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Picking up the thread from there, Devaney says that when he was the baseball coach at Saginaw ( Mich.) High he had a pitcher named Bob Buhl who, Devaney concluded, could not pitch in that cool Michigan weather. In a spasm of inspiration, Devaney converted Buhl into a weak-hitting first baseman. Buhl eventually converted back and went on to become a big winner with the Milwaukee Braves during their glory days in the late '50s. "That," says Bob Devaney, "tells you the kind of baseball coach I was."
At Big Beaver High in Birmingham, Mich., his first stop after graduating from Alma, Devaney also coached football and basketball and taught six subjects a day—civics, history, biology, etc. On the basis of a 60 to 70 hour week, he once told The Omaha World-Herald , he made 50� an hour and deserved every penny. He said that the kids of Big Beaver "did not have much interest in athletics." The football team had not won a game in four years and the turnout was so sparse Devaney had to scrimmage with the players. His basketball team practiced in a gym, but the gym was in another town and Devaney's wife Phyllis took a teaching job to help pay for a car to take the team to practice. "We did not win any state championships in basketball," said Devaney. "I remember the car better than I do the basketball team."
Once paid for, the car was demolished when intersected by a streetcar in downtown Detroit. "We weren't sly enough to pretend we were injured and sue the streetcar company for $50,000," Devaney said. "All we got out of it was $25 for the car."
Devaney said he found out at Big Beaver how little he knew about football coaching. He discovered there was more to it than you block that man and you block this one. After that he moved around Michigan some, to Saginaw, to Keego Harbor, logging coaching years, and wound up at Alpena High, hard by Lake Huron where the cold mist settles on a fall night and where he won a remarkable 52 of 61 games with athletes who disappeared back into the mist and were never heard from again. Asked if any of those could have become successful college players, Devaney replied: "Dick So-and-So was a great athlete at Alpena and would have been outstanding in college except he wouldn't go to class."
Devaney had been a coach 14 years and seemed on his way to that special purgatory for highly respected, grossly underpaid career high school coaches when he was summoned to Michigan State, "where my real life began." He was a shot in the dark, he says. Duffy Daugherty called on a summer afternoon "when I just happened to be in from the lake. If he had not reached me, he'd have called somebody else. I have no illusions about that. But I had made up my mind. I was 37. If a break didn't come before I was 40 I was going to go back and get my Masters and take a boring administrative job somewhere."
Eventually, Devaney got another call (he was 41 then) to become head coach at the University of Wyoming where he continued the tradition of winning teams, by accident, of course, and was lauded and loved and given a "lifetime contract." He said the secret of his success at Wyoming was being able to bring in some renegade athletes to go with a few incumbent "orangatangs"—he used the word affectionately—who could play the game. He said the president was sympathetic to his needs. The president was from the South and used to talk about the good old days when college players got paid off behind the chicken coop. It was, however, no easy task to keep prospects in Laramie once they set foot there, so Devaney stationed coaches at the airport and bus and railroad depots in case anyone decided to keep going after taking a look around.
"I learned to love Wyoming, but I had some embarrassing moments," says Devaney. One of his harder-headed players, a New Yorker, refused to show his I.D. card to a policeman when approached while lounging in a hotel lobby one night before a game. A row started. Devaney and a few others interceded, and "we all got taken down to the station. I offered a sound defense argument and about had it all straightened out, too, when I pressed my luck. They said the player would have to stay in jail overnight. I said, 'If he stays, we all stay.' So they locked us up. It was headlines the next day."
The road back to Laramie from recruiting trips and late-ending banquets was treacherous, Devaney said. One night he dozed and his university-owned automobile, left to its own devices, headed down the side of a cliff. "I thought I was driving hell out of it, too, and when we got to the bottom and I got out to look at the car I realized we had rolled over three or four times." Abashed, he explained to the administration that a deer had run across his path.
Devaney declared his life over at Wyoming in 1962 and accepted the challenge at Nebraska. By now he was 46 years old, but as Pepper Rodgers of UCLA says, "Devaney's young, no matter how old he is." Soon Devaney had a reputation for being a fantastic recruiter. He says it was nothing special, he was just loath to deprive a boy of the opportunity of playing football in Nebraska just because he happened to live on Long Island. He made Nebraska a national institution. A smart, exceptionally quick-witted man, he could talk crop rotation with farmers and profit and loss with financiers—if their sons were football players. He says he found recruiting very educational. In a West Virginia tenement one night he sat in the living room listening to the mother of a hot prospect play Bringing in the Sheaves on the family piano.
"Is it true," Devaney was asked, "that you have gone so far as to sing hymns with a mother to get her boy to go to Nebraska?"