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How it Was: Remembering Bob Devaney

On May 9, 1997, at 4:05 p.m., less than a month after his 82nd birthday, Bob Devaney died of congestive heart failure. Phyllis, his wife of 61 years, and Mike, his son, were at his side, as were long-time friends Jim Ross and Bob Logsdon.

After taking over as head coach, Bob Devaney changed the course of Nebraska football.

Ross coached with him at Alpena (Mich.) High School and was on his staffs at Wyoming and Nebraska. Logsdon was the manager of the Legionnaire’s Club in Lincoln, where Devaney, his assistants and their wives regularly went to relax and celebrate victories.

There were 101 to celebrate during his 11 seasons at Nebraska.

A Memorial Service was held at Lincoln’s First-Plymouth Congregational Church five days later. The service was broadcast live state-wide by the Nebraska Educational Television network.

An estimated 700 attended.

Logsdon, Ross, Johnny Rodgers, Rich Glover, Francis Allen, Dr. Dennis Claridge, Chris Peterson and John Sanders were pallbearers. Those who spoke included Tom Osborne, Jerry Tagge, Gov. Ben Nelson, the Rev. Dr. Otis Young, the Rev. Dr. Robert Chitwood and Dr. Alan Domina, another long-time friend.

The service concluded with a recording of Bing Crosby’s singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” As family and guests left the sanctuary, the First-Plymouth Brass played “Danny Boy.”

That was 15 years ago this past week, and just over six months before Osborne announced he would be stepping aside at the end of his 25th season as head coach – following, as it turned out, a third national championship in four seasons.

Here’s How It Was in the June/July 1997 issue of Huskers Illustrated:

A TIME TO REFLECT

The red brick house sits on C Street, near Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church and the intersection of S. 40th. The neighborhood is one of mature tree and well-tended lawns.

The May morning is peaceful. The sky is blue, accented by wisps of clouds. A small sign in the window of a neighbor’s house says: “NU #1.”

Three days have passed since Bob Devaney was laid to rest . . .

Devaney lived in the red brick house on C Street until the last couple of years before his death. After his health began to fail him, he and wife Phyllis moved to Eastmont Towers.

In the early 1960s, the C Street neighborhood was closer to the south and east edges of Lincoln than it is now. The city limits have pushed farther out in both directions over 35 years.

In some ways, the red brick house symbolizes Devaney’s remarkable accomplishments during 11 seasons as Nebraska’s football coach – his accomplishments as athletic director and goodwill ambassador for the state were no less remarkable, but we appreciate the latter because of the former.

Tippy Dye was the athletic director who hired Devaney away from Wyoming, a fact lost on many in a new generation of Cornhusker fans, even though had it not been for Dye, events wouldn’t have transpired the way they did. Devaney was the right coach, in the right place, at the right time.

Dye made the decision that profoundly changed the course of Nebraska football history. However, buildings aren’t named in honor of athletic directors. That Devaney was athletic director when the Sports Center was named for him was coincidence not cause. But I digress . . .

As with the red brick house on the quiet street in what is becoming a near-south neighborhood, Devaney’s coaching accomplishments have been hidden by the passing of time.

Unless you are of that particular generation of Nebraska fans, you have to go looking to find the specifics of Devaney’s 11 seasons. You have to turn east off S. 40th Street.

They are overgrown, like the rings inside a giant redwood. They are there, beneath the bark of national championships in 1994 and 1995 and 24 consecutive seasons of nine or more victories and bowl-game appearances since he stepped aside as coach. But the bark must be stripped.

Devaney used to joke that he had been at Nebraska for several years before he discovered the Cornhuskers had lost the 1941 Rose Bowl game. Not only was it Nebraska’s first bowl appearance but it also was the football program’s most significant, and recent, achievement before he arrived in 1962.

Devaney’s death, on May 9, marks the end of an era. He was of another time, when Bear Bryant, Duffy Daugherty, Ara Parseghian and Bud Wilkinson walked college football’s sidelines.

Tom Osborne often talks of the importance of the journey rather than the destination. Devaney led the Cornhuskers on their journey to national prominence. In many ways, Osborne has had to deal with the destination throughout his quarter century as Devaney’s hand-picked successor.

Those of us who have lived in Devaney’s time mourn his death not only because it has taken away a friend but also because it reminds us we cannot relive years that seem so much happier and simpler than they were.

I hope his close friends and family don’t take offense at my using the term “friend” to describe my association with Devaney. I knew him better than some, because of my responsibilities as a sports writer as well as my collaboration with him and others on his 1981 autobiography Devaney.

The book was written “By Bob Devaney and Friends.” I was a friend by definition, if not in fact. I also called him “Coach,” another liberty considering I never played for him. But I was not alone in either case. He had countless friends whom he never met. And he was “Coach” to an entire state.

A writer (for Sports Illustrated, I think) once described Devaney as having the appearance of a “dumpy baker.” The characterization fit, though probably not in the way the writer intended.

Devaney was as unpretentious as he was extraordinary. And he wasn’t averse to rolling up his sleeves and getting flour all over himself if that’s what was needed to get the job done.

In a sense, Devaney came to Nebraska anonymously. He used an assumed name when he visited Lincoln to be interviewed. But over 11 years, he wrote his name across the state in bold red letters. The figurative ink is indelible, as if anyone would have wanted to erase it.

He was just like us, and yet he was not like us at all. He lived all those years in that quiet neighborhood near C and S. 40th Streets. You could walk up to his front door and knock. You could shake the Coach’s hand. He never had an unlisted telephone number.

The house is still there, a fleeting reminder of what used to be.

Now he resides in our memory, however . . . and our hearts.

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