Friday’s unveiling of the life-sized Bob Devaney statue in the East Stadium Plaza was best summed up in a 10-word sentence. Near the end of his remarks and before he introduced Mike Devaney, Bob's son, Tom Osborne delivered this simple, but eloquent conclusion: “There’s nobody that deserves a statue more than Bob Devaney.”
Period, end of sentence, and no one would know that better than a modern-day Hall-Famer who never would have become a coach without the legendary leadership of his Hall-of-Fame predecessor. Osborne worked for Devaney for 30 years as an assistant coach and a head coach. “Bob was always my boss. He was a great guy to work for,” Osborne said. One thing he did not say on this meaningful public occasion was something he revealed more than five years ago. “If I had not met Bob Devaney,” Osborne told me at the time, “I probably would not even have considered coaching.”
Devaney Personified the Value of Loyalty
“Bob Devaney built our modern-day football program,” Osborne told me in that same conversation. “He personified the value of loyalty, and I will always be grateful for the confidence he showed in me. Because of his leadership and empowerment as a coach and an athletic director, I was fortunate to serve as Nebraska’s head football coach for 25 years, and I valued coaching every team we put on the field.”
Friday, Osborne covered some of that same ground and said there were three reasons why Devaney was an immediate success when he left Wyoming, where he still has the best winning football coaching percentage, in favor of Nebraska, where his teams won eight conference championships and two national titles in his 11 years as head coach. In his conversational style, Osborne offered up these thoughts at the statue's unveiling:
Reason 1: Devaney came to Lincoln thinking immediate turnaround. He always thought the Huskers would win and never thought otherwise. Before Devaney's arrival, Nebraska's mindset about winning was reflected in the words hope and not probable ... a continental divide in mindset.
Reason 2: Devaney championed a physical style of football that did not change and became the culture of a program that has 40 more wins than any other Division I school in the last 50 years
Reason 3: Devaney had a great sense of humor. Osborne said Devaney was always stronger and funnier after a loss than he was after a win because he could defuse things. Somehow, his razor-sharp humor was always a strategic weapon, and the harder things got, the more dynamic leader he became.
'People Person' Had Great Sense of Timing
Osborne praised Devaney’s “great sense of timing” and his reputation as a "people person”, a skill that helped him endure the inherent grumbling of back-to-back, non-bowl seasons with identical 6-4 records in 1967 and '68. Osborne never will forget that period when people were calling for the firing of at least some assistant coaches. "Being a 31-year-old with three kids, I was kind of interested in what was going to happen,” Osborne said of that only major setback in Devaney’s performance ... a dip, I might add, that was corrected when Devaney named Osborne his offensive coordinator following those two slumping seasons. Talk about irony. Decades before Devaney's arrival and the Huskers' immediante ascent to national prominence, Big Red fans would have treated back-to-back winning seasons like back-to-back Mardi Gras celebrations.
According to Osborne, Devaney's strong sense of loyalty never wavered, and he finally told his superiors that “if anyone goes, we all go.” Osborne also recalled that whenever Devaney was sought as a head football coach somewhere else, he didn’t pursue fame, money or power. Instead, he huddled with his staff, and they discussed the impending opportunity. “We were all in it together,” Osborne said, and he's never forgotten that.
It takes more than three points to define Devaney's transformation of Nebraska football a half century ago, Osborne introduced another trademark trait that helped cast his boss's winning mindset in bronze. “Bob was never afraid of change,” Osborne said. “He brought in Boyd Epley as the first strength and conditioning coach in college football. He changed the offense, and he changed the defense.” With those three changes, Devaney was celebrating the first of his two consecutive national titles just two warp speed years later.
In Friday's remarks, Osborne acknowledged that Devaney could get angry, but he never allowed anger to block decency. He'd just instruct John Melton to tell a player to “take a lap” while Bob cooled himself down without incident.
Osborne Commends Eichorst's Foresight
Osborne commended Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst for his foresight in commissioning the Devaney statue and having it installed before Nebraska played Wyoming, the only other school Devaney served as a head coach. He also thanked UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman for his leadership in the East Stadium expansion. Osborne said he knew “there would be something” that would honor Devaney after he left the Athletic Department, but he didn’t know what it would be. He just knows that nobody deserves it more than the man he loved as a boss, a coach and AD he served with distinction, and a legend who talked him out of academia in favor of a lifetime devoted to football.
“For me, college football remains a game of extraordinary complexity,” Osborne told me. “It requires planning, preparation and hard work. There is no doubt the game is physical, but it also develops character, reveals human potential and triggers innovation.” Devaney taught Osborne so much of that, and Tom carries Bob's legacy on like the professor he would have been if his boss had not forced him to make a decision between the two.
Devaney, a smart man, liked the way Osborne, another smart man, welded athletics and academics into a combined force. Devaney did, after all, ask Osborne to become the Athletic Department's first academic advisor, and that decision created a legacy every bit as compelling as coaching.
Two Iconic Statues Connect Greatest Fans
Bottom line, we all should be thankful that Devaney left Wyoming for Nebraska, and once he got to Lincoln, he saw great potential in a tall redhead who wanted to use his doctorate degree and teach.
We are similarly grateful that two iconic statues are now anchored outside Memorial Stadium. One is a bronzed Osborne, extending his right arm while pointing to the transcendence of Brook Berringer. The other is a bronzed Devaney in his letter jacket and cap, equipped with a whistle and a clipboard, extending his right arm as if he were waiting to shake your hand. And Friday afternoon, in a metaphorical sort of way, we all did just that.
Mike Devaney, Bob's son who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., said his dad would have been humbled and thankful and added: "I'm sure this Irishman, with a twinkle in his eye, is looking down, proud of what he started."
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