“Touchdown Oklahoma State.” This mundane call was all too familiar in Memorial Stadium on October 13, 2007. The first was bearable. The second concerning. The third just sad. The defeated crowd heard this call five times, along with a field goal score, before a mass exodus towards the exits. All before halftime. On homecoming weekend.
13-year old me was seated in south stadium watching this massacre unfold with my dad and some family friends. Like most fans, we were frustrated from the start. The horrible play calling, bad execution, and blatant apathy were all evident from kickoff. The game was over before Bill Callahan and co. came running out of the tunnel while Nebraska fans prayed for a spark of something positive to cheer for. Sound familiar?
My friend Nate–who was a freshman at UNL at the time–and I left at halftime to check out the homecoming floats along Greek Row in what I consider my first official visit to the university I ended up attending six years later. The feeling of embarrassment and hopelessness hung over me the rest of the day. This is what I had come to expect as a Husker fan growing up in the 2000s: mediocrity, sloppiness, and lethargy.
The rest of the day I was itching to go back home and play NCAA Football with my juggernaut team to make up on the virtual field what Nebraska couldn’t do on the real one. One thought lingered in my head as flashes of a five-touchdown, 450-yard stat line from my star NCAA Football QB (named Joe Grobeck of course) alleviated the pain: What is the big whoop my dad and elders keep talking about with Nebraska football?
Hearing about the 90s Nebraska Cornhuskers almost seems like it was a hoax. After seeing Blade Runner 2049 this week I’m questioning if it was even real. The figures of Tom Osborne, Tommie Frazier, Ahman Green, Grant Wistrom, and Scott Frost are remembered as heroes who performed larger-than-life deeds we reminisce about with excitement, and hunger for now. They are legends of folklore whose omnipresence shakes their heads in disappointment of what the program has become the last 20 years.
Seeing past footage of these impeccable teams play is bittersweet. You see the greatness and appreciate it, but realize it will be near impossible to reach those standards again. It’s like watching a classic movie with a crappy sequel; knowing they will never be able to follow-up the story properly. Cough Cough Spider-Man 3. But, what makes sports so great is being a part of an event and having personal memories of it. The fabled “where were you when” moments that can only be created if you were around to bear witness.
Unfortunately, I was a baby and toddler for most of Nebraska’s hayday. My first Husker memory is the famous double reverse pass Eric Crouch caught to beat Oklahoma in 2001. At the end of that season, he hoisted the Heisman trophy and we were playing Miami for a National Championship. That season was probably the peak of Husker football where I was cognitive enough to remember. We went on to lose to one of the greatest college football teams ever in Miami, and since then we have plummeted into despair, grasping for any sign of life with faded memories of what once was.
We then started a trend of firing 9-3 coaches because apparently, that doesn’t meet expectations at Nebraska. I was too young to have an opinion on the Frank Solich firing, but I remember Bo’s forced departure vividly. We came off a late rally win at Iowa that many thought would save Bo’s job. Think again.
Now, I’m not a huge Bo supporter and wasn’t oblivious to his flaws. However, I saw fire in Bo’s teams. I saw guys willing to run through a wall for him. I saw intensity. I saw a coach who looked like he actually cared if we won or lost. Little things that are necessary to be a competitive football team. What lacked was proper coaching. There were lackluster mistakes along with average recruiting and an unhealthy “us vs. the world” mentality that pitted the team against anyone not in the locker room.
With Bo we were stagnant. We beat the teams we were supposed to beat but were exposed by elite competition. The latter being the reason we supposedly fired him. In this situation, a competent athletic director would’ve sat down with Bo and had a conversation about his job status. Why not use 2015 as a probation year? Let him prove he can change and is willing to do so for the sake of his job. Give him clear expectations and if he doesn’t meet them show him the door. Would one more year of Bo have been that detrimental? Here’s a list of notable coaches looking for new opportunities had Bo Pelini been let go a year later: Miami’s Mark Richt, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente. All currently ranked in the top 15. Would we have landed these guys? We’ll never know. What we do know is that those teams are competing for championships and Nebraska is sitting at 3-4.
Instead, Eichorst abruptly fired Bo after a thrilling win on the road against a rival where our team showed heart and passion. I agree in that things needed to change, but the way Eichorst went about it has me scratching my head. He fired Bo. OK, what now? We have the opportunity to restart our program after two mis-hires in a decade. Let’s get someone in here who has a vision and understands what winning and Nebraska football are about.
We proceeded to hire a 61-year old on the hot seat at a below average power-five school who has a career .500 record. What’s even worse is Eichorst went about his search solo, and apparently Mike Riley was the only coach he talked to. Nevertheless, Mike Riley is the head coach now. I’ll give him a chance and my support until warranted otherwise.
I’m a full believer the Mike Riley hire was purely for PR purposes with puppet master Harvey Perlman pulling the strings. He is the anti-Bo in basically every aspect. Calm, soft-spoken, doesn’t throw sideline tantrums, won’t harm the university’s image, and of course, being a nice guy. Whatever your opinion on Riley is, it’s almost always prefaced with “he’s a nice guy.” 99% of every conversation I’ve had about Mike Riley has gone something like this (NSFW):
Mike Riley is a nice guy. No doubt about it. I’m sure I could walk right up to him and have a great conversation about life and appreciate him as a human being. Being a nice guy doesn’t win football games though. Football games are won with toughness, emotion, execution, and intensity. Things our team has lacked ever since Mike Riley arrived in Lincoln. He is the epitome of “nice guys finish last” as he has rarely had above-average success as a head coach.
After multiple last-second losses and a 5-7 season followed by a fluke 9-3 season, that brings us to the present. Almost 10 years to the date of the infamous train wreck at the hands of Oklahoma State we were manhandled at home again by another school in a state beginning with “O”. I decided to watch the game at a popular downtown-gameday bar with a group of friends. Not even five minutes in, Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins breaks a 50-yard run to the house to put the Buckeyes up 7-0. I turned away from the TV and continued to mingle with friends, knowing this game was over. It didn’t even take five minutes to realize this Ohio State team was better than us in every facet of the game and there was no chance of us winning.
23-year old me went about my night. I wasn’t embarrassed and didn’t dwell about the play on the field. This loss didn’t put me in a bad mood. These are the type of outcomes I’ve come all too familiar with as a millennial Nebraska fan. What else have I known? I’ve heard tales from the past of the whole state standing still after a loss and people being devastated as if losing a football game was an abomination. The closest thing to a marquee victory I’ve witnessed was the 2009 Big XII Championship Game. Blowout losses to formidable opponents with our team having little to no chance have become the norm.
And that eats at me. I want to feel on top of the world after a big win and emotional distress after an upsetting loss. I want to lose my voice from screaming my heart out at a close game. I want to roll out of bed at 2pm on a Sunday after partying too late from celebrating a win against the likes of Ohio State, Penn State or Wisconsin. It’s hard to do all of this when the program has been a broken record of unremarkable showings the past 15 years.
I will always love the Nebraska football team. I grew up a Husker fan and now am lucky enough to call the university my alma mater. I am longing for any sign that will bring us back to the national prestige my dad always speaks of. I dream of a day where we can consistently compete with Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and be in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. I want to believe we will get there, but if we don’t, I don’t have the memories of the 90s to salvage what this program has become.
Here’s to Bill Moos guiding us back to prominence.