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Bob Devaney To Paul Bear Bryant: Joe Paterno "No Good For Football"

Nebraska coach Bob Devaney really didn’t like what Joe Paterno had to say in a 1972 Washington Post article. He complained to Paul Bear Bryant at Alabama, and Bryant agreed with him.

Devaney Letter to Paul Bear Bryant

By 1972, Nebraska's Bob Devaney and Alabama's Paul Bear Bryant had solidified themselves as two of the best college football coaches in the nation. Devaney had captured his two national titles (1970-71), while Bryant had three (1961, 1964–1965). Both would become legends, not just at their perspective schools, but in college football history.

The two met in bowl games three times. Alabama and Nebraska both had a shot at a national title in 1965 as Nebraska entered the Orange Bowl ranked #3, Alabama at #4. Nebraska, Michigan State, and Arkansas were all unbeaten with identical 10-0 records. Arkansas and Michigan State were ranked ahead of Nebraska and Alabama, but had lost earlier in the day; LSU upsetting the Razorbacks 14-7 in the Cotton Bowl and 13-point underdog UCLA shocking the Spartans 14-12 in the Rose Bowl.

Despite Nebraska being a heavy favorite, Bryant would get the best of Devaney as the Crimson Tide used speed to overcome a much bigger Nebraska team 39-28.

Nebraska finished ranked #5. Alabama finished #1. (1965 was the first time the AP extended their final poll until after the bowl games. This would not become permanent until 1968.)

Bryant got the best of Devaney again in the 1966 Sugar Bowl, destroying the Cornhuskers 34-7. Despite going undefeated, Alabama would finish #3 behind co-national champions Notre Dame and Michigan State who tied 10-10 earlier in the season, a tie that Irish coach Ara Parseghian would never live down. (Neither Notre Dame nor Michigan State participated in a bowl game that season. Notre Dame had a “no bowl” policy which did not end until 1969. The Big Ten did not allow teams to participate in back-to-back Rose Bowls, and no Big Ten team could participate in a bowl other than the Rose.)

Devaney got his revenge, the last laugh, and his second title facing Bryant again in the 1972 Orange Bowl. The Cornhuskers throttled the Tide, leading 28-0 at half with touchdown runs by Jeff Kinney, a 77-yard punt return by Johnny Rodgers, and two more touchdown runs by Jerry Tagge and Gary Dixon.

Bryant's team could manage only a touchdown in the third quarter, failing their two-point try, while Nebraska added 10 more points to make the final 38-6. Nebraska ended the season #1, 13-0, having beaten #2 Oklahoma, #3 Colorado and #4 Alabama over the course of Devaney's final season.

Joe Paterno was an assistant at Penn State from 1950 until 1966 when he assumed the head coach position. By 1972 he had experienced two of his undefeated, untied seasons (1968, 1969) yet had not won a national championship.

On August 4, 1972, the Washington Post ran an article entitled "Paterno Seeks NCAA Revolution". The gist of the article centers around Paterno's idea that the NCAA needed tougher NCAA regulation "regarding an athlete's normal progress toward a degree".*

Paterno was quoted as saying:

"Our rule would avoid such things as only eight of 19 Nebraska seniors from last year's team graduating or four of 19 from Oklahoma.... That's a hell of an example for college football."

The NCAA's failure to be "more concerned with the academic fate of these athletes" has the governing body "speaking out of both sides of their mouth when they complain about pro basketball raids," Paterno said.

"We can't be uptight about the pros when we don't care ourselves," he said. "The kid is grossly underpaid for being in the entertainment business if he doesn't graduate. If he does, he's got his money's worth."

Devaney obviously didn't like Paterno's quote, and wrote Bryant the letter attached to this article. There are three images. The first image is Devaney's letter, the second is Bryant's handwritten comment to his secretary for the response and the third is a copy of the letter he sent.

Devaney Letter to Paul Bear Bryant
Devaney Letter to Paul Bear Bryant
Paul Bear Bryant Note To Devaney
Paul Bear Bryant Note To Devaney
Paul Bear Bryant response to Bob Devaney about Joe Paterno
Paul Bear Bryant response to Bob Devaney about Joe Paterno

One might imagine that Devaney saw Paterno as somewhat of an upstart, but you need to be aware of the context of the times during which this occurred:

  • In 1972 there were no limits on scholarships. Limits didn't exist until 1973, and then schools were limited to 30 per year, which was 15 less than the Big Eight conference allowed.
  • 1972 was the last year that college athletes received a stipend which was probably about $20 for laundry.
  • In 1973, NCAA members voted to eliminate four-year athletic scholarships and replace them with one-year renewable grants, because of the social upheaval that was happening at the time and to give more control back to coaches.
  • It wasn't until 1974 that total limits were placed on scholarships, and that was set at 105.
  • It wasn't until 1973 that the NCAA membership was divided into three divisions, I, II III.
  • Prior to 1965, there were no minimum academic standards for incoming student athletes. In 1965, the "1.600 rule" was enacted, requiring a minimum 1.6 grade point average. That remained in place until 1973, when a 2.0 minimum high school GPA was required to be eligible for athletic competition.
  • 1972 was most widely known as a landmark moment in athletics due to the passage of Title IX into law on June 23. Title IX would basically ensure the existence of women's athletics in high school and college.

Forget what you think about Joe Paterno’s legacy, and all the jokes you could make about Paterno “being no good for football”; the concerns elevated by Paterno illustrate the idea that there is nothing new under the sun. Paterno’s quote about “grossly underpaid for being in the entertainment business” still echoes today, and that quote was made way before coaches made millions upon millions of dollars per season. Also note the slam against the NCAA by Paterno.

It’s interesting to speculate what Devaney and Bryant were thinking about Paterno at the time. Were they, like we accuse most coaches of today, only worried about success, fame, and fortune? That would be hard for Nebraska fans to take, wouldn’t it? Or maybe not. Maybe most don’t remember Devaney at all, nor do younger Alabama fans remember Bryant (although that’s difficult to imagine).

Also interesting to note how cordial Bryant and Devaney were with regards to the “football clinic”. We often complain that coaches hire their “buddies” or their “friends”, but when you step back a bit, you realize that outside the stadium or off the gridiron that most of them are buddies and friends in a real sense.

*The article is available via Proquest database, for purchase and behind a paywall. I took the quote that was relevant, but don’t have the rights to publish the whole article nor is it linkable.

[Note - The Devaney and Bryant letters were actually provided to me in 2014 by C.J. Schexnayder, who wrote for the SBNation site Roll Bama Roll. I forgot about them, then remembered them last year, 2015, and then life interrupted as I was going to publish them just before football season.]