By CLIFF BRUNT
Note: The writer is an Omaha native and former Omaha World-Herald reporter who now lives in Indianapolis and will cover the Big Ten title game for Indy Sports Legends and the Sports XChange/Reuters.
INDIANAPOLIS — People of our fair city, brace yourselves. The impending invasion from the Red Army of the Plains is unlike anything you’ve seen.
Nebraska Cornhuskers fans are a rare breed, and they are descending upon our downtown for the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin.
Lots of them.
You have been warned.
Don’t worry, it’s a good thing. I will explain why this temporary takeover will be different from those surrounding the Super Bowl, the Final Fours and the Indianapolis 500s that we have hosted in recent years.
First, I will explain why I understand Nebraska fans so well.
I am from Omaha. My uncle, Johnny Rodgers, won the Heisman Trophy for Nebraska in 1972. My cousin, Tony Veland, won two national championships for the Huskers and a Super Bowl ring with the Denver Broncos. Two of my Omaha North High School teammates, Clinton Childs and David Alderman, also won national titles for the Big Red.
I grew up wanting to be a Husker. When I became a sportswriter, my ultimate job would have been to cover the Huskers for the Omaha World-Herald. It might have happened if the AP in Indianapolis hadn’t hired me while the World-Herald was still looking to fill the position. I covered preps for the World-Herald from 1997-2001, and many of the players I interviewed eventually played for the Huskers.
So, needless to say, I get it.
Here’s the rundown on why Nebraska football borders on a fanaticism rivaling that of basketball in the state of Indiana.
Nebraska has a population of about 1.8 million, roughly the same as the metro areas of Indianapolis and Milwaukee. Being a national power in a place with such a small population is a big deal.
The Huskers had only played in two bowl games before Bob Devaney left Wyoming for Lincoln in 1962 (Purdue fans, you know a little something about good coaches who leave Wyoming, right?). Devaney successfully pulled in players from both in and out of state, knowing Nebraskans alone couldn’t make the Huskers a contender.
The Huskers routinely went to postseason games on Devaney’s watch. Nebraska’s first bowl win came during his first season. It all reached a fever pitch when the Huskers won their first national title in 1970. The Huskers won the Game of the Century against Oklahoma in 1971 and repeated as national champions.
Here is Rodgers’ famous punt return for a touchdown against Oklahoma in 1971.
Rodgers won Nebraska’s first Heisman in 1972. He remains the only Husker to win both a Heisman and a national title.
Spurred on by the blood and sweat of Nebraskans and those brave souls willing to deal with Lincoln winters, the Cornhuskers won national titles in 1970, 1971, 1994, 1995 and 1997. Starting with the seventh game of the 1962 season, Nebraska has sold out every home game since.
Another aspect in the fanaticism was that while the Huskers were becoming a power, the already established Oklahoma machine was in place in the Big Eight, producing a rivalry that was akin to the Cold War. Under Bud Wilkinson, then Chuck Fairbanks, then Barry Switzer, Oklahoma was exactly the polar opposite Nebraska needed to fuel its desire to be the best. The Sooners won national titles in 1974, 1975, 1985 and 2000.
Between the two programs, that’s roughly a quarter of the national championships between 1970 and 2000 (some were split), with some losses in national title games mixed in. Without Oklahoma, Nebraska might never have emerged.
True diehards stuck with the Huskers in the 1970s when Oklahoma was rolling them almost every year, and even when Nebraska still couldn’t break through against the Florida schools in the ’80s. Indeed, being a Husker fan and hating, yet respecting Oklahoma were one and the same. Dealing with heartache and disappointment became a part of it too until the breakthrough in the 1990s.
Then there is Dr. Tom Osborne.
The soft-spoken leader of the program for decades became an icon in the state because of his tendency to walk softly and carry a big stick. Indy folks, before there was Tony Dungy, there was Dr. Tom.
Perhaps more than anyone ever has, Osborne epitomized what Nebraskans believe about themselves. The Hastings, Neb. native is the ultimate small-town Nebraska success story. He is a Christian whose quiet strength and work ethic helped him achieve ultimate success without compromise.
He stood for something, to a degree that was maddening at times. He went for two late in the 1984 Orange Bowl when Nebraska could have won a national title by kicking an extra point and tying Miami. He supported Lawrence Phillips through all of his problems. Osborne sometimes did exasperating things, but they ultimately made sense based on the core values he displayed throughout his tenure.
Then, there are the homegrown stars. Omaha has produced two Heisman winners – Rodgers and Eric Crouch. Rodgers is still considered by many the greatest return man of all time. Many of the program’s greatest linemen are in-state products. The Rimington Award, named for the best center in college football, is named for Omaha South graduate Dave Rimington. Ahman Green and Calvin Jones, successful NFL running backs, are from Omaha. Tom Rathman, a former San Francisco 49ers fullback, is from Grand Island. Successful dual threat quarterbacks Scott Frost and Gerry Gdowski are Nebraskans, too.
In Nebraska, a state filled with big, strong farm boys, offensive linemen are rock stars. Rimington won two Outland Trophies, in 1981 and 1982. The next year, Dean Steinkuhler, an offensive lineman from Burr, Neb. (population 57 as of the 2010 census), won the Outland. Zach Wiegert of Fremont, Neb. won the Outland in 1994.
Other greats are from out of state. Trev Alberts, the Peter brothers, Turner Gill, All-American running back Jarvis Redwine, 1983 Heisman winner Mike Rozier and Outland winners Larry Jacobson, Rich Glover, Will Shields, Aaron Taylor and Ndamukong Suh are among the legends from out of state.
In case you’re lost track, that’s nine Outland Trophies, five national championships and three Heismans since 1970.
The greatest out of state Husker is Tommie Frazier, a Florida product who led the Big Red to two national titles. Frazier’s heart, toughness and strength endeared him to Nebraskans like few others. The mere suggestion that he is not the greatest quarterback in the history of college football is grounds for immediate unfriending on Facebook.
Here is Frazier’s famous run against Florida in the 1995 national title game.
Though Nebraska went through a bit of a down period under Bill Callahan, the Huskers are back on track now with Bo Pelini at the helm.
With so much success, now Nebraska fans, their parents and their grandparents have watched the Huskers dominate for decades. Being a fan is like a family heirloom.
This all happened while the state had no pro sports. The football team was Nebraska’s team. In Indiana, you have Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame, Butler, the Colts, the Pacers and a host of other teams to identify with. In Wisconsin, you have the Packers, Bucks and Brewers. In Nebraska, Creighton (my alma mater) is respected in basketball, but the Bluejays don’t have statewide appeal, and their hoops stars usually come from elsewhere. Rodney Buford was from Milwaukee and Kyle Korver was from Iowa. Very few of Creighton’s best players have been home grown.
Most of all, Creighton doesn’t play football, so the Huskers were and remain THE team for the entire state.
So now, when Nebraska has a chance to do something important that is recognized throughout the nation, its people travel. There is a good chance that roughly one out of every 100 Nebraskans will descend upon downtown Indianapolis within the next few days.
If you think I’m kidding, remember the Notre Dame game in South Bend in 2000? Nebraska fans turned it into Memorial Stadium East.
Did you watch the Iowa game? Were you at all confused about whose home game it was?
If you run into anyone wearing scarlet and cream, stop and talk to them. They’re good folks. They probably have a relative or two who played for the Huskers. Some can be a bit obnoxious sometimes, but decades and decades of success will do that to you. Through it all, they are classy people who respect well-played football. Nebraskans are known for cheering for the other team when it plays well. Football is in our blood.
The fans want to share their history with you. They want to understand your traditions, too. They live and breathe not only Husker football, but all college football. As much as they love the Huskers, the game itself is bigger.
Perhaps these words, inscribed on one of Memorial Stadium’s towers, say it best about Huskers fans and their passion:
“Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.”
Relax. They come in peace.