One Last Dance for Two Old Rivals
By Paul Myerberg // Dec 2, 2010
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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Tags: Barry Switzer, Bo Pelini, Bob Stoops, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tom Osborne
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