Curious emotions are being stirred up by Colorado and Nebraska fans as each team is set to depart the Big XII football wars for greener pastures after this season. Neill Woelk of the Boulder Daily Camera presents his version in a recent column (link is below).
Nebraska fans, however, steadfastly refuse to grant Colorado the honorary designation of "rival" status, even if ABC replaced Oklahoma with the Buffalos on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
For Nebraska its true rival was Oklahoma. For years the winner of this game went on to the Orange Bowl and quite often a National Championsip. Nebraska never got over losing OU as its rival when the Big XII formed and feels like they have now gone 14 years without a rival. In fact Nebraska is hoping that maybe Iowa or Penn State or Wisconsin can become a rival in time after they join the Big 10. But you can't manufacture hate or passion just by showing up on a prime tv slot.
For their part Colorado fans feel snubbed by Nebraska's attitude mistaking it for arrogance. They are quick to point out that lately Nebraska ain't what it used to be. And even quicker to jump on this poll to try to convince Nebraska fans that they are rivals. Huskers are having none of it.
How did this all start? A plucky motivational coach named Bill McCartney showed up in the smokey haze of 1980's Boulder and ignited something different. He fired up a moribund football program by literally seeing red. He declared that nobody in his orbit could so much as wear the hated color red and circled the date of the Nebraska game declaring that it was everything. In other words, he picked a fight with a bully. And to back it up he recruited LA when USC was down and out. Amazingly, it worked for a short time. Between McCartney's first upset of Big Red in 1986 and his last in 1991 the Buffs bested their eastern neighbors 3-2-1.
But this is one short-lived streak the Buffs can't seem to get over. And no it doesn't matter to Nebraska that Colorado won a share of a national title, because Colorado did it with mirrors--a loss, a tie and a 5th down win at Mizzou. Heck, for their part Nebraska cruised on to notch 3 more National titles with no resistance from Colorado after McCartney left ! To a tradition rich program like Nebraska success is not measured in occaisional bursts. Nebraska has had sustained success with multiple Hall of Fame coaches for 100 years. Part of Nebraska's attitude toward Colorado then is pride. Nebraska is amused that the Buffs want to be in their league with such a skimpy resume. But there is much more to it.
Another reason CU has never been considered a true rival is that after McCartney's little run CU was incapable of sustaining their interest. In fact, other Big XII North teams tagged in and filled the same role as foil for short periods of time. First Bill Snyder amped KSU up and lately Mizzou has filled this role. Nebraska has focused on whichever team posed the biggest threat. In a true rivalry it doesn't matter if one of the teams is down.
In fact, during the abysmal Bill Callahan era everyone even Oklahoma State, Kansas and Iowa State got in on the act. But all of these Big XII North teams lack the support, staying power and tradition to keep up over the long term. To prove the point, it appears that under Pelini Nebraska has awakened again, just like Oklahoma did after its lost decade. Or USC. Or Alabama.
What has Colorado done since 1991 to earn rival status? Not much. Since McCartney's little run Nebraska has picked right back up dominating the Buffs 14-4 . So its hardly been a rivalry since 1992 unless you can have a rivalry between a hammer and a nail.
But there have been many great and exciting games. Who can forget Alex Henery's 57-yard boot to take the lead, punctuated by Ndamukong Suh intercepting Coach Hawkins' kid, bowling him over and then spiking the ball out of the north endzone all the way to Omaha?
Big picture, the Huskers lead this lopsided series all-time by a 48-18-2 mark so the facts back the Husker's version on this one. This is hardly an evenly fought series of misty eyed legend.
For Nebraska fans, Colorado is just one of an equal bunch of former "little six" opponents. Some Huskers in the panhandle dislike Colorado most, in other parts of the state KSU may be the enemy. Lately Mizzou followed by Texas has stirred the most ire.
What Nebraska fans can't understand, is why would Colorado desperately insist that there is a rivalry if the other side consistently says that they don't want them as a rival? Nebraska fans accept that Texas is Oklahoma's rival and have moved on.
For Colorado, Nebraska always represented the bar--a measuring stick to gauge whether or not they were worthy. Mostly, Colorado has been able to walk safely under it. And at the close of the series, it is clear that Nebraska is trending up again and that CU may need a new coach to lead it into the Pac-10. In fact, this year's game could well be Hawkins' last . What better way to end it for the Buffs than to get one last crack at Nebraska in Lincoln?
With both teams moving on, things will certainly be different. The series will be missed. It is a time to reflect on some historic games and the young men who played them. As further proof that they are not rivals, I even suspect that Nebraska fans will be rooting for Colorado to show well once they join the Pac-10. Success is something you would never wish for in a true rival.