Husker hoopla similar to Osborne's '73 debut

8:10 AM
2008-08-30T00:00:00Z Husker hoopla similar to Osborne's '73 debutBrian Christopherson, Lincoln Journal Star Sioux City Journal

Gas prices were dropping to 39 cents a gallon. Spiro Agnew was making waves, his time as vice-president nearing a close. The baseball box score showed Lou Brock had gone 0-for-5 the night before. Palestinian guerrillas were holding six Saudis hostage on a jetliner.

This is what you found in the Sept. 8, 1973, edition of The Lincoln Star, but only after you scanned down from the lead headline on the front page: "Can the Cornhuskers still win?"

Below it was a quote from Nebraska"s most famous redhead. "I think all of us are pretty tired of answering questions and wondering how we"ll do," Tom Osborne said in the days before his first of 255 wins as Husker head coach. "We"re all ready to start the season and find out the answers on the field."

Thirty-five years later, with gas more than $3 more a gallon, those are words you could have just as easily heard from Bo Pelini this week before his first game -- at least his first game without the interim tag -- as NU"s head coach.

All the offseason optimism. All the hype. All the anxiety. Yeah, there"s some of that when you"re facing your first game as a head coach at a place as football-crazed as Nebraska.

"It"s part of the fun. You don"t know what you have until there"s real bullets flying," Pelini said this week. "At this point, I think I know how they"ll respond, but you don"t know. You learn a lot about guys in those stressful situations."

If it starts for Pelini (who is officially already 1-0 as a Husker head coach thanks to a 2003 Alamo Bowl win against Michigan State) like it started for NU"s previous four coaches, then there will be no grumbling at Sunday morning brunch.

Bob Devaney won his opener against South Dakota by a count of 53-0 in 1962. Frank Solich, despite his defense yielding 590 yards passing to Louisiana Tech, won his debut game 56-27. Bill Callahan"s team ripped Western Illinois 56-17 and hope bloomed.

And then there"s Osborne, now the athletic director who picked Pelini to try to lead this program back to prominence.

His first game as head coach went exactly as a coach would dream, a 40-13 win that delighted the masses.

Tension was high entering that game. The foe was UCLA and there was a very real fear that UCLA just might win, that the new guy wouldn"t be able to carry on where Saint Bob had left off.

The hoopla surrounding the day was gigantic. Besides a sellout crowd in Memorial Stadium, fans swamped the State Fairgrounds to watch the ABC-televised game on giant TVs.

Nebraska was ranked fourth. UCLA was ranked 10th. The Bruins had defeated Devaney"s team 20-17 the year before on a late field goal.

What does a coach tell his team in the minutes before his first game as head coach? As former Husker fullback Tony Davis remembers it, Osborne didn"t say much of anything.

"Nothing needed to be said," Davis said. "Coach"s way of getting ready for a game had nothing to do with the stuff 15 minutes before the game. It was all about the preparation before that."

Davis was so fixated in the game, he barely heard the crowd that day, but people over the years have told him it was among the loudest Husker games they"ve attended.

The tone was set halfway through the first quarter when Randy Borg returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown, giving Nebraska a 14-0 lead.

The thing most remembered by Frosty Anderson, then a senior split end who hauled in a touchdown pass in the game, is the stoic display Osborne maintained amid all the buzz that came with his first game.

"When Randy broke into the open like that, I was standing right next to Ozzie," Anderson said. "And when it was apparent that he was going to go, I started to jump up and down and grab him by the arm and really start to rock him, shake him, 'Hey, he"s going to go all the way." And he kind of shrugged me off. He was thinking about the next play. I thought, 'Wow." But he was trying to maintain the focus. That focus was not going to get off point."

It was a dominating performance despite an injury that kept regular starting quarterback David Humm off the field. Steve Runty played instead and he played well.

Davis rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns. With his emotions taking over, the sophomore took a swing at the fence behind the end zone after one score and kicked the pylon after his second score.

Davis laughs. "After the game, the first thing my mother said was, 'Act like you"ve been there before.""

Nebraska"s defense, meanwhile, swallowed up UCLA"s wishbone attack, probably not hurt by the fact NU"s defensive coordinator was a guy named Monte Kiffin.

"He must be close to a defensive genius," UCLA fullback James McAllister said after the game.

Can the Cornhuskers still win?

A headline in the Sept. 9, 1973, paper told the story: "Huskers Ready, Confident and ... Bam!"

What will tomorrow"s headline be?

The fun is in finding out. But watching from a distance, Davis sees some of those same traits in Pelini that gave Osborne such success for 25 years.

"Coach Pelini has that same type of confidence, that belief that, 'What I do, I know produces success,"" Davis said. "And if you surround yourself with good coaches who will do the work, and you have players who will put in the effort, that"s pretty much a combination for success. It may not win national championships or conference championships right now, but you"ll get there."

As it wound up, Nebraska finished 9-2-1 in Osborne"s first season. Could"ve been better, Anderson said. A tough one-point loss at Missouri. A tie with Oklahoma State. A shot to the chin from Oklahoma.

But a consistency of nine-win seasons was in place, a standard of success that became so normal that it eventually just became expected around here. Such is the challenge for Pelini.

Of course, if he"s trying to equal the best debut by a Husker coach, Pelini"s probably out of luck.

You"d have to go back to 1911 to find the most impressive romp by a Big Red coach in his opener.

Whatever Ewald O. "Jumbo" Stiehm said to the boys before that game against Kearney State is worth bottling.

Nebraska won 117-0.

Copyright 2015 Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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