former Husker assistant coach John Melton.
All the players got a chance to talk on air about what it was like to be part of that great Husker football team.
Jerry Tagge, who competed with Van Brownson for the starting quarterback slot offered this. "I still don't know why I played as much as I did back then. Van Brownson was a great player. I was lucky to have been a part of that 1970 team."
Every one of the players I talked with was excited about the Huskers joining the Big 10 next year. And to a man, they confessed their total contempt for the Texas Longhorns.
Losing Nebraska's annual showdown with the Oklahoma Sooners seemed to be the focus of their anger.
"They (Texas) got to keep their rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but ours was taken away. Playing OU on a two-game-on and two-game-off basis isn't the same. When the Big 8 became the Big 12, it was the end of football the way we knew it."
STOGIES AND STORIES
After the radio show, I went outside on the patio where burgers were being served. I grabbed a can of ice cold Colorado Kool-Aid and spent the next two hours listening to and laughing at the stories told by John Melton, Jerry Murtaugh, Wally Winter and safety Dave Morock about their days at Nebraska. We all puffed on cigars as the stories kept coming one after the other. (John's wife isn't supposed to know about the cigars.)
Melton, now in his 80s, was quick to point out that being Jerry Murtaugh's position coach back then was difficult, to say the least.
"You used to call me stupid back then," Murtaugh complained.
Melton defended himself. "I never once called you stupid. You were a lot of things, but not stupid."
"Doesn't 'dumbass' mean the same thing?"
"I'd never have gray hair if it hadn't been for you," Melton said of Murtaugh.
"At least you have hair. I'm bald," Murtaugh laughed.
"I was a model player back then," Jerry said with a straight face. "I think 'Saint Jerry' has a nice ring to it, don't you think so?"
Of Murtaugh's reputation for always managing to get into trouble, Melton confessed, "Whenever the phone would ring after 10 p.m., I'd say a 'Hail Mary'."
After about an hour of this banter, Jerry Murtaugh's daughter, Heather, stood up and told a story about her dad and Jerry's 16 year old granddaughter.
"For years, he would never come to any of her soccer games," she noted. "'Soccer is too boring,' he'd say. So one day he finally decides to come to one. He's watching the game and all of a sudden, his granddaugher is called for a penalty. 'Tell that little son-of-a-bitch to get out of my way!' she yells.
And then Jerry got this big grin on his face. He hasn't missed one of her games since."
There were many more stories, most of which can't be repeated. But for this long time Husker football fan, it will be a day I'll always treasure.
We are auctioning off on Ebay, a #93 XL Husker jersey that was signed by Ndamukong Suh (I witnessed the signing). The proceeds from this auction will be used for our third annual "Husker Fans' Salute To The Troops" celebration to be held the weekend of September 18th-19th at the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska. We will be honoring veterans, troopers and their families with a tour of Memorial Stadium, a special Tunnel Walk experience and a Husker Football Watch Party Saturday afternoon (Nebraska at Washington) at the hotel. The fantastic Husker Elvises will be there to entertain the crowd.
There will be a Sunday morning brunch on the 19th that will include a special color guard ceremony. Husker assistant Ron Brown will do the blessing and former Husker wingback, Anthony Steels will sing the national anthem.
Larry the Cable Guy, who is one of the event sponsors, invites you to join him in supporting this great event. If you'd like to donate to help honor our men and women of the armed forces, please go to www.huskersalute.org.
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