Old school rivalry between Nebraska, Oklahoma coming to end

Wednesday, December 1, 2010 | 7:57 p.m. CST; updated 9:18 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer, left, and former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne shake hands on Feb. 22, 2006, in Lincoln, Neb. The upcoming Big 12 championship game between Oklahoma and Nebraska brings back memories of those Thanksgiving weekend battles between the Big Reds of the North and South.

LINCOLN, Neb. — Something will be lost after Nebraska and Oklahoma square off on the football field Saturday night — something intangible yet dear to the traditionalists who get sentimental about a bygone era when the two teams were titans of the old Big Eight Conference.

To a younger generation of fans and players, the final Big 12 championship game will decide which team goes to the Fiesta Bowl and which goes to the Alamo or Insight Bowl. They don't, and can't, understand what Nebraska-Oklahoma means to older folks, those who remember tear-away jerseys and actually watching Johnny Rodgers and Greg Pruitt play live, not on some grainy video.

Rodgers' punt return in the 1971 Game of the Century? That's so last century.

Billy Sims' fumble at the 3-yard line in 1978? The Orange Bowl rematch a few weeks later that Nebraska fans so loathed? All that Sooner Magic? Stoic Tom Osborne and swashbuckling Barry Switzer?

"Back in the day," Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead said, "I guess it was a big-time game."

Yes, it was. The 45-and-older crowd can remember all the classic moments in the traditional Thanksgiving week games that decided the Big Eight championship all but three seasons between 1970 to 1988. Both programs have had down cycles since. Now they meet one more time, not on a cold afternoon in Lincoln or Norman, Okla., but indoors at the billion-dollar Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

"It's just fitting it's us two here at the end," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.

Nebraska and Oklahoma have been in the same conference every year since 1928, when they and Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Missouri joined to form the Big Six. Colorado came along in 1948 to make it the Big Seven, and Oklahoma State's entry in 1960 created the Big Eight.

Next year, Nebraska leaves the Sooners and the rest behind for the Big Ten. Colorado is going away, too, to join what will be the Pacific-12.

"This is it. This is definitely the parting," said the 59-year-old Rodgers, his "Johnny the Jet" days well behind him. "When the Big Eight was the Big Eight, during our time, it was the toughest conference in the country."

In 1971, the year before Rodgers won the Heisman Trophy, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado finished 1-2-3 in the final Associated Press poll. National championships often were decided in the Orange Bowl, back when the Big Eight had an automatic tie-in with the bowl.

The Big 12 formed in 1996 with the Big Eight and four Southwest Conference members, splitting into North and South divisions. The division alignment more or less ended the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry since they played only two times every four years.

The Big 12 has had its moments, with Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas having won national titles in football. But Switzer said the league hasn't been as powerful as the old Big Eight, in part because of scholarship limitations that led to the dispersal of talent.

"I know this: Without Nebraska in the league, I just don't know how they can sell it anymore," Switzer said. "Losing Nebraska is a hell of a blow."

Switzer said Oklahoma, Texas and possibly Texas A&M are the only drawing cards when commissioner Dan Beebe negotiates what he promises will be a more lucrative television contract in the spring.

"What makes it attractive? All the other schools?" Switzer said. "You're losing the gem of the North."

Osborne, now Nebraska's athletics director, said the Big 12 forced a clash of cultures. From the start, Nebraska believed the Big 12 was too Texas-centric in the way things were run.

Still, Osborne said he never pined for the days of the Big Eight — "Life goes on," he said — but he acknowledges he was more comfortable there.

"It was a pretty high level of competition, and geographically, in terms of culture and attitude, there was a fair amount of similarity," Osborne said. "We were all kind of part of this high plains Midwestern area, so people understood each other pretty well."

Nebraska and Oklahoma dominated, but other teams would throw a scare into them from time to time.

Colorado was no slouch under Eddie Crowder, and Bill McCartney won a share of the 1990 national championships with Eric Bieniemy and Alfred Williams.

Oklahoma State had Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders; Kansas had Gale Sayers and Bobby Douglass; Missouri had James Wilder and Kellen Winslow; Kansas State had Mack Herron and Lynn Dickey; and Iowa State had Dexter Green and Troy Davis.

"I'm sounding like an old person reminiscing, but it was a good era in college athletics because your level of athletics were certainly rising," said the 73-year-old Osborne. "Players were bigger and faster and strength training had kicked in and so had offseason programs."

There was a limit to the number of times a team could appear on television those years. Coaches' salaries weren't outrageous, they knew each other personally and spent time together out of the competitive arena.

"I just don't think the Big 12 ever came close to having the family atmosphere we had in the Big Eight," said Jim Walden, a former Nebraska assistant and Iowa State head coach. "We tended to agree to do things that helped us all."

Nebraska-Oklahoma will fade way, but traditional old-school Big Eight/Big 12 rivalries live on, such as Texas-Oklahoma, Missouri-Kansas, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Kansas-Kansas State.

As for Nebraska-Oklahoma, Huskers tight end Kyler Reed said the coaching staff has made no reference to the history of the programs this week. What Reed knows about the rivalry — and he admits it's not much — was told to him by his father.

"If you want to look up the history, it's kind of on your own," Reed said. "I'm sure you can find the game somewhere or watch highlights of the old games on YouTube."

Resuming rivalry?

Oklahoma and Nebraska are looking at playing a home-and-home football series in 2020-21.

Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne told The Associated Press on Wednesday that OU athletics director Joe Castiglione proposed the series three or four months ago. Osborne said he can't commit to the games until he knows the structure of the Big Ten schedule for 2020-21, and that might not be known for a year or two.

Oklahoma requests that the 2020 game be in Norman, Okla., and the 2021 game in Lincoln.

Osborne said he also would want to check with coach Bo Pelini before agreeing to games against Oklahoma.

"We'll have a demanding schedule as it is," Osborne said.

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