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Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: Devaney Selects His Successor

October 03, 2017

On the Tuesday before Nebraska’s season-opener against UCLA in 1973, Husker co-captains John Dutton and Daryl White lifted senior Bob Thornton, who put the horseshoe in place above the double doors that exited the tunnel from the varsity locker room beneath the South Stadium stands.

The next day’s Lincoln Star included a photo of the players and horseshoe, which had hung in Schulte Field House, where the locker room had been located, at the north end of Memorial Stadium.

Prior to Schulte, the locker room and field house had been located in the East Stadium, and equipment manager Floyd Bottorff had hung the horseshoe there for players to tap on their way to the field, a good-luck tradition that dates to at least 1937, if not prior to that.

“I’ve never touched that horseshoe,” Tom Osborne told Star sports editor Hal Brown.

Oh yes, Osborne was Nebraska’s head coach, succeeding Bob Devaney following the 1973 Orange Bowl victory against Notre Dame. New coaches’ offices, like the varsity locker room, were located in the South Stadium Complex, opened in July of 1973. The Complex was part of an expansion that added 9,400 seats to the south end in 1972, bringing Memorial Stadium’s capacity to 73,650.

The coaches’ offices had been located in the Coliseum.

Devaney, also the athletic director, originally had planned to step aside following the 1972 Orange Bowl, and had even given some thought to stepping aside after the 1970 season. He was turning more over to his assistants and, he said, was growing weary of the demands of recruiting.

He had first discussed Osborne’s succeeding him late in the 1969 season. “I really didn’t want to follow Bob Devaney at Nebraska,” Osborne said during a 1997 interview. Following Devaney would be extremely difficult, like following John Wooden at UCLA or Bear Bryant at Alabama.

He had settled on Osborne “over a period of time,” Devaney recalled years later. “I knew Tom was the guy for the job, but it wasn’t an easy thing to name him.”

Four assistants had come with him from Wyoming: Jim Ross, Mike Corgan, Carl Selmer and John Melton. Three other assistants had played for him, Monte Kiffin and Warren Powers at Nebraska, Jim Walden at Wyoming. Clete Fischer was a carryover from Bill Jennings’ staff.

Devaney was serious enough about retiring from coaching in January of 1972 that he told Osborne to begin preparing to step in. As a result, Osborne contacted Jerry Moore, an assistant to Hayden Fry at SMU, about filling his position on staff as wide receivers and quarterbacks coach.

Moore told Fry he would be leaving for Nebraska.

The plan changed when the Huskers defeated Alabama in the Orange Bowl to earn a second consecutive national championship. No coach had ever won three national titles in a row, and Devaney was persuaded to stay one more season to try for a third. So he told Osborne he’d like to try one more year and gave Osborne the title of assistant head coach.

Moore had to ask Fry if he could remain at SMU one more season. Fry said he could.

Moore was among three coaches Osborne hired his first year. The others were George Darlington from San Jose State and Rick Duval from Colorado. Darlington and Duval replaced Selmer and Walden, who left to join Pete Elliott’s first staff at Miami. Elliott had coached Nebraska in 1956.

Osborne gave Kiffin, the defensive line coach, the added title of defensive coordinator. “Monte has been doing a great job, and actually handling the job of a defensive coordinator the past three or four years,” Osborne was quoted. “This year, at least, I want to continue to work with the offense.”

Osborne’s offensive genius was a factor in Devaney’s picking him as a successor. “Tom had a great offensive mind, one of the greatest I’ve ever seen,” Devaney said years later.

Powers remained the defensive backs coach. Duval came in as linebackers coach, as well as recruiting coordinator – a title no one had previously. Melton, who had coached the linebackers, became the tight ends and wingbacks coach. Corgan continued as offensive backs coach. Fischer remained an offensive line and kickers coach. Ross was still the head freshman coach. And Bill Myles, who had been the assistant freshman coach, replaced Selmer as the second offensive line coach.

Grad assistants Guy Ingles and Jim Anderson also worked with the freshmen team.

Osborne wasn’t the Big Eight’s only new head coach in 1973. Barry Switzer succeeded Chuck Fairbanks at Oklahoma, after seven years as a Sooner assistant and the last three as offensive coordinator. Earle Bruce, a former Woody Hayes assistant, replaced Johnny Majors at Iowa State. And Jim Stanley stepped in for Dave Smith at Oklahoma State.

Ironically, Smith left Stillwater for SMU, after Fry was fired and went to North Texas State.

Osborne, who hadn’t planned on a coaching career when he joined Devaney’s first Husker staff as a grad assistant, had subsequently set a goal of becoming a head coach by age 35, which he still was in January of 1973. He wouldn’t turn 36 until February.

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.

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