I'm a firm believer that core sports opinions are formed between the ages of, roughly, 10 and 20. Younger than that and it's too difficult to have opinions that are genuinely your own -- you're too easily influenced by fathers, brothers, grandfathers, and uncles (substitute for "mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and aunts" as appropriate; I didn't have any sisters growing up and my mother, grandmothers, and aunts couldn't have cared less about sports, but I grant that isn't the case in every family) and, frankly, you're probably not yet fully obsessed with sports -- your attention is also divided between cool toys, cartoons, and video games. (Again, there are exceptions: my six-year old nephew seems to know more about the Indianapolis Colts than I do.) Older than that and it's too hard to develop truly genuine opinions -- it's too easy to be swayed by the flavor-of-the-month team. (Another notable exception: sports where you really pay attention to until you were older than 20 like, say, soccer.)
For me, that age range was when I first became smitten with Iowa -- when I first identified them as something cool and something worth following (as well as something distinct from the Pittsburgh Steelers). That early love turned into a life-long love affair after attending Iowa and spending almost a decade in Iowa City (time which was not all spent in the pursuit of one degree... not that there's anything wrong with that). That age range was also when I first learned to hate a team. My first hate was not Iowa State -- it was hard to hate the Cyclones because my parents were both ISU alums and because, frankly, Iowa State never beat Iowa. Until the late '90s, I just assumed the natural order was for Iowa State to play Iowa every year -- and lose (badly).
No, my first hate* was Nebraska. Growing up in northwest Iowa, it was an easy hate to develop. In those days, there were really only two choices: you could be an Iowa fan or you could be a Nebraska fan. (Outside of my parents, I knew a few masochistic Iowa State fans, but they were a definite minority.) It would have been a very easy time to be a Nebraska fan -- they were just beginning their run of three titles in four years -- but it was also easy to not become a Nebraska fan. Their fans were (too often) arrogant, preening assholes** and their program was, in many ways, loathsome***. They combined many of the worst aspects of rednecks and blue blood royalty, taking two often-terrible things and creating something even worse.
* To clarify, when I say that I "hate" Nebraska, it's pure sports hate. I don't wish real harm on Nebraska fans individually (I don't want to see them get hit by speeding cars) or collectively (nor do I want Lincoln to get wiped off the map by an asteroid). I just want Nebraska sports teams (specifically, football) to lose, preferably in emotionally painful ways.
** To be fair, this does not describe every single Nebraska fan on the planet. I grew up next to neighbors who were Nebraska fans (and perfectly nice people) and I have met some pleasant, well-adjusted, genial, and funny Nebraska fans since then, both in real life and on these here interwebs. It does, however, describe an awful lot of them.
*** See: Lawrence Phillips. Despite dragging his girlfriend down a flight of stairs, Phillips missed only five games and had regained his starting job by the time the national title-deciding tilt with Florida rolled around. And he wasn't even the worst offender at Nebraska -- for instance, Christian Peter was a truly miserable piece of filth masquerading as a human being. Nebraska fans like to respond to these criticisms by yelling about glass houses and bringing up Iowa's arrest rate under Ferentz, but there are a few crucial differences there. One, the overwhelming majority of the offenses from Iowa players are of the underage drankin' variety. Two, Ferentz's punishments are far harsher -- especially in the cases of genuinely serious crimes. Dana Brown hits a girl -- he's off the team. Dominique Douglas and Anthony Bowman decide to engage in credit card fraud -- they're immediately suspended and never play another snap for Iowa. Even in the ugliest incident under Ferentz's tenure, the Satterfield and Everson sexual assault case, the players involved were kept away from the field after Ferentz became aware of the issue. A lot of things were bungled in that case, but he got that part right. If they'd been at Nebraska in the mid-90s? It might not have even registered as a blip on the radar.
Nebraska also introduced me to the concept of schadenfreude. I didn't know that word at the time, but it perfectly described my attitude about Nebraska. I delighted in their failures and wished them nothing but misery every time a game kicked off. I rooted against them week in and week out, even in bowl games where the opponents -- Florida State, Florida, Tennessee -- were not particularly likeable. At the time, those Seminole and Gator teams represented the lesser of two evils -- I could deal with the crowing of Bobby Bowden or the cocky strutting of Steve Spurrier (hell, it's not like there were any FSU or Florida fans in northwest Iowa), but another Nebraska victory? Ugh. I still have very fond memories of their blunders, like the loss to FSU in the '94 Orange Bowl, or the unreal 19-10 defeat to Iowa State in 1992, or the shocking 19-0 bushwhacking by Arizona State in 1996. The loss to Texas in the 1996 Big 12 Championship Game -- on this gutsy 4th-and-inches call -- was particularly sweet, since it guaranteed that I wouldn't have to endure the possibility of a Nebraska three-peat.
My dislike of Nebraska only intensified when they were able to use their reputation to slide into advantageous situations that their performance didn't necessarily justify. I'll always be convinced that Nebraska was able to deny Penn State a share of the 1994 national title -- and take a share of the 1997 national title as their own -- because of the affection Tom Osborne was able to drum up from the media and/or his fellow coaches. In 1994, Osborne still had the image of the hard luck good ol' boy; he'd come achingly close to winning the national title in years past, so of course he "deserved" a title when his team finally ran the table. Never mind that Penn State had done exactly the same thing; didn't that old fossil JoePa already have a few national titles? What did he need with another one? In 1997, Osborne milked the "it's my last rodeo" routine for all it was worth, getting enough of his fellow coaches to switch their final vote to Big Red to give him a third and final national title. (Maybe JoePa should have said he was retiring after the '95 Rose Bowl.) Of course, the most egregious example of Nebraska being gifted an advantage was their inclusion in the 2001 national championship game -- despite not even winning their division (let alone their conference) and getting annihilated by Colorado in the regular season finale, 62-36. At least there was a just result to that mess: Miami trounced that undeserving Nebraska team, 37-14.
Thankfully, the Aughts wound up providing a staggering amount of Nebraska-related schadenfreude, beginning with the shocking 7-7 season under Solich in 2002 and reaching full bloom in the epic failure of the Bill Callahan tenure****. Seeing the emperor get stripped naked and paraded through the streets as the fool, subject to all manner of insults and injury from the plebians and peasants he'd found under his heel in the past, was deeply satisfying. Going 5-6 in 2004 (topped off by a 70-10 depantsing from Texas Tech) and snapping Nebraska's decades-long streak of bowl appearances? Delicious. (That those two years happened to coincide with two of the better Iowa seasons of recent vintage only intensified my delight.) And bottoming out even further in 2007 with a 5-7 record that included both a 76-39 massacre by Kansas (the quintessential whipping boy program for Nebraska over the past century) and an embarrassing 45-14 home loss to Oklahoma State that had "the greatest college football fans in the
history of the universe world" streaming for the exits by halftime? Heavenly.
**** I was overjoyed by the Callahan hire at the time. As a Raiders fan, I already despised him for presiding over one of the ugliest Super Bowl defeats in years and, a year later, for being the man in charge of the disintegration of a team that had been one of the AFC's best in the early 00s. To get rid of him and unleash him to "work his magic" on a team I hated? Truly, the gods smiled upon me.
Mike Hlas wrote a guest column for The Omaha World-Herald on the topic of the burgeoning Iowa-Nebraska rivalry, and he had an interesting take:
While the Huskers had slippage in the last decade and the records of Iowa and Nebraska have been virtually identical in that time, NU still has the history, mythology, and that way-overused word in sports that is respect. Hawkeye fans crave that so-called respect, and never seem to feel they get enough of it. Now here you come into their conference, Huskers, threatening to pose another obstacle toward Iowa getting lavished with recognition by the rest of the planet.
Frankly, respect is only part of the equation here. Would it be nice? I suppose, in the sense that garnering respect does often provide a few warm, fuzzy feelings. But it's not going to come easily, if at all -- even if Iowa beat Nebraska for ten years straight, Nebraska fans would still lord their five national titles and 800+ wins over the heads of Iowa fans. In a sense, they've earned the right to do that (the numbers are what they are), but it doesn't really make them any less insufferable, either. But let's take a moment to discuss that point, too: it's based on history -- and increasingly old history at that.
Nebraska hasn't been a meaningful participant in the national title race since their unjust appearance in the 2001 national title game -- hell, they haven't even appeared in a BCS bowl game since then. (Iowa, for the record, has been a legitimate part of the national title discussion twice since then, in 2002 and 2009, both years where they ended the season in BCS bowl trips, too.) Shit, Boise State has been a more important part of the national title picture since then. Nebraska hasn't finished a season with fewer than three losses since 2003 -- hell, they haven't even finished with fewer than four losses since then. In terms of quantifiable results, Nebraska is not an elite program right now -- they're a good program, but not an elite one.
Of course, whenever this is pointed out Nebraska fans are quick to point out that this is their worst decade in half a century and that, gosh darn it, it's just not fair to judge them by these results and the good times are gonna come roarin' back anytime now. It's true that Nebraska was far better in the '90s. And '80s. And '70s. And '60s. But that argument conveniently glosses over a few key points. First, it's not as if Nebraska's '00s regression was a result of the rest of the Big 12 (particularly the Big 12 North, aka the division that provided almost half of their opponents every season) getting markedly better. In fact, the Big 12 North reached a particularly pathetic nadir in the '00s: a 5-3 Colorado team won the division in 2005 and an even more sadsack 4-4 Colorado team "won" the division in 2004. It's not as if the Big 12 North suddenly transformed into the SEC West and was full of teams beating each other's brains in for the right to play for a national title.
Second (and more importantly), the nature of the game has irreversibly changed. Nebraska achieved greatness in the back half of the 20th century by keeping hordes of kids on scholarship -- and keeping a few more hordes as walk-ons. Scholarship limits make it impossible to do the former and the latter would be difficult even if Callahan hadn't scorched the legendary walk-on program to a crisp during his tenure. Modern players want to play, not sit four years and wait for one chance to reach for the proverbial brass ring. They increasingly don't care where they play because their games are going to be accessible on national television wherever they go and because NFL scouts will find them wherever they go. And if they want to play for a national title? Well, there aren't really a "lot" of potential destinations that offer that possibility, but there are some -- and Nebraska is no longer one of the guaranteed spots for that ambition. Those changes have leveled the playing field and eliminated some of Nebraska's biggest advantages -- big problems for a program in a state that doesn't produce a lot of homegrown talent.
We're approaching the 15-year anniversary of Nebraska's most recent national championship, meaning it was almost a full generation ago. Of those "five national championships" Nebraska fans like to crow about, two of them are from 1970 and 1971, 40 years ago. How many current Nebraska fans remember those titles? Hell, how many of them were even alive back then? You know which other fanbases put as much emphasis on victories that old? Notre Dame. Minnesota. Army. You're in great company there. Nebraska has a wonderful history of success; it would be foolish to deny that. And, yes, if we're measuring the length of our dicks by our respective football histories, congratulations -- you're Dirk Diggler and we're Reed Rothchild. But college football is not a static sport; it's a dynamic sport and teams falter that were once great and teams rise that were once lousy. Washington was a great team for a while in the '80s and early '90s; they've been fighting for even a shred of relevance over the last decade. Colorado was a power in the '90s; now they're the butt of jokes. In the '80s, Iowa dominated Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa State; the worm has turned in all of those rivalries, though, and now Iowa's '80s dominance is mostly just a footnote to the grand narrative of those rivalries. Remembering the past is nice; wallowing in it is just sad.
No, the Iowa-Nebraska rivalry is going to be built on hate. I hate Nebraska and I want to see them lose -- not just against Iowa, but against every Big Ten team they play. I don't give two shits that it might make more tactical sense to want Nebraska to win games against everyone but Iowa, to make a potential Iowa win even more meaningful. Hate doesn't give a damn about tactics or stategy. Hate cares only about hate. So as Nebraska joins the Big Ten and a sea of red prepares to invade the Big Ten stadiums I have grown to love (and hate -- screw you, Ryan Field), I welcome them. No longer will I have to hate from a distance; now my hate can be up close and personal. Welcome to the Big Ten, Nebraska. Now go lose.