Each week, The Daily Nebraskan will look to fill the void of no football season by examining a previous season in program history, looking at key moments, players or storylines. Previous editions recapped the inaugural 1890 season and 1940 Rose Bowl team. On the docket this week is the 1962 edition of NU football.
For the first 50 years of its existence, Nebraska football found plenty of success, culminating in the program’s first bowl appearance with the 1940 Rose Bowl. In the two decades that followed the inaugural bowl berth, however, successes were much harder to come by. NU finished with a winning record just three times during that span, finishing 6-2-1 in 1950, 5-4-1 in 1952 and 6-5 in 1954. An Orange Bowl defeat to Duke that capped the ‘54 campaign marked the team’s only bowl game during that time.
1940-1960 marked by far the worst stretch in program history, as the Huskers won just 37.4% of their games in the 1940s and 40.5% of their games in the 1950s. Coaching upheaval was frequent as well, as the Huskers burned through eight different head coaches in the two decades following their Rose Bowl appearance.
The start of the 1960s wasn’t much better, as the Huskers won four games in 1960 and three games the following year, leading to head coach William Jennings’ firing at the end of the season. Jennings spent five years at the helm, never winning more than four games in a season.
Nebraska needed a spark to jolt it out of a 20-year rut. Athletic Director Tippy Dye, new to town after three years at Wichita State, believed that spark could be found about 100 miles away from Nebraska’s western border.
While Jennings was at Nebraska, a first-time head coach had the Wyoming Cowboys on the rise. After finishing 4-3-3 in his first season, Bob Devaney led Wyoming to at least a share of the Skyline Conference championship in each of the next four seasons. In 1958, the Cowboys won the Sun Bowl. During Devaney’s first five seasons in Laramie, Wyoming went 35-10-5.
In early January of 1962, Devaney was rumored to be Dye’s selection to replace Jennings, but it took about a month for him to officially take over, as Wyoming debated whether or not to release him from his contract.
By Feb. 3, however, Devaney officially took the reins of Husker football. The turnaround began almost immediately.
After outgaining South Dakota 455-103 in a 53-0 shellacking in Devaney’s debut, the Huskers traveled to Ann Arbor for a showdown with the Michigan Wolverines. Michigan had won six games in 1961 and ranked as high as No. 6 during the season.
The NU defense stymied the Michigan offense, holding the Wolverines to 253 yards of total offense. The Huskers, meanwhile, recorded 341 offensive yards and took a 19-6 lead into the fourth quarter.
Michigan scored to cut the deficit to 19-13, but Nebraska had an answer as senior fullback Bill Thornton scampered into the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown that put the nail in the coffin.
Thornton carried the ball nine times for 40 yards and two scores as the Huskers left Ann Arbor with a 25-13 upset win.
NU won again the following week, downing Iowa State 36-22 behind four total touchdowns from junior quarterback Dennis Claridge. On Oct. 13, senior halfback Dennis Stuewe scored twice in the fourth quarter as the Huskers came back to beat North Carolina State 19-14.
Devaney and the Huskers won their next two games against Kansas State and Colorado to open the season 6-0. In the first week of November, NU turned the ball over six times in a 16-7 loss to Missouri — which was also the first game of Nebraska’s famed sellout streak.
The Huskers rebounded the next week, rolling to 369 rushing yards and scoring the game’s first 40 points as they trounced Kansas 40-16 on the road. One week later, Oklahoma State quarterback Mike Miller, the Big 8 Conference’s passing leader, led the Cowboys into Lincoln.
The NU defense turned in another stifling performance, forcing two Miller interceptions while limiting him to just 31 passing yards. Nebraska held the Oklahoma State offense to 127 total yards in a 14-0 shutout.
Oklahoma smoked NU 34-6 in Norman to end the regular season, but the Huskers’ 8-2 record earned Devaney’s first squad the third bowl appearance in program history, a matchup against Miami in the Gotham Bowl.
In New York’s Yankee Stadium, the Huskers and Hurricanes staged a shootout in frigid temperatures. The two teams traded blows until Claridge, who played both ways for the Huskers, picked off Miami quarterback George Mira in the fourth quarter, setting up a touchdown that gave NU a 36-27 lead.
Mira led the Hurricanes to another score that cut the deficit to two points, but with under two minutes remaining, junior guard Robert Brown intercepted Mira at the Huskers’ 25-yard line to clinch the school’s first bowl win.
The Gotham Bowl victory marked the Huskers’ ninth of the season, the first time they had reached the nine-win plateau since the early 1900s.
Claridge threw for 829 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions in 1962, but he was the team’s second-leading rusher with 370 rushing yards and led the team with 10 scores on the ground. No other Husker ran for more than three touchdowns.
After his collegiate career wrapped up at the end of the 1963 season, Claridge spent three seasons in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons.
Brown earned an all-conference nod in 1962 and was a unanimous All-American selection as a senior in 1963. He was drafted second overall in the 1964 NFL Draft to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Brown played in the NFL for a decade, earning six Pro Bowl selections and five All-Pro nods. In 1993, Brown was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and he earned a plaque in Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
In 1976, Claridge became a Nebraska Football Hall of Fame inductee, while Brown followed a year later. Thornton landed in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1987, tackle Larry Kramer joined them. Halfback Kent McCloughan (1993), tackle Lloyd Voss (1996), center Lyle Sittler and tackle Tyrone Robertson (1999) are also members of that team enshrined in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
Devaney, of course, spearheaded the Nebraska football renaissance, as he patrolled the sidelines in Lincoln through the 1972 season. He won six bowl games as the Huskers’ head man, including three straight Orange Bowls from 1970-72.
He guided Nebraska to its first two national championships in 1970 and 1971, and he served as the school’s athletic director from 1967-93. In 1981, Devaney was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Devaney and the Huskers ultimately reached college football’s mountaintop in the early 1970s, but his debut season in 1962 will also be remembered in the annals of Husker history. The 1962 Huskers may not have won the national title or even finished the season ranked, but they will forever hold a special place in the record books as the first team to win a bowl game in program history and the dawn of a new era of Nebraska football.