Erny Bonistall was a back up quarterback to Dennis Claridge and played for Bill Jennings and Bob Devaney. Although he never lettered in football he lettered three years in baseball. He left the team his junior year to focus on baseball and returned to the football team when asked by new coach Bob Devaney. This interview was done on August 6, 2004 by David Max.
DM Where are you from originally?
EB Originally I'm from Williamsville, New York which is a suburb of Buffalo.
DM Who recruited you to Nebraska?
EB Well, it's kind of interesting because back at that timeline there weren't really restrictions on numbers of scholarshiips and stuff like that and, of course, freshmen couldn't play varsity football so the year that I went to Lincoln there were 11 full teams that were recruited and I think the University made a commitment to try to get serious about it. They actually had bird dogs that kind of covered different parts of the country. There was a guy named Fritz Chrysler and he wasn't associated with the University of Nebraska, but he was the bird dog for western New York. I think Leroy Pierce was an assistant coach at that time at Nebraska that kind of coordinated that, but they basically got in touch with me, we sent films out to the University and I never even visited the school. In fact, I got the scholarship back in the mail and later found out when I got out there that they had five guys from western New York and I didn't know any of them. I actually was only 17 when I went to Lincoln. My first plane ride was a nightmare, flying from Buffalo to Cleveland to Detroit to Chicago to Moline to Des Moines to Omaha and to Lincoln. I thought I was going to a school in Australia by the time I got there because it took all day and of course those weren't jets back then so it was quite an event. The guys that picked me up at the airport took me first to the agricultural campus as a joke so that was pretty funny to them, but that's kind of the way it started.
Bill Jennings was the coach at that time, and so I played football my freshman year and then I was red shirted as a sophomore. Then I really chose not to play football my third year because I was on a baseball scholarship at that time. When Coach Devaney came in he actually approached me and I came back out and played on that '62 team that really started things changing. It was really the start of a lot of the winning tradition that began in that first season. As I recall Coach Jennnings was fired and Coach Devaney came in I think in late February or early March. Of course, back then freshmen couldn't play so Coach Devaney was pretty much stuck with whoever the previous coach had brought in. There were a lot of us who hadn't played much under the previous coach and so it was real exciting to start the season winning which we hadn't done much in the previous three years. That's why the coach left his job I guess, but Coach Devaney came in and just turned it around with basically the same players.
DM Were you recruited by other teams?
EB Oh yeah, of course at that time I was from the Buffalo area and the University of Buffalo had a program and Syracuse and Boston College and I actually was planning to go to Duke on a baseball scholarship and that kind of fizzled at the last minute. I was scrambling around trying to find a school and it just worked out that I was able to go to Nebraska and of course I wanted to go someplace where I thought I had a chance to play and based on their track record they weren't exactly beating anybody at that time so it was a good opporutnity to be in on the ground floor. It was nice to really be a part of that and I guess I probably represent not the Heisman Trophy winners or the All Americans or the All Conference players but I think the legacy of that program is that there were a lot of guys like myself that played. Some lettered, some didn't, some never ever played, but they practiced every single day and went through all of that and I've told a lot people as I've developed my businesses and so forth that I probably learned more from Bob Devaney about business than getting my business degree or my MBA or going to all of the management classes that I ever attended. He was always well organized and communicated tremendously, whether it was through humor or through anger he had no trouble getting the message across and he delegated implicitly to his assistants. He gave them a full range of what they were doing and of course he retained so many of his assistants. Most had been with him at Wyoming and they stayed with him until some of them eventually went into head coaching, but they were very loyal because he kind of let them do their own thing and then of course on game day he'd take all the information and he'd make the tough decisions and he'd change the strategy. He was masterful in being able to exploit weaknesses in the second half and of course that would lead to victories, which was the ultimate goal. We went from just very long arduous practices to pretty much short and sweet, with everything organized, and not as much contact during the practice season as we had before so we really had people a lot fresher for games and it worked out pretty well.
DM So essentially you chose Nebraska because you thought you had a better opportunity for playing time?
EB Yes, and of course, kind of the message that was played out at the time was that they were definitely making a change in their approach, they were recruiting coast to coast. We had guys from all over the country. Obviously a lot of Nebraskans, but I remember there was a sports writer for the Omaha World Herald. I think his name was McBride. I don't remember what his first name was, but I remember him writing a tongue in cheek article about all the foreign exchange students coming to Nebraska to play football, and he was referring to all of those that were from east of the Mississippi River, from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylania, Ohio, Michigan. It was really a wild time because there were not the same restrictions on recruiting and stuff that of course exists today. I remember when I was a freshman Nebraska went up to Minnesota and upset the University of Minnesota. We were a decided under dog and we upset them and it was just a happy occasion. I remember when they flew back from Minneapolis they had five or six recruits with them that I think had already enrolled at the University of Minnesota. Back in those days school didn't start until the end of September so they weren't officially enrolled because they hadn't started classes so I don't know if they shanghied them or how they got them back there but that was kind of funny that all of a sudden we had these six or seven guys from Minnesota that showed up for practice the next Monday after the varsity Minnesota game.
DM Do you remember any names?
EB I'm trying to think. Dennis Claridge, I remember, he was later a fraternity brother and there was a fellow by the name Bill McDonald, he was a big tight end. Dick Struts was another name. I'm trying to remember from a long time ago. I'm not sure if Denney Stewey came in that group or not, but he also was from Minnesota. They had a bunch of them that kind of showed up out of the blue and contributed to our freshman season. The one thing that began to happen at that time was that the freshmen teams began to go undefeated as they brought in all of us from all over the place that eventually became the nucleus for the varsity.
DM So what positions did you play?
EB In the Jennings system I played quarterback and of course at that time we played both ways so I played defensive halfback. The way the coaches had it was the quarterback was a left halfback defensively and also was supposed to be a punter. Well, I don't think I could punt 20 yards. I could throw the ball a lot farther than I could punt it. Of course, Denny Claridge was a great punter and he was able to fit that mold very well.
DM So you and Denny were quarterbacks - were there any other quarterbacks?
EB Yes there were a dozen QBs and there was a fellow by the name of John Faiman that was there at the time and I think he later became a high school coach in Omaha somewhere.
DM So how much playing time did you get?
EB As a freshman I started a couple of the games. I remember when I went to my first freshman practice and they put the roster up, I was the 9th team quarterback - there were so many people and we had name tags on the helmets so everybody would get to know us and Warren Schmaekel was the head coach and Larry Naviaux was a key assistant and they were very good. They both went on to be head coaches I think at Northeastern or Boston University or something like that, up in the Northeast but at that time they were the freshman coaches. Larry Naviaux was an assistant and he was a player from a small town in central Nebraska. And the other thing that happened is that I think of 121 of us that went on full scholarship, I think only 15 of us ever really graduated because there was not, at that time the support system to help with academics and the social life and everything else. Probably more than half of those people went back home because they were homesick. In my case it was tough too. I was one of the youngest players because I hadn't turned 18 yet when I started, never been away from home, had never flown but I was fortunate and I'm sure I would still do it today. What was really special about the football program was that we were able to live in the dorm or live in the fraternity house. There was not an isolated jock house where you had to live so you got to meet and be a part of the regular student body. I think that really helped, in my case, in just sticking it out and staying there. When I first left Nebraska I did, like I think everybody did, a lot of recruiting and referring and did that for a number of years. With the restrictions now, you just basically send a letter or make a phone call and that's about it. You can't participate. I understand why they do that, but it was fun to be a part of that, too.
DM What was the feeling among the players when Bill Jennings was fired?
EB I think that my reaction might be a little different, but I think frankly a lot of people were very happy because he didn't play that many people and there were a lot of people like myself that didn't get a chance to play. I think Denny Claridge was red shirted his sophomore year as well and then we got the opportunity and tht's all that anybody asked for. With Coach Devaney was there was quite a bit of diversity with throwing the ball and running the ball. He was a great head coach but he had some fabulous assistant coaches too that were very, very good. Mike Corgan was the back field coach and a lot of the other coaches had been with him since high school and they knew what they were doing and they were doing it as a team. And of course starting out that first year so successfully that really kind of set the tone. I think that being competitive and winning games, having a winning streak and being undefeated and going down and beating the tar out of Kansas. Those were just fabulous and then we had a couple of losses, but by any measure it was a sensational year and I think it helped set the climate and helped in recruiting going forward because he showed in his very first year that we could be a winner when we had not been a winner in a long time. I don't know how many years before that that they had a winning season but I think it was many years.
DM So when Jennings was fired you were actually playing baseball at that time.
EB As a matter of fact I was red shirted as a sophomore and I elected to play basebal in the spring time because I knew I wasn't playing for him. Before I hurt my arm I had a chance to go into the pros so I was pursuing that although for me it was always going to be that I was going to get a degree because I was the first one in my family to graduate from college. I had a Dad and a couple of sisters who started but they never got to finish it so there was no question I was going to finish it one way or another.
DM So what position did you play in baseball?
EB I was a pitcher and I played third base and I lettered three years. Again, freshmen couldn't play varsity and they didn't have a freshman baseball program and our teams were mediocre. We didn't have the emphasis like Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma which were pretty strong in baseball at that point. I think one year we finished second or third. Never got to go to the College World Series. I went there and watched two years but it must be such a thrill to be able to have a shot at Omaha at the beginning of the season with all the local support. I think that's something special that going to a university in a state that was rural and agricultural was all about. Actually, I got quite a bit out of that because up to that point I kind of thought that a farm life and living on a ranch was pretty neat and then I saw how hard those people work to make a living. The guys that came from farms had to be disciplined in their daily life because they had chores from dawn to dusk and that's just what you did. I had a lot of respect for how hard it was for them, and of course I think that's also why there are so many good offensive linemen who are so delighted to get out of that grind and come to the University and not have to get up at 4:00 every morning and milk the cows and start their chores!
DM So when Devaney came, did he ask you to come back out for football?
EB Yes, I don't know if they lost some guys and they needed more quarterbacks, and not necessarily to come and play because with Claridge the only time any of us played was mop up time. We were running scout teams and doing passing drills and things like that. There's a lot of activities that takes place on a football team other than just on game day. It's all that stuff that takes place during the week with practice sessions and everything else.
DM Is there a regular season game that sticks out in your mind?
EB We started undefeated in 1962 and we played down at Kansas which was a real grudge game because in the newspapers prior to that game Coach Jennings had gone down to Kansas as a back field coach and he had kind of said that Nebraska should have been pretty good because he got the players. That was on the bulletin board immediately and that particular game was an unbelievable game and I think it was their homecoming and we were the decided underdog. We went down there and just absolutely annihilated them. We scored five straight touchdowns and went for two point conversions and we were up 40 to nothing in the second quarter and I don't know what the final score was, but it was just an absolute joy and of course everybody on the traveling team played and it was just a wonderful experience. I think the next week we played Missouri at home which was really the first sellout and we lost to them in a tight game, and then we went on and won all the rest of the games except for the Oklahoma game.
DM Do you have a favorite Bob Devaney game story?
EB Well, what I really remember is the week that we played Kansas. Aside from some of the coaches putting Jennings' comments on the bulletin board, he really down played it but there was no question of the intensity of him and his coaches. They wanted to go pound them and we did. Gayle Sayers, the old Nebraska boy was a star Kansas running back at that time. On that particular day however, he was fairly ineffective and we had the ball most of the time and the game was really over by the second quarter so I don't think he played much the second half just to keep him from getting injured but Coach had us prepared, there's no question about it.
DM Other than the Kansas game, do you have any other games that stick out in your memory?
EB Well, the Missouri game which came up right after that, we played that at home and we had a turnover and Johnny Roland was a key back from Missouri and he made a long run and we lost that game. We weren't blown away, it was very competitive but we essentially lost the opportunity to play for the Big Seven, Big Eight championship.
DM What are your memories of the Gotham Bowl?
EB I thnk we were 8 and 2 in the regular season and then we got to go to the Gotham Bowl in New York City. I was thrilled about that because we were going to play in Yankee Stadium and being an upstate New York guy, even though I hated the Yankees, that was kind of a dream come true to play in Yankee Stadium. We had a bunch of players from the East that were looking forward to going back and doing that and then there was a kind of question as to whether we were going to be able to go. We hadn't been to a Bowl Game I don't think since the Rose Bowl back in the 40's, so it isn't like they had contingency funds to do that. They were able to scrape the money together and we went and it was really, again, just a wonderful experience. All the seniors, including myself got to go on the Johnny Carson Show and we sang, "There's No Place Like Nebraska". Being a Nebraska graduate, it was kinda neat to be on his show and then of course to be in New York City was very nice too. There was some kind of strike, and I'm not sure if it was newspaper strike or whatever, but we got a very poor turnout. They were very charitable - they said there were 10,000 people there, hardly anybody was there. My parents were there. ( chuckle) and it was probably one of the coldest days I can remember. It was so cold it was frozen on the field and we actually had to change from cleats to sneakers to have any kind of footing on it and it was a great game, I think we won it 36 to 34 against Miami - so it was a good experience.
DM What do you remember about the Oklahoma game in 1963 after President Kennedy was assasinated?
EB I had to go an extra semester because of the different sports that I was playing and so the last year that I was there that was the year that Kennedy was assassinated and they went ahead and played the Oklahoma game on the Saturday after he was killed and that year we beat Oklahoma pretty badly. It was really important. The University and the campus was so jacked up that week. They had parades downtown and pep rallies. It was going to be the biggest game in the history of Nebraska at that time and then unfortunately with the assassination that just took all the emotion out of it. I think Nebraska was one of the few teams that played that week and I think they did because Bud Wilkerson was the coach and he had some post with the Kennedy administration. He just said that he thought that Kennedy would want us to go ahead and play. There were only a handful of teams that played that Saturday and Nebraska/Oklahoma was one of them.
DM Wasn't the assassination on a Thursday?
EB I think it was on Thursday - and everything was closed. I remember that people were so shocked by that and we wanted to just get out and forget about it and all the movie houses in town were closed so there wasn't much to do. But we did play the game on Saturday.
DM Do you still make it back for Nebraska games?
EB I used to go every year, but unfortunately when I graduated I moved to the East Coast and worked in New Jersey for a time. I've lived in Atlanta for the last twenty years or so and I still see George Haney in Atlanta. He was a great Nebraska player. Over the years I've seen them play at West Point and there was the game that they played at Notre Dame that we won in overtime in 2000. That was fabulous. I'm still trying to get tickets to see the Pittsburgh game. Over the years they've played at South Carolina and Auburn and of course I've seen them in the Orange Bowl a few times when they were there, but the last time I was back in Lincoln to see a game was in November of 2002 - we lost to Texas. We were going down for the winning score and there was a pass intercepted at the goal line with like seconds to go in the game. I took my son to that game. He hadn't been to a game since he was in middle school years ago so he got a kick out of going to the game.
DM There's nothing quite like that atmosphere anymore, is there?
EB You know when I first moved to Atlanta I remember having five or six people over to the house and we would call one of the alumni's brothers in Omaha and we would get a microphone out and they'd put the radio on next to the phone and we'd have a listening party. Of course that's changed now. The alumni support in Atlanta with Georgians for Nebraska is super. We have so many people that come and watch the games. They have two or three different places around town because they can't get them all in one place. It's a real active alumni chapter but also what I found incredible about it is that I don't think that half the people that go to the games actually went to the University of Nebraska. They might have gone to another college in the state or they might have just come from there. There are quite a few people that were stationed in the military at Strategic Air Command and they follow them too. It's just amazing. And they come in and take over one of these sports bars and it's almost a game-like atmosphere because they've got all the CD's for the victory march, you know, There is No Place Like Nebraska, so they really get fired up pretty good. They have a lot of fun with it.
DM What are you doing how?
EB I'm in the process of trying to take my third telecommunications company public. I'm the President/CEO of Global Solutions, Inc. We're headquartered in Atlanta. We audit phone bills and we outsource the bill management of phone bills for commercial clients all over the U.S. and Canada. So that keeps me busy and actually we enjoy it very much because it's been a good business for us. University at Buffalo profile.
DM Erny, thanks for sharing your Husker memories with us.
This series of interviews is being done in conjunction with the Bob Terrio Classic. Erny Bonnistal can be reached at this email.