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2020 marks 50 years since Nebraska football entered the history books with its first national championship season. The 1970 Huskers, coached by the legendary Bob Devaney, broke through on a grand night that capped a grand season, giving momentum to a fan base whose fervor has barely waned to this day. Each week, through the beginning of January, The World-Herald will revisit the 1970 season, allowing readers to relive the first Husker national title and get to know — again — the players and coaches who made it happen.
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John Decker had been around Bob Devaney for as long as he could remember. Longer, actually.
By 1970, Decker was a Nebraska senior and key defensive backup for a group of Blackshirts loaded with playmakers. But in the early 1950s, he was just a boy in East Lansing whose father took him to watch Michigan State football practices. Devaney, then in his late 30s, was an assistant coach on the Spartans’ staff.
Decker’s family later moved 70 miles north to Saginaw, an industrial town a short drive from Lake Huron. The teenager attended the same high school, Arthur Hill, as Devaney, who by then had gone from head coach at Wyoming to leading the Huskers.
So it was no coincidence that Nebraska was the first school to offer him a football scholarship. Michigan State and Notre Dame were powerhouses in the mid-’60s, but “they weren’t looking at a little guy like me who was small but slow,” Decker says now. Michigan also recruited the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder, and he considered the Wolverines.
“But Bob was a better salesman,” Decker said.
Devaney rarely lost to the Big Ten. He went 11-0 against a combination of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin during his 11 seasons as Nebraska’s coach (1962-72). His 1970 squad pummeled the Gophers 35-10, gashing their interior line in a final tuneup before Big Eight play began.
Husker dominance in the Big Ten footprint extended to recruiting, too. At the encouragement of a young offensive assistant named Tom Osborne, Nebraska had been recruiting California and junior colleges for about a year by the turn of the decade. Defensive line coach Monte Kiffin was just establishing a pipeline in New Jersey.
But most of the roster comprising NU’s first national championship team came from Nebraska or Big Ten country, including 27 players from Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. And that doesn’t count the seven from Pennsylvania (Penn State, an independent program at the time, didn’t join the Big Ten until the 1990s).
Gen. William C. Westmoreland arrived in Lincoln in 1970 seeking to win a red cowboy hat. He left 48 hours later having lost a bathrobe to Nebraska’s governor.
Why the Rust Belt? It’s what the NU staff knew. Devaney coached 14 years of high school football in Michigan before working four seasons at Michigan State. Assistants Jim Ross (freshman coach) and Mike Corgan (running backs) were also from Michigan and had prep backgrounds there. Carl Selmer (offensive line) came from Minnesota, and John Melton (linebackers) was a Pennsylvanian. Another assistant, Notre Dame grad George Kelly, harvested area talent for eight seasons before returning to the Irish after the 1968 campaign.
Nebraska also enjoyed a significant advantage over Big Ten opponents in sheer scholarship numbers. The NCAA left such decisions to the conferences, and the Big Eight allowed schools to add 45 new scholarship players each year with no restriction on the overall total. Meanwhile, the Big Ten capped its teams at 30 per season. Devaney teams often boasted upward of 150 scholarship players between the varsity and freshman squads.
“Recruit like hell, then organize,” the coach often said.
That philosophy produced a strong Big Ten flavor by the time Big Red rolled into Minneapolis in October 1970. Two starting O-linemen were senior guard Donnie McGhee (from Flint, Michigan) and sophomore center Doug Dumler (Melrose Park, Illinois). They protected quarterbacks Jerry Tagge (Green Bay, Wisconsin) and Van Brownson (Shenandoah, Iowa), who handed off to Dan Schneiss (West Bend, Wisconsin) and completed passes to Jerry List (Bay City, Michigan) and Jim Carstens (Glen Ellyn, Illinois).
Second-string linebacker Bruce Hauge (Bloomington, Minnesota) intercepted a deflected pass and recovered a fumble against the Gophers. Senior middle guard Ed Periard (Birch Run, Michigan) was a key playmaker all season. Paul Rogers (Rock Rapids, Iowa) kicked field goals and extra points. Senior defensive lineman Dave Walline (Ypsilanti, Michigan) became an All-American. Sophomore defensive ends Willie Harper (Toledo, Ohio) and Monte Johnson (Bloomington, Minnesota) went on to have lengthy NFL careers.
“Nebraska took an interest in us,” Harper told The World-Herald recently. “People right in our backyard didn’t.”
Northwestern pursued Harper, but he had only about five offers because he transitioned from basketball to football late in high school. Ohio State recruited his high school quarterback but never asked about him. Harper is still downright giddy that the second-ranked Buckeyes lost to Stanford in the Rose Bowl in an upset that helped pave the way to Nebraska’s first title.
“I was hoping we could play Ohio State so I could knock somebody out in front of (coach) Woody Hayes,” said Harper, now retired and doing ministry work in the Las Vegas area.
Tagge grew up idolizing Bart Starr and the Packers with little interest in college football. Wisconsin, which had gone 8-28-3 during Tagge’s four years at Green Bay West High School, wanted him. So did Michigan State. But he went to Nebraska with classmate Dave Mason, following two other older prep teammates in cornerback Jim Anderson and defensive end Dennis Gutzman.
Tagge, now living in Omaha and transitioning toward retirement from a wealth management firm he co-founded, recalls one trait that was true for just about every player who came to Lincoln from afar.
“Today it’s athletes saying, ‘What can you do for me? What facilities do you have?’ and that sort of thing,” Tagge said. “Back then it was, ‘Well, what can you do for Nebraska?’”
Dumler, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, ended up in Lincoln only through a serendipitous turn of events. The lineman could only read about Notre Dame locally — “nobody likes Notre Dame,” he said — and rooted for Kansas, where his father went. After Alabama pounded the Huskers in consecutive bowl games after the 1965 and 1966 seasons, he wrote a letter to Crimson Tide coach Paul Bryant expressing interest.
Bryant wrote back that they would love for him to walk on. No thanks, Dumler thought.
Meanwhile, a former colleague of his father moved to Nebraska to teach. During a Monday morning Quarterback Club, where an NU coach spoke to business groups, the colleague brought up the younger Dumler. The coach — Dumler can’t remember who it was — asked for a highlight tape and later offered a scholarship.
Now recently retired in Fort Collins, Colorado, after 40-plus years as an attorney, Dumler said with a laugh that he fell into a great situation. As a sophomore in 1970 he earned the starting center job in fall camp after junior Bill Janssen broke an arm smashing someone in the facemask and sophomore Doug Jamail sprained his ankle.
“My eyes were as big as saucers and I was just trying to stay alive,” said Dumler, who went on to play five years in the NFL.
Instead, the Chicago transplant and his fellow teammates from the Upper Midwest and East helped the Huskers thrive. Many said they never discussed or were even aware of Nebraska’s streak against Big Ten schools.
Said Harper: “We had our eyes on much grander prizes.”
To begin the 1970 season, NU was ranked No. 9 and hungry for national respect. Tying USC gave them that.