The Story of Big Red and Little Hawkeye




In March, 1877, a flood redirected the course of the Missouri River by more than a mile, creating an oxbow lake out of what used to be known as the Saratoga Bend..  The land south of the oxbow lake, part of Iowa, was no longer contiguous with the rest of Iowa, but rather had become contiguous with Nebraska's land.  At the time, the area was a flourishing recreational site, and the states of Iowa and Nebraska entered into extensive litigation over who owned the territory.  The case ultimately went before the United States Supreme Court.

Iowa won.  See Nebraska v. Iowa, 143 U.S. 359 (1892).


Carter Lake, IA, is the only part of Iowa's territory that is west of the Missouri River.  Carter Lake is considered a nuisance in the Ohama area, and it almost completely surrounds the airport, causing consternation and confusion among Omaha's visitors when they drive to the airfield and pass "Welcome to Iowa" signs on the way.

What's a 125 year old lawsuit got to do with this weekend's game?  Nothing, other than it's a ready allegory for the relationship between these two states and these two teams.  

You see, time was when an Iowa-Nebraska tackle football matchup was a routine annual occurance.  Consistent with its history, Nebraska has generally only played Iowa when Nebraska was reasonably confident of a win.  Iowa and Nebraska commenced their football rivalry in 1891, and through 1897, Nebraska went 4-2-2 in the series.  However, after Iowa demolished the Cornhuskers 30-0 in the 1899 game and the Hawkeyes went 8-0-1 on the season, the series mysteriously went on hiatus.  Iowa then went 6-3 in 1901, and then 5-4 in 1902 and the Cornhuskers were suddenly interested in playing the Hawkeyes again.  The series resumed in 1903 and Nebraska won every game played between the two teams from 1903 through 1917, except for one tie in 1909 (that tie was enough to frighten Big Red away for a few years).  However, in 1918 and 1919, the Hawkeyes posted back-to-back wins, shutting out the Huskers in both games.  Once again, Big Red took his ball and went home, and refused to come out and play.

The series resumed in 1930, with Nebraska posting an 8-1 record against the Hawkeyes.  However, Iowa went on a 3-1 tear against the Huskers from 1942 through 1945, controlling Nebraska with scores of 27-6, 33-13, and and 1942's 27-0 shellacking.  You can guess what happened next.  Yep, the series once again was mysteriously discontinued after Iowa's 3-1 run, and Nebraska did not play the Hawkeyes again until 1979.  Do you remember Iowa in 1979?  Most of you probably weren't alive then, but from 1960 to 1979, Iowa did not have a single winning season and finished 8th or worse in the Big 10 nine times (recall that back then the Big 10 only had 10 teams).  That's right, after that 3-game run, Nebraska would not return to play our Hawkeyes again until they had seen two full decades worth of Hawkeye failure.  Only then, finally convinced that Iowa was weak enough to pose no threat, did the Huskers play the Hawkeyes again, and even then only after Iowa had just hired a new head coach, one Hayden Fry.  

And, as expected, Nebraska won those first few games, including a 57-0 dismantling in 1980.  However, the Hawkeyes upset the #6 ranked Huskers in 1981, 10-7.  Fry's Hawkeyes went on to also upset 6th-ranked UCLA and beat Michigan for the first time in two decades that year.  Nebraska did return for one more game in 1982, defeating the Hawkeyes 42-7, but the Huskers had seen enough.  Big Red didn't sign on to play tackle football with a competitive team, he came to town to kick puppies, and these Hawkeyes were not the promised pincushions.  Nebraska was sure as hell not going to play anybody challenging if they didn't have to, it flew in the face of nearly a century of Husker football tradition: beat up on inferior competition and declare yourself great.  Nebraska never play again Iowa again while Hayden Fry was coach.

However, Iowa stumbled in the mid-90's, posting records of 5-7, 6-6, 5-5, and finally the 3-8 campaign in 1998. Sensing weakness again, Nebraska knew the time was approaching to schedule the Hawkeyes again and continue the legendary Nebraska Cornhusker tradition of pummeling weak teams.  When Coach Fry stepped down, guess who was very first in line to play Coach Ferentz?  That's right.  Big Red came to Kinnick for Ferentz's very first game as Iowa's head coach.  I was attending Iowa back then, and I was at the game.  The thing I remember most is that our ticket office sold so many tickets to Husker fans that we asked them not to bring their band, so that there would be more room for fans.  

I recall some talk that the Huskers were miffed at this request.  In Big Red's world, it was an honor to host Nebraska in our humble Iowa town, and we should have been thanking our lucky stars that Nebraska would deign to show up and beat Iowa, and make the Hawkeyes relevant for just one game that year.  Getting beaten by them should have been regarded as a privilege.  Sensitive to Big Red's fragile ego, the Hawkeye Marching Band learned Nebraska's fight song and, after the pre-game show, turned to the Huskers fans and played it for them.  To their credit, a majority of the Husker fans politely clapped and appeared genuinely pleased at this gesture. However, after the game there was talk among the Husker proletariat that it was a grave insult for the dulcet tones of the Nebraska fight song to emanate from the foul bells of Iowa trumpets.  Said one fan while exiting the stadium, "They're pissing in the holy water."

The Huskers beat Iowa in 1999 and 2000, 42-7 and then 42-13.  Nebraska didn't score more points that second time, but Iowa did.  That could mean only one thing: Iowa was improving, and the most terrifying thing to Big Red is quality competition. Even this modest improvement was more than the Huskers could stomach from their nettlesome neighbor, and the series was again discontinued.  Nebraska has had a century to perfect its ability to identify competitive teams before they explode and avoid playing them, and we should have known, when Nebraska quit showing up, that Iowa was about to get good.  Real good.  The Hawkeyes were back in a bowl game in 2001 for the first time in four seasons, and we enjoyed that magical 2002 year.  

Nebraska has come nowhere near Iowa since.  To Big Red, the Hawkeyes are a gnat; a nuisance.  Like Carter Lake, an Iowa city that has the audacity to be in direct contact with Nebraska soil, the Hawkeyes are an annoying neighbor that Nebraska tolerates because they have no choice. They see Little Hawkeye as a neighborhood whelp that Big Red has bullied for lunch money for a century.  Whenever Little Hawkeye lashes out and bloodies Big Red's nose, he does what all bullies do: run back to something safe and comfortable, namely pummeling the piss out of his three little brothers (Cy, Jay, and Willie) in the Super 8 they all shared, and refusing to come back outside to play until it all blows over.

But then something changed in the last ten years.  You see, Big Red lived in the Super 8 for long time, taking turns with his lardassed cousin Sooner bullying the nerds for lunch money.  However, some years back, the Super 8 merged with a rehab facility run by an alcoholic step-father named Austin.  Now, when Big Red runs home, instead of whipping his younger siblings, he suffers a pummeling himself at the hands of Austin.  Unaccustomed to having his unmerited braggadocio exposed, Big Red found himself adrift in this new world, and complained vigorously that it just wasn't fair.  Austin was bigger and meaner and stacked the rules in his favor.  Home was no longer a sanctuary that played by Big Red and Sooner's rules, it was a waking nightmare where even Big Red's little brothers had stopped fearing him and started fighting back.  Unable to convince his mama that Austin wasn't playing fair, Big Red did the only sensible thing: he ran away from home.

Fortunately, his Auntie B1G lived right across the street, and was happy to take him in.  You see, Auntie B1G had patiently watched Big Red pummeling weaklings for lunch money over the years, but she knew he was basically a good kid who just needed to learn a thing or two about sharing and playing nice with others, and it seemed that Big Red's run-in with Austin may have driven that lesson home.  "This won't be like your old house," warned Auntie B1G as Big Red unpacked his bags and put his clothes away in his new room.  "There are other boys here, and there's just as big and tough as you."  Big Red smiled and nodded, not really believing it.

And here we are.  Big Red is battered and bruised from his first year living in Auntie B1G's house, but he's also on the verge of emerging from it with good cause to hold his head high.  While he undoubtedly feel short of his own (unrealistic) expectations, he's certainly satisfied ours.  We've lived in Auntie B1G's house for a long time, and we know how hard it is to survive here.  For Big Red to move in and establish himself as one of the big boys off the bat?  Well, we have the class to acknowledge that he's earned some respect.  We're all proud of our new brother, as he has acquitted himself respectably and shown us that he belongs here and Auntie B1G was right to take him in off the street.  Big Red is starting to understand what Auntie B1G's house is all about and if he can accept that the other boys here merit his respect, he's going to fit right in.

Only one test remains for our new brother: dealing with the gnat.  The nuisance.  Carter Lake.  Iowa.

The Hawkeyes.

This time, Nebraska has no choice but to play Iowa.  And if it doesn't go well, Nebraska has no choice but to play Iowa the year after that.  And if that doesn't go well?  They play Iowa again, and they will keep playing Iowa.  And they will hate it.  They will hate every game with us.  Even if they win, they will hate playing us.  We are their Iowa State. We are their Northwestern.  If they win, they were supposed to win.  If they lose, they suffer our ceaseless torment for a year.  And there is no escape from it, Big Red has to play these Hawkeyes every year from here on out, there is nowhere to go, nowhere to run, no way to get Iowa off the schedule.  And Big Red is going to learn one of the cruelest lessons in Auntie B1G's house: no matter how bad Iowa is, and no matter how good you are, Iowa can rise up and bloody your nose when you least expect it.  In fact, that's Iowa's favorite time to rise up and bloody your nose. Just ask the other boys in the house, who've been caught looking down the road over Little Hawkeye's head, only to get knocked on their asses when Little Hawkeye takes out their feet.  Just ask Penn State.  Michigan State.  Wisconsin.  Michigan.  Name names.  Only one boy, cousin Buckeye, has managed to remain largely unscathed by Little Hawkeye, but his day is coming.  Oh God, is it ever.

This year's Hawkeyes are certainly not one of the gems of the Ferentz era, but Nebraska is a special game.  There is something important to the Hawkeyes and to Iowa fans at stake in the game against Nebraska: you don't respect us, Big Red.  Not enough to play us at our best.  You only play us when we're weak.  When we're not, you run away.  We'd forgive this, but then you point back to your victories and proclaim that your superiority is manifest and you are justified in considering Little Hawkeye a mere nuisance.  We are here to tell you that the only characteristic of Nebraska football that is manifest in your series history with Iowa is cowardice.  

Well, there's nowhere to run any more when Iowa wins.  You will play us when we're good, and we will win some of those games.  You will play us when we're terrible, and we will win some of those games.  And you'll hate them all, because you don't respect us.  It's a bitter pill to swallow, and it gives you no pleasure in victory, and puts flesh on the bones of that old saw, "the agony of defeat."  You will hate these games, win or lose, and we will love them. Trust us, we know.  We have Northwestern.  You feel guilty enjoying the win, because in your heart of hearts, you know you shouldn't be excited.

You left the Big 12 because the rules weren't fair, and your alcoholic step-father Austin rigged the system to keep himself on top.  You came to Auntie B1G's house because you thought it'd be different here.  You're right, it is different, but if you think you're going to regain your former glory by punching the lights out of the little kids here, think again.  You'll earn your stripes here, son, but trust me, you'll wear them with fully deserved pride.  

Iowa is your last test, Nebraska, in your inaugural year at Auntie B1G's house, and there is only one way you can screw it up: by failing to give your opponent the proper respect. We are not Little Hawkeye for you to beat up on when we're weak and avoid when we're tough.  We are your best friend in this conference because we, more so than any other team in the Big 10, understand what Husker football means to you.  We are the only other small-market B1G school with no pro sports in the state.  More so than any other team, we understand how powerfully you associate your Nebraskan identity with Husker football.  We know what your football means to you.  Trust uswe get it.

You've been a treat to have at Auntie B1G's house so far, much more so than I anticipated, and we look forward to many more years of the same. You've taken the hazing in good cheer and with a sportsmanlike demeanor.  That's B1G.  Finish well and with dignity, whether in victory or defeat.

Go Hawks.

Unless otherwise expressly indicated by BHGP editors, this FanPost is strictly the viewpoint of the author and is not endorsed by BHGP in any way.

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