Tigers vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers
October 4, 2008
Tiger AP ranking: 4th
A road trip to a Nebraska Cornhusker game consists of genuine hospitality, followed by bloodcurdling terror, topped off with heartfelt niceties.
Arriving in Omaha—aka the “Big O"--I was pleased to learn from a urinal splatter guard that Eppley Airfield is the cleanest airport in the world. Not that I intended to stick around and test the claim, but good to know. Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz’s mom and dad happened to be on my flight. A Missouri fan had met them earlier, and he introduced us as they passed. I wished them both luck, and Joe's mom replied, “Thanks. You’re going to need it!” She seemed a little nervous, as any mother whose son was about to be squished might be. This was the closest thing to smack talk I would encounter all trip.
The official Nebraska website identifies the Big Red faithful as the “Greatest Fans in College Football.” At first glance this is just a self-directed compliment along the lines of St. Louis’ designation as the "Best Baseball Town in America." Both labels are impossible to disprove, though, and over time, can evolve into a self-fulfilling moniker.
Cornhusker supporters are just flat-out nice. Everywhere you go, they ask if you’re enjoying your stay in Lincoln. Everyone raves that you’ve got a talented team. They seem thrilled you’d go through the trouble to travel here. Oh, and by the way, would you like a beer? The package of choice in Lincoln is the 16 oz. can. Bud, Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite—doesn’t really matter so long as there’s a tall boy of it. On balance, I'd call this a Bud Light town.
The Sea of Red I had heard so much about begins early morning on the sidewalks of Lincoln. Nebraska fans don’t get up on a Saturday and rifle through their chest of drawers looking for a shirt that matches their color wheel (“Something mossy—I’m an autumn!”). There are no shades of rose, sunset, or puce. Everyone, and I mean everyone, wears red. And when I say “everyone,” I mean 95% of the populace. Which begs the question, what sort of rat bastard does not? Two types:
1) Fans who wear black and red, in honor of Nebraska’s feared “blackshirt” defense, so named because they wear that color in practice.I’d float the theory that the hospitality stems from a combination of Midwestern friendliness and an unbridled pride in the success of their football program. By any reasonable measure, the Nebraska Cornhuskers field one of the most famous football clubs in the NCAA. They’ve won 5 national titles. They've competed in 44 bowl games. So while their fans are wishing you good luck, they have traditionally known that the odds are your puny football players are about to have their spleens punctured.
But Nebraska isn’t dominant anymore. To understand why, it’s necessary to take a look back at their history and how, in the last few years, they've become victims of it. In a cornhusk, here’s what has transpired:
In 1962, the Cornhuskers hired Bob Devaney as their head coach. He took a mediocre team and built it into a national power, enjoying himself along the way (if the legend is to be believed, Davaney would become so intoxicated after home games that state troopers would surround his car and escort him home as he weaved between them at 5 mph). After winning national titles in 1970 and 1971, Devaney turned the position over to his taciturn assistant, Tom Osborne. Dr. Tom lifted the program to even greater heights, battling Oklahoma for league supremacy and winning national championships in 1994, 1995, and 1997. As the millennium closed, Nebraska had established itself as arguably the greatest college football team of the last 40 years.
Osborne retired after the 1997 season, and his hand-picked successor was a 19-year assistant coach named Frank Solich. Solich led the Cornhuskers to six consecutive bowl games, playing for the national title on Janurary 2, 2002. The Huskers got blown out in that game by a much faster Miami Hurricane team. The following year, perhaps still hungover from the championship loss, Nebraska stumbled to a 7-7 record.
The alums had no intention of getting used to life as a .500 team. Solich guided the Huskers to a respectable 8-3 record the following year, and was rewarded with a pink slip. He left the field with a .753 winning percentage, a record that would get coaches bronzed at most schools.
Desperate for a return to glory, Nebraska hired Bill Callahan, an NFL coach with no ties to the University. Callahan wasted no time in making changes. He installed the pass-oriented West Coast offense, alienating fans who preferred a strong running game. He dismantled the popular walk-on program, alienating high school coaches and players who dreamed of playing for the state team. He struck reporters and fans as arrogant—a marked departure from the modest and thoughtful Osborne. The program regressed, culminating in 2007 with the first losing season in 45 years. My Nebraska friend Heavy D’s mom gravely noted that Callahan didn’t behave like a Cornhusker coach ought to. Osborne came out of retirement as athletic director, an indication that Callahan’s days were numbered. The day Callahan was fired, an impromptu parade broke out in downtown Lincoln.
So now, on this warm and sunny fall day, the Big Red faithful celebrated their homecoming by breaking in yet another new head coach. This one’s name was Bo Pelini, an assistant who ran the Husker defense in 2003. As my friend Kitty and I pulled into town, the scarlet-clad fans exuded an air of optimism and possibility. Several shirts carried plays on the name Bo. Bo knows Nebraska. Bolicious. Bad to the Bone. Despite the downturn in Husker fortunes, they all wished us luck, a vestige of a time not long ago when opponents needed it in desperate measure. There were plenty of opportunities for luck wishing, with kickoff set for 8 p.m. and (16 oz.) beers going for $3.
The big story leading up to this game centered on the Tigers’ failure to win in Lincoln since 1978. There were scads of articles covering what had transpired in the intervening 30 years, many mentioning the invention of pasteurization and moveable type. The weight of history hung over Missouri like a fumigation tarp. Despite all those losses, the betting line tabbed the Tigers as an 11-point favorite. My feeling was that Mizzou could eclipse that number if they didn’t feel pressure to battle the ghost of blowouts past.
Mike Ekeler, the Nebraska linebacker coach, implied that the Cornhuskers had concocted some sort of secret defensive strategy to stop the Tigers. “I’m very, very, very excited about this game,” Ekeler told the Omaha World-Herald. “Very excited.” I’ve learned to discount pre-game boasts, but four “very’s” warranted monitoring.
Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium is massive, with two one-story red “N's” flanking its name and the years of the Corn’s national championships chiseled into its facade. Like every other storied program, the view from the visitors’ seats leave the seat occupant somewhat underwhelmed. Up high in the corner of the end zone, the benches seem to peel away from the field like the lid of a sardine can. Just break into small discussion groups and cheer amongst yourselves, visitors. Kitty pulled our hip flask of Johnny Walker from her pocket and I provided the go cups of watered-down Sierra Mist, the better to get our bearings.
The Sea of Red did not disappoint. Ever seen the Blob, the 1958 horror movie featuring Steve McQueen and a mound of red Nickelodeon Gack? Or the even blobbier 1988 remake? Far, far redder and blobbier than that. The crowd oozed and flowed like a bag of donor blood used for a hospital corn toss game. We were attending Nebraska’s 294th consecutive sellout, an NCAA record. The announced attendance of 85,372 ranked as the second-largest crowd ever, leading to the metaphysical question: If every game is a sellout, shouldn’t every crowd be the largest in school history?
The stadium was loud. "NOT 'PLOWED!' I SAID THE STADIUM IS LOUD!" Fans screamed, the sound system boomed, and the Husker Burgers™ sizzled with crackling intensity. Some stadia (always fun to use the plural) hold noise and others let it escape. Memorial Stadium turbocharges it. So this was the intimidation that had rattled sophomore Chase Daniel and so many Tiger teams before. The scoreboard itself bellowed with a plethora of Husker-associated endorsements. The roar of the bloodthirsty hordes built to a crescendo as the introduction of the players was teased with a blaring rendition of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius.” Although this musical bit was ripped off from MJ and the Chicago Bulls, it’s no less of a crowd pleaser. As the defensive starters appeared on the scoreboard, their faces morphed into flaming skulls in Nebraska helmets—a cool Pirates of the Carribean touch and my favorite effect by far. The Tigers elected to receive, and at 8 p.m. plus a few minute lag for commercials (the game was carried on ESPN), the Cornhuskers teed it up and kicked the ball high into the 64-degree night.
The wildly inventive, never-before-attempted Nebraska defensive scheme appeared to involve putting pressure on the quarterback. On the third play from scrimmage, two Cornhusker defenders converged on Chase Daniel, slamming him to the ground. A glitch in the plan, it turned out, as he had already released the ball. Jeremy Maclin hauled the pass in and ran 58 yards to make it 7-0 Tigers. Less than a minute of play had elapsed. If this was a strategy to get very, very, very, very excited about, the Corn should gag their defensive coordinator.
The Huskers tied it up, rolling out their QB repeatedly and finding seams in the Tiger secondary. Before you could take a long sip of your giant highball and mutter, “What might it take to quell the reddened masses?” the Tigers marched 80 yards and made it 14-7. Then they stopped the Cornhuskers and marched the other way again, culminating in a 48-yard Jeff Wolfort field goal. By late in the second quarter, when linebacker Brock Christopher picked off a Joe Ganz pass and ran it in, Mizzou had scored 5 times on only 4 possessions.
One of the things a new coach can do to improve a bad team quickly is to cut down on penalties. Bo Pelini, conversely, was leading his charges in a very, very, very, very exciting new direction. The Cornhuskers piled on themselves by piling on infractions, committing 14 for 101 yards--two of them personal fouls. Undoubtedly, the new coach wanted his charges to play aggressively, and, being 20-year-olds who want to impress the new boss, they showed him they could follow directions to the point of absurdity. As Heavy D likes to say, the "N" on the football helmet--it stands for knowledge!
The score at halftime stood at 31-10. We sauntered down the 27 ramps leading to what as best as I could tell was the only restroom in the stadium. The inside of a stadium men’s room always serves as a good barometer for a fan base's mood, but the Cornhusker fans had precious little to chatter about. As I approached a urinal trough, one of them spotted my gold Cotton Bowl sweatshirt and granted me a wide berth, muttering, “I wish my team was good.” Generous peeing space—yet another perk of a dominant football program.
Missouri poured in another 21 points in the third quarter, as the sea of red gradually gave way to thousands of empty grey seats. Kitty began surveying the field for other diversions. “What is that?!?” she grimaced. “That” was “Li’l Red,” one of two Nebraska mascots. L’il Red is the one you cannot miss, cannot look away from as much as you’d like to. He’s…he’s…a big, inflatable boy. Bouncing off goalposts and sideline officials with equally derelict aplomb, Li'l Red's random zig-zags provided an apt metaphor for the team he represented.
Li’l Red came into being years after the original Nebraska mascot, Herbie Husker. Herbie used to look like he actually came from Nebraska—blond hair, overalls, a cowboy hat and a build that could be described, in a positive way, as “corn-fed.” An ear of maize jutted jauntily from his pocket and, yes, he was happy to see you. If Herbie looked like a hayseed, he was a hayseed who could kick your ass. But the ever-diligent mascot police turned their backs on the state’s proud agrarian roots. Herbie’s hair was dyed chestnut brown with Just for Men for Mascots. The overalls were replaced by a red collared shirt and jeans. They put him on the Nutri-slim diet. Tonight being homecoming, Herbie had donned a sports jacket. He looked like Mitt Romney.
Why does Nebraska need two mascots when other schools have only one? My guess would be that the Nebraska administration felt that today's computer saavy kids--tomorrow's Huskers--couldn't relate to Herbie. This represents the same sort of flawed thinking that spawned the completely unnecessary Little Green Sprout to sell Green Giant veggies.
Pinkel pulled his starters in the 4th quarter and passed on the opportunity to kick another field goal, turning the ball over by calling a run into the line (the Tigers did not punt the entire game). With the final minutes ticking away, Kitty and I positioned ourselves on the walk leading to the visitors’ locker room. The final gun sounded--or Pelini shot himself--and the Missouri players streamed out, looking like a team that expected to do what they just had. They high-fived their adoring fans, beaming at the fuss made over their effort. Chase Coffman, for the record, is 8 foot 3.
Back on O street, we ducked into a crowded bar for a victory Bud Light, grabbing a couple of chairs to sit for the first time in hours. The game the Husker fans had just witnessed symbolized the first tangible evidence that the coaching change would not yield a fast turn around. A few fans made their way over to congratulate us. “You have a great team,” one said. “Good luck this season.” These were genuinely nice people--or at least unfailingly gracious ones--when they weren’t cheering for broken thumbs. Two Husker fans seated nearby provided a grim prognosis for their tough remaining games. I turned and perused a 2008 schedule that hung on the wall. They were probably right.
Thirty years of frustration and futility, washed away before the first half ended. The Tigers had passed their first big road test with plenty of head room to spare. A Tiger fan held up a sign near the end of the game that read “Corn. It’s what’s for dinner.” Another pair raised two signs--one that said simply, "wound" and the other, a shaker of salt.
When you’ve delivered beatings for 15 straight visits, sympathy isn't on the menu.