Bill Jennings’ record as Nebraska’s head coach was 15-34-1. Older Nebraska fans are aware of the frustration that accompanied his departure following the 1961 season.
But Jennings made a significant contribution to the resurrection of the Husker football program under Bob Devaney, despite his assertion that it was incapable of feeding the ego of the state.
It could. And it has, or at least it did.
That Devaney was the man for the job can’t be questioned. His record was 101-20-2, with eight Big Eight championships—seven outright—and two national championships. And his success was immediate, 9-2 in his first season. Nebraska was 3-6-1 in Jennings’ last.
Since freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity competition at the time, Devaney’s first recruiting class at Nebraska couldn’t contribute until his second season. That meant the dramatic turnaround was accomplished with players Jennings left behind, among them Bob Brown, Tyrone Robertson and Dennis Claridge, first-team All-Big Eight selections in 1962.
Brown was from Cleveland. Robertson was from Toledo, Ohio. And Claridge, a quarterback, was from Robbinsdale, Minnesota. He even committed to Minnesota, after Colorado withdrew a scholarship offer.
Nebraska played at Minnesota just before Claridge was going to move into a dorm. Classes hadn’t started at Minnesota, and Claridge was at the game with other Gopher freshmen as well as a Husker freshman from Minnesota, Dick Strutz, whom Claridge had met at a Minnesota high school all-star game. Strutz convinced Claridge he’d be better off at Nebraska, which had also offered him a scholarship. Claridge’s dad asked Jennings if the offer was still good. It was.
So instead of moving into a dorm at Minnesota, Claridge packed his bags for Nebraska.
Claridge was among 11 Huskers recruited by Jennings on Devaney’s first team who would eventually be NFL draft picks. Brown, a guard and linebacker, and Larry Kramer, a tackle, were others. Brown and Kramer were unanimous All-America selections, Brown in 1963, Kramer in 1964.
Jennings could recruit. He had coordinated recruiting for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma.
Jennings was from Norman, Oklahoma, and had played for the Sooners from 1938 to 1940. He was a Wilkinson assistant from 1947 to 1953, also coaching the backfield. He resigned following the 1953 season to work for an oil company in Fort Worth.
At the time of his resignation, the NCAA was investigating Oklahoma for recruiting violations. The investigation would lead to probation. Jennings had been the scapegoat.
Jennings returned to coaching in 1956 as an assistant at Nebraska under Pete Elliott, who had come from Oklahoma, where he was a Wilkinson assistant from 1951 to 1955.
Jennings’ Oklahoma connection added intrigue to his tenure at Nebraska, which included the 1959 upset of the Sooners, ending their 74-game conference unbeaten streak, as well as the recruitment by the two schools of Monte Kiffin, who was from Lexington, Nebraska.
Wilkinson visited Lexington just before Kiffin was to announce his decision even though Jennings claimed he and Wilkinson had a gentleman’s agreement that neither would recruit players in their respective states unless they had signed off on the recruitment. “I recruited hard for Oklahoma and now I’m recruiting hard for Nebraska,” Jennings told the Lincoln Journal in January of 1960.
Despite the talent, Jennings didn’t win, and with each losing season, he worked his players harder and harder. Based on what players said, practices were three hours and longer, with lots of scrimmaging, Devaney wrote in his 1981 autobiography.
There was a “lot of bickering.”
So Devaney shortened practices and focused on the positives. If something wasn’t working, he’d move on to something else and correct the problems in coaches’ meetings afterward.
Devaney wrote that he had only one conversation with Jennings after accepting the job, in what had been Jennings’ office on the second floor of the NU Coliseum. “Right away he said: ‘The first thing you ought to do is get some offices and get rid of this one.’ He was right. Nebraska had the worst looking football office I had ever seen . . . the place was awful,” Devaney wrote.
Though the facilities were lacking, talent wasn’t. “I told him: ‘With the bunch of kids you have left here, if you’d stay another year, you’d win,’” wrote Devaney.
That first spring he wasn’t sure what he had told Jennings had been right. The results, however, proved he was. They also proved that turning around a program depends on recruiting.
There were other factors in Nebraska’s turnaround in 1962, of course. And the game has changed significantly in the nearly 60 years that have passed. But some things haven’t changed.
Jennings was an “excellent recruiter,” Devaney wrote.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.