The bus driver screwed up.
As the sun set on the Orange Bowl that Friday, the team turned into the wrong parking lot and rolled toward a logjam of spectators, delaying arrival for the biggest night of the Huskers’ lives.
Ed Periard, Nebraska’s 5-foot-9, 200-pound cherry bomb of a middle guard, flickered, burned, then exploded.
“Will you get this (expletive) bus where it’s supposed to go! Now!”
This wasn’t your typical pre-game anxiety. The 1970 Huskers, approaching the end of a long journey and the dawn of a new era, had little control of their surroundings.
Entering New Year’s Day, No. 3 Nebraska needed three things to win the school’s first football national championship:
» A Notre Dame upset over No. 1 Texas. Cotton Bowl kickoff was 1 p.m. central.
People are also reading…
» A Stanford upset over No. 2 Ohio State. Rose Bowl kickoff was 4 p.m.
» A Nebraska win over No. 5 LSU in the 7 p.m. Orange Bowl.
As the Huskers finally emptied the bus and entered the stadium, their flicker of hope was growing brighter.
Over the next 30 years, the Big Red juggernaut would produce better teams and more memorable wins.
But the pure joy of that New Year’s Day 1971 — a stunning combination of great performance and great fortune — belongs in a historical category of its own.
Consider the odds:
An 11-point underdog like Stanford stood a 20% chance to pull off an upset, according to gambling records. A six-point underdog like Notre Dame wins about 34% of the time. The chances of both winning? About 7%.
On top of that, Nebraska (a five-point favorite) still had to beat LSU.
On the first morning of 1971, what were the odds of Nebraska finishing the season as college football’s lone undefeated major-conference team?
Roughly 1-in-25. A Hail Mary.
Somehow it happened, delivering the Huskers their first national championship … just two years after finishing a 6-4 season with a 47-0 loss to Oklahoma. An astonishing turnaround.
As Sports Illustrated legend Dan Jenkins wrote, “the day will go down in college football history as certainly the greatest thing to happen to Nebraska since the Union Pacific started laying track out of Omaha. When it was all over last Friday night, when all of the funny hats, the whistles, the horns — and the remains of Steve Worster — had been scooped up off of the carpets, all that anyone from Texas or Ohio State could say was, well, here's to the New Year, all you good folks out there in Box Butte and Otoe and Gosper counties in Nebraska. Win streaks and Buckeye leaves are out. Corn husks are in.”
As the calendar turns to the 50th anniversary, let’s re-live a day that perfectly encapsulated the glory, controversy and insanity of a bygone college football era.
The wildest New Year’s in Husker history.
* * *
“Nebraska Waiting Is Over”
The game-day headline in The World-Herald focused on the matchup with LSU’s No. 1-ranked run defense, which allowed just 1.6 yards per carry. The preview didn’t even mention the possibility of a national title until the 32nd paragraph.
Truth is, Nebraska looked like the victim of bad luck.
The Huskers had chosen their bowl destination before other contenders. They believed No. 1 Notre Dame was headed to the Orange Bowl, too, so that’s where NU wanted to play.
But when the Fighting Irish lost to USC in the season finale, suddenly Texas was the target. And the Longhorns — winners of 30 straight games — were Dallas-bound. Notre Dame, eager to avenge the previous year’s Cotton Bowl loss to Texas, chose a rematch.
Bad news for Nebraska got worse when Ohio State beat Michigan and bumped the Huskers to No. 3 in the AP poll.
The Huskers woke up New Year’s morning at the beachfront Ivanhoe Hotel and flipped on Texas-Notre Dame, one of just four bowl games that day.
They saw Texas’ vaunted wishbone chew up ground on its opening drive until Jim Bertelsen dropped a pitch that would’ve scored a Longhorn touchdown. An omen.
Texas would fumble nine times, losing five. All-America fullback Steve Worster, who gained 155 yards on Notre Dame the year before, alone committed four turnovers. SI’s Jenkins called the rash of fumbles “an Easter egg hunt for leprechauns.”
Joe Theismann took advantage. The Notre Dame quarterback scored three touchdowns in the first 16 minutes, two with his feet, and the Irish jumped ahead 21-3.
At the Ivanhoe in Miami, Husker spirits lifted.
Texas never rebounded. Notre Dame’s defense showed a new alignment, mirroring the wishbone and stifling the ‘Horns running backs. Texas’ No. 1 rush offense — 374 yards per game — finished with 216 in a 24-11 loss.
Afterward, Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian lauded his program’s first postseason win since 1925.
“In 21 years of coaching, I’ve been in some excited dressing rooms,” Parseghian said. “But I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
His rival, Darrell Royal, didn’t hide his heartbreak, quoting writer Grantland Rice:
“I’ve learned something that victory cannot bring, to wipe the blood from my face and smile so none can see the sting.”
The Huskers didn't see any blood, but they sure smelled it.
* * *
The attention and pressure shifted to Pasadena, where Ohio State — winners of 31 of its last 32 games — entered the new year on weary legs.
After beating undefeated Michigan — Woody Hayes called it the greatest win of his career — the second-ranked Buckeyes drew No. 12 Stanford, which finished the season with two straight losses and hadn’t made a bowl game since 1951.
Hayes could’ve cut his team some holiday slack. He did not.
The old tyrant lodged the team at a California monastery. Beach time? No. Disneyland? Not so much. He even barred the Buckeyes from the annual Rose Bowl prime rib feast, scolding his players, “We are not pigs at Ohio State.”
Hayes, an admirer of General George Patton (born in Pasadena), instituted two-a-day practices, even ordering players’ ankles taped on the plane so they could go to work immediately upon arrival in Los Angeles.
Ohio State seniors organized and considered a mutiny, voting to go home if Hayes didn’t relax. They backed down.
“Everyone was scared to death,” Buckeye running back John Brockington told a newspaper years later. “We were going up against Woody Hayes, for God's sake, and we were talking about what we wanted.”
Before kickoff in Pasadena, Ohio State learned of the Cotton Bowl score. “The Texas score should’ve been a boost,” Hayes said.
But Stanford played loose and free. John Ralston, one of three finalists for the Nebraska job in December 1961, coached a brilliant Rose Bowl. On Stanford’s first play, a trick reverse gained 41 yards.
Stanford jumped ahead 10-0. Ohio State rallied to take a 14-10 lead. That’s about where things stood when the Huskers got off the bus at the Orange Bowl.
Then the Rose Bowl turned. Ohio State, leading 17-13 and driving again, got stuffed on fourth-and-1. Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett took over from there.
“Isn’t that Plunkett some sort of quarterback?” Ralston said. “My heavenly days, what are we going to do without him?”
(Stanford won the next year’s Rose Bowl, too, upsetting undefeated Michigan).
Across the country, the Huskers warmed up on the Orange Bowl’s new artificial turf as NU publicist Don Bryant delivered Devaney updates.
NBC delayed kickoff in Miami to capture the conclusion in Pasadena. When the Huskers heard the final score, the locker room erupted. Stanford 27, Ohio State 17.
“There it is,” Devaney said.
* * *
Five years earlier, 1965, the same scenario unfolded.
Nebraska, in Devaney’s fourth year, navigated the regular season undefeated, entering the Orange Bowl No. 3.
Then Arkansas lost in the Cotton Bowl. Then Michigan State lost in the Rose Bowl. The Huskers only needed to beat Bear Bryant. They weren’t close.
This time, Devaney’s team was ready for the moment. Nebraska surged to a 10-0 lead — just like Stanford did — before LSU roared back with 12 points in the second and third quarters.
Early in the fourth, Nebraska mounted the decisive 13-play, 67-yard drive. “Nobody ran on us the way they did,” LSU defensive captain John Sage said afterward.
On third-and-goal, Jerry Tagge’s lunging sneak gave NU the lead.
The Big Red offense gave away two fumbles in the final seven minutes, including one with 52 seconds left as it burned the clock. But the Blackshirts held firm, thanks largely to Willie Harper and Ed Periard.
“That little short guy, No. 56, was lining up over center and popping through there about as fast as I was getting the ball,” LSU quarterback Buddy Lee said.
Linebacker Bob Terrio intercepted the final LSU pass and Devaney rode off the field on his players’ shoulders, shouting, “We did it!”
“It’s out of sight, baby,” Periard said.
Now try to put yourself in a Nebraska living room that night, in Box Butte or Otoe or Gosper County, watching your flyover-state team rise up and win it all. For the first time.
We can debate the greatest day in Nebraska football history. Nov. 25, 1971. Jan. 1, 1995. But the confluence of events on New Year’s 1971 makes it unique.
The impact rippled across the college football map.
Darrell Royal’s program was never quite the same. He retired in ’76 and the Longhorns wouldn’t get another national title until 2005.
Woody Hayes kept grinding another eight years, but he, too, never won another title. Hayes was fired amid scandal after punching a Clemson player during the ’78 Gator Bowl.
Nebraska, of course, became the dominant program in the country over the next 30 years. The Huskers won five national titles. From 1970-2001, they won 34 more games than any program. Still stunning.
The breakthrough came in Miami.
When Tagge sneaked in for the go-ahead touchdown, SI’s Jenkins wrote, “Nebraska considered itself No. 1, and on the basis of the won-lost evidence among the major contenders, it is hard to disagree.”
As Devaney put it, even the Pope wouldn’t vote Notre Dame No. 1.
Of course, the show wasn’t over yet. No, college football in 1970 — ever the beauty pageant — waited another four days (!!) to tally AP votes.
Meanwhile, the worst Nebraska blizzard in 25 years slammed the state Sunday, delaying the Huskers’ flight home.
Stranded in Miami, they lounged by the pool, grumbling about Parseghian’s last-minute politicking.
“He talks about Notre Dame accepting a greater challenge by playing top-ranked Texas,” said Husker assistant Mike Corgan, a Notre Dame grad. “Maybe he’s forgotten that Notre Dame still was No. 1 when Bob Devaney called him in an effort to find out which bowl game Notre Dame preferred.”
Finally Tuesday morning, as the Huskers headed to the airport, the AP poll hit the news wires. Nebraska received 39 first-place votes; Notre Dame got eight.
Devaney called it a “dream.”
The team charter plane left 79-degree Miami and landed in below-zero Lincoln, where 14 inches of white suffocated the city. A bit ironic, isn’t it.
This football king that nobody saw coming, original in personality and character, rises to the heights of its sport, only to come home to a giant snowdrift.
The Huskers didn’t get much of a hero’s welcome, but they did receive a lasting legacy. For 50 years, this football-crazy state and its fanatical base have relentlessly pursued the buzz — the joy! — they first experienced on New Year’s Day 1971. Sometimes successfully. Sometimes not. But never giving up hope.
Nebraska’s first national champions boarded buses and crept four miles back to campus, completing a three-month season and the ride of their lives. They grabbed their bags, said goodbye and started digging out of the snow.
This time, they didn’t need to hurry. The hard work was done.