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Looking Back at the OU-Nebraska Football Rivalry (Dec 03, 2010)

by Brian Hardzinski

I didn’t grow up following OU football, so the rivalry against Nebraska didn’t mean much to me until I experienced it first-hand.  Marching with the Pride of Oklahoma during my freshman year of college taught me to love Sooner Football, but that 2004 Nebraska game still didn’t hold much significance.  I remember feeling more excitement and nostalgia about Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jason White’s swan song on Owen Field than anything else. 

After that first game, the rivalry seemed bitter and tempestuous, not unlike OU and Texas.  A Nebraska player had collided with a member of an OU spirit squad, sending him to the hospital, knocking out two front teeth, and leading to assault charges in Cleveland County District Court.  As then Nebraska coach Bill Callahan headed toward the locker room after the game, he called the OU fans “[expletive] hillbillies!”  But if you talk to long-time OU fans…they talk of admiration, respect, and affection toward the University of Nebraska.  Why?

“When somebody performs at a high level, which Oklahoma certainly did for many, many years, and is doing so again, you respect them,” said Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska coach who led the Cornhuskers on the field between 1973 and 1997.  Since 2007, he has served as the school’s Athletic Director.

“Even though we were competitors, we never tried to whip our players up to any kind of emotional frenzy against Oklahoma, and it probably was the same way on their side,” Osborne said.   “We just went out and played hard.  I don’t remember ever having any really bad incidents in all the games that we played.”

Sitting next to me as Tom Osborne spoke from the studios of NET Radio in Lincoln, was the man who stood across from Osborne on the gridiron 17 times.

“One thing I’ve always said is that one of the reasons that Nebraska and Oklahoma never had any bad blood is proximity to our recruiting areas,” said former OU head coach Barry Switzer.  “I always had my problem south of the Red River.  Tom and I never really went head-to-head and therefore, I really think that helped not only the approach that we took toward our programs, and respect, but the fact that we never really never competed for the same products.”

If you sit down and do the math, as Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman did on Monday, OU and Nebraska have met 20 times since World War II to determine the Big 8 or Big 12 conference champions.  The 1955 game came in the middle of OU’s NCAA-record 47 game winning streak, the 13th Sooner victory in a string of 16 straight against the Huskers.

In 1971, Number 1 Nebraska and second-ranked Oklahoma met in what fans now call the “Game of the Century.”  A 72-yard punt return by Nebraska running back Johnny Rodgers set the tone for the game.  The Huskers prevailed 35-31 in a “can-you-top-this?” offensive clinic - with that opening touchdown by Rodgers setting him up for a successful Heisman Trophy campaign the following year.  Switzer and Osborne met for the first time in 1973. 

“I remember that first year we played, ’73, I don’t know if we got across the 50 yard line,” Osborne said.  “Those were hard times for Nebraska, but Oklahoma made us better.  We certainly couldn’t pull them down to our level. We had to rise to their level. And I think as a result, Oklahoma wasn’t our enemy. Oklahoma was our friend, because they made us get better.”

And oh, how Nebraska did get better.

“I’ve often said that I’m glad I didn’t hang around in the 90s because what you accomplished at Nebraska is unparalleled in college football,” Switzer told Osborne.  “You won 3 national championships your last 5 years, you’re 60-3 and 3 national championships.  That’s hard to compete against.”

After Osborne retired in 1997, the once-annual rivalry became a victim of the Big 12’s two-on, two-off scheduling, so OU and Nebraska lost some of its luster.

“Had Oklahoma and Nebraska continued to play every year, I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have gone to the Big Ten, but it certainly changed things up here to some degree,” Osborne said.

“I have no nostalgia or any thoughts about the Big 12 Conference.  I never competed or coached in the Big 12,” Switzer said.  “It was the old Big 8 that I remember, and that’s what I was a part of.  But Nebraska leaving - I knew then that days are numbered, I believe, for what I call ‘Big 12 Minus Two.’  I just don’t know how Oklahoma and Texas can make it live playing in early October.”

During my last year with the Pride of Oklahoma marching band, OU and Nebraska played each other for the first time to determine a Big 12 Champion.  As I walked along the sideline of Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City to get to my pre-game yard line, I looked up in the stands, and saw a homemade bed sheet sign with the words: “OU and Nebraska: The Way it Should Be.  God Bless the Big Eight.”  Tomorrow night’s game will evoke similar sentiments, but those will be the last.  For KGOU, I’m Brian Hardzinski.


You can hear Brian and NET Radio's Jonathan Ash's entire 25-minute, exclusive conversation with Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne by clicking on the second MP3 below.

The third MP3 is Jonathan Ash's conversation with OU and Nebraska fans leading up to Saturday's Big 12 Championship.

The fourth MP3 is Brian Hardzinski's report on the rivalry's history for NET Radio in Lincoln, NE.

Play Listen
Play Part #2
Play Part #3
Play Part #4
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