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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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It’s not the gains, all the rushing and receiving yards, that Jeff Kinney recalls first about the 1970 Iowa State game.

Instead he brings up a loss.

MATT HANEY/THE WORLD-HERALD

Someone grabbed the cowboy hat off the head of his grandfather at the old Clyde Williams Field in Ames.

Kinney also remembers the ill tempers on the field. The penalties. The punches at the bottom of piles.

“It was a really physical game,” he said. “The kind of game where you wanted to punch them and they wanted to punch you.”

The Huskers were still standing at the end of the scrum 50 years ago this weekend, 8-0-1 after a 54-29 victory and one step closer to their first national title.

They felled the Cyclones with the same 1-2 combination they had used effectively all season: Kinney and Joe Orduna sharing time at I-back. Kinney ran for 116 yards and added 42 on four catches. Orduna contributed 69 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Orduna, a senior from Omaha Central, would finish the season with team highs of 897 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, four more than future Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers. He made the All-Big Eight team.

Kinney, a junior from McCook, added 694 yards rushing and 206 receiving.

“They alternated pretty much, and I think that’s an ideal situation,” said retired NU coach Tom Osborne, who ran the offense in 1970 as an assistant to Bob Devaney. “It’s hard for one I-back to go through the whole ballgame and take all the carries. To have two quality backs, and have them both healthy, was a big plus.”

Sharing carries didn’t always feel ideal at the time to Orduna and Kinney. Orduna had been the Huskers’ leading rusher in 1968, but he missed the 1969 season after injuring a knee in preseason practice.

Kinney took over in 1969, helping the Huskers win their final seven games to foreshadow back-to-back national title runs.

Orduna admits there were times he wished he’d carried the ball more, including the Orange Bowl win over LSU, when both backs ran 13 times.

But winning overrode personal goals, especially after his experience playing on 6-4 teams in 1967 and 1968.

“There was more of an esprit de corps on the ’70 team,” Orduna said. “There was a lot of joking. We just had fun. And we had some good players.”

Today Orduna is a retired middle school science teacher living in Irvine, California, with his wife of almost 50 years, Valerie. He celebrated his 72nd birthday Friday with a bike ride — he rides 30 miles about every other day.

Kinney, who turned 71 last Sunday, prefers pheasant hunting and fishing. He still works in financial services and is moving this weekend from Colorado Springs to Raymore, Missouri, on the south end of metro Kansas City. Two children and eight grandchildren live nearby.

Orduna says the two backs were never really friends, just teammates. But Kinney says they formed a strong partnership.

“It was fun to compete,” he said, “because we had different skills that worked together.”

Kinney was probably the better receiver, says Van Brownson, a quarterback on the 1970 Huskers.

“They were both outstanding runners,” Brownson said. “Joe was maybe a little bit quicker, but Jeff was a strong, powerful runner who could run through tackles.”

Both ended up in the NFL. Orduna was a second-round draft pick of the 49ers in 1971 and played three seasons with the Giants and Colts. Kinney went in the first round a year later to Kansas City and played five seasons with the Chiefs and Bills.

Orduna’s last name was mispronounced in his Husker days. It’s or-DOON-yuh. 

His grandfather was of Spanish descent and came to the U.S. from Mexico, then married a Black woman and settled in Nebraska.

Their grandson Joseph grew up strong and fast. He became a state champion high hurdler at Central and also won gold in the long jump and 880-yard relay. He qualified twice for the state wrestling tournament, too.

Orduna grew up idolizing Colts receiver Lenny Moore and Bears back Gale Sayers, who preceded him at Omaha Central. He wore No. 48 in high school, just like Sayers.

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But one day he came home from high school and Devaney was sitting in his living room, assuring his parents that he would take care of their son.

Before he knew it, Orduna was a Husker pledge. “I don’t know who decided,” he said. “I think it was my parents.”

He and Dick Davis led the Huskers in rushing in 1967 and 1968, but the offense struggled. The 1968 Huskers were shut out twice in Big Eight play and scored fewer points in seven league games (94) than the ’70 Huskers scored against Oklahoma State and Iowa State (119).

He remembers the joy of being able to play again in 1970 and the satisfaction of beating Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma for the first time in his career.

But he didn’t talk about football when he accepted invitations to speak at banquets across Nebraska. He spoke of his faith.

“I really feel, and have felt, the call of God in my life to do according to his will,” he said.

Kinney was a three-sport standout at McCook High. At 6-foot-2, he could dunk a basketball. He took second in the state in the high jump.

But football was his passion. “I just loved playing,” he said. “I loved contact. So I wanted to be in the game all the time.”

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He arrived at NU in 1968 as a quarterback. But there were seven on scholarship in his class, including Brownson and Jerry Tagge.

So coaches moved Kinney to halfback, then to wingback, where he was backing up Larry Frost, Scott’s father, in 1969 preseason drills when injuries sidelined Orduna and his backup.

So Kinney moved to I-back, and he led the team that year with 590 rushing yards and 44 catches. He even threw two touchdown passes.

He thought he might get another shot at quarterback in 1970 when Tagge and Brownson were battling injuries the week of the showdown with third-ranked Southern California.

“I spent the whole week playing quarterback,” Kinney said. “But Tagge got well, which was probably a good thing.”

Kinney went on to an All-America senior season in 1971, becoming a Husker legend by running for 171 yards and four touchdowns in the Game of the Century victory over Oklahoma.

Kinney says the 1969 seniors deserve credit for laying the groundwork for the Huskers’ championship run. But the 1970 offense added three junior college linemen, tackle Carl Johnson and guards Dick Rupert and Keith Wortman.

The line “took it to another level” that season, Kinney says, and Rodgers added a jolt of electricity at wingback.

“We could throw the ball, we could run the ball, we could control the ball,” Kinney said. “That’s what made us kind of special at that time. And our defense was so good. The first six, seven games, I didn’t have to play much in the second half.”


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