Nebraska football has one of the most passionate and dedicated fanbases in the nation. With a population of just under 1.9 million in the state, Nebraska is able to generate national interest in the Cornhuskers to rival any program in the country.
Nebraska fans can be a bit of a mystery to outside observers. Trust me, as someone who married into a family of Hawkeyes fans, I’ve gotten those looks at holiday gatherings. So I will spare you from the obvious Jeff Foxworthy-style take and just give those who do not bleed scarlet and cream a little insight as to what it means to be a Cornhuskers fan.
Nebraska fans really like their football team. And they like watching their football team play, in person. Since November 3, 1962, Nebraska has sold out every home game on its schedule. That’s 325 consecutive games, as of the end of the 2012 season. By far, Nebraska’s streak is the longest in the nation.
And it’s not just home games. Nebraska fans show up en masse for the spring game, a glorified practice. They show up for road games, to the point where Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter admitted the Nebraska fans forced the Wildcats to use a silent count—at a home game for Northwestern (according to the Chicago Sun-Times). Nebraska fans show up in droves for bowl games, and have since NU’s first trip to the Rose Bowl in 1941.
So I wouldn’t go as far as Taylor Martinez did when he said, according to Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com, that “there’s not much to do in Nebraska” as a reason for the sellout streak—if that were the case, North Dakota and Montana would be crushing attendance records nationwide.
But there’s no doubt that Nebraskans as a whole are uniquely connected to their football program, to the point where it is considered extremely rude to schedule a wedding in Nebraska on an NU game day. (Trust me, my wife was stunned when I explained this was a real thing in the Cornhusker state). And they show up.
This one’s a little more complicated.
Nebraska’s two championship runs, one in the early '70s and one in the late '90s, were never built on nationally renowned recruiting classes. Instead, they were built on having unusually good in-state talent, a few transcendent blue-chip talents and a roster of hardworking kids in an innovative system.
Then came athletic director Steve Pederson and head coach Bill Callahan. Both were agents of change for the Nebraska culture, promising to modernize and revolutionize NU football. Callahan got the Nebraska job in part because, well, he was the guy who said yes to Pederson after a number of rejections. But he brought to Lincoln a well-earned reputation as a great recruiter.
And he delivered. Nebraska’s recruiting classes under Callahan were excellent, and NU saw highly regarded prospects coming to Lincoln. A new era of Nebraska glory seemed at hand.
Of course, that didn’t happen.
In his four season, Callahan had two losing records and saw his team disintegrate in 2007, leading to his dismissal. The firing of previous head coach Frank Solich and the struggles of the Callahan era divided and distressed the Children of the Corn like nothing since before the arrival of Bob Devaney.
With Tom Osborne returning as athletic director and Bo Pelini replacing Callahan, many Nebraska fans instinctively rejected anything associated with the Callahan era. And that includes putting stock in great recruiting classes. For many Nebraska fans, obsessing about recruiting rankings was “what Callahan did,” and by definition is something that should be avoided.
So don’t be shocked when you see Nebraska fans so dismissive of recruiting. It’s still part of the healing process.
I know, from an outsider it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Nebraska and Colorado played a number of tense and heated games for over a decade, with the annual contest catapulting each team to a national title. Colorado never made a secret about its disdain for Nebraska—just as Denver Post columnist Woody Paige.
So why do Nebraska fans still sniff at Colorado?
It all has to do with the formation of the Big 12, and Bill McCartney. When the Big 8 rescued Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor after the breakup of the Southwest Conference, the new 12-team league broke into divisions. Nebraska very much wanted to retain its annual day-after-Thanksgiving game with Oklahoma, the series that provided the Game of the Century in 1971.
But that didn’t happen. Being in different divisions, and the conference not adopting protected crossovers, meant that Nebraska and Oklahoma was relegated to a twice-in-four-years status.
In stepped Colorado, and then-head coach McCartney, who wanted to put CU on the map by being Nebraska’s main rival. McCartney was legendary in ginning up disdain for Nebraska in the Rocky Mountain State, making a big deal about marking the date in red.
For Nebraska fans, still grieving the loss of the Oklahoma series, Colorado always felt like the new kid on the block trying to prove something.
So while Nebraska and Colorado have had their share of animosity, the Children of the Corn never felt that Colorado had established itself as a football program to be considered on Nebraska’s level. So Nebraska fans would never give McCartney the satisfaction of joining in on his manufactured rivalry—never mind what Paige might say.
So, wait. You refuse to call Colorado a rival, but you’re still carrying a grudge against Texas? A school that, really, couldn’t care less about Nebraska as a program? What gives?
Let me explain. Sherman, set the Way-Back Machine to 2009.
The Big Ten had announced that it was exploring the possibility of adding a 12th member. With the conference realignment, tectonic plates beginning to shift, Colorado saw its chance and bolted for the Pac-10.
The Big 12, down to 11, knew that Missouri and Nebraska were uncomfortable with the oversized power Texas wielded in the conference. Nebraska had been on the losing end of a number of power struggles with Texas, from issues like the location of the conference tournaments to the eligibility of athletes.
So the marker was laid down. Texas came to Missouri and Nebraska and demanded a declaration of loyalty to the Big 12, according to the The Oklahoman. If it didn’t receive that declaration, Texas would take itself and three other schools (including Oklahoma) and form the Pac-16, leaving Nebraska and Missouri in a significantly weakened—and perhaps no longer automatic BCS—conference.
Nebraska responded by obtaining an invitation to the Big Ten, which forced an incredibly acrimonious “farewell season” through the Big 12 in 2010 for NU. Texas, of course, did not follow through on its threat, later seeing Texas A&M and Missouri defect to the SEC before the addition of TCU and West Virginia stabilized the Big 12 at 10 members.
But Nebraska fans have never forgotten the feelings of that summer, where the frustrations of Texas’s decade of dominance (on and off the football field) culminated in a significant threat to Nebraska being left out in the cold with regard to major conference athletics.
Add on the understandable, but laughable conspiracy theories about the Big 12 being “out to get” Nebraska in its final season, and you have a lot of venom built up in the Children of the Corn against those in burnt orange.
Fanbases all have their “things” they are known for, like the jump-around at Wisconsin. Nebraska’s calling card isn’t quite as flashy, but it’s a tradition that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.
In the book Huskerville by Roger C. Aden, the author recalls the reaction of Nebraska fans after Florida State had beaten NU in Lincoln:
As Bowden jogged off the field he saw something he had never seen before: thousands of fans on their feet, clapping and saluting the victorious opponent. Bowden was so moved he wrote an open letter to the fans in the Lincoln Journal-Star. ‘I have never seen people with more class than I have at Nebraska,' wrote Bowden. 'The Nebraska fans, players, cheerleaders, band, officials, etc., gave me living testimony of what college football should be all about.'
In fairness, such behavior is not universal with Nebraska fans.
The Children of the Corn have their boors, their idiots and their insufferable fans, just like any other fanbase. And Nebraska’s politeness can come off as smug or condescending self-righteousness to others, especially when NU fans take pains to tell other fans how much nicer Nebraska fans are.
But the actions of those few should not take away from the culture of the many, which has drawn praise for many years. If you want to sum up being a Nebraska fan, this one may be it, Someone who will cheer your team off the field in Lincoln, win or lose—but who will root really hard for it to be “lose.”
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