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Playing Field Leveled, Huskers Begin Their March to the 1970 National Title

December 25, 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 in the days ahead, happy holidays and subscribe now for more one-of-a-kind Husker coverage like this.

Nebraska’s run to a first national championship officially began with a No. 9 ranking in the Associated Press preseason poll for 1970.

No one expected the Huskers to lift a national championship trophy at season’s end, though. Or at least those who did were in a significant minority, of one or two perhaps, among them Jerry Murtaugh. The senior linebacker told reporters something to that effect before the season began, leading to his running stadium steps under the mandate of Coach Bob Devaney and Devaney’s saying Murtaugh would best keep his mouth shut in such matters.

Not that Nebraska hadn’t been in the national conversation under Devaney. The Huskers were in AP Top 10 regular-season polls for 27 consecutive weeks from the fourth week of the 1964 season until the 1967 preseason poll. And they were back in the Top 10 the first three weeks of 1967, before back-to-back losses knocked them out of the AP poll until 1969—when the poll included 20 teams.

The cover of the Sept. 20, 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated, its college football preview, had even featured a photo of the Huskers’ senior fullback Frank Solich running against Arkansas in the 1965 Cotton Bowl beneath the headline: “NEBRASKA GOES FOR NO. 1.”

The feature story, written by Dan Jenkins, included another Husker photo, of quarterback Bob Churchich handing off to Solich behind the blocking of halfback Harry Wilson, with the two-part headline in bold letters: “THE COLLEGE GUNS GO VROOM! . . . AND NEBRASKA HAS THE GUNS.”

Jenkins envisioned a 16-team (all conference champions, including the Ivy League’s) national playoff with Nebraska winning a title game against Alabama. He even picked a score, 21-18.

Jenkins proved prescient. The Huskers played Alabama in the Orange Bowl for the national championship, though when the day began, Michigan State and Arkansas were No. 1 and No. 2, Nebraska and Alabama No. 3 and No. 4. But Michigan State and Arkansas both lost bowl games that day and by kickoff of the Orange Bowl, it was looking as if title were at stake.

Jenkins missed on the score, however. Alabama won 39-28.

Nebraska and Alabama met in the Sugar Bowl the next season, with Nebraska No. 6 and Alabama No. 3. The Huskers had been No. 4 before losing its final regular-season game at unranked Oklahoma 10-9. The national title didn’t seem to be at stake then. No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State, who had played to a tie in the regular season, didn’t play in bowl games. Besides, there were no post-bowl rankings until 1968, when the AP regularly released a post-bowl poll.

“Regularly” because there had been a post-bowl AP poll in 1965, and Alabama had finished No. 1. The United Press International continued with a regular-season-only poll until 1974.

I was a student at Nebraska in 1966 and saw the Huskers’ five home games, from the South Stadium, SEC 14, ROW 31, SEAT 15, though that student ticket is punched only three times, (2) Utah State, (3) Kansas State and (5) Oklahoma. Why I would have missed TCU and Missouri, I have no idea. My guess is no one punched the ticket for those games. Just as curiously, there are seven places to punch.

Or maybe I was in Love Library, studying. Seriously?

My “policy” first semester, after transferring from York College, was to skip Thursday night biology labs—who goes to class on Thursday night—and Friday afternoon Shakespeare classes. That wasn’t on me. That was the professor’s idea. I’m not kidding. We only met on Monday and Wednesday.

At any case, the 1967 Sugar Bowl was still a major bowl and an opportunity to avenge the 1966 Orange Bowl loss. The Football News belittled Nebraska beforehand, at least in my opinion, based on what had happened in Miami the year before.

In addition to Sports Illustrated, I was a regular subscriber to the Detroit-based Football News—18 issues for $6 second-class mail, $10 first-class or $12 air mail—so I wrote an indignant letter to the editor, Roger Stanton, indicating we would see about that come the night of January 2.

The letter was published that week.

And we saw.

Final score: Alabama 34, Nebraska 7.

The Huskers lost national relevance with 6-4 seasons in 1967 and 1968, causing some unrest among fans, to the point at which Devaney was encouraged to replace some assistant coaches. Devaney was loyal to those who were loyal to him, however, and refused.

Next came a petition to get rid of Devaney, who later joked that his secretary handled all his mail, discarding anything overly negative, and that meant any mention of the petition. Had he known about the petition, Devaney said, he probably would have signed it, too.

He did make changes, though, including turning a redesign of the offense over to Tom Osborne, his “offensive ends coach.” Osborne began meeting with the quarterbacks and incorporating some spread into an I-formation alignment, directed by two sophomores, Jerry Tagge and Van Brownson.

The Huskers had been operating from a T-formation with an unbalanced line.

Devaney also sent Osborne west to recruit some junior college offensive linemen. After the back-to-back bowl losses against Alabama, Nebraska had tried to emulate the Crimson Tide’s offensive lines, which included smaller, faster players than the Huskers were using up-front. The experiment didn’t work, and Devaney was looking for immediate help. Hence, the focus on junior colleges.

Tackles Bob Newton and Carl Johnson and guards Dick Rupert and Keith Wortman played important roles in the line in 1970 after transferring from junior colleges. Newton, a senior (the others were juniors), earned consensus All-America recognition in 1970, while Rupert started at left guard, opposite All-Big Eight honoree Donnie McGhee, with Wortman and Johnson as top back-ups.

The other starters in the 1970 line were senior tackle Wally Winter and sophomore center Doug Dumler, who made the most of an opportunity following injuries.

The 1969 season “set the tone for the back-to-back national championships,” Devaney wrote in his autobiography, published in 1982. “I could tell when Tagge and (Jeff) Kinney were sophomores that they were part of a special group.”

Nebraska lost its opener against USC in 1969 but rebounded with victories against Texas A&M and at Minnesota, after which the Huskers were ranked No. 20, in a tie with Auburn. They dropped out, however, following a loss at No. 7 Missouri and wouldn’t return until three wins later.

The turning point came the week after the Missouri loss, against Kansas. After the Jayhawks took a 17-14 lead on a 24-yard field goal with 14:14 remaining in the game, a Nebraska fumbled pitch from Tagge to flankerback Larry Frost gave Kansas an opportunity at the Husker 28-yard line.

Defensive end Sherwin Jarmon blocked a 28-yard field goal attempt by Kansas with 12:01 remaining. The teams traded possessions, both forced to punt. Al Larsen fumbled away the Jayhawk punt at the Nebraska 46-yard line, and the Jayhawks drove to the 12 before being stopped.

Only 4:27 remained.

The Huskers reached the 43-yard line, but a 16-yard sack on first down would lead to fourth-and-16 at the 37 with the clock running down. Tagge—“who has the guts of a latter-day Al Capone,” wrote Omaha World-Herald sports editor Wally Provost—scrambled, found tight end Jim McFarland at the Kansas 32-yard line. The pass was incomplete, but the Jayhawks were flagged for pass interference.

Then Emory Hicks, a Kansas defender, “blurted out an unkind word to an official,” the Sunday Journal and Star reported, resulting in another 15-yard penalty.

Nebraska had first-and-10 at the Jayhawk 17.

Paul Rogers had kicked field goals of 55 and 46 yards in the first quarter, the 55-yarder a Big Eight record, so the Huskers were well within his range. But they put the ball in the end zone, with a little help from another Kansas personal foul penalty that gave them first-and-goal at the 3-yard line.

Kinney, the I-back, carried the final 3 yards, capping a 13-play, 88-yard drive. Rogers’ extra-point kick made the score 21-17. Only 1:22 remained. But the drama wasn’t over.

Kansas took the kickoff and drove from its 10-yard line to the Husker 18 before time ran out. Larsen, a senior cornerback, made the final tackle to preserve the victory.

When the game was over, wrote Provost, in his often humorously metaphoric style, “writers looked bleakly at each other. Some wished they had taken up bricklaying for a career.”

The World-Herald’s Tom Allan reported that, in the locker room afterward, Kansas Coach Pepper Rodgers “hurled an obscenity at a writer who opened the press conference with a ‘tough game to lose’ remark. ‘Let’s see you print that,’ he fumed.”

The Kansas victory was the starting point for what Devaney had acknowledged, the run that included back-to-back national championships and a school-record 32-game unbeaten streak. Ironically, Rodgers was the coach of the UCLA team that snapped the streak in the 1972 opener in Los Angeles.

During the bus ride back to Lincoln from a 10-7 victory at Kansas State in mid-November of 1969, Devaney told Osborne that he, Devaney, didn’t plan to coach that much longer and that he wanted Osborne to succeed him as head coach.

Devaney was also athletic director, having added that role in May of 1967.

Nebraska finished the 1969 season on a seven-game winning streak, the seventh by 45-6 against Georgia in the Sun Bowl. Rogers kicked four first-quarter field goals in El Paso.

Despite the bus conversation with Devaney, Osborne was reluctant to follow such a successful coach. Counting his five seasons at Wyoming, Devaney had a .786 winning percentage, the highest in the nation. In fact, he’d been the nation’s winningest coach every season since 1965, the 1970 Husker media guide noted. So Osborne decided it would be best to consider other opportunities, including interviewing for the head coach’s job at Texas Tech during Sun Bowl preparations.

The Red Raiders would hire Jim Carlen.

The Huskers had been No. 14 going into the Sun Bowl, No. 11 in the final AP rankings. Still, to think they were headed for a national championship at the beginning of the 1970 season might’ve been a stretch even for the most passionate fans.

And there were plenty of those.

According to an entry in the 1970 student yearbook, the Cornhusker: “It’s become the age of the superfan in Nebraska. At the onset of the Devaney tenure the coaching staff suggested all the fans wear red at games. The results were impressive. Memorial Stadium has taken on the appearance of the Red Sea. Away games are the same on a similar scale.”

The yearbook also noted: “It’s no secret that Big Red is a drawing card for Nebraska consumers. Everything from submarine sandwiches to new cars are sold using the Big Red label. For obvious reasons clothing stores exploit the image most successfully.” One retailer in downtown Lincoln estimated that fans coming to Lincoln meant as much as a 20-percent increase in sales.

On home-game weekends the Cornhusker hotel added a dozen bartenders and two-dozen helpers in the dining room, as well as extra bellhops, switchboard operators and housekeepers, the yearbook said.

Memorial Stadium’s consecutive sellout streak had reached 40, through two expansions that increased capacity, which had been 31,080 with “knothole” bleacher sections at the north and south ends increasing the total. In 1964, the south end had been enclosed, making the stadium a bowl, and increasing capacity to 48,000. A two-phase project in 1965 and 1966 enclosed the north end, increasing capacity to 64,170. In 1972 capacity would increase to 73,650 with an addition to the south end.

The Huskers would play home games on AstroTurf in 1970. The third generation of artificial turf, produced by Monsanto, was installed during the summer, a $250,000 project.

First, of course, the sod was removed and the field graded.

My uncle Gib, who had worked for groundskeeper Bill Shepard before becoming the Husker equipment manager, had retired from farming in the North Loup-Scotia area, where my dad’s family had lived, and viewed the grass field with a farmer’s eye. Gib had claimed the field wasn’t level, that there was a slight incline—I forget whether north to south or vice-versa—so that teams would have been running uphill or downhill, depending on the direction, though, again, only so slightly.

When the sod was removed and grading began, he was proven right.

After the grading, asphalt and an underpad were put down before the AstroTurf “rug” was laid.

The installation was completed in late July, meaning that Memorial Stadium was the first in the Big Eight to have artificial turf. Kansas State, Kansas and Oklahoma also put down artificial turf for the first time in 1970. But none finished the installation before Nebraska.

Kansas State put down AstroTurf. Kansas and Oklahoma put down Tartan Turf.

On the Saturday of the opening game, Lincoln’s Sears department store, in its lower-level Big Red Shop, offered free pieces of AstroTurf to the first 3,000 fans who requested it. My recollection is that pieces of the turf were also given out at a booth at the State Fair the week before.

I have searched for mine, to no avail.

“Age of the superfan” or not, a national championship for Devaney’s ninth team seemed about as likely as, say, sportswriters really wanting to be bricklayers. As indicated, Nebraska was No. 9 in the AP preseason rankings, with Ohio State No. 1, Texas No. 2 and USC No 3.

Missouri was No. 11, Kansas State No. 14 and Oklahoma tied at No. 20.

Sports Illustrated put Nebraska at No. 5, behind Ohio State, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. USC was No. 6, Missouri No. 11, Colorado No. 13, and Kansas State No. 18.

Street and Smith’s Official Yearbook (I collected them over the years, through the 1950s and ‘60s) also had the Huskers at No. 9, with Ohio State, Texas and Notre Dame the top three.

Murtaugh was included among Street and Smith’s All-America candidates.

Del Black of the Kansas City Star wrote the Street and Smith’s “Big Eight and Missouri Valley” preview section. “Nebraska and Memphis State, no strangers to football throne rooms, loom as the teams to beat in the Big Eight and Missouri Valley conferences,” he wrote in the section’s introduction.

“Are two quarterbacks better than one? Coach Bob Devaney of Nebraska believes by alternating Van Brownson and Jerry Tagge he can get the most out of his offense,” Black wrote later.

The NCAA allowed teams to play 11-game regular-season schedules for the first time in 1970, so Nebraska added Wake Forest to open the season on Sept. 12 in Lincoln. The Huskers had been scheduled to open at USC on Sept. 19.

Of 118 major colleges playing football, 65 scheduled the additional game, with the Ivy League, Bowling Green and Ohio State retaining nine-game regular-season schedules. The rest of the Big Ten played 10-game schedules. Ohio State didn’t go to a 10-game regular-season schedule until 1971 and an 11-game regular-season schedule until 1974.

In addition, the Big Ten did not allow its champion to play in back-to-back Rose Bowls.

The national television schedule for 1970 was set in advance, with one “wild card” game to be determined and one weekend of regionally televised games yet to be selected. The Nebraska-Colorado game at Boulder was among four games to be televised regionally on Oct. 31.

In 1970, game times were set before the season, so fans knew what to expect. All of Nebraska’s home games would have 1:30 p.m. (CDT) kickoffs. In fact, only the Colorado (12:50 p.m. MDT) and USC (8 p.m. PDT) games wouldn’t start at 1:30 p.m.

Murtaugh and fullback Dan Schneiss were chosen as captains for 1970, with defensive players voting for Murtaugh and offensive players voting for Schneiss, a senior from West Bend, Wisconsin.

Like Murtaugh, Schneiss was hard-nosed, no-nonsense.

The day before the vote, legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, another hard-nosed, no-nonsense type, had lost his battle with cancer. He was 57 years old.

Among the other national sports headlines was one involving former Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, who alleged racial discrimination by Syracuse Coach Ben Schwartzwalder, who had been his coach at Syracuse, after Schwartzwalder suspended eight Black players.

Locally, a headline in The Lincoln Star said: “Solich’s Knights Lack Depth.” Frank Solich was preparing for his third season as the coach at Lincoln Southeast High, a rebuild of the program the story said.

As the Nebraska State Fair wound down—Liberace had been a featured musician, with two concerts, touring the midway and antique booths, mingling with fans, after both concerts—the Huskers went through their final week of practice for the Wake Forest opener with uncertainty at quarterback, not whether Tagge or Brownson would start but whether both, or even either, would be ready.

Brownson had missed the Saturday-before scrimmage with an elbow injury and Tagge pulled a leg muscle in the middle of the second quarter of the game-type scrimmage. As a result, sophomore Bob Jones had finished the scrimmage with the first unit. In addition, sophomore walk-on Steve Runty, fourth on the depth chart, was moved up from the scout team following the scrimmage.

Senior I-back Joe Orduna, who had missed the 1969 season after surgery on his right knee, scored three touchdowns, and sophomore slotback Johnny Rodgers showed big-play ability, returning a punt 49 yards to set up a touchdown; returning a punt 70 yards for a touchdown, though the play was nullified by a clipping penalty; and breaking free on a 48-yard run that ended in disaster when he tried to pitch the ball forward and the ball was picked off.

Afterward, Devaney said the Husker defense was in “bad shape” from the standpoint of experience, but he expected it to improve. Only three defensive starters were back: Murtaugh, tackle Dave Walline and cornerback Jim Anderson. Walline was a senior, Anderson a junior.

A crowd estimated at 2,000 was on hand for the scrimmage.

For entertainment besides the scrimmage and the State Fair over the weekend, “Airport,” “Dr. Zhivago,” and “Woodstock” were showing at Lincoln movie theaters—all seats for “Woodstock” at the State Theater were $1.75. In addition, the 84th & O Drive-In offered a double feature, “In Cold Blood” and “The Professionals,” with the shows beginning at 8 p.m.

The week of the Wake Forest opener, Star sports editor Hal Brown predicted the Big Eight finish. His prediction indicated he wasn’t thinking the Huskers would make a national championship run. Rather, he saw them sharing the conference title with Missouri, as they had in 1969, followed by Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Kansas.

“That 11th game should help the Husker defense mature and we don’t agree with those who feel that a win over Missouri is a must. It wasn’t last year,” Brown wrote.

Nebraska was as much as a four-touchdown favorite against Wake Forest. Coach Cal Stoll’s team was picked to finish last in the Atlantic Coast Conference, following a 3-7 record in 1969.

Concern at quarterback was such, however, that on Wednesday, The Lincoln Star sports section included a headline that said: “Possibility Of Jones Starting As Husker QB Looms Larger.”

Following practice that day, however, Devaney said Tagge was the “likely starter.”

And he would be.

I know I was certainly ready for some Nebraska football. I had lived in northern California for three years, and watching the Chico State Wildcats lose to Far West Conference powers such as the San Francisco State Gators—though spelled “Gators” the meaning was “Gaters,” I thought, as in Golden Gaters—and quarterback Bob Toledo wasn’t nearly as much fun as watching the Huskers, even when they were losing in the late ‘50s, when I attended my first game at Memorial Stadium.

Walter Cronkite was host to a radio and then television show, “You Are There” in the 1950s. The show recreated historical events with Cronkite reporting as if he were there.

I was there for Nebraska’s first national championship run in 1970. It began with Wake Forest.

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