(Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
(This week we move on to the newest member of the Big Ten conference: Nebraska. The Huskers have plenty of history -- about which, more in a minute -- and also one helluva SBNation site in Corn Nation. I suggest you check it out.)
Usually in this space I talk about history. When you look around the Big Ten it is hard to miss it. The conference is the oldest in major college football. It came about after a meeting of Midwestern colleges in 1895, and by the 1950's the Big Ten was a fully formed entity that wouldn't see any change for almost half a decade -- adding Penn State in 1990.
This kind of long-standing stability helped the Big Ten grow into something more than just a collection of colleges or schools on a schedule. This isn't the malleable CUSA, the hodge-podge Big East, or the convenient marriage that was the MWC. The Big Ten is a culture, a group of programs forged in fire over a long period of time, and one that is richer for the years of shared experience. It is the college football environment that brought us Michigan and Ohio State's storied rivalry. It has helped forge the three-way rivalry between the long standing western-most trio of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. It gives meaning to the yearly clash of Purdue and Indiana. And long-held bitterness over the exclusion of Michigan State from the Big Ten continues to fuel the hate on either side of the Michigan/MSU rivalry.
The Big Ten often gets called stodgy and old-fashioned, but any argument to the contrary must confront the fact that in some ways the Big Ten is beholden to its old-fashioned nature. You can almost imagine Jim Delany wondering aloud, "without our shared history, where are we?" before opposing another bit of reasonable change in the national landscape. The Big Ten was built on a regional bias fueled by the surging productivity of the Midwest as a manufacturing power during the 20th century. The hubris is there. It's been there for years.
It is down this hallowed hallway of tradition and nostalgia that the Nebraska Cornhuskers walked this past year on the way to becoming the bonafied twelfth member of the Big Ten, and the first addition in over two decades.
Nebraska isn't a newcomer to history. In fact there are few programs that have a richer history than Nebraska does. The Cornhuskers spent much of the latter half of the 20th century as one of the top college football programs in the country.
The early 60s brought about the tenure of Bob Devaney, who immediately found success at Nebraska after the program had floundered for decades. That season kicked off not only an unprecedented run of success for the Huskers, but it led to the birth of a few of Nebraska's long-lasting traditions. There were the Blackshirts that the starting defense wore and the option offense that offensive coordinator and soon to be head coach, Tom Osborne, installed. The Huskers won back to back national titles in the early 70s and then won
three two and a half titles in four years from 1994 to 1997. From the takeover of the program by Devaney to the successful, but ultimately insufficient five year run by Frank Solich it was almost impossible to find a program that had accomplished more and built a better model for success.
Yet all of this success came in a much different setting than the Big Ten, which fed on the booming (soon to be busting) manufacturing centers around the Great Lakes region. Nebraska was disconnected from all of this. The Cornhuskers grew our of the Big Eight conference, a collection of schools in America's heartland. And while Nebraska's history is its own, it is colored by the games it played and the grudges it held while still roaming the plains every fall to take on Jayhawks and Wildcats and Sooners.
What does a team do then, when it has left most of its history behind, walked away from the rivalries with which it definied itself for years, away from the conference foes it battled with and beat up on. Nebraska is a team with history, but in many ways that history now stands irrelevant.
If you need proof, look no farther than the rivalry that was once as big a part of Nebraska football as Ohio State is to Michigan: the Oklahoma Sooners.
The clashes between Nebraska and Oklahoma are the stuff of college football legend. Two meccas of college football dominance rising out of the plains, meeting year after year to battle for the Big Eight title, but more importantly: bragging rights. The birth of the Big XII eventually tainted the rivalry, as Texas took over as the second power school while Nebraska's dominance waned under Bill Callahan. Still, this was a game that meant something much greater than the final rankings. It was the kind of deep seeded rivalry that grips those involved whether the teams are 11-0 or 0-11 coming in. It, like those of the Big Ten, was forged over years. Now it's gone.
Nebraska comes to the Big Ten with a new cross division rival, Penn State, and natural rivalries against Iowa and Minnesota that will be played on a yearly basis. There is intrigue in the matchups against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Michigan State, and the Huskers even completed a right of passage by losing to justNorthwestern in the first meeting of the teams.
The football is good, it just isn't the same.
That won't always be the case. History is written every day, and while Nebraska has left behind its natural rivals in the plains, it picks up a few more to the northeast. Where the Huskers have given up clashes for the Big Eight title and the Big XII North championship, they have taken on battles with Michigan, MSU, and Iowa for the Legends division.
Time heals all wounds, and it too will grow more rivalry and sports-hate. It just takes a while. Until then, enjoy being the new guy, Nebraska. The honeymoon will be over soon enough.