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June 25, 2008

Bob Devaney started in a deep hole when he took over as head football coach at the University of Nebraska. Now Bo Pelini is set to start his NU career with the Huskers stuck in another downturn, but the hole is not quite as cavernous as the one Devaney inherited.

Devaney was the Renaissance man of Cornhusker football, rescuing the Huskers from their dark ages. During the 20 seasons that followed Nebraska's Rose Bowl campaign in 1941, the Huskers had only three winning campaigns and one .500 season.

But Devaney had a couple of things going for him. One was a solid corps of good athletes left behind by the previous coach. The other was a loyal base of fan support. It wasn't as though everyone had given up on Husker football. Nebraskans remembered the good times.

At the turn of the 20th century, NU was fabulous, going 46-8-1 from 1900-1905 under Walter "Bummy" Booth. Nebraska won its conference title five years in a row from 1911-1915, going 35-2-3 under Ewald "Jumbo" Stiehm while putting together a school-record 34-game unbeaten streak. The Huskers were the only team to defeat Notre Dame's famous "Four Horsemen" backfield during their three years of college football glory (in fact, NU did it twice in 1922 and 1923, giving coach Knute Rockne two of his 12 career losses). Nebraska went 62-21-8 during the 1930s and began to appear regularly in the newly created AP college football poll.

When World War II began, the Huskers went into a nose dive. Still, the hopeful Cornhusker fans continued to follow their team through the dismal years of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. From 1946 (when gasoline rationing ended) through 1961 (the last year under coach Bill Jennings), there were at least two sellouts every season at Memorial Stadium (capacity 31,080).

Husker football fans continued to support losing teams on the field, but Jennings began to feel the heat. He was finally forced out after going 15-34-1 with no bowl appearances over five seasons. Then Devaney stepped in and produced a winning team every season, a streak that stretched to 42 years, until Bill Callahan's Huskers went 5-6 in 2004.

Callahan went 27-22 with two bowl appearances in his four seasons at the helm in Lincoln. Obviously, Pelini will begin with even stronger fan support than Devaney did in 1962. During Callahan's tenure, Nebraska extended its NCAA-record home field sellout string to 289 games even as Memorial Stadium's seating capacity was increased to its present 81,067.

Both Jennings and Callahan were excellent recruiters who had trouble getting their players to perform on the field. Jennings was followed by Devaney, who had been a highly recommended assistant coach at a successful program (Michigan State) before a stint as head coach at Wyoming. Devaney used players recruited by Jennings and had immediate success, going 47-8 right out of the gate and winning four conference championships in his first five seasons, which included five bowl appearances.

Pelini was successful as a defensive coordinator at Oklahoma and Louisiana State but brings no head coaching experience to the table. He will be hard-pressed to match Devaney's early success, although there are some of the same components in place that could help him bring national respect back to the Nebraska football program.

First off, things aren't quite as bad as they seem. Callahan left behind some good athletes, several of whom played in the Big 12 championship game 18 months ago. The question is, will Marlon Lucky, Barry Turner, Ndamukong Suh and Joe Ganz play as well for Pelini in 2008 as Bob Brown, Thunder Thornton, Tyrone Robertson and Dennis Claridge did for Devaney in 1962?

Having his first five games at home is a rare luxury that Pelini should make good use of. Devaney had to play Michigan in Ann Arbor in his second game, but the Huskers' 25-13 win gave them a tremendous momentum boost. If Nebraska can win its first three home games, split against Virginia Tech and Missouri, then win at Texas Tech on Oct. 11, they will have earned back the goodwill that Callahan squandered last fall.

However, a win at Lubbock will be very difficult this year. The same can be said for the road trip to Norman and a home game against Kansas the following week. Devaney, who really had to worry only about Oklahoma and Missouri in the early to mid-1960s, had an easier conference to play in than Pelini does today. The rise of the Big 12 North will be the biggest story in college football this season.

The Huskers' current dry spell is not as bad as ones suffered recently by Southern Cal (37-35 from 1996-2001), Oklahoma (23-33-1 from 1994-98), Notre Dame (33-28 since 2003 and four non-winning seasons since 2000), Alabama (30-30 from 2000-2004 and three losing seasons since 2000) and Penn State (26-33 and four losing seasons from 2000-2004). Pelini's first task will be to make sure Nebraska does not bottom out as badly as these other storied programs have done.

Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He was sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin from 2003-2007, when he wrote "Around the Husker Nation," a commentary on NU football. He was a writer and columnist for the North Platte Telegraph from 1984-2002.