By Thad Livingston
Practically speaking, living outside the bubble doesn’t make gauging the state of Husker football any more difficult than living inside it.
And by “the bubble,” I mean the state of Nebraska.
But instead of wading through statistics, offering opinions on the pluses and minuses of keeping the coach, or scratching my head over bewildering plays that lose games, I will simply offer myself as a barometer. For this particular exercise, it’s best to live as far away from Nebraska as possible, yet still be in the continental United States.
Like many Nebraskans, I was born into following NU football. The first Cornhusker game I remember watching on television was the Game of the Century. The first time I remember feeling perplexed by a Husker loss was exactly a year later – remember the name Tinker?
I was around 10 years old in the mid-’70s when I first realized that simply being from Nebraska was worth a modicum of respect from those outside the bubble. Heck, you didn’t even have to be on the team, go to practice or get tackled. This realization hit me when I was with my dad pulling into an allnight parking lot in Chicago, of all places. The lot attendant grabbed a clipboard and asked for Dad’s name and said he’d write down our car’s license plate number. Dad pulled forward and stopped, giving the attendant a moment to see the rear plate. At that moment, the man yells: “Hey, Nebraska! You guys have a helluva football team!”
As if we had anything to do with it. But somehow just having those weird Nebraska 1976 bicentennial license plates connected us to the team with red N’s on white helmets.
I guess that’s one example of how Husker football becomes at least a small part of Nebraskans’ identities.
And so it went. Back then, Nebraska was on TV only a few times a year, at most. The rest of the time, you either went to the game or dutifully listened on the radio. And you couldn’t wait to read every word written about it in the Sunday newspaper – at least nine times a year, anyway.
Through college and young adulthood, the football program stumbled just a bit and then rebuilt itself, becoming the team of the ‘90’s – a truly dominant program.
I had moved to South Carolina by the end of that run, and felt some mild resentment from a few colleagues simply because I was from Nebraska – it would be the same way you might look at someone from Alabama who somehow found his way to Nebraska and started working in your office. South Carolina is football territory, and a couple of my new associates so badly wanted either the Gamecocks or Clemson (note: It’s either one or the other down there, believe me) to be successful that the jealousy was palpable.
How dare you be from Nebraska was the sentiment. Walking around here privileged and all ..
At the office, we would receive the Clemson fan magazine – similar to the magazine you are reading now, only orange and with pawprints – and you could just feel the hopefulness in the writing that one day soon the Tigers would break through again.
I remember one Saturday keeping track of the Clemson-Florida State game on the TV above my desk. Clemson thought it had a chance that year – probably 2001, if memory serves. Alas, the Seminoles won by a couple touchdowns, and the cameras followed the two head coaches to their postgame handshake. I remember Bobby Bowden’s words to his son, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, as the cameras focused in: “Go recruitin’,” Bobby told Tommy.
Go recruitin’ indeed.
It was about that time the cyclical nature of college football was about to cycle away from Nebraska: The rout at Colorado followed by the Rose Bowl blowout loss to a great Miami team. Then came the coaching carousel and the jump to the Big Ten. You know the rest, including, ironically, the rise of Clemson, today one of the best recruitin’ programs in the country.
I now live in Washington state. The other day, I was stopped at a light and the license plate on the car in front of me said, “GO HSKRS,” or something to that effect. Maybe in another time, I would have honked and waved; maybe yelled, “You guys have a helluva football team!” But I didn’t. I just wondered briefly what his or her tie to Nebraska might be before the car sped off.
I’m not breaking any insider news when I write that these days, the Husker brand has lost its shine. And this being a fan magazine, it’s probably hard to read those words.
A few Saturdays ago, I went to the gym for an early workout. A Washington friend who knows full well I’m from Nebraska asked why I was in at such an early hour. I said I wanted to get out so I could watch the game. “Wrong day,” he said. “Seahawks play on Sundays.”
“Uh, right, but I’m talking college football,” I said.
“Really? Who’s your team?” I thought it was a strange question.
“Well, I follow Nebraska,” was my response.
“Oh yeah, I remember one time they beat Washington when Washington was good,” he said, with nary a hint of resentment.
“Yup, that quarterback is now the coach,” I replied.
“That was a long time ago, huh?” he said.
And there it was. An outsider’s view of Husker football.
Twenty years ago, the last time I was an outsider and living on another coast, this Nebraskan was feeling some resentment from Clemson and South Carolina fans; Nebraska was at the top but tipping; and I was pitying those poor Clemson fans who were hoping their Tigers could somehow return to prominence.
Now, allow me to share this memory: Back in my South Carolina days, a good friend called me. He had just returned home from attending Sunday church in the village of Choppee, which is so small, it’s not even on some maps – think a clump of houses with a corner store and, apparently, at least one church.
Anyway, my friend said this: “Just went to church in Choppee, and I counted six current or former NFL players sitting in the congregation.”
That’s like six NFL guys hailing from, I don’t know, Venango, Nebraska. (For you city dwellers, Venango is in Perkins County, which borders Colorado.)
Trust me. There aren’t six NFL guys in Venango.
And that reminds me why, as an adult, I’ve remained intrigued by Husker football. Watching Nebraska and other college programs from varying perspectives most of my life, I’ve always felt Nebraska’s recipe was as delicate as they come. And that is what makes it interesting. Ponder this: If a hefty, balding Irishman didn’t get off a train in Lincoln all those years ago, what separates Nebraska from Wyoming?
Today’s high bar and expectations are a good thing, but finding people up to the task of meeting them is difficult. Nebraska has to do it all and do it right in an area of the country where going recruitin’ is a helluva lot harder than in South Carolina.
So, from outside the bubble up here in Washington, I know the old quarterback just got some more time to work on his recipe. And maybe someday soon, I will notice just a little resentment from the locals just because I’m from Nebraska.