There Is No Place Like Nebraska...or Is There?

Nebraska FansContributor IOctober 4, 2010


The story goes that upon his departure as head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 1961, Bill Jennings attributed his 15-34-1 record to the fact that the ill-fated Nebraska football program suffered from the effects of bad climate, bad location, and the lack of any professional sports teams.  Jennings, one of the most unsuccessful and unliked coaches in Nebraska history (think Bill Callahan times ten), simply couldn’t envision how a team stuck in the middle of Nebraska could possibly grow into a contender.

His successor, Bob Devaney, coming off a successful coaching stint in Wyoming, saw a different side.  Ecstatic over the improved conditions from those he faced in Wyoming, Devaney noted with glee that the weather was warmer, the location was better, and there were no other sports teams in the state to compete with for fan base loyalty.  Now whether this was simply misplaced optimism, coach speak, or truly a forecast of things to come, we can’t really know.  Regardless, Devaney made it happen.  By the 7th game into his first season in 1962, Nebraska embarked on a home sellout streak that has extended over the past 40 years into one of the most impressive streaks in college football history. 
Tom Osborne’s book “Faith in the Game,” written one year after his retirement as head coach at Nebraska, discusses what he believes to be five factors that lead to a strong football program.  These are (1) good facilities, (2) tradition, (3) coaching, (4) a large population base from which to recruit, and (5) good weather, particularly during the recruiting season (which is typically January and February).  
Yet as a Husker fan, one of these stands out more than the others.  While ESPN types like to boast about “Tradition” as if it’s simply a rivalry game trinket, a record of past coaching legends, or touching some special statue or plaque they are severely missing the point.  Certainly these things all contribute to the gameday experience, but these things only build tradition.  True Tradition is more than a collection of these, it is an attitude, an expectation, and a connection that runs between fans and players, the act of celebrating the wins and suffering the losses as intensely as the team itself, and the expectation that in the end, passion can trump talent.
Within this Tradition, Nebraskans have forged a unique symbiosis with their team unlike any other in collegiate sports.  Meet a Nebraskan for the first time and within 5 minutes, you’ll have heard about our Cornhuskers.  Spend a fall weekend in our state and just try to avoid the game.  Spend a month enjoying “The Good Life” and you’ll hear more about our Bo than your B.O. (Barack Obama).  You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.  One friend of mine who attended her first Nebraska game texted me saying “I’m staying at the Marriott and it’s like Mardi Gras down here!”  And this was before the Western Kentucky game.
Yet try to explain this phenomenon to an outsider, and you are inevitably met with a mixture of disbelief and sardonic denial.  They believe that it cannot really be so different, or, if they are willing to humor these deeply jaded misperceptions, will write-off the aforementioned observation with a disdainful “well there’s nothing else to do in Nebraska” (to which the only fitting response by a Husker fan is, “who needs anything else???”).
I’ve found myself encountering this sentiment more and more frequently since the impending relocation to the Big 10 has been announced.  As I diplomatically espouse the virtues of Nebraska football, I frequently hear the cries of individuals who believe Nebraska is not truly worthy of Big 10 status, who believe that Nebraska is in for a rude awakening when we travel to Happy Valley, when we drop by the Horseshoe, or when we gaze upon the Big House.  They think we will be humbled by “Big 10 Football” (said always in that gruff, manly tone).  They say we don’t belong academically, are a geographical outlier, and will get swallowed up by the Iowa’s and Wisconsin’s of the conference.
Oh, and don’t they hate the possessive “we” that gets thrown around, as if we are really part of the team? 
As if. 
Sure we can argue circles around them, but their minds often remain unchanged and misinformed, mitigating Nebraska’s historical dominance of Big 10 schools, our taking over of 43,000 seats at Notre Dame stadium (located in the heart of Big 10 country, mind you), or our rightful sole claim to the 1994 title (they pretend Penn State won a share) and the shared 1997 title (they pretend Osborne retired just to garner sympathy votes).  Yet despite all this, they remain largely happy to have us in the fold, strengthening the football pedigree of a once-proud conference and thinking they’ve added just another mid-level whipping boy.  Ignorance truly is bliss.
Now I will go on the record stating that I believe the move to the Big Ten is a good move for the both university as well as for the state as a whole.  The benefits and drawbacks have been discussed ad nauseam over the past several months, so I’ll avoid repeating these once again.  While I have been very impressed with the way Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney has handled our absorption into the conference, I despise the mentality espoused by some fans of current Big Ten schools who feel that we owe them some great debt, that we should humbly submit to the superior strength of their conference (not yet "our" conference) over what the Big 12 has ever been, and that until we “prove our worth,” we are not really equal sons.
Look, a simple appreciation is all we ask, yet we know that until they travel to Lincoln on a Husker Gameday, they can’t appreciate it.  How could they?  Even if they said they understood, we’d immediately recognize this as a misguided attempt to placate us and extricate themselves from the argument.  Let there be no mistake: they don’t understand.
It was in response to this mentality that I set out in search of an explanation as to what really makes our Tradition so unique.  I had hopes of confirming my own suspicions that we truly are one-of-a-kind, although am wary of my own bias as  I’ve found that, as a rule, people think they’re an exception to the rule when, as a rule, you’re not.  Following the Huskers is not about following a team, it’s about being a part of a shared consciousness and a culture that goes far beyond, yet is defined, by football.  It is not for the faint of heart, for the journey is not always a pleasant one, but it is one that has no Husker fan would trade for the world.
As I began to analyze what it is that sets Nebraska apart from other states and schools, I identified two major variables which I believe make us wholly unique—the absence of other in-state Division I/FBS football teams which might divide fan loyalties (Note: Creighton is a Division I school, but they do not field a football team), and the absence of any major professional team with which fans identify as this, in turn, might minimize fan interest in the college. 
Simple enough. 
Now it should seem that there would be many other states/schools which would fall into these categories, but as it turns out this is not the case.  In fact, 26 states and all their respective schools become automatically disqualified on the basis of having a professional sports franchise.  These include:
Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, [Beat] Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.
With a healthy chunk of the map now eliminated, I went in-depth to determine which of the remaining states possess multiple Division I/FBS schools, a list which filters out as follows (only the two most prominent schools are listed in cases where there are more than two per state):

  • Alabama (Alabama and Auburn)
  • Alaska (None)
  • Arkansas (Arkansas, Arkansas State, Arkansas Pine-Bluff)
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware (None)
  • Hawai’i
  • Idaho (Boise State, University of Idaho)
  • Iowa (Iowa, Iowa State)
  • Kentucky (Kentucky, Louisville)
  • Maine (None)
  • Mississippi (Ole Miss, Mississippi State)
  • Montana (None)
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada (Nevada, UNLV)
  • New Hampshire (None)
  • New Mexico (New Mexico, New Mexico State)
  • North Dakota (None)
  • Rhode Island (None)
  • South Carolina (South Carolina, Clemson)
  • South Dakota (None)
  • Vermont (None)
  • Virginia (Virginia, Virginia Tech)
  • West Virginia (West Virginia, Marshall)
  • Wyoming

Left in the remains of this exclusionary process, only Connecticut, Hawaii, and Wyoming remain from which to further evaluate, none of which can be considered football powerhouses by even the most generous definition. 
Wyoming has seen little success over the past decade (only two above-.500 seasons, both with only 7 wins), as well as a stadium capacity of a meager 32,580 which is seldom used (the Cowboys ranked 103rd nationally in home attendance last year).  Although they gave us Bob Devaney, that’s about the extent of their contribution to the college football landscape.  It seems that such a rallying around the Cowpokes is not forthcoming.
The University of Connecticut is another who, strictly speaking, meets criteria.  However, loyalties are indeed split with, and more likely are secondary to, Yale University, located in New Haven, Connecticut.  Despite that Yale does not participate in the FBS division, the merit and stature of this school alone assumes more than its fair share of support from its state residents, lending UConn second fiddle status, not to mention its women’s basketball team is clearly Queen of the Campus.  Put simply, UConn, but they can’t.
A slightly more intriguing possibility is presented by the Warriors of Hawai’i.  Boasting an impressive recent string of success including a BCS bowl invite to the 2007-08 Sugar Bowl (which they lost 41-10 to the Georgia Bulldogs), Warrior football is alive and well on the big island.  Aloha Stadium seats a respectable 50,000 fans, and an all-time winning percentage of .560 over a century of games shows some signs of promise.  However, Hawai’i has only 3 conference titles to its credit, including 0 national titles or Heisman winners.  Truth be told, football in Hawai’i is a little like peanuts at a steakhouse—sure, they add to the experience, but no one’s going to a steakhouse for the peanuts.
And so we return to Nebraska, standing tall amongst the remains of the college football landscape.  Her fans are dedicated, singular in focus, and devoted to a fault.  The sellout streak outdistances the next closest rival (Notre Dame) by more than a decade of sellout home attendance.  The mood of the state balancing on the weekend performance of the scarlet and cream, the Tunnel Walk sending chills down the spines of the states 3rd largest city on game day—Memorial Stadium—further understates the link between the state and her team.  Born into this brotherhood of Husker fans brings a commonality to all of us throughout the state and across the nation: memories of the dominance that was, and renewed hope for the resurgence that has finally arrived.  Though others may question our dedication, we need only respond with a knowing smile, “Born Red, Enough Said.”

--Chase Francl

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