SI Vault
John Underwood
September 13, 1971
Nebraska football was once flat as a wheatfield, but since Bob Devaney took over in 1962 he has built a mountain of winners, including last year's undefeated national champion
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September 13, 1971

And This Man Is At The Top

Nebraska football was once flat as a wheatfield, but since Bob Devaney took over in 1962 he has built a mountain of winners, including last year's undefeated national champion

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Devaney was chosen Man of the Year, 1970, by The Omaha World-Herald , which defended the choice by pointing out that 1970 "was a year people needed something...solid to rely on." Chancellor D. B. Varner said it was his job to make the university as good in education as Devaney had made it in football. Support clubs and "beef clubs" sprang up like cornstalks throughout the state, contributing thousands to the million-dollar football budget and tons of raw meat to the team training table. On "O" street in downtown Lincoln, a plain Jane town of 150,000 in the Nebraska breadbasket, a fan could buy a rug, a sticker, a pen, a paperweight, or a whiskey bottle in the form of a "1," or a Go, Big Red wristwatch for $14.95 at Sartor Hamann's jewelry store.

Perhaps because he knew struggle longer than most who have found great achievement, and perhaps because he does not yet realize how capable he really is, Devaney handles his popularity with a kind of droll gingerliness, as if it were forged in smoke by a skywriter and subject to the first alien breeze. He has said that Nebraska fans are "understanding in defeat, but I would not want to put them to a serious test."

His personal panoply has improved immeasurably over the years (Willy Loman is now a fashion plate in smart checks and matching colors), but otherwise he has resisted any form of pretension. His telephone numbers are in the book. With the exception of the Nebraska-red drapes, red carpeting, red desk, red sheepskin rug, etc., his office is unspectacular, homey rather than huge, and the door is open to a casual flow of traffic—secretaries, assistant coaches, players in for a chat. On the wall directly below the prized No. 1 plaque from President Nixon is a cartoon of two derelicts sitting on a sidewalk, commiserating over their fate. One bum is saying to the other, "Then we lost our sixth game to Keen State...."

Devaney still lives in a smallish, modestly appointed home on an elm-lined middle-class street in Lincoln, not yielding to the pressures (and the entreaties of Phyllis Devaney) to build something grand. And of an evening when he takes up his glass of milk and bourbon, that peculiar combination of aged license and scrupulous youth that somehow typifies him, takes it there in his basement den where Phyllis has tastefully assembled his crowd of trophies, the chances are he would rather talk about the days when he made $35 every two weeks doing "nonscientific" piecework in a Chevrolet foundry. Or about his grandfather the tugboat captain. Or his Irish father (the name is De-van-ey, not De-vane-y) who worked the ore boats on the Great Lakes and wasn't home much. Or the time he tried boxing and "got whopped enough to realize it was not going to be my life's work." Or the time Phyllis wrote the term paper for him when they were at Alma, and she got a C in the course and he got a B.

And when he finally gets around to analyzing his progress he will say that "situations trigger success," that coaches are lucky to hit fields that are ripe for seed, how this happened to lucky Bob Devaney at Alpena and Laramie and Lincoln. "I've worked hard. I've had my share of the dry heaves on Saturday morning. But I have been at the right place at the right time," he says.

This is a tidy oversimplification, of course. Football is a coach's game. Many coaches get good material; most coaches work long hours. A few are iconoclasts who contribute to the science of the sport, but not even these are assured winning records. The thing that separates the Devaneys (and the Bryants, McKays, Royals, et al.) from the journeyman of the trade is a gift they cannot alter much if they have it, cannot seem to acquire if they don't, and usually can't define or explain even to themselves. But Pepper Rodgers describes Devaney as "a man I would like even if he weren't a coach," and this is how he explains the gift:

"To be a successful coach, what do you have to have? A good staff, with good morale, that's first. Most of Devaney's assistants have been with him since he was at Wyoming. He pays them good. He relies on them. [ Rodgers did not say it, but when Devaney was offered the head coaching job at Miami he did a remarkable thing—he put it to a vote of his assistants. They voted to stay at Nebraska.] Head coaches don't coach much on the field anymore, so you've got to have guys who are loyal and won't watch the clock. Next, you have to have a good athletic director. He's the athletic director. He's a good one.

"And then, then you've got to have a rapport with players. That's the key to the whole thing. You can have the best players in the world and lose if they won't play for you. It's like the dogfood salesman. His boss says, 'We've got the best dogfood on the market, right?' 'Right.' 'And the best salesmen, right?' 'Right.' 'Well, how come we don't sell more dogfood?' The salesman says, 'Well, I guess it's because the damn dogs won't eat it.' At Nebraska, the good players play for Devaney."

Bob Devaney coaching players, and players responding, is the stuff cocktail hours are hung on in Lincoln. A favorite involves Bob Brown, the All-Pro tackle who was on Devaney's 1962 and 1963 teams. Brown had a reputation for malingering. He made crises out of minor bruises. He missed practices. Finally, in the spring, Devaney picked up his uniform, and Brown came to his office to find out why. Devaney, deadpan, told him the coaches had decided that Brown should give up contact sports. "We recommend golf, or maybe tennis, where you can use your strength without getting hurt." Brown was 6'4", 269 pounds. He cried for reinstatement. That fall Brown made All-Big Eight and the next year All-America.

Devaney does not lay down hard rules of deportment for his athletes, rules that would back him into corners. Coaches who have done that lately, he says, "are coaches who wound up losing face or losing their job." He does not try to regulate dress or hair, but the athlete who persists in being shaggy is fair game for the well-honed, and highly effective, Devaney needle.

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