Bruce Haney played a key role expanding fan base
Story by Mike Kelly
No one knew that the secret arrival of “Mr. Roberts,” the pseudonym of one Robert Devaney as he quietly slipped into Lincoln to check out Nebraska, would herald four decades of Cornhusker football dominance. Bruce Haney, a 27-year-old aspiring Omaha stockbroker, certainly didn’t.
By happenstance, Haney met Bob Devaney and his assistant coaches almost immediately after they accepted the job in January 1962.
“It happened within days of their arrival,” Haney said. “It was through Art Storz Jr.”
A lovable eccentric, Art Jr., scion of a wealthy Omaha brewing family, was better known for an outrageous stunt that got him court-martialed. In the Air Force reserve, he flew a B-17 low over the Blackstone Hotel and the nearby Storz Mansion at 3708 Farnam St., scaring lots of folks.
In spite of that, Art was shy face-to-face. “And I am not,” said Haney, a Navy veteran and Creighton University graduate who had worked college summers as a safety inspector in the Storz bottling plant. So Art invited his gregarious friend Bruce, who was single, to a chef-prepared dinner welcoming the coaches in a party room at the Storz plant.
Soon to turn 87, Haney recalls that the guests included Devaney, assistant coaches George Kelly, Mike Corgan and Jim Ross and others. As they departed that evening, Art loaded their cars with cases of beer. It wasn’t his last kindness to the coaching staff.
Two years later, The Omaha World-Herald reported that Storz had furnished $165 tailored sportcoats and slacks ($1,400 today) to wear to Orange Bowl festivities. He called it part of his “$9,000 thank you.”
Ten days later, after a coaches’ convention, the coaches and their wives were to fly to Las Vegas for a three-day holiday at Storz’s expense, with rooms provided by Creighton alumnus Jackie Gaughan of the Flamingo Hotel.
Many Nebraskans, Haney included, by then were extremely thankful to Devaney, his staff and the players for reversing the Husker football program’s fortunes. After two decades of mostly losing football in the 1940s and ’50s, heady times had returned. And the young stockbroker was happy to make friends with the coaches, who gave him postgame privileges to enter their locker room.
In a story that has been told before, Devaney was looking for a catchy phrase that fans could shout and cheer. Nebraska’s colors were crimson and cream, and he quipped that he could think of nothing that rhymed with crimson. Oklahoma fans yelled “Go Big Red,” so the coach figured that was already taken. But Haney recalls Storz urging Devaney to adopt the same cheer, and he did so. World-Herald sports columnist Gregg McBride derided it as “thievery,” but sure enough, it caught on for the fans of Big Red of the North. GBR in today’s shorthand.
In Lincoln, the Extra Point Club luncheon on Mondays drew big crowds to hear Devaney tell jokes, talk about the previous weekend’s game and preview the coming contest. The tradition of fans wearing red at Memorial Stadium has been credited to a boost from the club. That first exciting year under Devaney in 1962 also marked the start of another Husker tradition that continues after 60 years – stadium sellouts.
Haney, meanwhile, became especially friendly with assistant coach Mike Corgan, who had played at Notre Dame and coached under Devaney at Wyoming. Corgan invited Haney down to watch practice, and occasionally to see game film. They would head to the Legion Club afterward for dinner.
Haney thought lots of fans would enjoy weekly game film, especially with commentary from one of the coaches. And so in 1964, along with Mike Langenfeld and Bob Connor, he organized film-watching evenings in a party room at the West Lanes bowling alley on 72nd Street, just north of Dodge Street.
“I charged a buck for people to attend,” Haney said, “and I gave each coach a speaking fee and gas money. I banked the rest, and at the end of the season I divided it up among the coaches who had spoken. I also had a smoked ham sent to each of them.”
After about three years at the bowling alley, the increasing crowd sizes forced a move to the Elks Club at 75th and Hickory Streets. One night when Devaney spoke, the place was packed. Haney recalls KFAB radio announcer Lyell Bremser, who arrived late and didn’t have a seat, climbing a ladder for a press box-type view of the proceedings.
The Huskers endured a couple of 6-4 seasons in 1967 and 1968, and some fans grumbled about Devaney and his assistants – a petition drive against them didn’t gain traction – but the generally upward trend was apparent. It reached the pinnacle when the 1970 Huskers defeated LSU in the Orange Bowl to win their first national championship.
From 1957 to 2016, the Omaha Press Club annually spoofed public figures with song parodies, and Haney is the only person who attended every show. In honor of that 1970 championship, the club staged a special, extra show at the start of the 1971 season, hilariously glorifying The One who had made the Huskers No. 1.
In red choir robes, to the tune of Handel’s “Messiah,” club members sacrilegiously sang in harmony to the Husker messiah:
“Bob Devaney! Bob Devaney! Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hall-le-e-lu-u-jaaah!… For the Lord Bob omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!… For he shall win forever and eh-ev-er!… Go Big Red, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Halleluuuu-jaaaah!”
If Husker football is the state’s religion, that was a night of tongue-in-cheek hero worship.
After a second national title in 1971 and then one more season, Devaney handed the head coaching reins to Tom Osborne. Haney said he thought Devaney, who was also the athletic director, would name as his successor Carl Selmer, who had come with him from Wyoming nine years earlier. But Osborne, hailed as an offensive genius, put together a 25-year head coaching career that was capped off with three national championships in four years.
Through the ’70s and early ’80s, the weekly film sessions with coaches that started in ’64 continued, but after 20 years Haney and friends turned them over to others. Meanwhile, a separate breakfast group for fans and coaches had started in the late ’70s at Johnny’s Cafe in South Omaha. It grew and moved to the Holiday Inn near 72nd Street and Interstate 80, sometimes attracting 400 people in the ’80s, when the Huskers usually made runs at a national title.
One Thursday morning in December 1987, a coughing, sneezing Osborne, then 50, spoke for college coaches everywhere in revealing the sometimes exasperating travails of the recruiting trail – the difficulty of getting teenage boys to accept full scholarships for football.
T.O. had headed east for a couple of days that week, but a snowstorm hit Chicago, canceling his flight. He lined up a private plane, which then had a “terrible landing” because of wind shear. His driving directions to a player’s house were wrong, and when he finally arrived, “His mom and dad were sitting there, but no player.” (He was at a basketball game.)
The next trip was to St. Louis, but that player wasn’t home, either. His mother fixed dinner and after an hour Osborne could think of no more to say. “I had said everything I could say to the mother, twice.” Then it was off to Kansas City, where the player arrived home but very late. Osborne got home to Lincoln at midnight and was on his feet speaking in Omaha at 7 a.m. “That’s just the way recruiting is,” he concluded his tale. “It’s very frustrating at times. It’s the hardest thing we do, but the most important thing we do.”
Over the years, Haney had heard sad stories like that from his coaching friends. Overall, though, it was a good life for them, especially at a top national program like Nebraska’s. But salaries weren’t like today’s.
In 1980, for example, when $30,000 equated to $100,000 today, Husker assistants got 10 percent raises to between $25,000 and $32,000. Osborne’s was raised to $48,000.
Most of Devaney’s original staff stayed for a number of years, and that stability was credited for part of Nebraska’s success. Another “original” who contributed mightily was Don “Fox” Bryant, a former Lincoln sportswriter, who became sports information director shortly after Devaney arrived. Haney, Bryant and their wives sometimes socialized.
Haney attended his first Husker game in 1948 and acquired season tickets in the 1950s, when it wasn’t difficult to do so. He is still a fan today, but no longer attends games because it became too difficult for him to climb the stadium stairs. He and wife Marlene traveled the world and raised four children and he used to tease her that none could be born on a football Saturday. (They weren’t.)
Haney enjoyed a successful career of his own, and he retains great memories of his friendships with coaches. The gruff, hard-nosed Corgan, who coached running backs to run over defenders and on occasion would cuss out sportswriters, had a softer side. When he arrived in Lincoln, he looked up what trees were native to Nebraska and eventually planted them in his yard, developing his back yard as a peaceful garden.
Corgan retired from coaching after the 1982 season, replaced as running back coach by Frank Solich. After Big Mike died at 70 in 1989, his daughters gave Haney a keepsake – their father’s 1981 Big Eight Conference championship ring.
Coaches naturally come and go, but it hasn’t been a revolving door. Four assistants from the 1971 Husker team became head coaches – Selmer, Warren Powers, Jim Walden and Monte Kiffin. Others came to Nebraska and stayed, such as offensive line coach Milt Tenopir. Haney got to know him and share in his humor because Tenopir spoke for 34 years in a row at the Omaha Business Men’s Association’s annual “Czech Day.” He died at 76 in 2016.
Haney has outlived so many. The witty John Melton, longtime linebackers coach whose recruits included Trev Alberts, now the Nebraska Athletic Director, died at 86 in 2013. Cletus Fisher at 75 in 2000. Art Storz Jr., who introduced Haney to the coaches, died at 89 in 2009. And the Bobfather himself, Bob Devaney, at 82 in 1997.
Devaney always had a way with people. After he was shown on national TV chatting before a Nebraska-Oklahoma game with Bud Wilkinson, the Sooner coach, Devaney told Haney afterward: “People probably thought we were talking football. I was telling him about that stock tip you gave me.”
From the time Devaney arrived in 1962 until the 62-36 loss at Colorado on Nov. 23, 2001, Nebraska won an incredible 83 percent of its games. Since then, 57 percent. But Haney marvels at the continual sellout crowds and unstinting support and enthusiasm of Husker fans, even after a 3-9 season that includes replacing four assistant coaches.
Bruce Haney helped bring game films and coaches to fans long ago, but his warm memories of old friends and what they built for Nebraska are better than any film. “It was just exciting. This success story was right in front of me, and the entire state was turned on to it.”
Mike Kelley retired in 2018 after 48 years at the Omaha World-Herald, including 1981-91 at a sports editor and sports columnist.