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Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: Walk-Ons Helped the Huskers Handle Scholarship Reductions

November 21, 2017

A headline in the Omaha World-Herald indicated that 60 walk-ons would “bolster” Nebraska’s freshman team when it opened what had been a five-game schedule against Kansas State at Memorial Stadium on a Friday afternoon in late September of 1974.

Husker freshman coach Jim Ross was still trying to find a replacement opponent for Oklahoma, which had dropped its freshman program for lack of sufficient players.

The NCAA had dramatically reduced annual scholarship limits, from 45 to 30. To compensate, it had allowed freshman-junior varsity teams to use non-freshmen as well. Even so, the Sooners and Oklahoma State dropped their freshman programs in 1974. So Ross needed a fifth opponent.

As it turned out, he also needed replacement opponents for Missouri and Colorado, which had been on the freshman schedule along with Iowa State. He was able to add UNO’s junior varsity, so his team played, and won, just three games – using only freshmen.

Walk-ons facilitated that, especially in such large numbers. They had contributed to Nebraska’s success going back to Bob Devaney; Langston Coleman was the first notable out-of-state walk-on, hitch-hiking from Washington, D.C., and Bill Johnson, who was from Stanton, Nebraska, and preceded Coleman, had to try twice before making the roster under Devaney.

Nebraska had 30 scholarship recruits in 1974, two of them junior college transfers, but Osborne would begin holding back scholarships to award to walk-ons who proved they could play.

“If any of the freshmen (walk-ons) can do the job, we’ll give them one,” Ross was quoted in the World-Herald before the Kansas State game. “But they have to be pretty good.

“Some kids come out and figure they can convince us we made a mistake.”

Pat Lehigh, a walk-on cornerback from East High in Lincoln, scored the Husker freshmen’s first touchdown in a 24-10 victory against Kansas State, returning a punt blocked by monster back Jim Pillen 18 yards with 4:41 remaining in the first quarter.

Pillen, now a UNL Regent, was a scholarship recruit from tiny Monroe, Nebraska, by way of Columbus Lakeview High. He also intercepted a pass at the Husker freshman goal line early in the fourth quarter, with the score 17-10, and returned it 39 yards.

Dodie Donnell, a scholarship recruit from Hackensack, New Jersey, scored Nebraska’s second touchdown, and Curtis Craig, a scholarship recruit from Davenport, Iowa, scored the third. Byron Stewart, a scholarship recruit from Oxen Hill, Maryland, was the leading rusher with 105 yards.

Pillen, Donnell and Craig all would earn three letters, Stewart and Lehigh only one.

Osborne didn’t begin holding scholarships for walk-ons until 1976, when Steve Glenn, an offensive tackle from Pawnee City, Nebraska, and Dennis Payne, a defensive back from Lincoln, were awarded scholarships. Dan LaFever, a scholarship linebacker from Marinette, Wisconsin, was listed in the 1975 class by didn’t enroll and count against the Huskers’ limit until 1976.

Without LaFever, Nebraska’s 1975 scholarship class listed 27. The other three spots were filled by two who delayed enrolling from the previous year: Bill Barnett, a defensive lineman from Afton, Minnesota; and Rob Link, a split end from Boulder, Colorado; as well as Vince Ferragamo, a quarterback who had transferred from California.

Ferragamo had a mandatory redshirt in 1974 and so didn’t count against the 30 total.

Isaiah Hipp, whom Nebraska would promote as “college football’s most famous walk-on,” arrived from Chapin, South Carolina, in 1975. He shared time at I-back with Richard Berns, a scholarship recruit from Wichita Falls, Texas, on the freshman team that season.

But more about Hipp and Berns another time.

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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