Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: The Biggest Thing to Ever Happen to the Fiesta Bowl

December 13, 2017

The week before the final regular-season game at Oklahoma in 1975, Nebraska’s players voted to decline an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl if it came to that. According to newspaper accounts, the vote was 4-1 against. It would come to that if the Huskers were to lose – which they did.

Nebraska went to Norman, Oklahoma, with a 10-0 record and No. 2 national ranking. The Sooners were 9-1, having lost to Kansas, 23-3, and were ranked No. 7. They had been No. 2, with Nebraska – which had defeated Kansas 16-0 – No. 3, until the Kansas loss at home.

Ohio State was undefeated and atop the rankings.

The Nebraska-Oklahoma winner received an automatic bid from the Orange Bowl as Big Eight champion. Newspapers in Nebraska on the Sunday following the game in Norman included travel agency ads for trips to Miami. One said: “JOIN ‘BIG RED.’” The expectation had been the Huskers would defeat Oklahoma for the first time since 1971 and celebrate New Year’s in south Florida.

With 8:09 remaining in the third quarter, it appeared they might, after a Monte Anthony touchdown set up by a fumble recovery and Mike Coyle’s extra-point kick gave Nebraska a 10-7 lead.

Coyle’s 24-yard field goal in the first quarter was also set up by a fumble recovery. Oklahoma had committed 31 turnovers in nine games. Their Wishbone offense was risk-reward.

Turning over the ball seemed contagious. Nebraska, with only 14 turnovers in 10 games, lost four fumbles and quarterback Vince Ferragamo threw two interceptions that Saturday afternoon, doubling his season’s total. More to the point, Oklahoma converted five of those turnovers into touchdowns, including three in the game’s final 10:10 for a misleading 35-10 victory.

The Sooner defense shut down Nebraska, limiting it to 70 yards rushing on 39 carries and 245 total yards. Typically, Oklahoma quarterback Steve Davis threw only three passes, one complete, but rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Husker linebacker Clete Pillen was involved in 18 tackles.

Though Fiesta Bowl officials were on-hand for the game, Nebraska didn’t immediately accept a bid that had been made contingent on a Husker loss. The bowl was considered minor, having been established in 1971 with the Western Athletic Conference champion as host.

If accepted, Nebraska would play either Arizona or Arizona State, which had played in three of the first four – and won all three. Florida, Pittsburgh, Missouri and Oklahoma State had played in the bowl, but landing Nebraska was considered a significant step toward credibility.

The bowl’s president spoke at the Extra Point Club luncheon in Lincoln on the Monday after the Oklahoma game and said Nebraska’s appearance would be not only “the biggest thing” ever to happen to the Fiesta Bowl but also in Arizona sports.

On Sunday the Huskers had voted to accept the invitation. The vote was close to unanimous, Coach Tom Osborne was quoted. After the original overwhelming no vote, some players were quoted as saying they’d probably change their minds if it came down to it. Nebraska had played in, and won, six consecutive bowl games. A seventh win would be a record.

The Fiesta Bowl reportedly paid teams $200,000, which meant some players might have to stay in Lincoln, according to Bob Devaney. Nebraska would take enough to win the game, he said.

The Huskers dropped to No. 6 following the Oklahoma loss. Arizona State, which defeated Arizona in its final regular-season game, was set to play Nebraska as the WAC champ.

The Sun Devils were 11-0 and ranked one place behind the Huskers.

Nebraska had three turnovers, an interception and two lost fumbles, the second by I-back Tony Davis at the ASU 21-yard line as the Huskers tried to respond to a 29-yard Danny Kush field goal that gave Arizona State a 17-14 lead with 4:50 remaining. That’s how the game ended.

Nebraska had gone into the fourth quarter with a 14-6 lead, directed by quarterback Terry Luck, who replaced Ferragamo in the first quarter. Anthony rushed for 94 yards and two touchdowns.

Adding insult to injury, Oklahoma, which had climbed to No. 3 behind Ohio State and Texas A&M following its fourth consecutive victory against Nebraska, defeated Michigan in the Orange Bowl, while the Buckeyes lost to UCLA in the Rose Bowl and the Aggies lost to USC in the Liberty Bowl.

As a result, the Sooners were voted national champions, and Arizona State finished No. 2. The finish to the season was a scenario of what would plague Osborne’s early years as head coach.


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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