Nebraska won 11 games, didn’t lose any and had one tie on its way to winning the 1970 national championship in college football.
But like most great accomplishments, the path to success can be traced back earlier than that. For the Huskers, one of those earlier times came with less fanfare, back when Nebraska and other college programs had freshman football teams that usually played games on Friday afternoon.
Before 1972, NCAA rules prevented freshmen from playing in varsity games, so colleges had a freshman team. It operated like its own program, and had about 60 players, with as many as 45 scholarship players plus walk-ons. One year the Nebraska freshman team had seven quarterbacks on the roster.
We're blending new content with frequent trips to the archive library on a week-by-week ride through Nebraska's storied 1970 season.
Bob Devaney turned to Tom Osborne to change the Husker offense following the 1968 season. It was a good move by Bob.
Nebraska had some well-known coaches work with its freshman team over the years, including future college head coaches Frank Solich and Barry Alvarez.
A part of Nebraska’s success in 1970 was a star-studded sophomore class. Among the sophomores who started that year were Johnny Rodgers, Rich Glover, Willie Harper, Joe Blahak, Jerry List, John Hyland, Doug Dumler and Johnny Pitts.
But one year earlier, that group was having fun and learning how to be college football players on the Husker freshman team. It was a smaller schedule, with the freshmen playing four games in 1969. The Huskers beat Iowa State and Kansas State, and crushed Missouri 42-19. But Nebraska couldn’t get past a good team from out west, losing against McCook Junior College 21-13.
After having 6-4 records in 1967 and ’68, the varsity team went 9-2 in 1969. That, along with what Rodgers was seeing on the freshman team, made him feel good about the season.
“Half of our freshman team were guys that transitioned up to the varsity,” Rodgers said. “Willie Harper was there, Daryl White, Glover was there. We had a lot of guys that were on the freshman team that we knew we were going to need to fill those gaps. And it was very encouraging that in 1969, my freshman year, that (the varsity) won the Big Eight Conference championship and that led us right into being confident that we could win the national championship.”
At the end of the freshman season there was a scrimmage between the freshman team and the varsity scout team, which included some of the ’68 freshman team, according to Mike Beran, an offensive lineman for the Huskers at the time.
“That’s when I knew we had something going,” Beran said. “I was on the 1969 scout squad, and at the end of the year we played the ’69 freshman team with Johnny Rodgers, Daryl White, John Dutton, Monte Johnson, and Richie Glover, of course. It exuded talent. They had a ton of talent. Well, we just beat the snot out of them, the redshirts did. So that indicated to me that there was some talent in those two squads, the scout team and the freshmen.
“And that coupled with the ’69 team, the guys that were juniors and sophomores and weren’t on the scout squad, I thought, ‘Boy, we’re going to be good.’ And it turned out we won two national championships.”
Tom Osborne, who was an assistant coach at the time, remembers seeing Nebraska’s talent level go up around the time of that ’69 recruiting class.
“Those two 6-4 seasons caused us get really get zeroed in on recruiting,” Osborne said. “I think (head coach Bob Devaney) got more engaged because of those seasons, so the freshman team in ’68 and ’69 had some players that were going to be pretty good. I think some of that was we realized that we better get out and recruit or things weren’t going to go in a good direction if we didn’t.”
After freshmen became eligible to play on the varsity squad, freshman football began to fade. Nebraska held on to its program longer than most, but had trouble finding teams to play. So Nebraska went from playing several Big Eight schools to taking on teams such as Drake and Omaha.
Then Nebraska had a combined freshman/junior varsity team that played schools such as Air Force, Coffeyville (Kansas) Junior College and Waldorf (Iowa) Junior College. The last year there was a regular JV schedule for Nebraska was in 1990. Nebraska did play Air Force in 1993 in a game that may have been Nebraska’s last JV game.