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P.S.R. Op-Ed

One Last Dance for Two Old Rivals

Let’s do this dance one more time. It feels right, doesn’t it? It felt right in 1971, when these two behemoths met in the first — and only, in my mind — game of the century. It moved us again throughout the next generation, when irresistible Oklahoma met immovable Nebraska on a yearly basis, always with something special up their sleeves, always with the full attention of the nation. It’s fitting, in that regard, that when these two old rivals meet for perhaps the last time, it is with the conference title on the line. That’s how it’s always been, after all.

Just what happens when irresistible Oklahoma meets immovable Nebraska? Nearly 40 years ago, magic was made. A once one-sided rivalry became one of the nation’s best, thanks to Nebraska’s elevation into the nation’s elite and Oklahoma’s continued level of excellence. The dance continued, with Barry Switzer replacing Chuck Fairbanks and Tom Osborne stepping in for Bob Devaney, but the song never changed.

The bloom has come off that rose, at least somewhat. No longer does this game annually dictate national title hopes, as it did for so long. Back when the Big Eight ruled the roost, the November tussle would have undefeated seasons in the balance; the Sooners typically got the better of the Cornhuskers, winning six straight from 1972-77 and nine of its first 10 overall under Switzer. Even in 1978, when Nebraska finally broke through, O.U. landed a measure of revenge in that season’s Orange Bowl.

Each program’s fortunes have spun to and fro, with Oklahoma entering a dark period in the 1990s and Nebraska only in the last 16 months overcoming a dry spell defined by the previously unthinkable: losing. The kind of losing previously unknown in those parts, yearly tests of mettle that had a charmed fan base wondering when — or if — the Cornhuskers would return to prominence.

It’s apropos that each program spent time lost in the woods; it’s also fitting that in each case, it took a coach from tough-as-nails Youngstown, Ohio, to pull the two programs back into the national spotlight. It’s hard to say whether Switzer and Osborne were propelled by a mutual dislike for the other, though it’s obvious that each spent countless winters, springs, summers and falls — especially falls — scoreboard watching, for lack of a better word, to see where each team stood in respect to the other.

There was always respect, however: that continues with Bob Stoops and Bo Pelini, two childhood friends whose career arcs have greatly mirrored the other. Both have Big Ten roots — Iowa for Stoops, Ohio State for Pelini. Each were defensive backs; each continues to have a mindset geared towards the defensive side of the ball.

Each made their bones coaching defenses; each were lifted into their current positions by being the defensive coordinator on a national title-winning team. No matter what, no matter how far each team dropped or rose, there was — and is, and always will be — a deep, meaningful connection between Oklahoma and Nebraska.

So we sit and wait, knowing full well that this is the last time we’ll see these two giants meet with everything on the line. Yes, the pair might cement a home-and-home deal in 2020-21. And there remains the chance that the Sooners and Cornhuskers meet in a future bowl game — preferably something in the B.C.S.; it would be upsetting to see the pair meet in the Insight Bowl, for instance.

It wouldn’t be the same. It will never be the same, in fact. Oklahoma will continue its rivalry with Texas, but it will feel different. Yes, Texas pushes Oklahoma onwards: it’s a push engineered by fear — fear that Texas will overrun the conference — rather than mutual respect, the sentiment on which the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry was built.

Nebraska might find a nice partner in Wisconsin, for example, but it just won’t feel the same. Wisconsin won’t push Nebraska at all, not in the slightest, not even remotely quite like O.U. did for decades. Simply put, Oklahoma brought out the best in Nebraska — and vice versa.

And so the relationship ends. Well, not yet: there’s still one more game left to be played, one last dance to complete, before we close the book on one of the most mutually beneficial rivalries in college sports. To live up to its past, this game must be both irresistible and immovable, all at once, befitting the stature of two partners looking to recapture the magic one last time before heading their separate ways.

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  1. [...] Paul Myerberg has a very nice obit for one of the touchstone games of my life, Oklahoma and Nebraska.  There’s just something not right about its demise. [...]

  2. Msulaxer27 says:

    Well they could continue to play this game as an out of conference game…What, why are you laughing?

  3. Sal Di Leo says:

    I moved to Nebraska from Illinois in 1968. I didn’t know anybody other than Notre Dame knew how to play football before that. I was a freshman in High School. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Nebraska and Nebraska Football. Oklahoma, as you put it, was what made Nebraska Football great. 1971 was the only “Game OF The Century”.The Sooners will always be my second favorite team and the greatest rivals Nebraska will ever have in my mind. Go BIG REDS!!!

    Sal In Minneapolis

  4. Jack says:

    I’m more excited about seeing that annual Nebraska/Iowa rivalry than about Wisconsin.

  5. Brad says:

    The 78 game was my first live Husker game as a 9 year old from western Nebraska. I hate that we can’t continue this game. The Big 12 wounded this rivalry Nebraska’s move to the Big 10 and the Big 12′s soon coming destruction will kill this rivalry. Maybe we can play in 2020-2021 or in a bowl game sooner. Good luck to all the former Big 8.

  6. Another aspect of that year in college football was the Vietnam War. Being a youngster at the time I remember seeing battle footage on TV. It was time to call the whole thing off. In the States it was bury your head in the sand. The boys died…we lived on a world apart. Doing so left us guilty and with guilt you want to forget. So the nation did by tuning into the most media covered college game I’ve ever heard about. Both teams were picked early to perform and boy they sure did. Johnny Rodgers gets most of the credit with his star performance and the big punt return. But you can’t forget Jack Mildren’s gutty play. The one no talked about but when watching the game again you could see the incredible dominance(Suh style) of Rich Glover. 22 total tackles! Yet my greatest take on this game is how it represented the best of football in general. The dynamic offensive styles that produced in such a varied fashion. It was certainly a remarkable game that a lucky 55 Million enjoyed.

  7. Josh says:

    Well done!

    I really hope that the 2020/2021 home and home exchange materializes and then proceeds to become a great non-conference rivalry. It could be an annual season opener or it could be played the weak before the Red River Rivalry.

    As for the assertion that there is not going to be another rivalry like it for either team? I would agree. But I think Nebraska comes out ahead here because there will be mutual respect with Wisconsin, enmity with Iowa, Michigan and Penn State will also push Nebraska to be better. They might go in being scared that Ohio State is going to dominate the conference and that could help the Huskers too. Iron sharpens iron and there is a lot of it in the Big Ten.

  8. Nebraska-Oklahome 1971 truly was the “game of the century” and the Huskers were the best of all time (until the 1995 Huskers came along) while OU ’71 was arguably the #2 college team of all time! The Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry represented the best of college athletics–top athletes, top coaches, top fan-bases with great games and mutual respect, year after year. Going to the Big Ten makes sense on all levels for NU but we will miss our old friends in the Big 8! Good luck to OU in the future (and to KU, ISU, etc.)!

  9. RS says:

    This championship game meeting is a mere coincidence, the obit on the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry should have been written at the dawn of the Big 12, which needlessly killed it. The Big 12 is the most poorly run major conference. They should have followed the example of the best run league, the SEC, which shares revenue equitably and kept cross-divisional rivalries in tact (e.g. Alabama-Tennessee, Auburn-Georgia) after the divisional split.

  10. quigley says:

    Great picture of the clip that wasn’t.
    Glover was indeed the star. OU had the offense to match the Huskers no one on defense to get a stop.

    There are few teams with 3 big annual, OU was one (UT, Ok St, and Neb) until the invention of the Big 12. With Ok St’s rise, OU will be reluctant to add a 3rd competitive rivalry game. Tex A&M may become a 3rd rival for the Sooners in the Big 12 hangs around long enough (at least on the A&M side, 77-spit). Plus, risk of a losing a non-con game to a team located in an area with no recruiting base has no benefit.

    About every 10 yrs, OU-Neb should make the trip for the old folks, and when the SUPER conferences are created and the cartel is broken (which is the way it’ll happen), the rivals can create a new structure.

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