Little-recognized Gotham Bowl integral for Huskers

 

They filed into the Selleck Quadrangle television room at noon. It was Dec. 4, 1962. Coach Bob Devaney stepped out and closed the door behind him while a crowd of reporters stood around, waiting.

Ten seconds later, cheering broke the silence. The players had reached their verdict: The Nebraska Cornhuskers were headed to the Gotham Bowl.

"This team is going to take this opportunity to show Nebraskans and the nation that we are really a good team," said Bill "Thunder" Thornton, the Cornhuskers' starting fullback. "We all want a chance to get the bad taste out of our mouths."

In 1962, Nebraska's third-ever bowl game was a rare reward for the fourth-best season in program history. Devaney had been hired in the offseason to turn around a team that hadn't had a winning record since 1954.

The Gotham Bowl was a chance to end on a high note and numb the sting of a Big Eight title-deciding loss to Oklahoma.

What became the Huskers' first bowl win is most memorable to fans as the game played in Yankee Stadium. It was the second and last time the bowl game was played and the only college postseason contest to be hosted in "The House That Ruth Built."

As the 85-year history of Yankee Stadium comes to a close this weekend, history books have tabbed the 1962 Gotham Bowl as the capstone on Nebraska's start to 42 straight winning seasons.

John Melton, the freshman players coach, remembered the game a different way.

"Cold," he said, shaking his head. "It was one of the best games I've been a part of; It was one of the coldest games I've ever been in."

* * *

More than 1,400 miles away, the University of Miami's players had their own decision to make - not about whether to play, but where to play.

The Hurricanes had been offered a bid to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., as well as the Gotham Bowl. The Gator Bowl offered the larger payout - the Gotham Bowl offered the bright lights of New York City.

According to The Ibis, the University of Miami's 1963 yearbook, "They wanted New York with its flashing lights, subways, Broadway and Yankee Stadium.

"They got it, but tinted with newspaper strikes, poorly promoted bowl games and weather like half the team had never felt before, either in football uniform or snow suit."

* * *

Nebraska's quest for its first-ever bowl win nearly ended in Lincoln's airport terminal. A media blackout in New York City limited Gotham Bowl organizers' opportunities to publicize the game extensively. Both schools were concerned over the bowl's ability to pay the money owed.

The Huskers sat at the terminal and refused to depart before their $35,000 payout was placed in escrow. Miami set a hard deadline for Gotham Bowl organizers and threatened to withdraw from the game.

It took an intervention by New York City's Mayor Robert Wagner, who had the payment delivered with 15 minutes to spare.

After two hours of waiting, the Huskers boarded a plane for the Big Apple. Despite both teams' hesitation to travel without guaranteed money, the press was most surprised about Nebraska's hesitation to show up.

"We balked at first, but were more trusting and arrived in the Northland with a team to placed," recalled The Ibis.

Perhaps the judgment was justified. Shortly after stepping off the plane in New York, Devaney told reporters, "I'll tell you right now, if I had to do it over again I wouldn't. That's for damn sure."

Payouts were just one of a number of problems faced by Gotham Bowl officials. Freezing temperatures threatened to lower attendance. A television contract, while guaranteed to bowl schools, was difficult to secure and only agreed to broadcast the game on an edited-for-time tape delay. Even Bowl Director Bob Curran had to borrow a reporter's press pass to gain entry into the event.

Nebraska wasn't surprised when the crowd that filled Yankee Stadium numbered in the low-thousands. The reported attendance of 6,166 was a generous figure.

"I don't think it could have been more than 3,000," said John Kirby, then a junior offensive lineman, in a recent interview.

But the small crowd did nothing to sway the team's optimism, even in frigid conditions against the heavily-favored Hurricanes.

It helped fuel Devaney's memorable pre-game speech.

"Nobody's going to be watching you," he said. "You're not going to get any press coverage. This is like a back-alley fight and the toughest team's going to win.

"Let's find out who's tough. Let's go out and win."

* * *

Devaney stopped short of making predictions when he first met the Nebraska roster he inherited. He came to Nebraska from Wyoming and succeeded former coach Bill Jennings after a 3-6-1 season. Nebraska had last seen a winning season in 1954, but Devaney's players quickly understood the potential he saw in them.

"He said something like 'You have the talent, you have the size,' and it was beyond him why we couldn't put together a full season of wins," Kirby said. "He said 'You've got the talent, now what we've got to do is work.'"

It took just two games before Nebraska made waves in the football world. The team beat Michigan 25-13 at the Big House in Ann Arbor. The victory over the long-time powerhouse gave the Huskers instant credibility.

The team ran their record to 6-0 before falling to Missouri on homecoming - the same game that began Memorial Stadium's still-active consecutive sellout streak.

A subsequent loss to Oklahoma on the last game of the regular season left the Huskers with an 8-2 record that barely earned them a spot in one of the nine bowl games played that year.

In that era, the decision to attend a bowl game wasn't automatic if an offer was received. Minimal recruiting rules in the early 1960s placed no restrictions on home visits or recruiting periods. That meant teams that missed off-season play were effectively awarded two or three weeks of extra recruiting time.

The Gotham Bowl's low payout did little to compensate Nebraska for sacrificing valued time pursuing next season's prospects. Nebraska fans and even Nebraska Gov. Frank B. Morrison had to push for the team to play.

The prospect of national exposure that New York City was sure to provide and the chance to reward the players for an exceptional season was enough to push the Huskers into the postseason.

* * *

Ask anyone who watched the 1962 Gotham Bowl what most impressed them. Odds are it was George Mira.

Miami's All-American quarterback was supposed to be the game's shining star, and by all accounts he lived up to his billing. Temperatures below 15 degrees, frozen fields and damp air did little to sidetrack Mira.

Nicknamed "The Matador," Miami's quarterback set school records with 24 completions and 321 passing yards.

"He was a great passer, great thrower," said Dennis Claridge, Nebraska's quarterback for the game, in a recent interview. "We played in some post-season all-star games together. He was kind of a cocky kid, but he could throw the ball very hard, very long, very accurate."

Despite Mira's talent, Nebraska's offense matched Miami's stride for stride, using a strong running game led by Thornton and a 5'10", 195-pound running back named Willie Ross.

Ross' 92-yard kickoff return early in the second quarter kept NU within an arm's reach of the Hurricanes. With eight seconds remaining in the third quarter, Nebraska took the lead on a one-yard touchdown by Ross that gave NU a 28-27 lead.

Mira tried to lead a Miami rally in the fourth quarter, but threw an interception that led to a 1-yard diving touchdown by Ross. Thornton grabbed a two-point conversion for NU and stretched the Huskers' lead to 36-27.

Miami cut the lead to 36-34 after a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Husker offense failed to respond and Mira took the field again with a final shot at victory.

The Hurricanes quarterback marched the ball and his offense to Nebraska's 43-yard-line with one minute left. Miami was one big play from field goal range and a chance to win.

Mira dropped back on the next play, fired downfield and was intercepted by Husker great Bob Brown. Claridge and the offense ran out the clock and claimed their first-ever bowl victory.

Despite his team's loss, Mira was the game's most valuable player.

Devaney agreed, calling Mira "the greatest player I ever saw."

Assistant Coach George Kelly, riled up by the dramatic win, provided a terse summary of the under-attended contest.

"The people of New York missed a helluva show today," he said. "They really blew it."

* * *

On merit alone, the Gotham Bowl holds little prestige alongside the Orange Bowl visits and national championships Nebraska would amass in following years. The bowl itself failed to stand the test of time, folding in 1963 after two years and $150,000 in losses.

Even outside of uncontrollable circumstances and untimely events, the Gotham Bowl was a troublesome affair that failed to provide the ceremony and spectacle most bowl games warranted.

Nebraska's win over Miami was the only bowl game ever played in Yankee Stadium, and a college football game hasn't been staged at the Bronx stadium since 1987.

Now, as the ballpark's longtime tenants play its swan song this weekend, it seems Yankee Stadium and Nebraska football will always share a unique connection, even if the lackluster encounter was anything but symbiotic.

* * *

Kelly's charge to the team following its bowl victory would come to foreshadow more than he intended.

"All right, boys. The Orange Bowl next year," he said. "The heck with this cold weather."

It would be enough to know the Huskers made it to the Orange Bowl the following year - and won. But Nebraska has built its legacy on the Orange Bowl and the legendary battles within, in the process establishing a rivalry with Miami as strong as any cross-continental feud.

The Huskers and Hurricanes have faced off seven times since the 1962 Gotham Bowl, four in the Orange Bowl. The victor has been crowned national champion four times.

Although few players would rank the Gotham Bowl among their most memorable college contests, the significance of the game is hardly underestimated.

"What it did was put Nebraska in people's minds," said Claridge, Nebraska's Gotham Bowl quarterback. "It opened people's eyes to the potential Nebraska had."

The game must have left an impression on Miami. The 1963 season saw Mira and the Hurricanes finish with a disappointing 3-7 record during the last season under Coach Andy Gustafson.

During the search for a new coach, Miami interviewed Devaney for the head job.

He declined.

jonathancrowl@dailynebraskan.com