Nebraska-Oklahoma testament to football

Nebraska-Oklahoma testament to football

Published Nov. 29, 2010 12:00 a.m. ET

In the old days, and by this, I mean so long ago Brett Favre was a kid, Nebraska played Oklahoma. This was how it was, and it was good. In fact, it was better than good.

Have you ever heard of the “Game of the Century”? Well, there have been a few. But the best of them all was played in 1971 in Norman, Okla., what Sports Illustrated described then as “dirt-kicking Big Eight Territory.” And the two teams swung roundhouses at each other like it was a Rocky movie, until it ended, 35-31, in favor of Nebraska. One of the greatest college football games ever played.

The highlight, all agree, was when Nebraska’s Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown. As Nebraska play-by-play voice Lyell Bremser put it, Rodgers “just tore ’em loose from their shoes!”

Who? Would-be tacklers? Fans in attendance? Bremser never said. But it was an appropriate summation of the moment. It was that kind of return, that kind of game, that kind of series. It could leave you shoeless.


And whether we lived in dirt-kicking Big Eight Territory or not, America ate it up. Now, this was college football! Now, this was Thanksgiving! Nebraska played Oklahoma. And it was good. In fact, it was better than that. It could tear you loose from your shoes.

But then, the Big 12 happened. Well, a lot of things happened, but mostly, the Big 12 happened. And one of America’s best big-game rivalries fell to the wayside. Nebraska did not play Oklahoma, at least not every year. And it all just faded away.

Saturday, we get one last helping of comfort food, before Nebraska departs for the Big Ten. Saturday night, North Division champion Nebraska plays South Division champion Oklahoma in the last Big 12 championship game. The world has gone crazy, in college football. For goodness sake, TCU is headed for the Big East. But we’ve got 60 minutes of solace. We’ve got a story from the Old Testament. Nebraska-Oklahoma, one last time.

And, boy, has it been good.

Nebraska went on to win the national championship after beating Oklahoma in that November thriller in 1971. And that’s how it seemed to end up from then on. The two teams would stage an epic showdown — and the winner would emerge from it in the driver’s seat for No. 1.

They weren’t playing for a bucket or a bowl or a trophy or a bell or an ax. As writer Jerry Izenberg once said of Ali and Frazier, they played for the championship of each other. And that was enough. That was all they needed. Get the two of them together, and they were playing for the national championship, right then and there.

The ’80s seemed to make it even crazier. Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer seemed to stoke the rivalry with the twinkle in his eye. He walked onto the set of Nebraska athletic director (and former national champion coach) Bob Devaney’s television show the Friday night before the 1980 game in Lincoln, Neb. He brought the surprised host a gift — a bag of tacos.

“My players and coaches were all watching at the hotel,” Switzer told the Omaha World-Herald this week. “They all thought I was crazier than hell.”

They won it for him in the final minutes the next day, 21-17.

Switzer said his teams fed off “Sooner Magic” in the series, and it seemed as if they did, beating Nebraska in the final minutes, sometimes the final seconds. It seemed like every game was like that thriller in 1971.

We miss that magic. Nebraska heads for the Big Ten next season, and the acrimony surrounding the move has been surprising. Nebraska fans are convinced there is a conspiracy against their team (a Huskers player was suspended by the conference office in the wake of illegal-hit fever, and penalties have not been pretty). No one from the Big 12 office was on hand last week to award Nebraska the North trophy (commissioner Dan Beebe has cited feeling unsafe after some 2,000 “vulgar and nasty” messages and at least one death threat from Huskers fans).

It might have been an ugly Big 12 championship game.

But instead, a gift. We get Nebraska-Oklahoma, one last time. When Rodgers hit the end zone after his brilliant, winding 1971 run, Bremser yelled: “He’s all the way home!”

On Saturday, that’s where we’ll all be one last time, for at least 60 minutes. Home. Nebraska-Oklahoma.

Tie your laces extra tight.