Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: Blackshirts as Billed, Still Not Enough Against Iowa in 1981

March 27, 2018

Lance Van Zandt, who was born in Amarillo, Texas, wore cowboy boots to practice at least once, which is why a Lincoln newspaper reporter writing a profile on Nebraska’s defensive coordinator’s background asked an intern for a photograph of Van Zandt in coaching shorts and boots.

The reporter had arranged for the photograph in advance of a practice during fall camp.

Van Zandt arrived for the photo without the boots; he had decided against them. The intern, determined to carry out the assignment, went to Tom Osborne to ask if he could please make Van Zandt go in and put them on. Well, Osborne said, he didn’t think that would be a good idea.

He was firm, but kind, in his response to the intern’s unusual request.

Van Zandt’s coaching resume was Texas-heavy, beginning in high school there and including stints at Rice and Texas A&M, as well as Oklahoma State and Kansas in the Big Eight. Osborne hired him in 1977 from Kansas to succeed Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator.

Van Zandt also replaced the departed Warren Powers as the defensive backs coach.

Van Zandt’s players were hitting, often even when the practice schedule indicated “non-contact.” Because Osborne spent most of his time with the offense, if it was on another practice field away from the defense, for example, Van Zandt might go live in drills. If Osborne could be seen heading toward the defense, however, it was “hold ‘em up” rather than “take ‘em to the ground.”

The 1980 defense was arguably Van Zandt’s best at Nebraska, ranking second nationally in scoring defense (8.5 ppg) and third in total defense (209.1 ypg) and rushing defense (86.4). It allowed more than one touchdown only twice, against Oklahoma and Mississippi State in the Sun Bowl.

Van Zandt left following that season to coach the secondary for friend and fellow Texan “Bum” Phillips, who had left the Houston Oilers for the New Orleans Saints. Osborne hired former Husker Bob Thornton to coach the secondary but elected not to name a defensive coordinator. He would oversee the defense and defensive line coach Charlie McBride would call the defenses on the sideline.

Hail Varsity
Cover of the 1981 Nebraska football media guide.

Despite the change, “I’d say our strength will be defense,” Osborne said prior to the 1981 season. Six defensive starters returned, including end Jimmy Williams, an All-America candidate.

Williams and brother Toby, a year older, walked on from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. They graduated the same year because Toby repeated his sophomore year. At Nebraska, however, he redshirted and so was behind Jimmy in eligibility.

The situation at Wilson High was such that a coach there borrowed money from the Williams brothers, never paid back, in order to send film of them to Auburn – it didn’t get to the school in time. The film of them Osborne watched was of such poor quality that evaluating them was difficult. But as with Langston Coleman, considered the first out-of-state walk-on of note at Nebraska under Bob Devaney and also from Washington, D.C., they were determined to succeed.

Jimmy, listed at 6-foot-3 and 223 pounds as a senior in 1981, was credited with having run the fastest 40-yard dash on the team, 4.34 seconds. He was voted co-captain with quarterback Mark Mauer. Osborne, like Devaney, had only two captains, offense and defense, both seniors, until 1983.

Among those gone from the 1980 defense were All-America end Derrie Nelson, who walked on after playing eight-man football at Fairmont (Neb.) High School – where he was coached by Matt Turman’s dad, Tim – safety Russell Gary and tackle David Clark, also first-team All-Big Eight honorees.

The returning starters included: middle guard Curt Hineline, tackle Henry Waechter, linebacker Steve Damkroger, cornerback Ric Lindquist and monster back Sammy Sims.

The returning starters on offense were: split end Todd Brown, wingback Anthony Steels, tackles Randy Theiss and Dan Hurley and center Dave Rimington. Though he had played behind All-American Jarvis Redwine at I-back, junior Roger Craig had rushed for 769 yards, averaging 7.1 per carry, and scored 15 touchdowns to rank second in the Big Eight in scoring.

The pre-season No. 7 Huskers opened at Iowa, before a record crowd of 60,160 at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes, 17-point underdogs, had suffered through 19 consecutive losing seasons, and they had lost at Nebraska the previous season 57-0.

The Husker defense was as advertised, recovering three fumbles and limiting the Hawkeyes to 197 yards of offense. Waechter, who was from Epworth, Iowa, and had played two seasons at Waldorf Junior College in Forest City, Iowa, led the Huskers with 11 tackles, nine of them unassisted.

But Nebraska’s offense also sputtered, losing three-of-five fumbles, two by Iowan Craig, and throwing two interceptions, one each by Mauer and back-up Nate Mason. The Huskers managed what would be a season-low 231 yards – 117 in the fourth quarter – and lost 10-7.

The loss was Nebraska’s fourth in a row in a road season-opener (1972 UCLA, 1976 LSU, 1978 Alabama). Iowa Coach Hayden Fry called the victory his best in three seasons in Iowa City.

Nebraska’s schedule didn’t get any easier. Even though the remaining three non-conference games were in Lincoln, the next two opponents were top-20 ranked, Florida State and Penn State.

Tom's Time is a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne's 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.

  • Never miss the latest news from Hail Varsity!

    Join our free email list by signing up below.