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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By January 1970, Nebraska players at least had an idea of what to expect.
For the second year in a row, the football team was quietly running a required offseason conditioning program. NU coaches knew of a few places that were already doing this — coach Bob Devaney had dispatched assistants to LSU and a high school in Lawrence, Kansas, to take notes — but it was rare. Traditionally, coaches simply hoped players would stay in shape on their own.
Times were changing in Lincoln. The Huskers had suffered a humiliating 47-0 loss at Oklahoma to end the 1968 season and, with a 6-4 record, missed a bowl game for a second straight year. Local rumblings were that Devaney and his staff might be on the hot seat.
The coaches responded: Time to pound these guys into shape.
“As long as we live, a total whipping like Oklahoma will never happen to us again,” NU defensive back Dave Morock recalled years later. “It was a whole new attitude, and it was from Bob Devaney.”
By January 1971, Nebraska would celebrate an Orange Bowl win and its first national title. The work had begun 12 months earlier by the handball court in the basement of Schulte Field House. Three days each week at 3:30 p.m.
Players donned their university-issued gray sweats, stretched, then navigated eight stations led by coaches. Distance running with offensive assistant Tom Osborne. Defensive backs coach Warren Powers working a drill that called for players to don a harness like a horse and sprint, with a partner providing resistance. NU track athlete Boyd Epley — who eventually became a pioneer for strength training in college football — leading five-minute weightlifting sessions with crude, makeshift barbells fashioned from concrete-filled coffee cans.
But everyone most clearly remembers the ax-handle drill.
Offensive line coach Cletus Fischer may have learned it in the military or borrowed it from Alabama. All it required was an old wrestling mat, two men on all fours and a thick wooden stick. For 30 seconds, players grappled, pulled, strained and wrenched in an attempt to take the prize from their opponent.
“No one lost teeth, but it was tough,” recalled John Decker, a senior cornerback in 1970. “(Fischer) wanted to see how hard players would be willing to fight.”
Added Osborne: “We had some pretty bad collisions and injuries doing that.”
Such was life around the Nebraska coaching staff as it laid the foundation for a breakthrough season. Practices were brutal, but on a precise schedule. Assistants were a blend of old school and innovation. The Husker roster was flush with All-Big Eight and All-America talent, and it was the coaches who had found and fought for it during year-round recruiting cycles.
Doug Dumler — the sophomore starting center and future NFL lineman — laughs thinking back on how many legends he played for. The Nebraska men with whistles were just as impressive as the ones in uniform.
“I’m sure we recognized that these guys were good,” Dumler said. “Did we know that Tom Osborne was going to win 255 games as a head coach? Nobody knew that. But we knew we had some good coaches.”
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Devaney arrived in Nebraska in 1962 as a wisecracking tough guy ready to take on all comers. The son of a Great Lakes mariner, he dabbled in boxing and played as hard as he worked.
But by 1970 Devaney was more of a CEO. Nebraska had named him athletic director three years earlier, and he traded the day-to-day schematic details for a larger view of the operation. The head coach roamed around practice on a golf cart, and players humorously rolled their eyes when he headed their way.
Devaney would often just chat or make a joke. A career in coaching — 14 years in high school football in Michigan before his big break at Michigan State (1953-56) and as head coach at Wyoming (1957-61) — had taught him to be himself.
Much of Devaney’s original NU staff was still with him nearly a decade later. That included four of his former Wyoming assistants — Mike Corgan (running backs), John Melton (linebackers), Carl Selmer (offensive line) and Jim Ross (freshmen head coach). Fischer (assistant O-line) was the lone holdover from the staff of Devaney’s predecessor, Bill Jennings.
Fischer had been a Nebraska quarterback in the seasons immediately after World War II, and other former Huskers eventually joined the staff. Monte Kiffin (defensive line), a two-way tackle on Devaney’s first NU teams, came aboard as a grad assistant in 1966 and an assistant the following year. Powers (defensive backs), a former halfback, was hired in 1969. So was Bill “Thunder” Thornton (freshmen assistant coach), a teammate of Powers in 1962 who transitioned out of a G.A. role in 1970 to become the school’s first Black football coach.
Then there was Osborne, a former quarterback at Hastings College. He started helping Devaney as a student pursuing his doctorate, and was teaching at UNL when Devaney hired him full time in the mid-1960s.
Shake-ups were wide-ranging before the 1969 season. NU added a winter conditioning program, embraced the beginning of Epley’s strength training, redirected its recruiting focus and hired Powers and Thornton.
But perhaps the biggest change that impacted the 1970 title run was a transfer of coaching duties. Osborne now built the offensive game plan while Kiffin ran the defense, making them de facto coordinators even though their titles never reflected it.
Devaney previously made most in-game decisions after weeklong staff meetings inside the NU Coliseum, but he effectively fired himself from the role in favor of two of his most junior assistants in the 32-year-old Osborne and 29-year-old Kiffin. He asked Osborne to remake the offense, leaving behind a run-heavy, unbalanced line approach for a versatile I-formation set with an audible system that was ahead of its time. Kiffin ran a 5-2 defense with a defensive back — the “monster” — in a hybrid, roving role similar to a modern strong safety.
Osborne figured the moves were “a little bit of a culture shock” for the older coaches. But they adapted. And Nebraska won, going 9-2 in 1969 and 11-0-1 in 1970.
Said Decker: “If there’s any tribute to Bob Devaney, it’s the people he surrounded himself with as coaches.”
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Jim Walden roars with laughter over the phone from his home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The stories he can tell.
Walden knew Devaney’s coaches well. He played quarterback for many of them at Wyoming in 1958-59 and was a grad assistant at Nebraska in 1970 and a full-time assistant in 1971 and 1972. He later was head coach at Washington State (78-86) and Iowa State (87-94).
One tale in particular still brings tears to his eyes. One morning Kiffin arrived at the office flustered and disheveled. The electricity in his apartment had gone out the night before and he wondered if the same had happened to Powers, who lived in the same complex.
Nope, Powers said. Then, after a pause, “Monte, did you pay your light bill?”
“Come to find out he hadn’t paid his bill in like three months as the season went on,” Walden said. “He was just so absorbed with coaching.”
Kiffin — one of the still-living members of that 1970 staff along with Powers, Selmer and Osborne — went on to become one of the most successful assistant coaches in NFL history. But in his early days he was NU’s most rambunctious staffer. Sometimes, while demonstrating technique in practice, he would tackle a running back without a helmet or pads. His grueling up-downs increased to 100 reps during fall camp between morning and afternoon workouts. He often participated in those, too.
Kiffin’s rival for most enthusiastic was Corgan, a tobacco-chewing Irish Catholic and officer in World War II who played at Notre Dame. The old-school assistant is most famous for inadvertently creating the Blackshirts defense in 1964 when he found some black practice jerseys at a sporting goods store to contrast the offense’s whites.
It was all about toughness with “Iron Mike,” who ran a one-on-one drill called “backs on ends” that sent players charging into each other at full speed. Runners who weren’t tough enough to block or hit never saw the field.
Willie Harper, a 19-year-old defensive end from Ohio in 1970, was sensitive to race relations as a Black athlete who chose Nebraska. The staff knew how to build up players with encouragement, he said, and he never once felt slighted because of his skin color. But he admits there was a time early on when he wasn’t sure about Corgan.
“I always thought he just got on the Black backs, giving them a tough time,” Harper said recently. “But I did something to one of the white guys one time (in practice) and Corgan ripped him. Oh, my God, in front of everybody. I said, ‘OK, OK, Mr. Corgan.’ ”
Selmer and Fischer were the odd couple of the offensive line. Selmer — who later became head coach at Miami (1975-76) — was calm and cerebral, an X’s and O’s guy. Fischer was feisty and loud.
“It was kind of funny because Coach Selmer was kind of the brains of the operations and Cletus Fischer was the bark,” said Dick Rupert, then a junior guard. “So Cletus ran us hard and Carl made us smarter.”
Ross was Devaney’s closest colleague, having coached high school football and basketball with him in Michigan decades earlier. Whenever the head coach got hot — a common occurrence — the cerebral Ross was often the only one who could calm him down.
But Walden recalls Ross’ dry humor that came out behind the scenes. He once asked Ross why he kept three pictures on his bulletin board at his desk.
“Because those are people I hate,” Ross replied. “One is my insurance guy.”
Melton also cracked the occasional joke throughout his 27-year run as an NU assistant into the late 1980s. Thornton — whose heroics as a rusher had led the Huskers’ upset of Michigan in 1962 — was an avid recruiter and sort of racial ambassador between staff and players.
“I think in the future there will be more (Black coaches) on the major college level,” Thornton told The World-Herald in 1970. “The time will come when there’ll be as many as are qualified.”
Quarterback Jerry Tagge, a junior at the time, saw Osborne’s evolution firsthand. Osborne had coached receivers when Tagge arrived two years earlier, and coaches based the depth chart for freshman QBs on how fast they ran the 40-yard dash (Tagge was seventh that year). But Osborne stumped for the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Tagge to run the I-formation offense because of his passing accuracy.
As the Huskers marched toward their first title, Osborne held daily lunch meetings with the quarterbacks at the training table. While the players ate, the coach set up a blackboard and went through every play for that week.
“Every single play and every single block,” Tagge said recently. “It was so boring. It was also the best thing that ever happened to me because I got in the game and was really prepared. It wasn’t boring to the point it ruined my college life, but that was Tom — he was going to go over everything.”
Practices were equally well planned. Rupert, coming from a junior college, was used to workouts going long. But Nebraska staffers would spend 20 minutes on something and then blow a whistle to move to the next task. Players gave full effort because they knew the schedule was the schedule.
Workouts weren’t easy. Players ran wind sprints in oppressive summer heat. The occasional matchups of the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense were intense and brutal. Plus there was the “no drink rule,” when no water was allowed on the field during practice. Players took salt pills to keep from getting dehydrated.
“But, boy, when the practices are over, we headed to the bar and tipped a few all together,” Dumler recalled. “The coaches and the players, we really had a bond. It was something I had never seen before.”
Devaney’s tenure as head coach lasted only a few more seasons before Osborne began his own legendary run in 1973. But during those early days at the turn of a decade, a group of men with varying personalities shared a love of football that eventually helped build a Husker dynasty.
“It was just one thing after another every day,” Walden said. “It was an unbelievable staff of guys. It was just a staff that — in the midst of all the pressure and all that — we still found time to have fun among ourselves.”