Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why you should cheer for Nebraska

As you may know, longtime rivals and two of the most storied programs in college football history will meet in the last Big 12 Championship Game, with the format switching to round robin next year. Nebraska and Oklahoma. Oh boy. They're proud, they're passionate, they're draped in red. Pretty much everyone in the Big 12 universe except Husker fans wants Oklahoma to win, wants to send Nebraska packing without the Big 12 title. I'm here to tell you that you don't have to go with the resentful hordes, that there's another way. And since you've made it this far, I trust you'll at least hear me out before pausing, clearing your throat and yelling "Boomer Sooner!" anyway.

The Rivalry
First, quick background. There are books about Nebraska and Oklahoma, but here it is in a nutshell. Both have over 40 conference titles and they have won a combined 12 national titles and eight Heisman Trophies. Oklahoma has the highest winning percentage since World War II, Nebraska has the most wins since 1970. Year after year after year, they played for the Big Eight Championship. Even in the Big 12 era (last 15 years), these two have played in the Big 12 title game more than any of the other schools.

Both fan bases are very aware of the game's traditions, and both have, by and large, a heaping helping of Midwestern manners and sensibilities (both schools play visitors' fight songs before games). These manners are supplemented with a pride bordering on arrogance at times. In summation, more than anything else, with apologies to Kansas hoops and the pure joy that is Big 8/12 hoops, these two football schools and their rivalry have shaped the identity of this conference more than anything else.

And now, the case for rooting for the Huskers:

"Any one of you woulda done the same!"
Yes, Nebraska will leave this conference for the Big Ten at the end of the season, this after 103 years in the Big 12/8/MVIAA, and even longer before that in primitive conferences with neighbors Kansas and Missouri. A long, beautiful history is being broken, and it's okay to be upset. But don't blame the Huskers, don't harbor a grudge for their decision to leave. Most other schools in the league, certainly every other non-Colorado North team would have leapt and cartwheeled into the Big Ten if asked. Gov. Nixon and plenty of Mizzou fans politicked to do the same thing Nebraska has been vilified for. To hate the Huskers now for it smacks of envy or bitterness.

I'm (still) not sure how I feel about the move, but I know Nebraska did what they felt they had to do. Tom Osborne saw a shaky league that we all though was blowing apart, that may yet do so, and he had to make a tough call. With the program he'd help build hanging in the balance, he did what he always does: steady his hands, study the play sheet/situation, and make the best call he could. Nebraska is going to a fine, well-run, prestigious conference. The remaining teams in the Big 12 still have a legit league and will soon get a fat TV contract payday. Everyone is okay here. Yes, it's rough the tradition was sacrificed. But some tradition was already lost in the Big 8/Big 12 transition. Again, everyone is okay. There doesn't need to be a villain.

There is no shame is Nebraska wins the conference and then leaves. There will still be a Big 12 (or whatever they'll call it) champion next year. Nebraska is in the league in 2010, and if they are the best in 2010, it doesn't matter what will happen in 2011. If you just don't like the Big Red, fine, but don't give me this leaving the conference/looks bad bit. I guess I just don't see it. If you want to talk about this league looking bad, we'll examine its NCAA tourney history, but I don't want to... Not in this post, anyway.

Nebraska's fan base is known for their passion and manners. Even despite the lunatic actions of some on the fringe during this rocky season, the people I interacted with in my road trip to Lincoln were good people. Yes, they won so maybe it's easy to be nice, but they were also friendly and offered to take my group's picture before the game, before the deluge.

But this year has no doubt been a challenge for Husker fans and the high standards they set for themselves. Most were too stunned to give the traditional postgame applause to the visiting Texas Longhorns after the Huskers lost in October. Some Nebraska players said they were heckled by Husker fans. Then came coach Bo Pelini's sideline meltdown at A&M, caused by (and the cause of?) the stupendously awful officiating in that game.

Ugly fan behavior usually gets more publicity, and Husker fans were wrestling with the fear that the league was trying to keep them from winning. I want to say this is preposterous, and yet mounting evidence kept popping up. Exactly one player has been suspended by the conference office this year, and of course he's a Husker. Missing the Burkhead head-twisting at Iowa State and the crotch-grabbing of a Nebraska player at A&M as the Husker lay right by a referee were awful. They turned egregious when instead Nebraska players drew personal foul penalties on those plays. This pro wrestling referee incompetence amped up the fears of the paranoid part of the fan base, and then World Cup ref moves such as throwing flags, then saying "there is no penalty" without further explanation didn't exactly put out the fire. Neither did the way low penalty totals on Husker opponents this season. After the A&M game, Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe didn't have anyone from the league offices present the North trophy to Nebraska, citing the very negative mail his office had received, saying it wasn't safe. What a shame.

I don't know how much a league could/would orchestrate such a thing, and I really believe the Huskers issues here were a mix of their own mistakes and the referees, um, human struggles, not anything dark or evil or planned. But the above incidents only made this season more difficult. It's been a struggle, a mix of successes and failings.

But that's life. Now the fans can show up in Dallas in droves, and hopefully the good fans, the real fans, will be at the forefront. This could be a happy ending for the fans, coaches and players who have endured a rough year, some their own doing, some just situational. But regardless, to see them overcome all the storm, to get better and be better for all this, would be a sight to see. It would be a redemption story, and I like those.

For the outnumbered, for the underdog, for ol' Benskie
This game has the feel of Nebraska against the world. Husker fans may say that's about fair, given their, um, pride. Nebraskans went up against the wild, untamed, unbreakable prairie. They went up against the grasshoppers who descended on the plains and ate everything (hence the old mascot name, the Bugeaters). Now they stand up against an angry conference, naturally playing in Dallas, where league offices relocated to when the Big 8 became the Big 12, a move Nebraska tried to block.

And yes, Oklahoma is a slight favorite in this game. Nebraska has had injury issues on offense, at the one position toughest to overcome injuries at: the quarterback. I don't think freshman sensation Taylor Martinez will be fully healthy for this game, and that may be the difference. But he has been hurt a lot this season. The Huskers have had to adjust, swallow their pride again, and try to win on the Blackshirt defense, the Rex-cat formation (direct snap to the running back), and old reliable, kicker/punter Alex Henery. If they pull out this one with a limited Martinez, or no Martinez, these kids have guts to spare.

Lastly, yes, this is one of my teams, quite possibly my most beloved sports team after Mizzou, in any sport. More than any other team, the Huskers are a link to my youth and my ancestry. They're the team I watched as I fell in love with college football, the team I emulated as a kid in my Nebraska backyard, the team my dad heard on the radio while working on the farm as a kid. And this Saturday night, I want them to win. And maybe, just maybe, you might root for them as well. Either way, should be a great game.

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