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1970s Nebraska Football Team Coaches
Photo Credit: Richard Voges

1970 Huskers Begin a Rapid Rise up the Rankings

December 26, 2020

This is the second in a four-part series that originally ran this fall over four issues of Hail Varsity. In it, editor Mike Babcock takes a personal look back at Nebraska’s 1970 national-championship season, a time when he was a graduate student at the university. Check back for additional installments (part one, part two) in the days ahead, happy holidays and subscribe now for more one-of-a-kind Husker coverage like this.

Nebraska was a 26-point favorite in its 1970 opener against Wake Forest. That can be verified by a headline in The Lincoln Star on the morning of the game, though the story by Star sports editor Hal Brown didn’t indicate the source of the projected point spread.

Whether I read the headline before leaving for the game I don’t recall. Probably not, though it seemed as if most every household subscribed to newspapers then—in Lincoln it could’ve been the Star in the morning or the Journal in the afternoon, with a joint edition published on Sunday.

The Omaha World-Herald also published a Lincoln edition.

I was in grad school at the University of Nebraska and lived at 1500 South 10th Street in Lincoln, a straight shot to Memorial Stadium, which I passed on the way to my uncle Gib’s house at 1018 Y Street, just over the 10th Street viaduct. I parked in his backyard, accessed by an alley, on game day and walked across the viaduct, or across the train tracks (an option then), to the stadium.

The house is gone now, all the houses along Y Street are, replaced by a university student housing complex, Prime Place Apartments.

Much of what follows can be verified by newspaper accounts and other sources, adding details to my memory, which is the basis of this section, bits and pieces of the 1970 season, not necessarily game-by-game details. Those are preserved in newsprint, limited film and, to some degree, the recollections of those involved. With the passing of 50 years, however, only the most vivid of recollections likely are precise, again bits and pieces.

And the bits and pieces are random. For example, I recall that semester in the fall of 1970 finishing an afternoon class and walking to a nearby theater, possibly the Stuart, which is now the Rococo, to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and then sleeping through much of the movie.

Such is the nature of memory, or at least my memory of that time.

I remember the movie “incident”—sorting through newspapers would provide the name of the theater at which “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was featured, and when—but nothing of substance about the Wake Forest game, which the Huskers won easily, 36-12.

Sophomore Rich Glover started at left defensive tackle, before giving way to junior Larry Jacobson, who had been sidelined by injury during the spring.

Glover was listed as the starter in the game program, and Bob Devaney, in his 1982 autobiography (on which I worked), wrote that Glover had started the opener, but “spent the rest of the year coming into games when they were over or somebody was hurt.”

Mention of Glover and Jacobson here is significant because Jacobson would be Nebraska’s first Outland Trophy winner the next season and Glover, who moved from tackle to middle guard in 1971, was a two-time All-American and won the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award in 1972.

Willie Harper, the Big Eight Sophomore Lineman of the Year in 1970, had moved the other way, from middle guard to defensive end following his freshman season. He would earn consensus All-America honors in 1971 and 1972. Harper, Jacobson, and Glover reflected Nebraska’s young talent on defense in 1970, though Glover didn’t play much because of depth at defensive tackle.

The offense included talented underclassmen as well, most notably sophomore Johnny Rodgers, who was on the field for more minutes than any other Husker in 1970 because he returned punts and kickoffs as well as played “slotback.” He would be a two-time consensus All-American—the second time unanimous—and earn Nebraska’s first Heisman Trophy in 1972.

Rodgers had been recruited by the University of Southern California out of Omaha Tech and envisioned himself playing tailback for Coach John McKay’s Trojans, who had a tradition of outstanding tailbacks. Plus, the racial mix at USC might have been more comfortable. Rodgers was quoted in the student yearbook, the Cornhusker, that his “biggest gripe with NU” was the “social life.” Nebraska was, however, a “good place to be, as far as athletics is concerned.”

McKay didn’t offer him the opportunity to be a tailback, so Rodgers became a Husker.

USC was Nebraska’s second opponent in 1970, my first recollection of a game that season, and then only that I had listened to it on the radio, playing cards with friends, Euchre or Hearts probably.

You had a choice of radio broadcasts, four stations, two based in Lincoln, two in Omaha.

Lincoln’s KFOR had Dick Perry on play-by-play. Perry was the Nebraska Sportscaster of the Year in 1966, 1968 and 1969, according to an ad in the Husker game programs.

Lincoln-based KLIN featured the Nebraska Football Network, with Bud Sobel on play-by-play and Joe Patrick handling “color reports” and the “dressing room” post-game.

Patrick was host for the “Bob Devaney Show” at 10:30 p.m. on Sundays. The originating station was KETV-7 in Omaha. The show also was carried by KOLN TV-10 in Lincoln, KGIN TV-11 in Grand Island, and KTIV TV-4 in Sioux City Iowa according to an ad in the game programs.

Omaha-based KFAB’s Husker game broadcasts featured legendary Lyell Bremser, and Omaha’s WOW had Russ Baldwin on play-by-play. Baldwin was also sports director for WOW TV.

I most likely listened to a Lincoln station, probably Perry.

Kickoff for the USC game was 8 p.m. in Los Angeles, 10 p.m. in Lincoln. Nebraska, still No. 9 in the Associated Press poll, and No. 3 USC tied, 21-21. I don’t remember being disappointed, and not only because of USC’s higher ranking. The Trojans had the national prominence Nebraska was trying to regain. They had been AP national champions in 1967, finishing 4th in 1968 and 3rd in 1969.

USC had lost only twice and played two ties during those three seasons, and it had opened the 1970 season with a 42-21 victory against No. 16 Alabama in Birmingham.

A crowd of 73,768 was on-hand at the LA Coliseum, including an estimated 12,000 Husker fans. Nebraska defensive backs Jim Anderson and Tom McClelland, both juniors, broke up a Jim Jones pass in the end zone, the ball going off Sam Dickerson’s fingertips, on the final play of the game.

I think we continued playing cards to the end. But maybe not. It was late.

The Huskers defeated Army 28-0 in Lincoln the next week—the game program cover featured a picture of Devaney with captains Dan Schneiss and Jerry Murtaugh—then played at Minnesota in week four. There were no off-weeks during the 1970 season.

I made the 430-mile drive to Minneapolis and remember stopping to check the artificial turf before going up into the stands; Minnesota’s Memorial Stadium had Tartan Turf—with a return to natural grass seven years later. I bought a souvenir piece of Tartan Turf, with a maroon and gold “M” pin attached, along with a game program.

Hub Foster, sports editor of my hometown newspaper (the York News-Times), saw me down by the field beforehand, mentioning that in a column the next week.

Nebraska won 35-10. I remember little else.

In 1981, Minnesota began playing home games in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. The Gophers’ Memorial Stadium was demolished in 1992.

The day before the game, 14 players on the Wichita State football team were among 29 who died in a plane crash near Colorado’s Loveland Pass. The others were boosters and athletic department staff. The plane was headed to Logan, Utah, where Wichita State was slated to play Utah State the next day.

Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose in Los Angeles on the day after the Minnesota game, at age 27, the same age as Jimi Hendrix when he died of a barbiturates overdose in London the day before the USC game. I was a fan of both, had seen Joplin at a concert during Chico State’s “Pioneer Days” celebration in the spring of 1968. The concert was delayed, no reason given, and folks began leaving before Joplin came on stage; when she finally did, she nearly fell off she was so inebriated—or seemed to be.

In any case, the Huskers had moved up one place in the AP rankings following the USC game and two after beating Army, so they were No. 6 going into the Minnesota game, and remained there.

Next up was Missouri, at Memorial Stadium.

Devaney and Tigers coach Dan Devine had a connection. Both had been assistants on Duffy Daugherty’s staff at Michigan State in 1954, adding to a subplot for the 1970 game against the defending Big Eight champion. Devaney had been surprised when Daugherty recommended Devine instead of Bill Yeoman, who had joined Daugherty’s staff in 1954, for the head coach’s job at Arizona State, after it appeared Yeoman was a lock, in 1955.

Daugherty would contact Nebraska Chancellor Clifford Hardin, a former Michigan State professor, about hiring Devaney, then the coach at Wyoming, in 1962.

Devine spent three seasons at Arizona State before going to Missouri, which had handed the Huskers their first loss under Devaney in the seventh game of the 1962 season, Homecoming as well as the beginning of Nebraska’s NCAA-record sellout streak. And the Tigers had won three in a row against the Huskers, including a 17-7 victory at Columbia in 1969—what would be Nebraska’s last loss before a school-record 32-game unbeaten streak that included back-to-back national championships and didn’t end until the 1972 opener at UCLA.

Missouri came to Lincoln with a 3-1 record and No. 16 AP ranking, its loss against Air Force (37-14) in St. Louis two weeks before. The Tigers had been No. 9, the Falcons No. 20.

Missouri, which also had defeated Minnesota (34-12), was led by senior tailback and co-captain Joe Moore, the Tigers’ “first Heisman Trophy candidate in the Dan Devine era,” according to an entry in the game program. Moore had rushed for 1,312 yards as a junior and was named Big Eight Back of the Week for his play in an opening-game victory against Baylor in 1970, rushing for 171 yards and connecting on a run-pass option for 72 yards and a touchdown. Moore went into the Nebraska game with 604 rushing yards, in four games remember, but would finish the season with 610 yards.

The reason? In the first quarter he ran into Husker defensive tackle Dave Walline, the result being a shoulder separation that would end his season, and Missouri career.

“Moore was in pain; there were tears in his eyes,” Murtaugh recalled during an interview 30 years later. “Dave was tougher than hell, too. He had been lifting. He looked like a Greek god.

“You could hear it, ‘Bam.’”

I could hear the “Bam” from my seat in the lower east stands. Moore, listed at 6-1, 205, and Walline, 6-2, 238, colliding remains among my the most vivid memories of the 1970 season.

Nebraska won 21-7, with Van Brownson replacing Jerry Tagge at quarterback midway through the game. Tagge passed to junior I-back Jeff Kinney for a touchdown, Brownson scored one, and Rodgers returned a punt 48 yards for another. Nebraska moved up to No. 5 in the AP poll.

The Missouri game program’s cover photo featured baton twirler Dianne Tangeman, a sophomore from Omaha who was already familiar by name to Husker fans. She was back to “amaze the crowd with her flaming baton and knife-dance routines,” a program entry said.

The cover photo also included band members Jeff Klintberg from Laurel, Nebraska, and Tom Simpson from North Platte, one in a tuxedo top, the other in the marching band’s new scarlet and cream, block N uniform—the first time the band had new uniforms since the 1941 Rose Bowl. Klintberg was the drum major. Jack Snider, the marching band’s director, designed the uniforms.

Nebraska first had a band, all-male, in 1879. The Cornhusker Marching Band was established in 1950. Snider had been its director since 1952.

The Huskers won at Kansas (41-20) and moved to No. 4, where they remained after victories against Oklahoma State (65-31), at Colorado (29-13) and at Iowa State (54-29).

Brownson passed for a combined six touchdowns and ran for two in the first three games, then Tagge took back the job, passing for 223 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa State.

I listened, probably, to the Kansas game on the radio and watched the Colorado game on KETV-7, the ABC affiliate in Omaha. The regional telecast covered nearly three-fourths of the country, and a record crowd of 50,881, including an estimated 15,000 Nebraska fans, was on-hand at Folsom Field. The crowd was the largest ever at a sporting event in Colorado.

Husker fans tossed oranges on the field, signifying their belief that Nebraska would win the Big Eight title and accept a bid to the Orange Bowl. Buffalo fans threw rolls of toilet paper at Nebraska fans.

I drove to Ames for the Iowa State game. A capacity crowd of 36,000 was at Williams Field, which seemed to me as if it were located in a residential area, though it was on the edge of campus. It was replaced by Jack Trice Field in 1975 and torn down in 1978.

In addition to Tagge’s performance, senior I-back Joe Orduna rushed for 69 yards and three touchdowns. Kinney was the Huskers’ leading rusher, with 116 yards on 19 carries.

Nebraska lost three fumbles but finished with a season-high 565 yards of total offense.

The Blackshirts intercepted three passes, including two by junior safety Bill Kosch, setting the stage for the 10th game of the season, Kansas State’s visit to Memorial Stadium—as with Walline’s hit on Moore in the Missouri game something I remember with some clarity.

More bits and pieces.

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