In the land of pickup trucks and cream gravy for breakfast, I have a few Oklahoma-specific thoughts as Nebraska prepares for the Game of the Century anniversary:
I'm happy to see people are pushing back on the "rivalry built on respect" narrative.
You've seen it. I've seen it. When folks reminisce about the Nebraska-Oklahoma series they'll say something like "what made that rivalry great was how it was based on mutual respect between two great programs."
For people like myself who grew up in the 1980s, there was no mutual respect. It was a 24/7/365 hatred of Oklahoma. They were the roadblock to conference titles and Orange Bowls. The crimson and cream were the crusher of dreams. Sooner Magic was a dark art that made children cry. Boomer Sooner plays on the P.A. system in hell.
In Dirk Chatelain's excellent column, he says the NU-OU rivalry of the 80s was similar to the USA-USSR cold war. When KLIN's Jack Mitchell discussed this topic with John Bishop of 1620's "Unsportsmanlike Conduct", Bishop pointed out the contrasts between the programs based on their head coaches: Tom Osborne, the stoic man of faith and Barry Switzer, the "bootlegger's boy" who let OU run wild. I still remember reading the Sports Illustrated cover story about the crime and guns at OU, at church waiting for choir practice to start. The contrasts were stark, and there was zero respect intended.
But time has a way of softening our perceptions. Barry Switzer is now widely beloved by Husker fans. He is seen as a conduit to an era when Nebraska was a perennial power, instead of the cocky S.O.B. who would slap his mother to win. Twelve-year-old me - heartbroken and crying on the couch after yet another Sooner Magic trick - would be mortified to learn that I regularly root for Oklahoma to win games. I still hate Boomer Sooner with the energy of 1,000 suns, but there are teams I dislike more.
The "mutual respect" concept has crept in over the last 25 years as the rivalry has cooled. Time, infrequent games, and conference realignment have a way of bringing enemies together. Looking back, it is much easier to respect a team we viewed as a peer, which only enhances the nostalgia.
But let's not pretend it was always that way.
I'm always impressed by Oklahoma's efforts to celebrate the 1971 Game of the Century.
I know…. I just got done squashing the "mutual respect" narrative. Now I'm going to turn around to give some serious props to the Sooners. They have earned it.
Seriously, consider the things Oklahoma has done to remember and celebrate the Game of the Century:
- In 2008, they hosted a large reunion for players and coaches of both teams.
- This week, Oklahoma and Nebraska co-produced an online Game of the Century watch party with Barry Switzer. · During the game, OU and NU will wear a helmet sticker commemorating the game. Oklahoma's hype videos have contained a lot of imagery from the game and rivalry.
- There is speculation that the tip to Brett McMurphy about Nebraska's efforts to back out this game came from somebody at Oklahoma.
I'm sure there are other things I'm forgetting. The point is Oklahoma's level of commitment to a 50-year-old game is impressive on its own. Remember: this was a game that the Sooners LOST!
Obviously, it is not like Oklahoma is hurting for accomplishments to remember. Since the Game of the Century, OU has won four national championships, made the playoffs four times, won at least a share of the Big 8 / Big 12 title 27 times, and had five Heisman Trophy winners. They've done alright. Yet they proudly celebrate their role in this game.
Other than games that were landmark firsts (such as Princeton vs. Rutgers in 1869), it's rare to have a team say "Hey - remember that great game we played in? We know we lost, but it was so cool we're going to commemorate it". Does Oklahoma do this for their Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State? Will Southern Cal do that for the milestone anniversaries of their 2006 Rose Bowl loss to Texas? Could you imagine Alabama doing it for the 2013 "Kick Six" game against Auburn?
If the tables were turned, do you think Nebraska would repeatedly remember a game they lost? I know we Huskers love trumpeting our place in college football history, but I don't see it happening. I respect the heck out of Oklahoma for continuing to do it.
Let's talk about Nebraska's role in the Oklahoma rivalry.
So far, we've cleared up the revisionist history that OU-NU was built on respect, and we've shown that Oklahoma has a very impressive football pedigree. But there's one other aspect of the rivalry that I've never fully considered:
Nebraska and Oklahoma are not equals.
I say that not to denigrate Nebraska, or to kick the Huskers while they're in a down era. I'm simply saying the all-time scorecard is very decisive in Oklahoma's favor:
- Head to head: OU leads 45-38-3
- All-time wins: 918 to 907
- National championship: 7 to 5
- Heisman winners: 7 to 3
- Conference championships: 50 to 46
Arguably, the start of the rivalry was Nebraska's 25-21 upset in 1959, which ended OU's undefeated streak in conference games at 74. It was also Nebraska's first win in the series since 1942. For as good as Devaney and Osborne were in the 1970s, they only beat Oklahoma three times in the decade.
Nebraska's longest winning streak in the series (seven games, 1991 - 1997) came when Nebraska was at their absolute peak, and Oklahoma was sinking to historic and horrific depths.
The Oklahoma rivalry was good because it was served as an annual measuring stick for where NU was as a program. NU could spend September and October beating up everybody in their path, but In the Devaney, Osborne, and Solich eras, it was tough to have a truly great season if you didn't beat OU. If they fell short, it made next year’s game even more important. As Dirk Chatelain wrote this week, Oklahoma's overall success, and dominance in the series made Nebraska adapt, grow, and improve themselves in a quest to become equals.
Nebraska fans still pine for the OU rivalry because in the 25 years since it stopped being an annual event, the Huskers have not accepted another rival. Oh, there have been several candidates - including a few teams wearing black and gold uniforms - but none have been deemed "worthy" of being named an official rival of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. I have been one of these gatekeepers.
Nebraska fans, it is time to accept a new rival. Time to embrace the 24/7/365 disdain for everything that school does and represents. Time to find motivation and a desire to improve because you cannot stand the thought of losing to those smug jerks again. Time to let the hatred wash over you the way it once did with Oklahoma. It's time to pass the torch.
We can debate on who that torch should be passed to. I have my thoughts; you likely have yours. But one thing needs to be understood:
It is okay to have a blood rival whose pedigree is not as impressive as your own.
Honestly, that’s been the hold up on recognizing Colorado, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, or anybody else as a rival. We collectively don’t feel they’re worthy of being on our level. We have this misguided belief that a rivalry cannot exist is one team is historically better than the other. But that is wrong.
Oklahoma proved that it can be done. They could have looked down their nose at Nebraska, but instead they met the challenge and pushed back hard. Now, Nebraska can try to assume that role.
I look forward to getting back to a year-round "hatred" of another team. It will be good for NU and our fans.
The local silence around Nebraska's botched attempt to back out of the Oklahoma game is noticeable.
On one hand, I'm not surprised. Contrary to what the conspiracy theorists will tell you, the local media are not looking to stir up drama. Revisiting a topic that was heavily discussed six months ago might cross into that territory. Also, I suspect there are many fans who have no desire to take the scab off that wound.
But whether we like it or not, it is a valid story line in this game. I guarantee many national college football voices can’t wait to talk about it.
As for me, I get it. I'm happy the game is being played. I want to move past the fiasco that occurred in March when Brett McMurphy dropped his bombshell report, and the Athletic Department spent the next week stepping on every rake they could find.
But before I can close the door, I need to say my peace.
I was disappointed and saddened when the news broke. It looked cowardly and showed zero respect for the history of the program or the fans who care - deeply - about that rivalry.
I was mad at the spin, misdirect, and lies. Adding an extra home game to help "mitigate cost-cutting measures and provide a much-needed boost to our local economy"? C'mon. We're smarter than that. Have some respect for your fans and tell the truth.
I was depressed by what it signaled: that somebody believed Nebraska – in their fourth year under Scott Frost – would need another cupcake win to have a shot at six wins. Presumably, top decision makers (the head coach and/or then athletic director) allowed it to continue.
I believe Frost when he talks about growing up with - and playing in - this rivalry. I believe it matters to him. I truly do. But it also makes me wonder how he (or, say, Matt Davison) could even entertain the idea of cancelling this game.
We'll probably never know exactly what happened. How close Nebraska came to throwing away 50 years of memories for the chance to host Old Dominion. The cynic in me suspects that part of Bill Moos's surprise "retirement" and subsequent buy out was the understanding that he becomes the absentee scapegoat who didn't know what was going on. Who knows? Whatever.
I’m willing to shut the door on this, but I hope this fiasco serves as a reminder to current and future NU coaches and administrators to have respect for the program and the fans.