The leaves are beginning to turn in the heartland, and in a surprise to many, Nebraska football is still relevant. Ranked seventh overall - and possessing a shiny undefeated record - it seems that the Cornhuskers may have something going. So why the uneasiness? Well, for one, nobody really knows what to think about this team- this writer included. Between a move across the country, a new nine-month-old to take care of, and a job that requires more attention than anticipated, the ability to mindlessly pontificate about this team has taken a backseat. Today, that changes...
In a much too telling sign of my age, I found myself playing a game at work the other day. It was really quite simple, “How many of these things came before you were born?” I asked my annoyed - but gracious - coworker.
“...Weezer’s Blue Album?”
“Um... 1994, right? Yes. Older than me. Well, depends on when in the year.”
“Wait, that means Green Day’s Dookie?!?!”
“Uh, did that happen before 1994?”
“OH MY GOD THAT MEANS YOU ARE YOUNGER THAN MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS”
“Sure. If you say so.”
“Yes, let’s move on. The Buffalo Bills being good?”
“This game is stupid Jesse.”
Honestly, the game didn’t last much beyond that, but the point stood. A lot has happened since 1994, including an entire generation entering the workforce without my permission. My obvious blindspot for years of birth aside, there was something hitting home for me. The 90s are, in fact, a bygone era. An entire generation was born in that time.
The last time the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team started a season with seven wins and no losses was 2001. That season goes down as the beginning of the end. Despite a Heisman trophy winner, three All-American first team players, and a berth in the National Championship game, you could easily point to that year as the last time Nebraska had its hat in the ring that in the ‘National Conversation’.
Sure, Nebraska would jump in and out of the news cycle over the next 15 years, but let’s not kid ourselves. Nebraska saw its status as a King take a direct hit as the dulcet tones of Brent Musberger repeated the name “Bawwwwwbeee Per-if-yyyyyy” over and over and over. Bobby Purify and Chris Brown would shred the Blackshirts and the whole thing was over before it started. Nebraska would limp into the Rose Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes and that would be a merciful kill by Larry Coker’s bunch.
You could almost feel the tide changing in Nebraska. Gone were the days of the option working, gone were the days of a mean and dominant defense... All of it was gone, as if the 90s changing over were a sign of an era disappearing.
“Tommie Frazier? Seriously? You don’t know who Tommie Frazier is?”
The game never ends, does it? Getting older, getting married, having kids, changing jobs, moving to new cities, chasing new things.
Here I was, a new guy hanging out in Texas - Austin, no less... Longhorn country - and for the life of me, nobody could tell me who Tommie Frazier was.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T KNOW WHO TOMMIE FRAZIER IS? DO YOU FOOTBALL?”
1994, 1991, 1990, 1989
Those are the birth years of many of my coworkers. Sure, I’m not that much older, but I also was born into the mythos of Johnny Rodgers, Tom Rathman, Mike Rozier, Irving Fryar, Jerry Tagge, Dave Rimington, and of course the Bobfather himself. Still, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
From 1993 to 1997, Nebraska football was 60-3. They would win three National Championships, four bowl games, defeat 17 AP Top 25 teams with only two losses, and secure all but one conference championship.
Reread that paragraph. You will have to forgive some Nebraska fans if they live in the past a little. That was an amazing time to be a football fan, and it secured a place at the table - not that the 80s and 70s didn’t do that as well. Sure, all good things come to an end, but for those of us who grew up - or thrived - with Nebraska at its peak, there was no guarantee of loss. Every week was going to be a win. Every team was beatable. The swagger was real, and you know what? The team found a way to back up our trash talk every time.
“So what’s going to happen this year, Jesse?”
If you haven’t been following along, this has been a crazy year in the KennardHusker household. I welcomed Baby KennardHusker into the fold as Alabama was securing another National Championship, and instead of slowing down and taking life as it came, I accepted a role with a company in Austin. It seemed like it would be fun to uproot my family, leave all of the stability of friends and loved ones, and take on the brutal Austin summer. I cannot say I’d trade this experience for anything else in the world, but let’s just say that culture shock is always on the agenda.
“Is Nebraska going to be good?”
Well, how do you answer that? As a Nebraska fan who tried to be level-headed, what was there to say? “Hey, we backed into a bowl at the end of last year, and despite some real signs of life - including the running over of UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl - we definitely finished the season with a losing record.”
My expectations were set firmly at, “Hey, let’s not lose games we shouldn’t by forgetting to defend Hail Mary passes!” I’m a simple man with really simple goals.
Between 1962 and 1997, Nebraska employed two head coaches for the football team. Between 1998 and present, Nebraska has employed four (not including interim bowl stints). For a school that is rooted in tradition and stability, you can easily point to the volatility as point of contention around the state.
Frank Solich? Not Tom Osborne.
Bill Callahan? I can’t believe you wrote his name.
Bo Pelini? [expletives redacted]
Well, that’s where we find ourselves now.
In his debut season, Mike Riley set out to make a name for himself. Unfortunately, he did just that...
Hail Mary Loss
Bad clock management
Worst pass defense in the nation
Beat Michigan State?
Okay, so at least there were some positives. But, most fans would be hard pressed to say that last year was a success and you probably had people pining for Bo Pelini’s steady diet of 9 wins and 4 losses.
Really, though, going into the season, there was some hope abounding. Recruiting was picking up. Word around camp was that we could defend the pass. Everything was rosy. Until it happened.
“Sam Foltz was killed in a car accident last night”
I can’t say for certain how Bo Pelini would have handled the locker room when Sam Foltz passed away. I do know that his players were loyal, and I do know that at the end of the day, he cared for them like they were his family. I have no doubt that he would have been a good coach and an outstanding shepherd for a lot of hurting kids.
That said, the measure of a good coach is when you don’t really know what to do and you’re put in those situations directly. Coach Mike Riley may have some blemishes on the coaching acumen resume, but his leadership and calm through the tragedy that befell this team is something I will never forget.
So Nebraska has surpassed expectations, we can all agree with that. Sure, nobody knew Oregon would be a complete mess, and honestly, we weren’t aware that the best win of the season would be Wyoming, but considering the tragedies and absurd distractions - see: Hal Daub talking about football players - this team has overcome in 2016, I would call this a win. Still, it seems like there is so much more to do. So many things that fans want to cheer about, but are keeping reserved about.
When Kirk Herbstreit and his merry band of talking heads took aim at Nebraska, fans started to murmur. The levels of disrespect felt like they could rival any Spartan that day. While I think most Nebraska fans need to cool it a little bit, it was nice to see some fire in the fanbase again. The last few years have beaten our psyche up, and ultimately made this whole enterprise a little less fun. This year, though, it was more than just winning. It was all about having some fun.
Which brings us to the Wisconsin Badgers.
Madison has been a terrible place for Nebraska to date. From the bludgeoning we took in our entry to the Big Ten, to watching Melvin Gordon run down the sidelines as Bo Pelini’s staff refused to adjust, all I can say is that I sort of hate that place. The thing is, this is a different team than has gone up to Wisconsin. In all honesty, I don’t know if it is fair for me to expect a win this weekend. For as long as I can remember, I’ve told my close friends that we would lose to the Badgers, but this year, I’m optimistic.
“Tommy Armstrong might throw ten interceptions, though.”
Well, fair. But I like our chances. Our defense is much improved. Our staff is much improved. Hell, Tommy Armstrong is improved. Let’s just say that despite Wisconsin’s two wins over Top Ten teams - that are currently far less than Top Ten teams - I think we stand a chance.
And don’t look now, but I would like to think that Nebraska can get to Indianapolis for a chance at its first Big Ten Championship. These are real goals in front of us, and the fact that it’s almost November makes me giddy.
In a normal year, I would have spent many a weekend in Lincoln by now. I would have surrounded myself with the comforts of cold winds and bright red hot dogs. Runzas and Valentino’s. “Sirius” and “Let me clear my throat.” But this time, I am watching it all from afar. It makes the whole thing a little bittersweet, but I also went swimming two weeks ago, so there’s that.
I really do not know what will happen tomorrow, but for a few brief moments, I am enjoying the fact that I am a fan of a Top Ten, undefeated, Power 5 team. It’s a good day to be a Husker fan. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to say that.