Nebraska Football's Greatest Traditions of All Time

Michael HuckstepCorrespondent IOctober 28, 2011

Nebraska Football's Greatest Traditions of All Time

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    A legendary college football program like Nebraska is rife with tradition.

    Nebraska began play in 1890 and has compiled a rich history. There are only a handful of teams that can lay claim to over 800 wins and the most since 1970 by a wide margin.

    Furthermore, being the sole athletic institution with such deep-rooted significance to the state they represent only adds to their lore.

    Every autumn, they alone captivate the imagination of virtually the entire population.

    And every season, as the extended family of the Nebraska football program grows, their legend and the traditions that embody the Huskers grow richer and more meaningful to their fans.

    Even in a period of change, after we have bid farewell to the Big 12, another region of the country is learning about the traditions that have helped make Nebraska great.

    This is just one fan's list of those traditions. Indeed, Nebraska football means different things to different fans.

    Please feel free to add your favorite traditions to the list. 

No. 10: Balloon Release

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    After the first touchdown scored by the Huskers, the fans release countless red balloons into the sky, creating quite a spectacle.

    The tradition is believed to have started in 1963.

    In Nebraska's era of dominance, an early first quarter balloon release usually meant that the opposing team was in for a long day.

No. 9: Applauding the Visiting Team

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    "Through These Gates Pass The Greatest Fans In College Football"

    One of the more surprising Nebraska traditions is the Husker fans applauding the opposing team, win or lose.

    In 1998, after Texas snapped Nebraska's 47-home game winning streak, the Husker fans gave Ricky Williams and the Longhorns a standing ovation for a game well-played.

    Back in 1991, the same courtesy was extended to the victorious Washington Huskies after they defeated the Cornhuskers, 36-21.

    It is believed that this show of respect was most likely an extension of the respectful attitude that Tom Osborne brought to the program during his 25 years as head coach. 

    Nebraska fans simply enjoy a game well-played and will give credit when credit is due.

    Granted, this hospitality isn't as prevalent as it once was.

    The Callahan era had a way of dampening the goodwill of Huskerdom, but there are countless stories of teams being applauded as they left the field, regardless of the score.

    Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden wrote the following letter on Seminoles stationery, after an 18-14 Seminoles victory in 1980, and sent it to the University of Nebraska:

    "I have been coaching college football the past 28 years and have played before some great crowds in this country. I have never seen people with more class than I saw at Nebraska last week. The Nebraska fans, players, cheerleaders, band, officials, coaches, etc., gave me a living testimony of what college football should be all about. I actually had the feeling that when we upset the Nebraska team that instead of hate and spite, the Nebraska fans thanked us for coming to Lincoln and putting on a good show. This is nearly unheard of in today's society. Nebraska, you are a great example for Americans to copy. I hope we show half the class your people do."

    That pretty much sums it up.

No. 8: Academic All-Americans

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    Not all traditions surrounding the Nebraska football program are limited to the exploits of the team on game day.

    The Huskers' football team leads all university sports programs in the country with 99 Academic All-Americans.

    Often, we fans forget that they are student-athletes.

No. 7: Sea of Red

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    Long before college (and pro) teams started organizing "white-outs" and "black-outs", in which nearly the entire stadium's fans are clad in the same color, Nebraska fans have been religiously wearing red to every Husker game.

    The phenomenon dates back so far that this writer was unable to determine it's origin.

    Of course there are specks of white and, more often black (after the introduction of Blackshirts apparel), but the predominant color is red—scarlet red to be exact.

    Not only do Husker fans create a sea of red in Memorial Stadium but, as a fanbase that is famous for traveling well, they've been known to create a sea of red in their opponents' stadium.

    Just ask Notre Dame.

    In September 2000, an estimated 40,000 red-clad Husker fans invaded South Bend and snatched up almost a third of the seats for the clash between Nebraska and Notre Dame.

    While 10,000 of the fans remained outside the stadium, the other 30,000 cut a swath of red inside.

    Current AD and legendary former coach Tom Osborne had this to say about the "invasion":

    "I imagine it was somewhat embarrassing to Notre Dame people that they would have that many people show up in their stadium."

    Naturally, the effect is more awe-inspiring in Lincoln where the red-clad fans sway their arms, rhythmically clap along to "Hail Varsity" after every touchdown and hold up their shoes before every kickoff.

No. 6: Family Tradition

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    Brothers, sons, nephews, grandsons and plenty of cousins.

    All manner of relatives have have followed each other's footsteps to don the Scarlet and Cream.

    Some names instantly spring to mind to Nebraska fans: Steinkuhler, Makovicka, Ruud and Wistrom.

    The names even extend in the coaching ranks. Besides the obvious–brothers Bo and Carl Pelini–offensive line and associate head coach Barney Cotton has two sons, Jake and Ben, in the Nebraska program.

    The 2012 recruiting class includes a third son, Sam, a tight end from Lincoln Southeast.

    Their father, besides being a Nebraska coach, played on both sides of the ball for NU from 1975-78.

    Other names are lesser known. Some are carved in granite. Literally.

    Current defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler is the son of the great Dean Steinkuhler who won both the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award.

    Grant Wistrom was honored in 2009 as the 14th Husker to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.  He later went on to play nine seasons in the NFL, six for St. Louis, where he helped the Rams win Super Bowl XXXIV.

    His younger brother, Tracey, played tight end for Nebraska from 1998-2001.

    Identical twin brothers, Josh and Daniel Bullocks stalked the Nebraska secondary in the early part of this decade.  Both made it to the NFL, not unlike Scott Shanle, a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints. 

    His younger brother, Andrew, was a free safety for the Huskers until 2006.

    Some family stories have a darker side, as evidenced by Christian and Jason Peter.

    Others have a surprisingly long Husker lineage. Bo and Barrett Ruud can count their father, two uncles and even their great-grandfather, who played between 1918 and 1921, as fellow former Huskers.

    To this day, this "tradition of family" continues.

    A pair of current freshmen have ties to Nebraska's past.

    It's well known that quarterback Brion Carnes is cousins with the great Tommie Frazier.

    However, many fans are unaware that offensive lineman Tyler Moore is not only the son of a former Husker TE, but is also the cousin of ex-NU defensive end Jay Moore and the nephew of one-time Nebraska QB Vince Ferragamo. 

    Truly, playing football at Nebraska can be a family affair. 

No. 5: Brook Berringer Citizenship Team

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    Brook Berringer is the stuff of Nebraska legend.

    He stepped up and out of the shadow of Tommie Frazier and led the Huskers to seven consecutive wins during the pivotal 1994 National Championship season.

    Berringer was selfless and humble: He embodied the spirit of Nebraska football.

    With a possible NFL career in his future, Berringer's life was tragically cut short by a plane crash in 1996.

    Truly, these few sentences do not do adequate justice to the memory of Brook Berringer.

    However, the university kept his memory alive and well by founding the Brook Berringer Citizenship Team in 1997.

    In order to be eligible for the honor, players must have at least a 2.5 GPA, complete eight new service projects in the past year and not be involved in any off-field incidents.

    Awarded annually at the Spring game, it has been bestowed upon such players as Alex Henery, Joe Ganz, Matt Davison, Grant Wistrom and Ahman Green.

    To further honor Berringer, the university placed a life-size statue of Brook with Tom Osborne outside the Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex.

    Behind the statue and above the doors of the complex, the following quote by William Jennings Bryan is written in bold letters:

    "Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice."

    Rest in peace, Brook. 

No. 4: Consecutive Home Game Sellout Streak

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    Since Nov. 3rd, 1962, Husker fans have a tradition of unwavering loyalty to Nebraska football.

    On that date, 36,501 attendees witnessed the Cornhuskers' Homecoming game against Missouri.

    After Nebraska's dramatic, record-breaking comeback win over Ohio State in this season's Homecoming game, the streak now stands at 315 consecutive games. 

    The streak has continued as the stadium has grown.

    Memorial Stadium now has an official capacity of 81,081, but set an all-time attendance record of 86,304 against Louisiana-Lafayette—the 300th consecutive home sellout in 2009.

    During the streak, the Huskers boast a record of 273-42 and 138-19 over the past 23 seasons, making Memorial Stadium one of the most difficult places for opponents to play in the nation.

    The next closest streak belongs to Notre Dame with 223 consecutive sellouts following their loss last Saturday to USC. 

No. 3: Tunnel Walk

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    One of the most theatrical entrances in the sports world, the electrifying Tunnel Walk was introduced in 1994 and not only pumps up the team, but energizes the crowd as well.

    As the video screens scattered throughout Memorial Stadium light up with frenetic animation and video sequences, the song, Sirius, by The Alan Parsons Project fills the air. As the music builds, it is intensified by the clapping of 85,000-plus Husker fans, eager to erupt in a thunderous roar when the team emerges through the Tunnel Walk gate.

    Meanwhile, the team exits the locker room and follows coach Pelini to "The Big Red Carpet." It unwinds beneath a lucky horseshoe that the players slap and tap with arms aloft.

    Along the way, the players are flanked by exuberant fans who add to the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation with shouts of encouragement and outreached hands.

    As the Huskers near the gates, the fans in the stands can see their approach on the video screens.

    The gates, which have bronze castings of former Husker legends Bob Brown, George Sauer, George Flippin, Guy Chamberlin, Sam Francis and Bobby Reynolds, are then opened by members of the Nebraska National Guard who have been specifically chosen for that game.

    The deafening cry from the Nebraska faithful that greets them is almost tangible: It sounds and feels like it might threaten to shake the foundation of the stadium to its core.  

    The players then gather around their coach, some literally bouncing with irrepressible energy, and then storm out onto the field in between parallel lines of the Nebraska marching band.


No. 2: The Blackshirts

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    In 1964, after a NCAA rule change allowed two-platoon football, the late great Husker coach, Bob Devaney, needed a way to distinguish his defensive units during practice.

    He sent assistant coach Mike Corgan to a sporting goods store to buy some contrasting, sleeveless pullover jerseys that the players could wear over their practice jerseys.

    As a result, the first-string offense wore red and the second-teamers donned green.

    On the other side of the ball, the second-string defense received gold jerseys (later grey) and the top defensive unit wore black.

    A tradition was born.

    Originally, the players had to turn in the black jerseys after every practice because there was no guarantee that a player would wear black during the next practice. Thus, it became a motivational tool.

    The term became an instant hit and grew in popularity as the Nebraska defense became more successful.

    It gained momentum in the mid-70s under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and was brought to national prominence under Charlie McBride, the Huskers' DC from 1982-1999.

    During the Osborne era, the tradition became even more of a badge of honor.

    The defensive starters would receive their Blackshirts the week before the season opener. By then the jerseys had changed also. They were no longer sleeveless and had numbers and names added to them.

    Eventually, the starters would receive them in a special ceremony.

    Upon Bo Pelini's hire, the tradition was tweaked. No longer would they simply be handed out, they had to be earned after a defensive performance during the season that was worthy of the honor.

    In 2007, during a period in which the defense was struggling, the players voluntarily gave up the Blackshirts. Pelini later awarded them again in 2008 after a strong defensive effort against Kansas. 

    Now, the term Blackshirts is synonymous with the entire defense.

    It is not uncommon to see a player cross his arms and "throw the bones" after a sack or noteworthy tackle.

    The fans also salute the defense in kind and wave black towels with the Blackshirts logo.

No. 1: Nebraska's Explosive Rushing Attack

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    Ask almost any college football fan what they think of first when they think Nebraska football.

    Most will mention Nebraska's prowess on the ground, the option attack and grind-it-out, smash-mouth, in-your-face rushing.

    Granted, that style was absent for a while as the West Coast offense was employed to mixed results.

    But this season, new offensive coordinator Tim Beck has designed a simpler offense to take advantage of the running skills of Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez.

    It's refreshing to see a more Osborne-like offense again.

    Running the ball is what Nebraska has always done best offensively and it hearkens back to great names like Mike Rozier, Ahman Green, Tommie Frazier, Eric Crouch and I.M. Hipp.

    And despite all his troubles, Lawrence Phillips was a force to be reckoned with, too.

    Then there were the fullbacks like Rathman and the Makovickas.

    Out front, were huge, powerful and athletic linemen (Steinkuhler, Rimington, Shields, Wiegert and Taylor), with Outland Trophies and Lombardi Awards to their credit.

    Dave Rimington even had a trophy named after him, which Dominic Raiola won in 2000.

    In the heyday of those prolific rushing offenses, the opposing defenses knew what was coming, but they still couldn't stop the relentless assault.

    Nebraska wore down defenses late in games and scored 50, 60 and 70 points with ease.

    The game has changed in so many ways: Things will never be quite like that again.

    But, that is the tradition most synonymous with the Huskers.

    That was Nebraska football.