Most realistic Nebraska fans look at NU's scheduled meeting with the Oklahoma Sooners on November 1st, and see a likely loss. Who can blame them? Under Bob Stoops, the Sooners have been stout, especially in Norman.
On the other hand, I look at that match up with great anticipation. It's not because I believe the Huskers will upset the Sooners, but because it might be the moment for fans on both sides to see a rivalry renewed. The renewal might carry some of the hallmarks of great NU-OU clashes of the past while including some updates that make it look a bit like another storied football rivalry.
The Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry was great, and I miss it. It was full of epic contests and great players. Yes, I mean to refer to it in the past tense. It has been missing for quite some time. That is partially because of the condition of the teams involved, but mostly due to schedule. To this day, my biggest bone to pick with the Big 12 is that they don’t allow NU and OU to play every year.
Still, it really was something. Sure, there were some bad feelings between fans over the years. But, it has grown to become a rivalry of respect. Personally, I think of OU as the "Crimson cousin" to the South. I think fans on both sides didn’t realize the respect until the other side was sort of missing.
When NU was great in the 1990s, it didn't seem right if OU wasn't there as a counterbalance. And, I've talked to some OU fans who feel the same about the Sooners recent run of success sans a powerful Husker squad. Only a few times in the last six years have the two teams really met in fierce and meaningful contests. Too bad that could not be sustained.
The Cast Matters
When it comes to great college football rivalries, the cast of characters really matters. Fans of opposing teams can spout off the names of players from the other side, both out of disdain and respect. Nowhere does the cast matter more than at the top of the playbill - the head coaches.
Many coaches have been involved in the NU-OU series. Some were great—like Bud Wilkinson and Bob Devaney—while others were less so. But no two men better defined the NU vs. OU rivalry than Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer.
These men were both excellent on the field, and extremely different off of it. Switzer's swagger played perfectly against of Osborne's quiet stoicism, and it made for great theater. Regardless of outcome, the games were meaningful on a human level. The two men came to define and embody the programs they coached for. They both have buildings named in their honor. And, after more than a decade of rivalry, there is a certain kinship evident between them when they make joint public appearances. Their histories are forever intertwined.
No matter how unlikely it may seem, the mere chance for that sort of program-defining rivalry to rekindle is absolutely exciting to me. Does Bo Pelini's arrival at NU possibly signal such a renewal?
A New Chapter
As I said, there have been many coaches involved in the NU-OU rivalry. Some got it. Other's did not. Bill Callahan apparently fell in to the latter category. His "[explative] hillbillies" statement about OU fans following the 2004 loss in Norman was one of the ugliest moments of his tenure. NU fans certainly don't love OU. But they certainly resemble them. And, disrespecting the rivalry like that created a lot of divisiveness.
Whether it is of his own experience with both schools involved or because of Osborne's influence, I think Pelini is much better equipped to appreciate what NU-OU means, and help re-ignite the rivalry. Unlike Osborne, Pelini is quite a bit like his counterpart at OU. And that might bring a whole new aspect to NU-OU.
Our own Ten-Year War?
Pelini and Stoops are cut from the same metaphorical cloth. They are both Youngstown Ohio-raised, and went to the same high school. While Stoops played at Iowa and Pelini at Ohio State, their coaching paths have crossed several times. Pelini even served on Stoops' OU staff in 2004. They are both defensive minded coaches. And, like Stoops at OU, Pelini inherits a proud program in a down time.
To me, this new cast of characters more closely resembles the cast from the best days of the Michigan vs. Ohio State rivalry. For those not familiar, I highly recommend watching HBO's special on the rivalry. It's an epic display, enough to make any sports fan envious of the battles and bile. At the center of it all were Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Michigan’s Bo Schembeckler.
Like Pelini and Stoops, those two men were more similar than different. Schembeckler was a Hays assistant before his time at Michigan. His arrival started a string of contest commonly referred to as the Ten-Year War. The two coaches and teams played off of each other to drive their performance to a new level. It drove the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry to its place as the biggest in college football.
The Big 12 schedules would not permit for NU and OU to meet in the regular season for ten year's straight. So, the only way for the Huskers and Sooners to renew hostilities to this degree is for both teams to control their own destiny and regularly meet in the Big 12 Championship game. Let’s face it, a sense of nostalgia made that 2006 game so special for many. I would like nothing better than to see the Huskers set their sites on a regularly schedule collision with the Sooners in December. Maybe then, a new generation of Husker and Sooner fans could appreciate the rivalry, not as a piece of history but as a powerful part of the current college football landscape.
But back to this coming November... Michigan's Bo jump started his legend in the first year with an upset win over his biggest rival. Could NU get so lucky?