College Football's Greatest Forgotten Rivalry

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterNovember 25, 2015

University of Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney is carried off the field by his victorious players after Nebraska defeated the University of Oklahoma 35-31 at Norman, Oklahoma, Nov. 25, 1971. (AP Photo)
Anonymous/Associated Press

Johnny Rodgers has probably rehashed stories of the 1971 game against Oklahoma, known universally as the "Game of the Century," hundreds of times. But how he described his feelings toward the Sooners was a first-timer. It had to have been.

"I'm an Oklahoma fan," Rodgers said. "When I'm not rooting for Nebraska, I'm rooting for Oklahoma."

Johnny "The Jet" Rodgers: "Game of the Century" hero, 1972 Heisman Trophy Winner and Oklahoma Sooners fan. Go figure.

The Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry was different like that, however. Some rivalries are born out of seething, blinding hatred. For instance: The now-defunct Border War between Kansas and Missouri, which geographically intersected Nebraska and Oklahoma, has more than a century's worth of historical significance molded by pivotal points in this country's history.

Clemson and South Carolina hate each other. Michigan and Ohio State hate each other. Oklahoma has hate in its heart, but it's largely reserved for Texas.

Nebraska and Oklahoma—from the players to the coaches and the fanbases—respected the hell out of each other. But why?

"Because they forced us to be good," Rodgers said.

Rodgers winning the Heisman, 1972
Rodgers winning the Heisman, 1972John Lent/Associated Press

The two proud programs met every year from 1928 through 1997, mostly in what was known as the Big Eight Conference. Through the years, conference titles ran through Lincoln, Nebraska, and Norman, Oklahoma, far more often than they didn't.

With the exception of four years, either Nebraska or Oklahoma won at least a share of its conference from 1946 through its final year in 1995, via Sports-Reference.com. In that span, the programs also claimed a combined 10 national championships.

"It was always a healthy competition in that I don't think there were any ugly incidents," former Nebraska coach and athletic director Tom Osborne said. "We had a great deal of respect for each other. It was always a high-level play; very intense games."

It's interesting to hear former players and coaches speak of the rivalry with such reverence. Nebraska-Oklahoma was ignited by the "Game of the Century" in which two top-tier teams played up their abilities. But Nebraska-Oklahoma wasn't always a gentleman's game, either, even though it's viewed as such.

Mike Babcock of Hail Varsity magazine, a walking, talking encyclopedia of all things Nebraska (and really, Midwestern) football, noted small incidents of pettiness in the rivalry's early years. In the 1910s, Nebraska was a member of the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Per Babcock, a conference rule was that all home games had to be played "in the community." In other words, Nebraska home games needed to be in Lincoln, even if they weren't on campus.

In 1919, however, Nebraska and Oklahoma played to a 7-7 tie in Omaha, breaking the MVIAA rules. Whether Nebraska was kicked out of the conference or left voluntarily is a subject of debate. But by 1920, Oklahoma had left the Southwest Conference and essentially taken Nebraska's place in the MVIAA. In 1921, the two sides met again—a 44-0 win for the Cornhuskers.

Wilkinson with Oklahoma
Wilkinson with OklahomaHarold Valentine/Associated Press

In 1959, Bill Jennings' Cornhuskers broke a 16-game losing streak at the hands of the Sooners—the rivalry was often streaky in that sense—by beating Oklahoma 25-21. The victory also ended 74 straight conference victories for Bud Wilkinson's Sooners. Of all the great eras in Oklahoma football, the way Wilkinson dominated the 1950s is arguably the most impressive.

It was Jennings' moment of karma. Jennings never had a winning season as the head coach of the Cornhuskers. But he was an Oklahoma grad and a former assistant under Wilkinson. According to Babcock, Jennings was a fall guy in the 1950s when Oklahoma ran afoul with the NCAA under Wilkinson regarding a supposed "slush fund" for recruits.

But the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry didn't take its most notable form until 1971's "Game of the Century."

The Cornhuskers actually won their first recognized national title the year before under head coach Bob Devaney by going 11-0-1. The lone tie was against USC, 21-21. Rodgers describes the national championship as a matter of "being in the right place at the right time." Notre Dame lost its season-ending game against USC, of all teams, and beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl that January.

"Coming into the next year," Rodgers said, "we were out to prove just how good we were."

And Nebraska was good. The Huskers had the combination of one of the top offenses (third nationally with 39.0 points per game) and defenses (second nationally with 8.0 points per game allowed). The most points Nebraska had given up heading into its clash with Oklahoma was 17 against Kansas State the week prior. Three times, Nebraska had shut out its opponents.

But Oklahoma had college football's top offense at 44.5 points per game. Barry Switzer, then an offensive coordinator for the Sooners, had perfected the wishbone offense and Oklahoma was, as Rodgers put it, "running up the score on everybody." Running back Greg Pruitt gained 9.0 yards per carry that season.

The "Game of the Century" was a battle of who had the ball last. The most recognizable play was Rodgers' punt return. But the former Heisman winner insists his fourth-quarter reception from quarterback Jerry Tagge to keep the Huskers' drive alive for the go-ahead score was the real difference.

"By the time Oklahoma got the ball back, they didn't have enough time," he said.

The "Game of the Century" would be Nebraska's last win over Oklahoma for six years. Switzer was promoted to head coach of the Sooners two years later—the same year Osborne was promoted to head coach of the Huskers—and began another reign of dominance not just in the Big Eight, but in college football.

As such, it was 1978, a 17-14 win for Nebraska, that stood out most to Osborne. Switzer had such a vice grip on the game for years that it became a burden for Osborne and the Huskers.

"The game that meant the most to me personally was when we finally beat 'em in '78," Osborne said. "They had a great team that year."

Though winning streaks were common, the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry was never "one-sided," traditionally speaking. This was a marquee game on both schedules for decades on end. Still, Nebraska viewed the Sooners as the opponent to beat every year. Oklahoma, meanwhile, divided its attention among Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma State.

In that way, though, Nebraska always seemed like it was more focused on Oklahoma than vice versa.

Even practices were somewhat uneven. Switzer's wishbone offense was so potent and difficult to prepare for that Nebraska would allocate a session of practice every week to defending it.

"The rule is you don't look past one to get to one," Rodgers said. "But they were so darn good, we had to practice a little bit because we were not familiar with the wishbone."

Switzer (left) and Osborne (right)
Switzer (left) and Osborne (right)Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The wishbone has come and gone, though. So too, has Nebraska-Oklahoma. There's a certain sadness that accompanies referring to the rivalry in the past tense. Of the long-standing games demolished by the greed and egos of conference realignment, this one is the most significant. The two sides won't meet up again until 2021 and '22 in a future nonconference home-and-home series.

But the intensity of the rivalry really diminished with the formation of the Big 12 in 1996, when the Sooners landed in the conference's South division and the Cornhuskers resided in the North. "It took away from the rivalry," Osborne said. "In a rivalry, you play every year."

No team could replace Oklahoma, and Nebraska wasn't interested in forming a new rivalry out of necessity. The game was lost without a replacement being found. The Sooners, however, had a different view.

"We'll always have Texas," Switzer told the Associated Press in 2010. "Texas is part of our fabric. That's part of our tradition, and it'll always be."

In 2011, Nebraska's move to the Big Ten officially flatlined a tradition-rich game already on life support. And therein lies the ultimate difference: Nebraska and Oklahoma respected each other, but they had different priorities that led to their separation.

Ironically, the last Big 12 Championship Game in 2010 was played between the Huskers and Sooners in Dallas, a 23-20 win for the Sooners, before the rivalry was killed for good.

"It was fitting the last Big 12 championship was between Oklahoma and Nebraska," Sooners head coach Bob Stoops said.

Regarding whether Nebraska and Oklahoma should play every year as a nonconference game, those asked deflected. "We're having a hard enough time getting through the Big Ten," Rodgers said.

Still, the memory of Nebraska-Oklahoma is as vivid as it's ever been. No one actively talks about the game as a future nonconference staple. The Big Ten will move to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016, and the Big 12 has one in place, limiting the desire for an additional key game. But ask anyone involved in the game about its illustrious past, and you'll get admiration for days.

"It was a great rivalry, even though it was only every couple years," Stoops said. "I always respected the program; it was a special game."

So when you turn on the TV to watch some of the great college football rivalries this weekend, take a moment, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, be thankful for them. If the ever-changing college football landscape has taught us anything, it's that some of these games might not be around forever.

Take that moment and remember Nebraska-Oklahoma, college football's greatest forgotten rivalry.

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted/linked otherwise. All stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.

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