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70 at 50: After Devaney’s ultimatum, Epley helped transform Huskers into national power
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70 at 50: After Devaney’s ultimatum, Epley helped transform Huskers into national power

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Many people have heard the story of the start of Husker Power, the weightlifting program for the Nebraska football team.

In the 1960s, Tom Osborne, then an assistant coach for the Huskers, introduced head coach Bob Devaney to Boyd Epley and recommended that football players should start lifting weights with Epley.

Devaney allowed it, but said, “If anyone gets slower, you’re fired.”

“That scared me to death, and that’s why I started testing the athletes so often, so I could show him the progress that was being made,” Epley said this week.

At the time, many people believed that lifting weights would make athletes muscle-bound and slow.

The lesser-known story is that Devaney eventually realized what a benefit Husker Power was for the program. Nebraska won the national championship in 1970, about one year after football players at Nebraska began lifting. And the Huskers won five national championships with Epley training the Huskers. Husker Power gave Nebraska an advantage over its opponent for many years, and Nebraska became a model other programs copied.

“Later on, (Devaney) made a statement that I’m very proud of, and I didn’t know about it back then,” Epley said. “I didn’t know about it until many, many years later, when (UNL vice chancellor Ned Hedges) told me that Bob Devaney told him that I was the best hire he ever made. Those words were very important to me.”

Epley wishes he had written down some of the nice things Devaney had said to him.

“Devaney told some people that this thing cost a lot of money — because I kept building bigger weight rooms — but it was one of the best things he ever did,” Epley said.

During this week of the 1970 national championship season, Nebraska flexed its muscles against No. 20 Kansas State, winning 51-13 to clinch at least a share of the Big Eight title.

It was one year earlier when Nebraska became one of the first schools in the country to hire a strength and conditioning coach. Epley, a former pole vaulter on the Husker track team who had lifted for many years, wasn’t much older than the players.

Devaney didn’t require the players to lift after he hired Epley, but about half did.

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Epley says he probably gets too much credit for Nebraska’s success in ’70, but Epley could see what he was doing was making a difference.

“It doesn’t take long,” Epley said. “In a couple of weeks you can make some good changes, and in a month you can make some significant changes, and that’s what happened. If caught on like wildfire. Fortunately one of the stars of the team, Bob Newton, he loved lifting. There were guys that set a great example.”

John Pitts, a starter on defense on the 1970 team, was the first player to bench 300 pounds.

“I promoted that,” Epley said. “I started writing a weekly newsletter called, 'The Lifting News.' Each week I’d have highlights of what happened during the week, and I tried to use that as a motivator for people that are doing a good job. That caught on, and I did that for years and years.”

Nebraska's first weight room was about 400 square feet. It had a Universal Gym and a few pieces of equipment acquired from a health club in Lincoln that had gone out of business.

Later, Epley saw a fence being taken down on campus and asked if he could claim the steel posts. Then the university welder used the posts to make Epley some equipment for doing the bench press and squat lifts.

“That’s when we really had equipment that we needed very badly,” Epley said. “So Coach Deavney allowed me to expand the weight room by taking over where the varsity locker room was.”

In 35 years as strength coach, Epley’s program helped transform many Huskers into good players.

Mike Beran, a backup offensive lineman, on the 1970 team, was one of them. The walk-on from Ord became a starter in ’72.

“I was a 6-foot, 184-pound walk-on offensive guard. Not a big calling for those,” Beran said. “Fortunately for me, Boyd Epley was just getting started with the weightlifting program, so I jumped into it head and shoulders and really started working out and lifting and gained a lot of strength and a little more speed and got up to 234 pounds when I was a junior.

“It just did wonders for Nebraska football when Boyd got going with his program.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Husker volleyball/women's basketball reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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