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This column originally ran May 10, 1997, the day after former Husker football coach Bob Devaney died.

On the anniversary of his death, here’s an “It’s A Wonderful Life” look at what life would have been like in Nebraska without Devaney.

* * *

BEERRRINNGGGG!!!!

The alarm clock pierced the dream of Big Red like a needle going through a balloon. Big Red looked at the clock. It was 7 a.m. Game day. Big day.

In an hour, Red was on the road, dressed in red, from his old 1972 cap with the white “N” on the front and the Jerry Tagge autograph still showing through the dirt stains to his obnoxious (yes, even Red knew it, but didn’t care) red cowboy boots. He was in his red Chevy Blazer, the third one he’d owned, tooling down Interstate 80 toward Lincoln. On this beautiful autumnesque Saturday, Big Red was going to worship. It was Saturday, but he was going to church. He was going to watch his beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers play, pray for a win and sing “Hallelujah” with the choir of 75,000 all the way home.

Stunning Painting

They called him Big Red because his name, like his thinning hair, was “Red.” And he was, to be polite, “stocky.” But the name fit. Big Red loved Husker football. He had an “office” at home that was more like a shrine. He had it all, everything from posters and pennants to the decanter in the shape of Bob Devaney with the head of Bob that screwed off and poured out, appropriately enough, a toddy that Bob himself would approve. Standing out, above his desk and looking down over him and all of Nebraska, was his favorite memento: a lovely, stunning painting of Devaney, dressed in his red coaching jacket and ball cap, hovering above a packed Memorial Stadium. At the bottom of the painting were the words, “He built it ... and they came.”

And Big Red was on his way.

Except, on this Saturday, something was different. Strange. Eerie.

Interstate 80 was empty.

It didn’t strike Red until he hit Ashland (he was always going over the game plan or was paying attention to the pregame babble on the radio). There wasn’t a soul on the road. Did he have it right? Was this Saturday? He turned on the radio to the pregame show. No show. An announcer talked about how cattle prices had dipped this week. He tried the other station. An auto mechanic was on the air, talking about antifreeze and winterizing your baby for the hard months ahead. An occasional truck whizzed by going back toward Omaha.

Where was everybody?

Ghost Town

Finally. Lincoln. Strange. There were only two exits, one for downtown and the other for the airport. Red got off on the downtown exit and thought, “Boy, maybe I’ll get a good spot today downtown.” Maybe even have time for a pregamer at Barry’s and a once-around the Big Red Shop before kickoff.

Red got downtown and his jaw dropped like an anvil. It was a ghost town. Nobody on the streets. No red. He parked and walked around. Finally, he saw an old geezer, sitting outside a barber shop. Red asked: “Where is everyone? Don’t they know there’s a game today?”

“Game?” asked the old man. “Who?”

Senile old guy, Red thought. So he walked his usual route, down 14th St., past the “Zoo Bar” to “O” Street and then down to “10th” where the red parade to the game usually started. It was just incredible, this ghost town. Where were the thousands of his red lodge brothers? Where were the two fat guys who wore the tattered red jerseys underneath blue coveralls whose claim to fame was that they once bought Dean Steinkuhler a beer and Dean told them, “Thanks.” Where was the old woman who wore a sweatshirt that said, “God Loves the Huskers” and kissed everybody in red for good luck? Where was that crazy crimson Cadillac with the bumper sticker that said, “On the eighth day, God created the Huskers?”

Imagining

The “Zoo” was closed up. So, in fact, was every store, restaurant and bar in every direction. The only thing Red saw open was a couple of greasy-spoon cafes, the barber shop and a hardware store. Ah-ha. Inside the window of the hardware store, there was a schedule placard. Red bent over to take a look and make sure he wasn’t imagining that there was a game today.

There was.

It said, “Nebraska vs. South Dakota. Saturday. 1 p.m.”

Red shrieked. And ran inside “Kinney’s Hardware” for a look. The owner, a burly man with a gut and a friendly smile, said, “Can I help you?”

“Yes,” Red said. “Can you tell me what year this is?”

“Why, it’s 1997,” said the owner. “What’s the matter?”

Red began to ramble: “I don’t know. I thought I was going to a Husker game today. But there’s nobody here. Nobody. And now I see, on the schedule up front, that they’re playing South Dakota today. What happened to Kansas State?”

“Aw,” said the owner. “They haven’t played Kansas State in 10 years or so, not since they dropped down to Division II. Sad day, that. But it was only inevitable. The state just couldn’t support Division I sports.”

Red scratched his balding head. Where was he, anyway? The “Twilight Zone”? When was Rod Serling going to come out from behind the back room and yell “Surprise! Huskers 34, K-State 7?” The answer was, he wasn’t.

Red Bricks

Red looked around the store, searching for proof: a 1970 or 1994 national championship poster, a photo of Jarvis Redwine, anything. Instead, he saw something that caught his eye but didn’t register at first. Until it hit him like a ton of bricks. Red bricks, of course.

“BILL BARNES NAMED HUSKER COACH” screamed the headline, in big, bold print. Underneath was a smaller headline that read, “Dye says UCLA coach will be Nebraska Savior.” Red almost choked when he saw the newspaper date: “Feb. 3, 1962.” It sent chills down Red’s spine.

“That’s the day they hired Devaney,” said Red, who knew the date by heart.

“What’s the matter, fella?” the store owner said. “Looks like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I have,” Red said. “Say, have you ever heard of a coach named Devaney? Bob Devaney?”

“Sure, everyone has,” said Jeff Kinney, the hardware man. “He’s the coach at Kansas State. Led them to two national championships before he turned it over to the next guy. I hear he was a wonderful old guy, full of spit and vinegar and magic. He turned K-State into a football power. Then he became A.D. and made them into a sports power. Now, they run the Big 12.”

“But didn’t he coach at Nebraska?” Red asked, almost pleading.

‘Poor Guy’

President Richard Nixon presents Husker coach Bob Devaney a personal congratulations and a presidential plaque proclaiming Nebraska's No. 1 status in January 1971. RICH JANDA/THE WORLD-HERALD

“Nah,” said Kinney. “He turned us down. Said the commitment wasn’t enough. He stayed at Wyoming for a few more years. We got Barnes. Poor guy. Came from the West Coast thinking he could turn it around here. He got spooked by the lack of players, had a bad personality, made some enemies and then bolted after two 5-6 seasons. It’s been downhill ever since. Coaches were afraid to touch Nebraska. Thought it was the impossible job, what with Oklahoma and Kansas State and Missouri dominating the Big Eight.”

“You mean, no Nebraska national championships?” Red asked.

“Fella,” Kinney said, laughing, “I don’t know what you been drinking, but let me know if you got any more.”

And then Kinney began to fill Red’s head with an incredible story, an unthinkable, horrible tale. Of how Nebraska went to one bowl game, that 1982 Independence Bowl, and left Division I two years later because it couldn’t support enough sports. Of how there was no Devaney Center; the athletic folks were lucky just to scrape enough together to touch up the old Coliseum. They got about 7,000 for basketball games, Kinney said. But the basketball team did go to the Division II playoffs last year.

Volleyball national champions? Heck, Kinney said, there was no volleyball team, unless you counted the one at the downtown YWCA. Nebraska had women’s basketball, track and softball. On the men’s side, there was baseball, track and wrestling. The track team couldn’t host a dual; didn’t have a track.

No Source of Pride

But worse, Kinney said, was the state of Nebraska. He wove a tale of how the state just sort of dried up, like all those “Grapes of Wrath” towns after the Dust Bowl. There was no source of great pride in the state. And no businesses. Farming was fine, for a while, but the boys who did return from Vietnam took their dreams out of state. Omaha was about 275,000 and Lincoln about 50,000. Nebraska was a nice, friendly little truckstop that would serve you up a good steak and eggs on your way to Colorado. But, nationally, well, wasn’t Johnny Carson from there?

Red couldn’t believe it. He thanked Kinney for his time and took off for the stadium. He was just about there when he saw what he thought was a familiar face, off in the distance. The closer he got, the more comfortable Red felt. I know this guy, Red thought.

Tom Osborne.

“Hey, Coach Osborne! How you doin’?” Red said with excitement.

The older, distinguished-looking gentlemen looked curiously at Red. “Coach?” the man said. “I’m sure you have made a mistake, my son.” And then Red saw it and blushed: The man with graying red hair who looked so much like a great coach Red knew was wearing a collar. The white collar of a man of the church.

“Forgive me, Father,” Red said. “I thought you were someone else.”

“Call me Rev. Osborne,” the man said, and he walked into the game. “I think we should do fairly well, today, don’t you think?”

Bob Devaney congratulates his successor, Tom Osborne, after Osborne's first game as Nebraska's head coach. JAMES DENNEY/THE WORLD-HERALD

‘Crazy’

Red entered Memorial Stadium and was in for another shock: no South or North Stadium additions. A crowd of 25,000 showed up on this brilliant Saturday. Red sat in the stands, trying to pick up the game on the radio, but all he got was Patsy Cline singing “Crazy.” Yes, this was crazy, all right, Red said.

Suddenly, a South Dakota player broke through the line and was streaking down the sidelines, ahead of the red pack of players, who were so small and slow it was disgusting. Then Red looked up at the scoreboard that read, “Visitors 63, Nebraska 0,” and before he could let out a huge scream ...

BEERRRINNGGGG!!!!

He woke up.

Red bounced out of bed. He was in a cold sweat. He raced into the living room and picked up the front page, where a headline said, “Legend Devaney Dies.” He was relieved at first, then felt suddenly filled with regret. Of how he took Devaney for granted all this time. Of how he saw the old man over the years and never once stopped and told him, “Thanks.” Not even a stupid card or a letter.

Red bent over and cried his eyes out.

Then he went into his office and stared up at the old coach, looking down from the painting. He somehow felt connected with the man. He began to pray, right there to the Bobfather. Thanks, Bob, he said. Thanks for the championships and the winning and the joy and the fun and the Saturdays filled with red and the courage you made me feel and the sheer life and pride you single-handedly pumped into this state. Take care, Bob. Don’t let St. Peter give you any grief, and if he does, then put Jerry List or Wayne Meylan or Ben Gregory or Brook Berringer on him. You had a great life, Bob. Most men never get to be giants. You wore it as naturally as a red blazer.

And then Red smiled and said one last prayer, to the guy even Devaney calls “Coach.”

“You can have him, Lord,” Red said. “But thanks for sharing him with us first.”


Nebraska football coaching history