It was not publicized, but a group of his black athletes came to Devaney with a "suggestion" list a couple years ago. Devaney has a reputation for being color-blind—he stacks blacks at a position if they are best at that position, but he is just as liable to mix the batter. He alternated his two tailbacks last year, and both were stars and one was black (Joe Orduna) and one was white (Jeff Kinney). Orduna is married to a white girl. Devaney says they make a fine-looking couple. One of his coaches, Bill (Thunder) Thornton, is black. Thornton played for Devaney.
The black caucus found it had nothing to argue about. When it was suggested blacks be assigned roommates by position, Devaney said fine. After a while the blacks asked if they could choose their own roommates. Devaney does not let small bones catch in his throat. He said that was O.K., too. When it was suggested that he made Orduna carry the ball too much, wearing him out, Devaney said, "All right, I won't have Joe carry the ball so much anymore." Orduna came to him privately. "Coach, I like to carry the ball," he said. Problem solved.
Vince Gibson says there "isn't a phony bone in Bob Devaney's body," and that this communicates to his players. They become willing subjects for his coaching impulses. For three years now the quarterbacking at Nebraska has been a cooperative venture between Jerry Tagge and Van Brownson. No complaints. "You don't know how tough coaching is until you've tried something like that and gotten away with it," says Gibson.
Boiled down, Devaney's ability with players would seem to be a matter of caring. He cares that his athletes graduate, and 75% do, an impressive number. He has been known to put lesser lights on traveling rosters just because the game was being played in their home town. "You would absolutely die for Coach Devaney," says one former player, recalling a "moving experience" at a luncheon before the Sun Bowl game in El Paso when Devaney was introduced and received a three-minute standing ovation—from his own players.
No real romance is complete without spats, of course. Devaney has been known to suspend recalcitrants—kick them off the team, deprive them of bowl trips—but he has a revivalist's zeal for the redeeming power of football and he holds to the doctrine of the second chance. Ironically, this gets him in the soup when it appears his humanitarianism may be self-serving. He refused recently to yield to pressure from some quarters that he banish star Flankerback Johnny Rodgers, the team's leading pass catcher and kick returner who had been involved in a gas station holdup in May of 1970. In court, Rodgers received two years' probation. A student-faculty committee took no action. Devaney deliberated, then also put Rodgers on probation, leaving him free to play this year. Reaction was mixed; there were some snickers in Missouri. Privately, Devaney said it would have been much simpler if Rodgers had been a fourth-team scrub. Then he would have given him his second chance and dismissed the case.
Because Devaney does not seem to take himself too seriously is not to say that he does not take himself seriously enough. He is a man of firm opinions, firmly held. He went before the Nebraska Unicameral last session at its request to speak for a new field house, and now Nebraska cigarette smokers are paying 5� a pack more in order for the school to get one. He does not back away from fights. He is at a standing simmer these days over a former Omaha sports editor who, after the 1969 season, polled Nebraska players on their choice for his successor. ("Who the hell says I'm retiring?" Devaney wanted to know.) In the Coaches All-America game at Lubbock this June he got into a shouting match with a younger, burlier game official who, Devaney felt, was blind to some unnecessary roughness. Bad words multiplied and for one appalling moment it appeared that a national television audience was going to see a fistfight between a respected college coach and a game official. Tempers cooled. The next day a friend said, "Hey, Bob, I didn't know you were that tough." "I'm not," said Devaney. "I was just bluffing."
Other coaches admire Devaney, says Rodgers, "because he stands up for the game. He says what everybody else wishes they had the guts to say." Devaney is an outspoken opponent of the NCAA's 1.6 rule (eligibility for incoming scholarship athletes based on a projected grade average of 1.6). He feels it is not a true barometer for a kid who may develop late, especially hurting the black athletes. He is even less enthusiastic about proposed legislation that would limit scholarships to "need." The worms in that one, he says, are too numerous to count.
"How will you prove financial need? You will have to get personal financial statements from parents who won't want to give them. You'll have to use a cost-of-living index for every part of the country. A man making $15,000 in Fayetteville, Ark. can afford a lot more in life than a man making $15,000 in downtown Manhattan. What if you give a dentist's son a scholarship? Maybe the dentist hasn't pulled many teeth lately. But coaches will holler. They'll be at each other's throats."
What criteria, then, would Devaney use for aid?
Big smile. "That the boy be a good football player." Pause. Then, "And that he be in the upper two-thirds of his graduating class, or can pass an entrance exam. That's all. Simple as that."