Photo Credit: Richard Voges

A Sense of Belonging––Looking Back at Nebraska’s First National Title

December 24, 2020

This is the first 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 in the days ahead, happy holidays and subscribe now for more one-of-a-kind Husker coverage like this.

President Richard Nixon was pleased by the reception he received when he made a stop in Nebraska on the way back to Washington, D.C., from southern California in mid-January of 1971 to present the Husker football team with a 1970 national championship plaque and deliver a speech directed at students, not just at Nebraska but across the country.

There was turmoil on university campuses over the Vietnam War. In fact, when Nixon began speaking, brief chants of “peace now” were drowned out by applause. Some in the audience, and two sitting on stage—the presidents of the Associated Students and the Innocents Society—wore black armbands in silent protest. And not everyone stood to applaud at points during Nixon’s presentation to Husker coach Bob Devaney and co-captains Jerry Murtaugh and Dan Schneiss.

Devaney might have gotten the greatest applause when he was introduced, 30 seconds non-stop.

“You oughta run for something,” Nixon said, drawing laughter.

Only students and faculty from the University of Nebraska, as well as students from Nebraska Wesleyan and Union College, were allowed to attend.

As many as 8,500 packed the NU Coliseum, according to some newspaper estimates, though the White House reportedly had placed a limit of 8,000, a number supported by the fire marshal. One newspaper account indicated fewer were on-hand, estimating 7,000 to 7,500.

There were also many outside the Coliseum, mostly protesters.

The afternoon, Jan. 14, was frigid—13 degrees at 2 p.m.—the ground snow covered. As Nixon, who arrived around 2:30, accompanied by wife Pat and daughter Tricia, walked toward the Coliseum, someone tossed a snowball in his direction. He picked it up, smiling, and tossed it back in the direction from which it had come.

Because of a snow-bound Lincoln, the team hadn’t been able to return from Miami until the Tuesday after the Orange Bowl, which was played on Friday night.

The Huskers had been scheduled to return Sunday afternoon.

Back inside the Coliseum. I was among the 8,500 or 8.000 or 7,500, whatever the number, sitting high in the south end, where my dad and I had sat to watch the Nebraska basketball team upset No. 1 Michigan on “Fabulous” Fred Hare’s last-second shot in early December of 1964.

I had showed my student ID, and was probably frisked by Secret Service agents, at the door before entering—for Nixon’s visit, not the Michigan game.

The stage was set up on the west side, with the west balcony opening up last.

I was a graduate student, working toward a master’s degree in English, on a fellowship provided for the preparation of junior college English teachers. Had you asked me my career goal, my answer would’ve been “sportswriter,” but I had no idea how one prepared for that.

I had taken a couple of undergraduate journalism classes and written for student newspapers. Straight journalism didn’t seem the way to becoming a sportswriter, though, so I had long since set that aside and focused on being an English major, figuring I might be a writer of some sort, some day.

Nine others were in the junior college English teacher preparation program. Dave Jones, who became a good friend, was the only other football fan among them.

Dr. Paul Olson, an activist who helped defuse trouble during an anti-war rally on campus in April of 1970, was the head of the program. Dr. Dudley Bailey, head of the English department, was among our instructors, teaching a grammar class. We had the best of the best in the department.

We took classes first semester, all but one included just the 10 of us. Second semester we had an internship at a state junior college. I interned at Platte Community College in Columbus, as did Dave.

The Coliseum was a familiar, comfortable place, or so I remember. Some of what I’m going to write depends on memory, recollection of things 50 years past. So the “me” in these accounts isn’t me. It’s someone I knew intimately, but “me” remembered, certainly not me in 2020.

Which brings up something I’ve been unable to resolve. The spring semester probably would have begun at Platte College, so why would I have been in Lincoln for the President’s visit rather than in Columbus; Dave and I had a basement apartment in Columbus where we stayed during the week, returning home to Lincoln on the weekends.

Possibly, we hadn’t started at Platte College yet or maybe I had returned to Lincoln specifically for Nixon’s visit. I’m not sure I helped in Tuesday-Thursday classes at Platte College, and, as I recall, we occasionally made quick trips back to Lincoln on those off-days—but maybe not.

Still, I’m convinced I was in the Coliseum that afternoon, a vivid memory supported by a reference in a column I wrote while at the Lincoln Journal and Star in 1989, just 19 years after.

Much can be confirmed by newspaper accounts—in Lincoln and Omaha as well as The Daily Nebraskan and video on YouTube—but not whether I was there. Maybe my passion for Husker football has created the memory, even though it seems much too vivid for that.

Anyway, Nixon said he read a story in a Lincoln newspaper after the Orange Bowl indicating “some of the (Nebraska) team were gathered around the phone, waiting for the call from the White House.”

Murtaugh had said it was Nebraska’s turn to get a phone call from the President.

Nixon had already established a reputation for calling coaches after big games. He had declared Texas No. 1 before the bowl games the previous year—the Longhorns would defeat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and finish atop the AP poll—drawing the ire of No. 2 Penn State fans.

“Since then, I’ve never been able to go to Pennsylvania without a pass,” Nixon said.

He had decided not to make any phone calls until after this year’s bowl games, said Nixon, after talking to Nebraska Senators Roman Hruska and Carl Curtis, who recommended he wait.

“That was vision, real vision,” he said to applause.

Nixon said he’d been to Ohio, Indiana, and Texas, where people in those states thought their school was No. 1. Of course, Californians favored Stanford, he said, and “in Arizona, Barry Goldwater said that Arizona State was No. 1.” The Coliseum crowd laughed some more.

Goldwater had been the Republican Presidential candidate in 1964.

Arizona State was in the Western Athletic Conference then, with a program still on the rise. Though finishing the regular season 10-0, the Sun Devils were only ranked No. 8. They finished No. 6 after defeating unranked North Carolina in the Peach Bowl. Their break-out victory nationally wouldn’t come until five seasons later, against the Huskers in the 1975 Fiesta Bowl.

As for calling the Nebraska locker room after the game, Nixon said he had tried, even though he had another engagement scheduled. “I checked with the White House operator and asked if it might be possible to get through to the dressing room,” he said. “Usually, the President can get through on the telephone. This time, the operator said, ‘Well, it’ll be just a moment Mr. President, all the circuits are busy.’ He said, ‘Everybody from Nebraska is calling.’”

Nixon had been invited to visit the university in 1969, when it celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding. Coincidentally, Husker football helmets included a “100” sticker on the front as college football celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first game, Rutgers-Princeton. Husker helmets hadn’t been the only ones with the “100” stickers.

Anyway, the invitation by university officials in 1969 had gone through Clifford Hardin, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture. Hardin, among those attending the plaque presentation at the Coliseum, was Nebraska’s Chancellor in 1962 when Devaney was hired. He was the Dean of Agriculture at Michigan State when Devaney was a Spartan assistant and had recommended Devaney to first-year Athletic Director Tippy Dye, who turned to Devaney when he couldn’t hire Hank Foldberg.

That afternoon represented connections and pieces falling into place.

As had been the case for the Huskers on New Year’s Day . . .

Nebraska was No. 3 in the Associated Press poll when it played No. 5 LSU that night. Earlier in the day, No. 6 Notre Dame, led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Joe Theismann (who, encouraged by the Notre Dame sports information director, began pronouncing his name to rhyme with Heisman), upset No. 1 Texas 24-11 in the Cotton Bowl. Then No. 12 Stanford, led by Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett, upset No. 2 Ohio State 27-17 in the Rose Bowl, opening the way for the Huskers.

In a discussion with a sportswriter in the locker room after the game, Devaney was quoted as saying he didn’t see how even the Pope could vote for Notre Dame as No. 1, a remark that Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian would say was in bad taste as the coaches lobbied for their teams in the media.

Many national writers would endorse the Huskers. Edwin Pope, sports editor of the Miami Herald, had written after the game: “If Nebraska isn’t No. 1, there isn’t any justice.”

Parseghian claimed Notre Dame’s victory against the No. 1 team was more impressive. But the Irish, who had been No. 1 the second week in November, had faltered. They dropped to No. 2 after a 10-7 victory against Georgia Tech at South Bend, to No. 4 after a 3-0 victory against LSU at South Bend, and to No. 6 following a 38-28 loss at USC in their final regular-season game.

Neither Georgia Tech nor USC had been ranked; LSU had been No. 7.

The final AP vote wasn’t released until Tuesday, the day Nebraska was able to return to Lincoln. Fifty-six sportswriters from across the country had votes in the AP poll. The votes were allotted based on population, so the Midlands had only four, none of the writers from Nebraska. The Midwest, which included Indiana (and Notre Dame) had 12, as did the East.

Nebraska won in a “landslide,” according to the Lincoln papers.

“I was afraid Ara’s comments might influence the voters, but I guess the writers are too smart to take some coach’s word. The writers knew who was best,” Devaney was quoted following the vote.

The plaque Nixon held up and handed Devaney included the White House Seal and read: “The University of Nebraska 1970 football team, champions of the Big Eight Conference, victor in the 1971 Orange Bowl and picked by the Associated Press No. 1 team in the nation.”

Nearly a minute’s worth of applause followed.

“This is the greatest honor that has ever been bestowed upon any athletic team at the University of Nebraska, and I want to thank the President of the United States very sincerely for taking his time to make the presentation,” Devaney said. “It means a tremendous lot to all of our players, to our university and to our coaching staff. Thank you.”

The pieces had fallen into place for Nebraska’s first national championship, just as they had for me, allowing me to be at the Coliseum that day to celebrate it.

My family had moved to California from York, Nebraska, following my sophomore year at the university. As a result, I would’ve paid out-of-state tuition at Nebraska but when I became a California resident, I paid only books and fees at Chico State College, where I completed a degree in English.

I had already given up the idea of becoming a sportswriter.

I also took the Law School Admissions Test and sent the results to Nebraska, Hastings Law College in San Francisco—my folks wanted me to go somewhere fairly close—and, for some reason, Columbia University in New York City. I scored well enough to be accepted at any of the three, at least that’s how I remember it, but was determined to return to Nebraska, which is where I always belonged.

So soon after finishing at Chico State, I returned to Lincoln, got married and worked at an automotive parts store, L.J. Messer’s on O Street, for about six months until fall semester at Nebraska began.

Why law school? I don’t recall. Maybe I thought I was going to be John Grisham before John Grisham, transition from being a lawyer to being a successful author.

Probably not.

I went to the law college to sign up for classes. Yes, I was told, I had been accepted—but for the fall semester of 1971 not the fall semester of 1970. Besides, classes were already beginning.

In a panic, I hurried over to the admissions office to ask about enrolling as an English major. The lady considered my transcript then asked if I’d be interested in a two-semester fellowship for junior college English teacher preparation. One of 10 in the program had come from Louisiana (I think it was), didn’t like Lincoln and had withdrawn. If I was interested, I needed to hurry and enroll in the specific classes.

My next pressing concern was a student ticket for Husker home football games.

That also fell right into place, allowing for some perspective on the 1970 season from a grad-student seat, located toward the north end of the East Stadium, lower section—Section 3, a dozen or so rows up, maybe—great view.

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