Among the changes Bob Devaney made when he came from Wyoming to Nebraska in 1962 was shortening practices. The Huskers struggled through five consecutive losing seasons under his predecessor, Bill Jennings, and practices had gotten longer and longer.
As John Melton, an assistant who came with Devaney, remembers it, Jennings’ practices were as long as 3 hours. So he was told by players and coaches who remained.
Not that Devaney and staff didn’t work as hard. They just worked more efficiently.
“We’d go an hour and 45 minutes,” said Melton.
And every one of those 105 minutes had to count.
“We always had an argument with Bob, every year we went through this, because he didn’t like calisthenics,” Melton said. “He says, ‘That’s 15 minutes wasted.’
“He says, ‘Show me in a game when a guy does this.’ ”
Melton, ever the showman, mimicked doing a jumping jack, clapping his hands over his head.
“Bob was probably right, you know,” said Melton.
Devaney was right about most things, of course, as his Hall of Fame coaching record indicates. His teams at Nebraska were 101-20-2, with seven Big Eight titles outright and another shared, a 32-game unbeaten streak and back-to-back national championships, in 1970 and 1971.
FIRST STOP, WYOMING
Prior to that, he spent five years at Wyoming, his first collegiate head coaching job, with similar success. The Cowboys were 35-10-5 under his direction, including a 14-6 victory against Hardin-Simmons in the 1958 Sun Bowl. His 1959 team was the best, going 9-1, but wasn’t bowl-eligible.
Melton was with Devaney for those five seasons and all 11 at Nebraska, retiring after the 1988 season. He lettered three years at Wyoming as a fullback and then became a successful high school coach at Thermopolis, Wyo. When Devaney took the Wyoming job in 1957, Melton was one of two high school coaches in the state he hired. The other was Carl Selmer, who came from Worland, Wyo.
The rest of that Wyoming staff included Jim Ross, a friend and high school coaching associate from Alpena, Mich.; Mike Corgan, a high school coach at Muskegon, Mich., Central Catholic; Lloyd Eaton, the head coach at Northern Michigan; and John Tobin, an assistant at Hillsdale College in Michigan.
When Devaney came to Nebraska, Melton, Ross, Selmer and Corgan came with him. And Eaton succeeded him as Wyoming’s coach – a job for which Corgan also interviewed.
Tobin died after suffering a heart attack during a game in 1959.
After the 1961 season, Devaney called the coaches together and told them he was going to Nebraska. “He said, ‘Any of you want to go with me?’ ” said Melton.
ASSIST FROM DUFFY
Devaney had gotten the Wyoming job through the efforts of Bowden Wyatt, whom he replaced there, and Duffy Daugherty, for whom he was an assistant at Michigan State.
Daugherty also was instrumental in Devaney’s pursuing the Nebraska job after Jennings was fired.
The Huskers had managed only three winning seasons since the 1940 team went to the Rose Bowl, and “Duffy thought it was a better job than I did,” Devaney wrote in his 1981 autobiography.“He told me if I won here as I had been able to win at Wyoming, things could go big.”
Devaney had just signed a contract extension, and the Wyoming Board of Regents was reluctant to release him with four years and eight months remaining. He and his staff came to Lincoln in January of 1962, however, and began recruiting for Nebraska.
He wasn’t released from the contract until February.
“When I decided we were going to come to Nebraska, I go down to the bank in Laramie, get my money out and get it transferred here,” said Melton. “The president of the bank in Laramie calls me in and says, ‘John, sit down a minute; I want to talk to you.’ He says, ‘You’re making a big mistake.’ He says, ‘Those farmers will kill you in Nebraska.’ ”
Devaney exceeded even the highest of those expectations, however. His first team went 9-2 and the next four won Big Eight championships and finished no lower than sixth in the final Associated Press rankings. All five of those teams played in bowls, four of them on New Year’s Day.
The key to success at Nebraska, as it had been at Wyoming, was recruiting. “You’ve gotta have good football players,” Melton said. “You’re not going to win without good football players.”
And, of course, “Bob was a great coach. That’s the No. 1 reason,” said Melton.
“He’d say, ‘Geez, if we can’t beat these guys, you oughta quit coaching.’ He used to scare us to death. But he was a great coach. Bob, he never ever figured he could lose.”