Tom Osborne's first game as head coach of the University of Nebraska football team was against UCLA. He was real nervous going in, but he won it.
Ten years later he recorded his 100th victory against UCLA. But when he thinks of UCLA, the first game that comes to mind is the game they played in 1972, the year before he was the head coach and while he was still the assistant to Bob Devaney. UCLA beat Nebraska, 20-17, to end a 32-game unbeaten streak and spoil the Cornhuskers' chances of winning a third straight national championship.
Milestones in his career.
"The UCLA games have to be right up there," Osborne said earlier this week as he recounted some of the most memorable games of his career. "We played Alabama one year (1977) when they were ranked No. 1 and beat them, I think, 31-24. We played Penn State back there when they were national champions and both us of were pretty highly rated. (Nebraska won that opener at Penn State, 44-6.)
"But I can't remember many times when we've played a game when we were No. 2 and they were No. 3."
Saturday, No. 2-Nebraska will be host to No. 3-UCLA before a fired-up capacity crowd of at least 73,650 at Lincoln.
There have been many Big Eight showdowns between Nebraska and Oklahoma (the classic was in 1971, with Osborne on the staff). But for cross-country rivalries, UCLA ranks with any on the Nebraska schedule. The game Saturday will be another match-up of two coaches who were on the sidelines of that 1972 game as assistants and whose careers have shown rough parallels since then.
Osborne was widely considered to be too young for the job of head coach, even though he was 36 when he was named to succeed Devaney. And he was certainly considered too inexperienced. It was his first head coaching job although he been on the Cornhusker staff for 11 years.
When Terry Donahue became head coach at UCLA in 1976 he was just 30 and had been on the UCLA staff for five years.
Donahue took over a very successful team and has often talked about the pressure on a young, not yet established coach trying to keep a program on top.
Osborne knows about that. He was following Devaney, who had come into a Big Eight Conference known at that time as Oklahoma and the Seven Dwarfs and had become an instant success and a legend in 11 years, winning eight Big Eight titles and two national championships.
To give you an idea of the way people were constantly comparing Osborne to Devaney, consider this little incident, which took place the first fall Osborne was head coach. The guys were fooling around after a Thursday practice, throwing the ball around, taking it easy. Osborne, who had been a receiver for the Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers, thought it would be fun to go out for a pass himself. Backup quarterback Steve Runty threw a long pass and Osborne got under it. But just as he was about to make the catch he was flattened by cornerback Randy Borg. Quarterback David Humm commented: "Coach Devaney would have caught that."
Osborne knew what he was up against when he followed Devaney and he admitted in his postgame radio show just last week, as he launched his 15th season as Nebraska's head coach, that he felt no certainties about his career at the start. That was why he had insisted that Devaney, the athletic director since 1967, give him a five-year contract to start.
Now Osborne has a record of 138-32-2 as Nebraska's coach and has had his team in the Top 10 every year. His teams also have been in a bowl game every year.
Donahue, in his 12th season as UCLA's coach, has a record of 89-34-7 and has won five straight bowl games.
In the traditional pregame buildup, Osborne talks about what a well-coached team UCLA is and Donahue talks about what a well-coached team Nebraska is.
Donahue said, "Nebraska is about as well-coached, well-disciplined football team as you'll see on film. They're a good-looking football team . . .
"Nebraska recruits to a system. A lot of what Nebraska does now, they did with Bob Devaney. They always have option quarterbacks, who are runners first and throwers second. And yet Nebraska can really hurt you with the big-play pass . . . You have to be ready for the trick play, too. One of Tom's coaching philosophies is to have two or three trick plays ready. It's kind of like they go to the archives--the guard puts the ball on the ground or they throw a reverse pass or they throw to the quarterback. And they're good on those plays. They must devote a part of practice to perfecting those plays."
The night before his first game, the opener against UCLA in 1973, Osborne got himself in a snit because a local TV station had put on the air in Lincoln a wide enough shot to show one alignment. He was sure the UCLA coaches were going to see that quick film clip and use it to advantage.
Sound like a Donahue reaction?