The headline appeared in a World-Herald sports column, Dec. 26, 1970:
“Still No Blacks”
At last report, Louisiana State has signed about 20 high school footballers to letters of intent … and still the Tigers haven’t had a black gridder.
According to a Baton Rouge writer, “Spokesmen at the university say LSU is ready to sign a Negro of high moral and educational fiber, yet the college does not always insist rigidly on one of those requirements for its Caucasians.”
The past four months, The World-Herald has devoted hundreds of column inches to Nebraska’s 1970 storybook season. But one of the most important factors of Bob Devaney’s first national championship was right there in black and white.
Nebraska recruited, developed and featured Black athletes more successfully than its opponents, especially its Orange Bowl foe.
On New Year’s night 1971, LSU was one of the last major-conference schools without a Black player. It was also the last segregated team Nebraska ever faced.
The Huskers, meanwhile, leaned heavily on Johnny Rodgers, Rich Glover, Willie Harper, John Adkins, Joe Orduna and Donnie McGhee. Devaney doesn’t win a national championship without them.
“A lot of the programs started to recognize that to be more successful they had to be more diverse,” said McGhee, the All-Big Eight offensive lineman in 1970. “Bear Bryant proved that once Southern Cal went down to Alabama (Sept. 12, 1970) and spanked their asses.”
Reality smacked the South like a Sam Bam Cunningham fullback blast. But in the ‘60s, segregation wasn’t yet considered a disadvantage. Just one year before, 1969, Texas won the national title with an all-white team.
At Nebraska, the football program integrated (following 40 years of segregation) in 1952 after Omaha South standout Charles “Bruzzy” Bryant jumped in the back of a pickup truck, rode to Lincoln and walked on for Bill Glassford. Bruzzy earned a scholarship, a starting position and all-conference honors.
During Nebraska’s first Orange Bowl trip in 1955, Bryant was barred from the hotel lobby and the swimming pool. He led NU with 14 tackles anyway.
By 1961, NU had fallen on hard times. So had its credibility with many Black prospects. When Gale Sayers shunned NU for Kansas, the alarm bells rang loudly enough that Devaney still heard the echoes a year later when he arrived in Lincoln.
Devaney knew he couldn’t win unless he persuaded Black athletes they’d get a fair shot and feel welcome at NU. It took time.
In 1963, Bob Brown earned All-America honors. The following year, “the Magnificent Eight,” a group of Black players, helped the Huskers win the Big Eight title.
The coaching staff utilized previous experience to effectively recruit the Rust Belt.
“Devaney’s reach was far and wide,” McGhee said.
The 1965 Huskers featured two Black All-America ends, Freeman White from Detroit and Tony Jeter from West Virginia.
In 1966, Devaney scored two recruiting victories in North Omaha, landing Mike Green out of Omaha Tech and Dick Davis from North.
Devaney didn’t just meet Black prospects at their high schools. He visited their homes.
“Bob Devaney came to my house and sat at the kitchen table talking to the CEO — my mother,” said North Omaha native Mike Green, a Husker running back who graduated in 1969.
Devaney’s diligence paid off with a transformational talent.
Johnny Rodgers wanted to go to California to play college football or Major League Baseball until Devaney pursued him in 1969.
“Bob told me he was going to recruit more Black players than anybody ever had, and he was going to let them play,” Rodgers said.
In 1969, four defensive line starters were Black, a fact that definitely got White players’ attention.
“Monte Kiffin got up in a team meeting and stood the starting five up,” Green recalled in 2018. “He said, ‘If anybody can beat them out, beat them out. That’s the only way you’re going to start.’
“That settled everything.”
It wasn’t always rosy. Some Black Huskers accused Nebraska coaches of stacking them in one position group or exploiting their talent while ignoring social unrest. But Devaney’s problems were nothing compared with Northern peers.
From Syracuse to Indiana to Iowa to Washington, Black players charged coaches with racial discrimination and boycotted practices.
At Wyoming, coach Lloyd Eaton suspended Black players after they wished to protest opponent BYU’s racial intolerance.
At Oregon State, an assistant suspended a Black player for violating the team ban on facial hair, causing a campuswide Black protest.
Southern football coaches mostly avoided conflict by excluding Black players entirely. Kentucky didn’t break the SEC color barrier until 1967, and football powerhouses didn’t follow until the early ‘70s.
Going into the Nebraska-LSU showdown on New Year’s Day 1971, the racial disparity received almost no attention, at least in newspaper accounts.
But Devaney must have noticed. His defensive line featured Adkins, Glover and Harper, the Orange Bowl hero who came to Lincoln from Toledo, Ohio. Harper’s former high school coach, Thunder Thornton, was Devaney’s first Black assistant.
On the offensive front, Nebraska had another Black standout, All-Big Eight right guard Donnie McGhee. Teammates called him “The Floater” because he floated and stung like Muhammad Ali.
McGhee received little publicity in high school, but Nebraska running backs coach Mike Corgan spotted him.
“I don’t know why he recruited a big fat guy from Flint,” McGhee said.
His first fall camp, McGhee weighed 305 pounds. By Thanksgiving, he was 250.
McGhee bonded with players Black and White, including another scrappy Saginaw Valley product, Ed Periard. Team chemistry didn’t waver, McGhee said, even as racial protests and riots dominated the news.
What held it all together? The man in charge.
“You’d run through a brick wall for ‘BD,’” McGhee said. “He brought out the best in all of us.”
In the final game of his Husker career, McGhee confronted LSU’s nation-leading run defense. He didn’t hear any comments about his skin color, but “you kept your guard up naturally knowing you’re going into a situation like that.”
Nebraska prevailed 17-12, an “earth-shaking” accomplishment, McGhee said. “That night was the highlight of a life for a lot of us.”
One month later, LSU granted its first football scholarship to a Black athlete in Lora Hinton, a tailback from Chesapeake, Virginia. The Louisiana governor even joined in Hinton’s recruitment.
Later in 1971, cornerback Mike Williams joined Hinton on the Tigers’ roster. They made the varsity in ‘72, and Williams immediately started, eventually earning All-America honors.
Did losing the Orange Bowl motivate LSU to open its locker room to Blacks? Donnie McGhee hopes it played a small role. Because on top of football, he said, integration created educational opportunities for kids like him.
McGhee, the youngest of four siblings, was the first in his family to attend college. He received his degree and returned to Michigan then Ohio, where he worked 37 years in the car industry, rising to a management level at Honda.
McGhee’s story, like many of his Black teammates, was a lot bigger than one historic night in Miami.
“Had it not been for Nebraska,” McGhee said. “I don’t know where the hell I’d be today.”