Former Nebraska quarterback great Dennis Claridge, who guided the Huskers to an Orange Bowl triumph following the 1963 season, died Tuesday at age 76 following a 3½-year battle with cancer.
A mainstay in the Nebraska program's rise under Bob Devaney, Claridge also guided NU to a 36-34 victory against Miami in the 1962 Gotham Bowl -- the program’s first bowl triumph in history. He was the starter when Nebraska's ongoing streak of sellouts began in 1962 at Memorial Stadium.
Devaney once told the Journal Star that if Claridge had been surrounded by the same level of talent as Jerry Tagge, Claridge would’ve been considered the best quarterback he ever coached.
That assessment perhaps comes as no surprise to former Nebraska head coach Frank Solich, who lettered in 1963 as a sophomore fullback for the Huskers.
"He had good size for a quarterback back in those days," Solich said Wednesday night of the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Claridge. "He seemed bigger than life to me because he was such a great leader on the team. I think he drew respect from everybody, and obviously I was very impressed as a young player.
"His leadership was elite -- just seeing him have so much control of that team."
A two-time All-Big Eight selection, Claridge served as a captain for the 1963 team that was 10-1 overall while capturing the program’s first Big Eight championship with a 7-0 record. Sixth-ranked Nebraska’s 13-7 win against No. 5 Auburn in the Orange Bowl represented the program’s first win in a major bowl.
In addition to his quarterback duties, Claridge, a native of Robbinsdale, Minnesota, became one of the nation’s best punters.
Claridge was named an academic All-American in 1963.
After his time at Nebraska, Claridge spent three seasons in the NFL, including 1964 and 1965 with the Green Bay Packers and 1966 with the Atlanta Falcons.
In 1976, he was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
"He wasn't a guy who wanted to be glorified," said Randy York, a former Journal Star columnist and Claridge's frequent lunch partner. "He was really the epitome of a leader. He never once thought he was a big star, even though he was one."
Claridge started for former Nebraska head coach Bill Jennings in 1961 as the Huskers finished 3-6-1. Claridge was recruited to Lincoln by Jennings.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Claridge told the Journal Star in 1983. “I’ll always love Bill Jennings. Nobody can ever say anything bad about him to me.”
A longtime orthodontist in Lincoln, Claridge is survived by his wife of 54 years, Rhoda, three grown children and several grandchildren.
A celebration of life service will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Southwood Lutheran Church, 4301 Wilderness Hills Blvd., in Lincoln.