Carl Selmer was the assistant coach charged with recruiting Minnesota for Bob Devaney, the coach who had arrived from Wyoming and transformed Nebraska from a citadel of football mediocrity to a national power.
Selmer put his Minnesota focus on a pair of linebackers to be part of the Cornhuskers’ freshman class of 1971: Tom Ruud of Bloomington and Bob Nelson of Stillwater.
“There were some people upset about me not going to Minnesota, but it wasn’t that tough of a decision,” Ruud said. “At Nebraska, there was going to be a chance to play in big bowl games and for national titles.”
Nelson was sold when he made his visit to Lincoln. “We were driving in and I saw that big ‘N’ on the stadium and said, ‘Look at this thing,’ ” he said. “Of course, that ‘N’ is about 200 feet high now with the expansion they have done with the stadium.”
Freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition in 1971, so Ruud and Nelson were only spectators when the undefeated Huskers of that season defeated the Gophers 35-7 in Lincoln.
Ruud and Nelson then played in three nonconference games against Minnesota. The scores were 49-0, 48-7 and 54-0, all Huskers, all day long.
What Ruud and Nelson did miss out on was actually playing for a national championship team. They played in four freshmen games in 1971, and were only witnesses to a 13-0 squad that was a college team for the ages.
How about the “Greatest Game Ever Played’’ — Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31 on Nov. 25, 1971, in Norman, Okla.? Were you there?
“They didn’t pay to take freshmen on road trips back then,” Ruud said. “We watched on television like everyone else.”
Surely, with all the financial rewards of the Orange Bowl, Ruud, Nelson and the other freshmen were there to see the Huskers claim the national championship with a 38-6 victory over Alabama?
“We were home, shoveling snow,” Ruud said.
Ruud and Nelson would become the inside linebackers in Nebraska’s famed 5-2 defense. “The ends stood up,” Ruud said. “It was basically the 3-4 of today. The guys in the middle kept the blockers off us and gave the linebackers a lot of clean shots to make tackles.”
The two linebackers did it so well that they remain known in Nebraska football lore as the “Minnesota Twins.” They had those three victories over the home-state Gophers (by a combined 151-7), they had New Year’s bowl victories over Notre Dame (Orange), Texas (Cotton) and Florida (Sugar), but what they did not enjoy in those three varsity seasons was a victory over Oklahoma.
“The Sooners were a little better than us right then,” Nelson said.
The Minnesota Twins angle took on a preposterous angle in the 1975 NFL draft: The Buffalo Bills took Ruud in the first round (19th overall) and Nelson in the second (42nd).
“The Bills called a couple of minutes before the choice was announced and said, ‘Can you put up with Ruud for another eight, nine years?’ ” Nelson said. “I told them I wasn’t sure about that.”
Ruud received more honors as a college player than did Nelson. It turned out differently in the NFL.
Ruud suffered a knee injury in his third season in Buffalo, played a couple of years in Cincinnati after that and then was cut by the Vikings in their 1981 training camp. He went back to Lincoln with his wife, Jamie, and raised a family that included two Nebraska linebackers, Bo and Barrett.
Jamie died of a heart attack nine years ago on the family’s annual fishing trip to the Whitefish Chain in Minnesota.
Nelson had injuries and was released three times before landing with Al Davis in 1980. He won a Super Bowl that season with the Oakland Raiders, and won another three years later with the Los Angeles Raiders.
Nelson has made his home in the Twin Cities, taking over the family business: Brown’s Ice Cream, a distribution company.
Ruud still lives in Lincoln, in the midst of the public angst over the current state of the Huskers. They are 2-4 and will be in Minneapolis on Saturday as underdogs to lose a third consecutive game to the Gophers.
“Minnesota has beat us up with its lines — offense and defense — for the past two years, and I expect that might be the case again Saturday,” Ruud said. “There are Nebraska players who have done some good things this season, but along the lines … we still aren’t physical.”
Will Ruud be here? “It’s the pheasant opener in South Dakota,” Ruud said. “I can’t miss that.”
How about Nelson? “I get back to Nebraska for a game once in a while,” he said. “This weekend, I’m going to Kohler [Wis.]. I’ll be optimistic and take the golf clubs.”