November is the cruelest month in Nebraska. Sun-splashed days can hint at the Indian summer that was October. But more often the winter winds of what is to come unearths lost stocking caps and your older brother’s hand-me-down parka.
I yanked down hard on my frayed red polyester cap as my father ignited the family Plymouth. As a mailman, getting up at 4:00 AM to be at work by 5:00 was my dad’s daily routine for the past 25 years. For me it had been a torturous way to pay my high school tuition since September.
Dad dropped me off in front of St. Mary Magdalene’s church at the corner of 19th & Dodge just as Omaha’s cruel downtown wind made me clutch for my coat’s collar. Vestments needed to be laid out for the morning mass and breakfast readied for the three parish priests. My younger brother, Tim, and I rotated each morning for $50 a week. The priests were always much happier to see Tim at the stove than me. Tim could cook eggs any way you wanted while my expertise lay in devouring the morning edition of the Omaha World Herald’s sports page.
This was the week every human in the state of Nebraska (and many outside) with a football-shaped heart had anticipated since August. The early non-conference games pointed to Oklahoma and Nebraska being not just a cut above the other teams the 1971 season had to offer but maybe two of the best college football teams of all time. The upcoming Thanksgiving Day battle in Norman, Oklahoma would pit the undefeated and untested Huskers and Sooners to decide everything. The Big 8 title, the national championship and bragging rights for the remainder of the century rode on the backs of helmeted heroes named Tagge, Mildren, Glover and the Selmon brothers.
Father William Kelligar, the well-read, well-traveled and quick-witted pastor at St. Mary Mags, had perfected the art of the 17-minute mass. He was a legend amongst downtown Catholics who needed to get their daily mass fix but could care less about understanding any of it. The mass was now in English instead of Latin but with the speed Father K exhibited in racing from the offertory prayers to the final blessing, it may as well have been in Swahili. No altar boy was needed for Father K as his presence would simply pose as a speed bump.
I used the precious minutes during K’s mass to read every word written in the morning paper about the upcoming Big 8 finale. The church deacon, a pleasant elderly chap named Mark, had an office below the rectory where we could sit and listen to the blur of a mass over a set of wired speakers. It is in Mark’s dimly lit office that I remember building an anticipation for a football game that I have yet to ever again experience.
Oklahoma was the team my father hated more than any other. I wasn’t old enough to really remember the unbeatable Bud Wilkinson-coached Oklahoma teams that ravaged the Big 6 and Big 8 during the 1950s. Old Bud was nothing more than a quiet-voiced TV analyst to me. But to my dad he was "that son-of-a-bitch" every time he showed up on our b/w Zenith for the Saturday college game of the week.
While dad’s blood boiled at the sight of Oklahoma crimson, my brothers and I respected what Chuck Fairbanks had built in Norman with his innovative and indefensible triple-option attack. I spent hours in the backyard perfecting perfect wrist-flip option pitches with either hand through the broken window in our garage door. Sure, we wanted to beat Oklahoma and were confident that Bob Devaney’s team could snare their second consecutive national title – but we all knew this game was going to be unlike any other. In short, there was a real chance Nebraska could lose.
If that sounds arrogant or odd to you, I understand your rolled eyes. But this was a different time for college football and the Big 8. Nebraska and Oklahoma were so superior to every other team in the nation that season it is difficult to even explain their dominance. Nebraska outscored their opponents 39-8. Oklahoma set the record for rushing touchdowns in a season at 62…or over 5 per game. The two teams combined to contribute 17 of the 22 first-team All-Conference players. Nebraska’s defense was number-one in the country with four All-Americans on its roster. Oklahoma’s option churned out 472 rushing yards per game. Those stats don’t do justice to the two teams’ dominance since most starters played less than a half for these two juggernauts in most games.
Remember this was an era before schools propped up their stats and won-loss records with near-dead non-con opponents. Oklahoma faced SMU, Pitt, USC and Texas to start their 1971 season. Nebraska went up against Oregon, Minnesota, A&M and Utah State.
Greg Pruitt, the first Oklahoma running back I dreamt of one day becoming, rushed for an average of 9.5 yards per carry. A junior by the name of Johnny Rodgers led the Huskers’ offense from the sexy-sounding flanker position. I would have also dreamt of one day becoming Johnny the Jet but even a schoolboy’s dreams have to be rooted in some semblance of reality.
Those daily pages of the Omaha World Herald’s morning sports page brought Oklahoma’s team to life for me. ESPN, Al Gore’s Internet, cable television and sports talk radio did not exist in 1971. We received three somewhat fuzzy network TV channels at home and one educational channel that no one ever tuned in. One and sometimes two college football games were broadcast on Saturday afternoon. There was no such thing as nighttime TV games or GameDay. Lee Corso existed but he was a buffoon head coach at Louisville instead of a TV buffoon. The local newspaper’s sports section was how everyone got their college football fix. Wally Provost was the World Herald’s sports columnist and my first exposure to combining wit and wonder in 18 column inches.
I do not remember seeing Oklahoma play on television that season prior to the Nebraska game. A few film clips of the Sooners executing the option played on the local TV sportscast as the game neared. It was the newspaper that brought the Sooners to life for me. Jack Mildren, the magician who played quarterback for the Sooners, became not just larger than life to me but an impossible, unbeatable foe. The words that I sponged from the morning papers had me believing Mildren was quicker than Father K with a host and his handoffs harder to read than the Iliad. Pruitt’s full-speed change of directions was the likes I had not known in a package so square and squat. The Selmon brothers read as if to be from Krypton.
The manic build up for the game went on all week. My nine brothers and I stuffed a pair of practice football pants and a white jersey with mom’s laundry and topped it with a stolen football helmet to hang Jack Mildren in effigy from the towering silver maple in our front yard. Mildren wore the same number as I, #11, so there was no need for doctoring the jersey with athletic tape.
The game itself was better than the hype. Much better. Two superb teams traded blows for three hours with Nebraska winning more because time ran out on the Sooners rather than the Huskers being the dominant team. 35-31 will always be a special set of numbers for me and any Nebraska fan who tuned in for Chris Schenkel’s and Bud Wilkinson’s call that unseasonably warm November afternoon. Following the Huskers’ win, my brothers and I gleefully danced in celebration in the streetlights’ glow below Mildren’s slumping dummy.
When the Oklahoma football program took a dive in the 90s I hurt for them. I wanted Oklahoma and Nebraska to always be great. When the Big 12 split the Big 8 in two and the Nebraska program dipped under Bill Callahan, I thought the glory days of my youth were gone, never to be revisited. Oklahoma revived itself to great heights under Bob Stoops but Nebraska struggled with being a northern school in the southern-dominated Big 12.
Then the summer of 2010 came along and the college football world I once knew imploded. East was west, west became east, 10 equaled 12, 12 equaled 10 and well…you were there. Along the way, Oklahoma and Nebraska managed to once again rise to the top of the conference to settle an old score once and very possibly for all time. The stakes aren’t nearly what they were in 1971. Neither team is undefeated. Neither has a shot at much more than a conference crown. But what a conference crown it is. This is the last Big 12 Conference crown that matters…at least to Nebraska. This is the title that has walk-away swagger attached to it. This one closes the book on my childhood.
Somebody get me a rope and some laundry.
GregHall24@yahoo.com and Twitter / greghall24