The Rivalry is Dead

This should be one of those epic contests that make people think back to '71 when Oklahoma and Nebraska was at its best. Unfortunately, that's not the case. At least for me, I don't think about this game as something it is. I think about what it was. The Big 12 Championship Game will hopefully rekindle some of that, but I fear that anymore, Nebraska vs. Oklahoma is just another game.

This is the point where I should go on some sort of diatribe about the complete lack of vision the first president of the Big 12 had in letting one of college football's most storied rivalries fall by the wayside.

I should, but I won't.

Yes, even now when you think about Oklahoma vs. Nebraska, for those who have been around college football enough, even if you aren't a fan of either, that still does carry some weight. The sad thing is, I sit here and look at a conference game, remember how many Big Eight crowns were decided when these two faced off, and I think that it's nice, but it just isn't the same.

I remember when it was the game between these two juggernauts of the gridiron that decided the conference more often than not. I also remember when the winner of this often played for the national title. I definitely recall as well the various stories from both sides of the fence, that it was this game that they used to see just where they were at as a team.

I don't know exactly what every ingredient is for a quality rivalry, but this game certainly had to fit.

Since the loss of both Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne to retirement, however, I just get a sense that while there's an appreciation for what this game used to mean, the actual meaning has been lost on all this new blood.

With Bob Stoops, here is a young and brilliant coach who probably looks at this game just like he does any other. That's the coach-thing to do, ya know. One day at a time, one opponent, and never treat any other team or game like it's more important than any other.

It does make sense, because what good is a win over a rival if you lose to some upstart the next week?

With Bill Callahan, there's an even larger sense of detachment, because he isn't a Nebraska guy, didn't grow up around Nebraska people, and everything he knows about this series was stuff he probably learned from afar as an assistant at some college, or stuff he's just picked up along the way as the head coach of the big red.

When you saw interviews with either Tom Osborne or Barry Switzer, it didn't take you even a sentence or two to understand how much this game meant to each. You also didn't have to be a psych major in order to figure out how much this game meant to the players.

It was their litmus test, if you will – that season-ending test, where each team finally realized where they were at, whether it was better or worse than they thought they would be.

You had the son-of-a-bootlegger bravado in Switzer versus the inscrutability of Osborne. Two personalities that couldn't be more opposite, converged on the field and you knew sparks were about to fly.
It was as much the personalities of Barry Switzer (left)
and Tom Osborne that made the Oklahoma/Nebraska
game a rivalry, as it was the caliber of the teams
playing the last conference gamein Autumn.

Not in a bad way, though, as you see with so-called rivalries that exist in the SEC, where trash talking and even violence seems to be the order of the day. This game had its moments of that to be sure, but as one player recalled to us in an interview a couple of years ago, this game was about something more. "If you wanted to know how good you were, you had to wait until you played Oklahoma," former Husker linebacker Trev Alberts said. "It was really the barometer for us every year."

"You could beat everyone on your schedule by 30, but if you didn't win that last game in the fall, you weren't that good of a team."

Yeah, that's another thing that probably takes away from what this game has been. The fact that it was the last game of the regular season made it automatically the deciding game for the conference most of the time in the last 30 years.

No more can you talk about that one crisp Saturday in the fall, where the weather was crappy, but that football game was great. The oranges being flung onto the field, the goal posts coming down, and all in the midst of snow, freezing rain or both.

Now, when I hear a coach say that it is a great game, because of the tradition, I tend to find it a little hollow. It's what they are supposed to say, isn't it? I mean, just like a coach can't come out and say that a Division 1-AA opponent was a replacement game and one they would just as soon not play, they can't say that Oklahoma or Nebraska isn't just another game they have to play. It isn't just another game they want to win.

The difference here is, of course, is that this game, like the games most of us can remember, is indeed the last conference game of the year, and it's Oklahoma facing Nebraska to see who gets to have conference bragging rights for the year.

Then what?

Unless Oklahoma and Nebraska make it back to this game next year, it will be another season of trying to remember what it's like, enjoying it for what it was and telling the younger kids what it was like, because they simply don't know.

That's when you know something we all enjoyed is essentially lost to us, only being rekindled by a game here and there. This isn't something you have to tell someone that follows either team. It's something they should already know.

It's a big game, because it's for the conference title. It's a big game, because both coaches have had a long road in getting to this point. It's a big game, because one coach (Callahan) hasn't been here before and another coach (Stoops), after losing some very key players, was said to have little or no chance at all.

It's not big, because it's Oklahoma vs. Nebraska, though.

For many of us, we can argue that point, talking about all the things that were great about this match up, but it's the fact that we have to think back a few years that tells us something is terribly wrong. It's done, over, kaput, as they say. The rivalry that we knew and loved is for the most part, gone.

There will be days like the one upcoming in Kansas City, that will make us reminisce over battles won and lost, legends made and broke, but it simply isn't the same thing. The longer you have to think back to in order to give something in the present real meaning, the more you lose what made it so good.

Traditions aren't manufactured. Rivalries aren't those games you need to put on a bulletin board or show videos of in order to make others realize what it meant. As Bill Callahan is noted for saying very often, it simply is what it is.

It isn't anymore. It's still a good game, one that I am looking forward to seeing it, but there's no Barry, there's no Tom, the wishbone and option are gone, as are the annual contests at the end of the year to see just who wanted it more.

That's what made this a rivalry, and this game lacks so much of that right now.

The game this weekend will be a good game, but it's not THE game anymore.

That rivalry, for me, is dead.

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