OU football: Did Sooners cause Nebraska exit?
As we count down to Nebraska’s last Big 12 football game — last conference game in a group the Huskers have been associated with since 1907 — I think we’ve lost focused on the real root of Nebraska’s discontent.
It’s not Texas. It’s not officials. It’s not economic distribution. It’s not the site of the Big 12 title game or the conference headquarters.
It’s the loss of tradition. It was the loss of the Oklahoma rivalry, which the Huskers properly blame on the Big 12′s formation.
I don’t know that any of us down here in Oklahoma fully appreciate the depth of passion that Nebraskans had over their Big Red rivalry. Sooners certainly embraced the game and loved it, but when it dissolved away from its annual status, OU moved on. It already had Texas and Oklahoma State, and new, interesting rivalries popped up with Tech and A&M.
Meanwhile, what did Nebraska have? Bill McCartney and Colorado were clamoring to be Nebraska’s big rival, but that offended the Huskers more than anything else. Missouri? Iowa State? Kansas State? Kansas?
Those schools occasionally were great competitors for Nebraska, but arch rivals? The Huskers knew an arch rival when they saw one, and it wasn’t wearing purple.
The Huskers embraced the Oklahoma rivalry because they, again properly, considered it a battle of equals. Suddenly, Nebraska was without an equal in its own division.
To Nebraska’s credit, lots of schools would have loved that new status. Would have thought it was great that it could play in a weak division. The Huskers thought it sucked.
I don’t know if you can make the argument that Nebraska’s problems on the gridiron the last 10 years came as a result of boredom, but doesn’t it make some sense? What if Oklahoma was suddenly playing in the Mountain West? Or better yet, what if OU was in a Big 12 South Division sans Texas; the Longhorns had scrammed. Some years Tech and A&M and OSU would be worthy foes, but the South Division without Texas would be a lot less interesting and a lot less formidable.
That’s what Nebraska faced in 1996. And ever since, Tom Osborne has been carping. Big 12 officials will tell you that Dr. Tom never liked the Big 12 and frankly wouldn’t mind going back to the Big Six.
That’s old-fashioned thinking, but it’s sort of understandable. Not everything that changes, changes for the good. Not all that is labeled progress is progress. I think the Big 12 was progress. I think it’s been good for most every school.
But maybe it wasn’t good for Nebraska. The Huskers lost much of their identity, and that identity withered with the loss of the Oklahoma series.
And you can’t blame that on the Big 12. You have to blame that on Oklahoma.
The Sooners — not Texas, not league officials, not anybody except OU — caused the series to shift off its axis. OU wanted no part of an annual crossover game with Nebraska, although it would have been easy to implement one.
The SEC already had established the model. Alabama and Tennessee were placed in separate divisions when the SEC expanded 20 years ago, but that league decreed that every school would have an annual rival from the other division. That kept Bama-Tennessee, an age-old series that meant a lot to a lot of people, alive.
Nebraska would have signed off on such a deal immediately. Oklahoma would not. The Sooners were in the midst of the Howard Schnellenberger disaster and about to board John Blake’s sinking ship. OU knew what was coming — losses to Nebraska of 69-7 and 73-21 in 1996 and 1997 — and wanted no part of it.
Years later, when Bob Stoops had put the Sooners back on course, there was no interest in reviving the annual series. Stoops looks at most everything from a competitive viewpoint. If OU played Nebraska every year, and Texas had, say, Missouri every year, how in the world was that fair to the Sooners?
That’s a short-sighted view, of course. Some things are more important than how they might affect the standings in any certain year. Some things are worth protecting. Nebraska thought its Big Red Rivalry was worth protecting; Oklahoma did not.
Think about the league had the Big Reds kept playing every year. Would Nebraska be upset with Texas’ ego and Texas’ bullying? Yes. Would the Huskers like the Big 12 title game being played in Texas every year? No. Would the economic distributions and TV developments be to Osborne’s liking? No.
But would Nebraska walk away from the Big 12 if it still had the splendor of the Sooners every November? Maybe not.
I think Nebraska’s departure from the Big 12 comes down to this. The Huskers got more and more discontented, and one day looked up and said, why are we here? What’s keeping us in this league?
An annual game against Oklahoma, celebrating a lot of things that are right about college football and honoring those glorious memories of Novembers past, might have been answer enough.
But that tradition died, and Nebraska was left to answer that nothing was keeping the Huskers in the Big 12.
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