"Yes, I did that," Devaney replied. "The mother came to Nebraska and the boy enrolled at Missouri."
Turning back six years of intransigent failure at football at Nebraska, Devaney took his very first team of Cornhuskers to an 8-2 record and the Gotham Bowl, where Miami's George Mira passed them silly for 320 yards. Still, Nebraska won 36-34. "You have made me famous," Devaney told his team. "I've received a number of offers to lecture on defense."
For the first time in his long life as a coach, Devaney says, he began to get national recognition. A magazine writer from the East came out and took one look at Devaney's original wardrobe, his cavalier disregard for fit, his unique color blending, and compared him to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Devaney announced that he was furious. "Tell that guy I'm going to sue him and his magazine for defamation," he said. Then he smiled. "Of course, he will be able to offer the perfect defense. The truth."
Devaney got a lot of mileage out of that episode at subsequent gatherings of press people where, invariably, he was chided about his now publicized lack of style. "I won't say the writer drank a lot while he was out here, although it was mostly my liquor," he says, "but a terrible thing happened. After he wrote the story he died. They cremated him and it took three days to put out the flame."
Now, in the fall of his 38th year of coaching, the Bob Devaney of Big Beaver, Alpena and Laramie, the same Bob Devaney who tells these un-Homeric stories that endear him to friends and luncheon audiences across the country, is the same Bob Devaney who keeps coaches like Vince Gibson awake nights. Gibson is the coach at Kansas State and he says he wakes up at 2:30 in the morning and tries to read a book and can't because all he can think about is "how are we going to beat Nebraska?" It's all Devaney's fault, Gibson says.
Looking back, through the mists and over the cliffs of his stumbling-ever-upward pursuit of the laureate, it is now clear that under Devaney Nebraska would inevitably win a national championship, which it did last New Year's night by defeating LSU in the Orange Bowl to climax an unbeaten season. Even then, Devaney was reluctant to leave well enough alone, Notre Dame had knocked off top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl that afternoon. Though the Irish had lost a game and Nebraska had only one tie against its record. Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian lobbied for his team as No. 1 on the grounds of its having accepted "the greater challenge." "Not even the Pope could vote for Notre Dame," Devaney said. Parseghian leaped on the remark, calling it "poor taste." Devaney, alas, had succeeded in riling the Catholics.
"I was afraid Ara's comments might influence the vote, but the writers were too smart to take some coach's word," said Devaney, his Irish blue eyes smiling after the AP picked Nebraska No. 1 anyway. "Coaches don't know anything about rankings."
The fact slips up on you, but Bob Devaney—that unpretentious, unassuming man, that broad pleasant potato face, that dumpy baker's build—is now the winningest coach in college football. Which is to say that among those with at least 10 years' experience he has won with greater regularity than anyone, a .791 percentage on 114 victories, 28 losses and six ties. Actually, Devaney has been the winningest, the president of the lodge, for six years, and the members below him have neon names like Bryant and Hayes and McKay and Royal. And Parseghian.
To tell of the transformation of Nebraska football since he came is to tell of a man working a miracle, a resurrection from the dead. Out of the depths of 17 losing seasons in the previous 21 under his predecessors, the Corn-huskers have soared to nine straight winning seasons under Devaney. In those previous 21 years they went to one bowl game; Devaney has taken them to seven. They have twice had undefeated regular seasons; before that, the last unbeaten Nebraska team was in 1915. They have won or shared six Big Eight championships, and Devaney has been conference Coach of the Year four times. Big Ten teams that used to come to Lincoln to give Nebraska lessons in the sport came and were themselves strongly rebuked; they have lost nine out of nine in games with Devaney's teams, and by such scores as 42-14 and 37-0.
Sepulchral old Memorial Stadium, built on the Lincoln campus in 1923, has seen three additions, a handsome new press box and a $250,000 counterpane of Astro Turf since Devaney, and every bolt and synthetic thread is being paid for out of athletic department funds. The team averages more than 67,000 fans a game (fourth high in the nation). All home games are sold out in January. Season tickets are precious jewels, impossible to beg or borrow. The story is told of friends of a deceased season ticket holder dropping by the house after the funeral to check on the disposition of his seats. It is an old story, but in the case of Nebraska probably true. Rather than miss a game, a millionaire fan named F. L. Cappart flies in from Vicks-burg, Miss, in his private jet every week. Cappart has been known to drop everything to fly to Lincoln for a kickoff. Once when he dropped everything he was in Turkey.