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An Era Of Greatness: Coach Bob Devaney’s Final Four Seasons In University Of Nebraska Football (1969-1972)
By Tony McClean
Updated: December 27, 2006
“One of the main things our coaches stressed to us was that our teamwork would make our dreams work.”
– Johnny Rodgers.
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — From 1969 through 1972, the best Division I-A college football team in America was clearly the Nebraska Cornhuskers. During that period, Bob Devaney’s teams compiled an impressive 42-4-4 (.895) record.
That era of Nebraska football produced a 32-game winning streak, four consecutive Big 8 conference championships, four consecutive bowl titles, and two consecutive national championships in 1970 and 1971.
They also had 30 all-conference players, 12 All-Americans, 30 NFL draftees, and one Heisman Trophy winner — Johnny Rodgers in 1971. The NU slot back became the first Cornhusker to win the award that season.
It was a season that was highlighted by Nebraska’s showdown with their longtime rivals from Oklahoma. Built as “The Game Of The Century”, it was Rodgers’ 72-yard punt return that was one of the key plays in a 35-31 Nebraska win that season.
Now over three decades later, Rodgers has authored a book that takes a nostalgic and reflective look back on one of the greatest teams in college football history from the eyes of the players, their coaches, and opponents.
In his book, “An Era of Greatness: Coach Bob Devaney’s Final Four Seasons in University of Nebraska Football (1969-1972),” Rodgers deftly describes the records and achievements of that era within the historical perspective of NU football teams beginning in 1890.
In interviews with over 80 players, coaches, and members of the media, Rodgers’ book reveals the phenomenal chemistry and camaraderie that made the teams of 1969 through 1972 truly special.
“I have been inspired to write this book for a long time”, Rodgers said. “We as players have kept up with each other over the years either through letters or by phone. It just seemed natural to put this together”.
“The most interesting thing about talking to the guys was that I found out so many things that I never knew about them as individuals. We talked and relived so many moments that ran all the gamuts of emotions”.
When Coach Devaney was hired by Nebraska back in 1962, the Huskers had been suffering through the worst football stretch in school history. In fact, from 1940 to the time of Devaney’s hiring, NU had only three winning seasons.
“When Coach Devaney was hired for $17,000 a year, it was the best investment ever made by the state of Nebraska”, said assistant coach John Melton. A former head coach at Wyoming, Devaney paid quick dividends for the Cornhuskers.
From 1962 to 1966, Devaney’s teams won four Big 8 Conference titles, played in five straight bowl games, were ranked in the Top 10 for four of those five seasons, and compiled a record of 47-8-0 (.855).
However, after consecutive seasons of 6-4 in 1967 and 1968, fans began to quickly sour on Devaney. The low point came when a petition was drafted by fans to have Devaney fired as head coach.
Following a 12-0 shutout loss to Kansas State in 1968, Coach Devaney uttered one of the most infamous sports quotes of all time. “I know the fans are with me, win or tie”, said Devaney.
Things would change in dramatically for the Huskers in 1969. A talented freshman class from 1968 and new innovations from two prominent assistant coaches would put Nebraska back on the national scene.
Offensive coordinator Tom Osborne would change NU’s full house backfield to more of a pro “spread” passing offense. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin instilled a faster and attacking defense.
Just those subtle changes, along with a talented team, would launch the beginning of what many college football historians called one of the greatest eras and teams in the sport’s history.
Just this year in an ESPN poll that named the 10 best college football teams of all-time, the 1971 Nebraska squad was chosen number one over the 1972 USC team. Ironically, the 1995 Husker team (coached by Osborne) was was third overall.
But what Rodgers and his fellow teammates remembered the most about their time at NU was the lessons that were instilled in them by coaches. “The convictions, values and morals that we learned as boys and which have endured as we’ve grown into our manhood”, Rodgers added.
“For all of us, playing here at Nebraska was a very special and cherished time for us. I feel our time was an example of how patience, kindness, humility, respect, selflessness, forgiving, honesty, integrity, and commitment were used to establish and teach leadership skills through volitional love”.
Rodgers’ book not only takes a look back a great era of college athletics, he also looks back at how that era helped shape and mold a group of young kids into adults.