Does Nebraska Need A Rival?

The man leans against a post in downtown Chadron. He’s wearing the northwest Nebraska uniform for the month of November – insulated coveralls and a gimme seed cap. Even though this is in 1987, this is still more or less the northwest Nebraska uniform for the month of November.

Some things never change. Others do.

“It’s the college Super Bowl,” the man says to the CBS film crew in Chadron to interview him for a lead-in to that year’s Oklahoma-Nebraska game. “That’s the only way you can explain it. It always boils down to this game.”

Maybe it’s just me, the viewer watching this clip on YouTube nearly 30 years later, but I since some real resignation in that last line. I feel like the man, never identified, really wants to say that it always comes down to this damn game, but he doesn’t.

Nearly 900 miles away in Checotah, Oklahoma, the “Steer Wrestling Capital of the World,” a roughneck with an embroidered nametag on his shirt gives an interview to CBS with a pumpjack pumping away in the background.

“When times are hard, the economy and stuff like that, we’ve still got a winning tradition of football to look forward to,” he says. “That’s not much consolation if you’re broke, but it helps.”

In this made-for-TV moment before No. 2 Oklahoma travels to Lincoln to face No. 1 Nebraska, these two men are bonded together by what they want the most – agony for the other. Agony in the form of a win and a trip to the Orange Bowl and a shot at a national title for the opposing team, which is what the other wants the least.

This is rivalry in its purest form and it has been a while since Nebraska has had that.

Does it need it?

***

Nebraska’s history with rivalry is complicated. Everyone remembers Oklahoma, of course. The Huskers and Sooners played so many memorable games that it’s the game every football fan outside of Nebraska mentions – “those old Nebraska-Oklahoma games.”

But in the late 1960s you might have argued that beating Missouri meant more, and Nebraska didn’t, losing in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The Huskers snapped that streak in 1970 on the way to their first national title.

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This story originally appeared in Vol. 5 Iss. 12 of Hail Varsity.

Once Oklahoma entered probation-induced purgatory in the late 1980s, Colorado wasn’t just willing to assume the mantle, it wanted it. Despite Husker fans’ reluctance to acknowledge the Buffs, the games became too big – six of nine between 1988 and 1996 were with both Nebraska and Colorado ranked in the top 10 — and that worked for nearly a decade. It was at least good enough to get Nebraskans through the transition to the Big 12 and the loss of a yearly game with the Sooners, but it never felt totally natural either.

Then came Texas, a rivalry forged in the boardroom that spilled onto the field. In addition to opposing Nebraska on some key issues during the formation of the Big 12, the Longhorns also had a unique knack for beating Nebraska in the most heartbreaking way possible. Texas won nine of the 10 games the two teams played as members of the Big 12 and seven of those nine wins came by one score or less. That in combination with the view that Texas ruled the conference engendered some real hatred and was partially responsible for the Huskers seeking a home in the Big Ten.

When Nebraska got there in 2011, it was basically left rival-less. Wisconsin, given its Barry Alvarez-era origin story, offered a feasible option. The Badgers’ program was modeled after Nebraska’s, Wisconsin looks like Nebraska from a uniform standpoint, it still mostly plays like the Huskers used to play and, most important for the formation of a rivalry, the Badgers have humiliated the Huskers on three big stages already: the Big Ten opener in 2011, the Big Ten title game in 2012 and the “Melvin Gordon game” in 2014. If Nebraska’s history with rivals is defined mostly by circumstance, then the Badgers fit the bill right now.

Don’t count out Iowa, however. Sort of like Colorado, Nebraska fans seemed reluctant to acknowledge this one even though the two schools went ahead and created a rivalry trophy right away and put this game on the Huskers’ designated rivalry spot of Thanksgiving weekend. It was earmarked as a rivalry from the very start and it seems like it might actually becoming one. Turns out making jokes about Iowa comes naturally for Nebraskans and vice versa. Throw in a competitive football series – Nebraska leads 3-2 as a member of the Big Ten – and there’s a little bit of a spark there.

But a little bit of a spark would seem plenty disappointing to a fan on either side of Auburn-Alabama. “You don’t know who your rival is?” an Ohio State or Michigan fan might ask incredulously. This sort of indecision would be unbelievable for a Bruin or Trojan.

Fans of those schools are born knowing whom to hate. Barring Big Ten expansion that includes Oklahoma, that’s never going to happen for Nebraska fans.

***

So what is lost by not having a rival? A little bit of fun, probably. Irrationally hoping the worst for an archrival each week is enjoyable. And then there’s THE WEEK, game week, no holds barred in the hate department. They always say you can throw out the records on rivalry week. I don’t know if Nebraska has had many of those throw-out-the-record weeks.

It has almost always been about the record at Nebraska. The team Husker fans have wanted to beat the most has often been the team Nebraska has needed to beat the most.

“It always boils down to this game,” a man in Chadron said almost 30 years ago.

But “this game” has been a lot of different games over the years. That in itself might offer its own kind of status. Look at a list of the winningest programs in college football. You can scan that list and immediately identify the rival for most of those teams. You definitely don’t stop at many and say, “Well, there’s sort of a shifting perception of rivalry here.”

You do with Nebraska. Each generation has its own rival. The Huskers’ current rival depends upon whom you ask, which isn’t really rivalry at all.

But it’s how things work in Nebraska. It’s how they’ve always worked. Certain stretches of Husker history have obscured this fact. The Oklahoma years made Nebraskans feel just like any other school with a hated rival.

It’s not like any other school, however. Nebraska’s notion of rivalry is ever evolving and while it’s easy to be envious of the other experience, there’s something to be said for being unrivaled, too.

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