Nebraska’s rise to prominence started at Big House
It’s been almost a half century since Nebraska’s last visit to Michigan Stadium, the place where one of the most powerful college football programs of the modern era emerged.
Bob Devaney earned his first signature victory on that sunny September afternoon in 1962, upsetting the Wolverines 25-13 in what was supposed to be, according to the Detroit Free Press, an ”opening-day breather” for the home team.
The rest is history.
The 17th-ranked Huskers (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) go into Saturday’s game at No. 20 Michigan (8-2, 4-2) with 479 wins since 1962, an average of better than nine a year.
The next-highest victory total among major-college teams over that span is 438, by Oklahoma. Michigan is sixth on the win list since `62, with 419, but its total of 892 is the most of all time.
Games between Nebraska and Michigan have been few and far between. Now that both are members of the Big Ten’s Legends Division, they’ll play annually. Their most recent meetings: Nebraska’s 32-28 win in the 2005 Alamo Bowl and Michigan’s 27-23 win in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl.
Before that came the 1962 game in Ann Arbor on the day Nebraska showed a glimpse of its future.
”We knew it was a big game, but we didn’t know how big a game until we looked at it later in the season and realized it was the game that put Nebraska back on the map,” said Dwain Carlson, a lineman and team co-captain. ”It was the beginning of, I guess, the success story that later on was written about Nebraska.”
Devaney began pointing toward the Michigan game the day he was hired to replace Bill Jennings. Devaney grew up in Michigan and coached under Duffy Daugherty at Michigan State. He knew it would not go unnoticed if a team from the Big Eight, which had Oklahoma and little else to brag about at the time, could knock off a Big Ten team like Michigan.
Devaney also knew the Wolverines, though favored by 10 points, were vulnerable because of heavy graduation losses.
”The Big Ten and Notre Dame were the two brands in college football (then),” said Nebraska football historian Mike Babcock, who has authored 10 books on the Huskers. ”According to Bob, they had picked that game out as one where if we can go up to Michigan and win that game, it will draw attention to the program and it’ll also give the players confidence.”
There was a crisis of confidence at Nebraska entering the `62 season. Jennings had left ample talent in Lincoln, but the Huskers hadn’t posted a winning record in eight years.
They opened the season with a 53-0 rout of overmatched South Dakota. The trip to Michigan was next.
All-America fullback Bill ”Thunder” Thornton’s status for the game was in doubt because of a dislocated shoulder, but he came on in the second half and scored two touchdowns. Dennis Stuewe ran for a team-high 60 yards and a touchdown. The defense held Michigan star Dave Raimey to 59 yards.
Bob Brown dominated on both sides of the ball as a right guard and middle linebacker. The Huskers loved to run sweeps to the short side of the field, with Brown pulling from his guard spot and knocking down anyone in his way.
Reported the Free Press: ”An itinerant band of Cornhuskers paid their first visit to Michigan in 45 years, looking for work. They found a fertile field, ready for shucking. And, man, how they shucked it.”
According to the Detroit News, ”The Cornhuskers of Nebraska chugged along like a well-oiled threshing machine.”
Jim Conley, who played offensive and defensive end for the Wolverines, remembers being on the receiving end of Brown’s blows and the Wolverines getting ”stomped.”
”I didn’t find Nebraska to be much different than the best teams in the Big Ten such as Michigan State and Ohio State,” Conley said this week. ”Nebraska was a formidable foe before we played the Big Ten schedule.”
Tom Osborne, now Nebraska’s athletic director, was a 25-year-old graduate assistant and 11 years away from succeeding Devaney as head coach when the Huskers made national headlines with their stunning upset.
”I don’t think that was maybe one of Michigan’s better teams,” Osborne said, ”but still, going to win at Michigan was a big deal. Every win that year was a big deal.”
Carlson remembers some 2,500 fans showing up at the Lincoln airport to greet the Huskers.
”We beat a team that had a pedigree, and that was important,” he said.
The Wolverines finished 1962 with a 2-7 record and last in the Big Ten. Nebraska ended up third in the Big Eight and finished 9-2 after beating Miami 36-34 in the old Gotham Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
Five national championships followed. And other than 6-4 campaigns in 1967-68, the Huskers didn’t win fewer than nine games in a season until 2002.
”It was the beginning,” Stuewe said, ”of a real dynasty.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Ann Arbor, Mich., contributed to this report.