So, you’re tired of board games, not to mention bored games.
Let’s have some fun.
Let’s say you meet a stranger. He or she is new to Nebraska. He or she wants to know the story of Nebraska football, but only has time to watch five games.
Which five games would you select?
I threw that question out to the Twitterverse last week. The responses poured in. Good, thoughtful responses.
Most of them rounded up the usual suspects: big games, championship games. Game of the Century, the 1984 and 1995 Orange Bowl bookends. A few picked the 2001 Colorado massacre but not many games after that.
There are no wrong answers here.
There are different narratives. Which story do you want to tell?
The one with Nebraska at the top of the mountain? The one with heartbreak? The one with a little of both. Superstars. Sellouts.
It’s a tough assignment, but a good brain teaser for Husker history fans. Which is all of you.
As Kent Pavelka said, “The story can’t adequately be told in five games.” True. And, tough. This puts an emphasis on priority. What’s important to you?
I’m going to delay my response until last. But first, I thought I would share the views of some graybeard observers of Husker history who witnessed a lot of it firsthand.
» Pavelka, long-time voice of Husker football and basketball, chose: 1959 win over Oklahoma; 1962 Gotham Bowl win over Miami; 1971 Orange Bowl win over LSU (the first national championship); 1982 Orange Bowl loss to Clemson; 1995 Orange Bowl (Tom Osborne’s first national title).
Pavelka's comment: “The story is about the ebb and flow of trying to scale the mountain. From meager beginnings, to progress, to the top, back-to-back heart-wrenching near misses and finally to the top again.”
Well said. I liked the use of the 1959 game. Not many used that one.
» Lee Barfknecht, former World-Herald NU beat reporter: 1962 Nebraska vs. Missouri; 1971 Game of the Century; 1994 Orange Bowl, Florida State vs. Nebraska; 1996 Fiesta Bowl; 2002 Rose Bowl.
Lee B’s comments: He chose the 1962 Missouri win over NU because it was the first game of the continuing sellout streak — “to this day, Nebraska fan loyalty is its greatest natural resource” — and the 1994 Orange Bowl proved the Huskers could play with anyone — and the loss fueled the next three national titles. The 2002 Rose Bowl? It validated the weaknesses that the blowout loss to Colorado exposed, "and the hangover from the end of that season persists to this day.”
I liked the use of the sellout streak game — an important part of the program history.
» Mike Babcock, veteran Nebraska sports writer who has written several books on Nebraska football history: 1941 Rose Bowl; 1959 Oklahoma; 1971 Game of the Century; 1984 Orange Bowl; 1995 Orange Bowl.
Babcock wrote, “Any of the national championship seasons reflects the Nebraska story, but it’s much more complex than that.”
He used the Rose Bowl because “Nebraska fans were extremely passionate about that game and that passion didn’t diminish (with the loss).” That game was a mile-marker for the program, showed it could compete nationally. The 1959 upset of OU, which ended the Sooners’ 74-game conference unbeaten streak, was a similar game.
» Chuck Sinclair, former Lincoln Journal-Star writer: 1971 Game of the Century; 1984 Orange Bowl; 1994 Colorado; 1996 Fiesta Bowl; 2000 Notre Dame.
I liked Sinclair’s final choice. The day that the Sea of Red took over Notre Dame’s iconic stadium was so important that it was made into a poster that hangs in bars and basements throughout the state. As Sinclair wrote, “You want a history of Nebraska football? This was history.” Indeed.
» Eric Olson, Associated Press and former Husker football writer for the World-Herald: 1962 Michigan; 1971 Game of the Century; 1984 Orange Bowl; 1995 Orange Bowl; 2001 Colorado.
Olson’s story shows five sign-post games, each one altered the image of Nebraska football. And that started with Bob Devaney’s win at Michigan in his second game at NU.
He almost used the 2007 Oklahoma State loss, the home blowout that triggered the end of the Steve Pederson era. That’s an interesting choice, too. Very few responses used any game from the Pederson/Callahan era, and a only handful selected games after the 2001 Colorado game.
It’s almost as if that game in Boulder was the edge of the earth for NU, the end of an era. In a way, it was.
I disagree, slightly. Wait, it’s my turn now. Who came up with this crazy idea, anyway? You can’t do this in five games.
Here goes nothing:
Game of the Century, 1971: I agree, the history of NU football goes back before Devaney. But for me, the story of Husker football begins with the Devaney era. The winning. The sellouts. The championships. The passion.
There were so many big Devaney games before this. At Michigan. Beating OU in 1963, the day after President Kennedy was assassinated to win the school’s first Big Eight title. That was a changing-of-guard game, the first of four straight league titles for NU. Of course, the first national title at the 1971 Orange Bowl.
But I’m using one of my five chips here for Devaney and it’s a big one. The win over Oklahoma in 1971 is one of the most iconic wins in college football history. That it came with the entire country watching put Big Red on an unprecedented shelf.
Plus, it showcased NU’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Rodgers, with a play that defined him and the program.
1978 Oklahoma: My second choice was going to be the 1984 Orange Bowl. That’s still my favorite game that I’ve covered. It elevated Tom Osborne and the program. I can’t believe this, but I’m going to pass.
The main reason: I got to the end of my list and realized I didn’t have a home game. The story of NU football needs to show Memorial Stadium, full of red and jumping.
There was never a home game like that 1978 OU game. Or a more physical Nebraska game. The sound that John Ruud made. The hit on Billy Sims and the fumble that saved the day. The oranges flying onto the field. Rick Berns slashing his way to the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Mostly, the emotion of Osborne finally beating OU. Beating Miami later was huge. But getting Barry Switzer off his back was even bigger for Osborne. For one, it might have saved his job.
The 1992 and 1994 Colorado games at Memorial Stadium have to be on a list, but while taking down the Buffs was emotional, it wasn’t like beating OU and Switzer. The 1978 OU win is still the greatest game played in Memorial Stadium.
The 1995 Orange Bowl: Osborne’s first national title. He takes down Miami in his personal house of horrors, and therefore in the telling of this story, you can include the 1984 Orange Bowl. The one I left out. This was the bookend to that game. So it works out perfectly.
2001 Colorado: OK, this is a painful memory, right? But pain and heartbreak were a part of the Nebraska football story.
For added historical oomph, this one exposed cracks in a dynasty in transition. And in many ways the program has never recovered. That makes this mile-marker an even more bitter pill to swallow and a more appropriate choice.
Also, it showcases another Heisman winner, Eric Crouch, weeks before he would win.
Finally, the 2009 Big 12 championship game: The “one second” game. Besides the emotions of that night in Dallas, this has incredible historical ramifications. That’s why it’s my final choice.
A few responses threw in a handful of Big Ten games, Wisconsin, etc. Sorry, but I can’t think of one game Nebraska has played in the Big Ten that belongs on any historical list. We're still waiting.
The 13-12 loss to Texas fills the bill. Again, the ramifications. If Nebraska won this game, the course of history likely changes. Not only does Bo Pelini get a league title and a Fiesta Bowl berth, but Nebraska beats a nemesis and it lessens the urge to leave the conference a year later for the Big Ten. In fact, it probably doesn’t happen.
I left out so much but that was the curse, and the point, of this pandemic exercise. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
What’s your story say?