When Bob Devaney came to Nebraska, he found the football facilities lacking. They were worse than those he had at Wyoming. But there were more good players.
“We couldn’t believe the size and the speed of the kids here,” Jim Ross once said.
Ross, who had coached with Devaney at the high school level in Alpena, Mich., was an assistant with him at Wyoming and came with him to Nebraska.
Devaney’s predecessor, Bill Jennings, had been the recruiting coordinator for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma and had brought talented players to Nebraska.
“We inherited a good bunch,” Devaney said in a 1991 interview.
A dozen players on his first team were NFL draft picks, among them Bob Brown, Lloyd Voss, Larry Kramer, Dennis Claridge, John Kirby, Rudy Johnson and Kent McCloughan.
What those players had in size and speed, however, they lacked in confidence. In five seasons as Nebraska’s coach, Jennings never produced a winning team. His record was 15-34-1 (.310).
WE’RE TALKING ABOUT PRACTICE
As the losses mounted, the practices lengthened and became more physical, in marked contrast to Devaney’s. “We planned, had a practice schedule, a kid would blow the whistle when it was time to move from one thing to another,” Devaney said in that same 1991 interview.
“We shortened practices and did not have continual contact. We didn’t scrimmage too much. When I was coaching in high school, we used to scrimmage a bigger high school. We used to do a good job down there. But on Saturdays we didn’t do too well. The coach from that high school came and watched us once and said, ‘You shouldn’t keep banging them around (in practice).’
“I learned that in high school. You don’t beat guys up during the week.”
Devaney also made sure his players succeeded in practice. If something didn’t work, he’d set it aside.
He didn’t try to fix things on the practice field. He’d wait until the coaches met afterward, and if the problem couldn’t be fixed, he’d drop it. He wanted players to be focused and positive.
Devaney and his staff approached the 1962 Michigan game in that context.
The Wolverines were second on Nebraska’s schedule in Devaney’s first season, at Ann Arbor. And the game was highlighted before the season. “We set a team goal that if we didn’t accomplish much else during the year, we were going to go up there and beat Michigan,” Devaney once said.
Devaney and assistants had done their homework. Michigan was coming off a 6-3 season, but coach Bump Elliott’s team had lost seven starters and six key reserves in the one-platoon era.
“Michigan was not a great football team,” said Devaney.
The Wolverines played in the Big Ten, however, which gave them national credibility. The term now is “brand.” The Big Ten brand in 1962 was much greater than the Big Eight brand.
Oklahoma dominated the Big Eight. The Sooners’ 47-game winning streak and 74-game conference unbeaten streak were still fresh in the minds of college football enthusiasts.
Devaney didn’t expect his team to challenge the Sooners and Missouri in the conference immediately. But “if we could get by the Michigan game, we’d have a chance to do something because up until we played Missouri, there was nobody we couldn’t beat,” Devaney said.
The Missouri game was seventh on the schedule, and in Lincoln. There was plenty of time to build momentum and instill confidence in his players.
“THUNDER” IN ANN ARBOR
Even though the Huskers won their opener against South Dakota, 53-0, they went to Ann Arbor as underdogs. According to the popular Dunkel Index, Michigan was a 10-point favorite.
In addition, there was as a question as to whether Bill Thornton, Nebraska’s all-conference fullback and another of the NFL draft picks, would play. The Huskers’ leading rusher the previous two seasons had missed the opener because of a dislocated shoulder, and on the Monday before the Michigan game, Devaney indicated the senior co-captain might not be included on the 40-player travel roster.
Thornton, whose nickname was “Thunder,” didn’t start. He didn’t play in the first quarter, in fact.
But on the first play of the second quarter, his block helped clear the way for a 42-yard run by Dennis Stuewe to set up the game’s first touchdown, which Stuewe scored on an 11-yard run, also aided by a Thornton block. Stuewe would miss the second half with a sprained ankle.
Thornton would score two second-half touchdowns in the 25-13 victory. Michigan Stadium, which had a capacity of just over 100,000 in 1962, was hardly intimidating that afternoon. Attendance for the “Band Day” game was 57,224.
And as Devaney said, the Wolverines were not a great team. They finished the season 2-7.
For Nebraska, however, it was mission accomplished. “During different parts of Nebraska football history there have been some big upsets,” Devaney once said. “But we felt that to get the program going again, to sell people on what we were doing, we had to beat Michigan.”
The people to whom he referred weren’t only fans; they were his players, too.