Take 5: Why OU/NU Still Matters (At Least To Me)

 

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
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18 Responses to Take 5: Why OU/NU Still Matters (At Least To Me)

  1. Greg says:

    Photo credits
    1) The opening photo shows me and three of my younger bothers (Tim, Mort and Jim) preparing for a skiing vacation down our back alley. I’m back right w/ the trendy hoody. __________ 2) My first communion phot with the deadly serious Sr. Corona. _________ 3) Brother Tim and I with Xmas presents. _________ 4) Me in front yard with Jack Midren dummy hanging in silver maple tree. ___________ 5) Older bros Bob, Joe and Bernie playing board game.

  2. harley says:

    poor writing…
    greg…get back to what you do good. You’re trying to be posnanski and
    you don’t veven come close. Pos has gone onto much richer pastures.
    This story dragged on. We like the quick satire you are known for.
    This thing dragged on and on and on and on and on and on.
    This is one of your worst pieces. You can do much much better…
    you’re not pos…..you’re greg hall the satirist.

  3. Rainbow Man says:

    Our Great Plains Neighborhood
    Greg- Great read. I grew up in Des Moines listening to Denny Matthews broadcast Royals games. When the Omaha Royals played the Triple A Iowa Oaks, I got a slew of future KC Royals autographs. I went to the University of Iowa and moved to KC in 1991. Kansas City residency was my childhood goal. I met a KC girl and my job transferred us to Lincoln, where we lived 4 plus years. I was prepared to dread the Huskers… but they won me over. Our first child was born in Lincoln. We then moved back to KC in 96 and had two more kids. I love Kansas City but have also always loved how our smaller world and better highways made it easier to travel to Omaha, Des Moines, St. Louis, Wichita, etc. I loved our regional neighborhood, and always viewed KC as the "County Seat."
    Part of living in KC meant you also understood the importance of Rosenblatt, Wichita State, The Sooners, Mizzou…etc….
    Part of us just died. I became a Husker fan in Lincoln… But our daughter that was born there will be attending K-State in the fall. I sure wish I could go to a KSU NU game and root for KSU. I still love my Hawkeyes too… but really became a Big 8/12 fan.
    The Big 12 ended up hurting Kansas City. How exactly did it help? We lost the best annual basketball tournament in the U.S. We lost the NCAA headquarters. We lost Nebraska. Is Tom Osborne eccentric… well yes… but I would put every successful football coach in the eccentric category.
    Change happens… but I hope that KC can regain that identity again. I hope Iowa State fans cram our bars again. I hope we can get a permanent basketball tournament.
    Man it would be cool to get Notre Dame…

  4. monkeyhawk says:

    Football in Nebraska
    I worked at WIBW in Topeka when I attended KU in the late 1970s. WIBW contracted with ABC to provide the crew for many of their college football telecasts. Going to Lincoln was always a treat. We’d go up the day before to lay cable & stuff then go to Misty’s for prime rib. Even though I still think of ‘Husker fans as obnoxious, individual Nebraskans treated the television crew like royalty. They knew we were the ones who brought them to the world.

    After the game we veered over to Rulo, Nebraska for carp. I don’t know how they did it but their cooking process dissolved the bones and the fish was delicious.

    During the one semester I lived in a dorm at KU, the RA was a psych student who trained a flock of pigeons to shit on the color red. Somehow he finagled a deal to "release the doves" at the end of the Star Spangled Banner. I remember Nebraska fans (most who could not get tickets to home games in Lincoln) slapping at pigeon shit at the beginning of the game ‘Husker fans frequently outnumbered KU fans at that game. He did it again when Sooner fans came to Lawrence.

    It was that era when everyone, I mean EVERYONE, in Nebraska watched the football game, either as the state’s 2nd largest city in the stadium or via TV. I always wanted some enterprising thief to hit Hastings and Grand Island with trucks and steal everything in all the stores. No one would see them and the cops wouldn’t respond ’til after the game.

    I think the carp place in Rulo has closed. But I hope a new set of Big 10 people can still discover the prime rib at Misty’s. It oozes Nebraska.

  5. Greg says:

    GH: keep the stories coming
    GH: monkey, that pigeon story made me laugh so hard I dropped my iPad. I sure hope today’s college kids are just as creative as that RA. ——– Rainbow, love your depiction of KC as the hub that unites us all. Sure we love to crack on each other but in the end we’re all part of the heartland of the USA.

  6. chuck says:

    Great read.
    Really enjoyed it. 🙂

  7. Guy Who Says What Others Think says:

    Snore.
    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. No one cares about NU in KC anymore.

  8. Redfan says:

    Good stuff
    Nice job Greg. I used to attend the ‘drive thru mass’ at St Mary Mag’s every Sunday in high school. Being a South Omaha Catholic school kid I can relate to all the stuff you wrote. Growing up in the 80’s when I actually was old enough to follow football I remember all too well having my heart torn out, still beating by OU and Switzer, Keith Jackson, etc. I also remember how TO could never win the Big One. Made the 90’s all the more sweeter. Hope we get a good one on Saturday.

  9. Uncle Dick says:

    So long Big 8
    Great story Greg. Those were some exciting teams and games, a great rivalry no matter where you’re from if you are a football fan. Harley jo critiquing your writing is like Teddy Kennedy giving driving lessons.

  10. mark x says:

    Nice, Greg …
    … I tell my kids there was a time when there were only 3 channels on the TV and they dont believe me.

  11. Cliffy says:

    My how times have changed ….
    That was a great game. I had a lot of respect for Oklahoma and I hadn’t learned to hate Nebraska yet. But the hypocrisy began back then when Devaney saw fit to play Johnny Rodgers even after he robbed a gas station. I guess he felt Johnny "needed football in his life." Sound familiar? Nebraska — the pioneer of fostering thuggery.

  12. Greg says:

    GH: Another crapper story from 1971
    GH: Got this story in an email from a friend of mine in Omaha _______ "I remember watching the game with my family and we had my grandparents, aunt and uncle down from South Dakota for Thanksgiving. My uncle was an OU fan but my grandparents didn

  13. jdegan says:

    17 minute mass
    Greg – your brother Mort would be the first one to tell you I’m far from a "football fan", but this was great to read. I also remember a lot of Thanksgiving meals planned around Nebraska games and shouting and cheering that scared all the kids(and maybe some of the women!). One of my favorite parts of this piece (and there are many) is the 17 minute mass. St. Mary Mag’s was always first on our list for speed! Thanks for the memories . . .

  14. harley says:

    If cornf*cker fans thought the refs
    call were bad versus texas a and m….watch this week….
    there will be more hankies on the ground against the nubs
    than fans in the stands. The big 12/10/6 don’t want the
    huskers to win the championship…look for lots of screaming/
    yelling/spitting/cursing by the pellini brothers. They are worth
    during the game…no matter who wins.
    Peelini is an asshole…a disgrace to all those great nebraska
    teams and players……

  15. harley says:

    greg…make me one promise…
    no more stories about you and the catholic priets.
    "the priests were happier to see tim at the stove than me"…..
    pLEASE STOP…I KNOW THIS STORY DOES NOT HAVE A HAPPY
    ENDING…

  16. bschloz says:

    More like this on KCC
    I like this type of article…..Mrs. Tierney My 4th grade teacher at Linwood Elementary was Bob Devany’s daughter, I was really into football at that time and became a fan of NE. Those names are so clear it seems like they were all on Sports Illustrated just yesterday……….For some reason I’m not into these Championship games as they really seem hyped—of course I’ll still watch. I’m also against a playoff system—I think it would water down the action and make the conference rivalries less important. I’ll take Auburn V. Alabama and be happy with it.

  17. Kent says:

    Great read
    I’m a few years younger than you, Greg, and grew up in a smaller Nebraska town, but much of this resonates. I remember devouring the OWH sports section, too. I especially loved Sundays, when they would have photo sequences showing key plays from start to finish … the SportsCenter highlight of its day, I suppose. Because of the restrictions on TV coverage (only two or three games a year), the coaches’ shows were really the best chance to see the team in action, even if it were a few days later, and there were several of them. My vivid memories of the rivalry are the emotions of 1978: the elation of NU hanging on to beat #1 OU (for the first time since ’71), the dejection of hearing James Wilder run roughshod over the Blackshirts the following week (and you had to listen: only two or three TV games a year), the righteous indignation over having to play the Sooners again in the Orange Bowl, the disappointment of losing the rematch. Pretty heady stuff for an 11 year old. I also remember 1980, when Barry Switzer showed up on the set of Bob Devaney’s Friday night show with a sack of tacos, representing the Sun Bowl where the loser was going to go. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQMpgnI5ERA

  18. Hal says:

    Husker For Life
    Having moved from Indiana to Omaha in 1980 I was treated to the true meaning of college football until I moved back to the Hoosier state and Lee Corso IU football in 1986. I can only imagine growing up with the Nebaska teams that you reference so well. Enjoyed your article that shows a lifetime of devotion to both your team and family. In Evansille we have a "turbo" mass, although I doubt if anyone has recently prayed for the Husker’s unless regarding a wager. We welcome the Nebraska enthusium and heritage to the BIG 10, baby!!

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