I have been a Gophers fan for a long time. I just don't tell people about it.
This is the longest offseason in the history of college football. We tend to say that every year, forgetting we said it last year because we're sure this year is worse. For Nebraska fans that feeling is true, as it's really been a two-year wait to join a new conference and begin a new era. These last two weeks are like the last few miles of a long journey - the anxiousness of reaching the destination is nearly unbearable.
For the majority of Husker fans joining the Big Ten is like the feeling you get before opening the biggest present under the tree on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened for me. I have felt disconnected from this joy in a way that I haven't been able to understand.
Then it hit me on the drive home from work last night, something right in front of my face, something so pathetically simple I should have realized it a year ago.
None of this is new to me.
I moved to Minnesota right after graduating from Nebraska in 1987. There were no jobs in Nebraska, and having lived in Texas during hellishly hot humid summers, I was tired of heat and wanted to try something different so I headed North. My fiance' would join me a few months later, and during our first winter together we lived in a tiny apartment where we had to turn the oven on and leave it open at night to keep from freezing.
Being new in the state, I thought the gal and I might as well adjust, and to me that meant becoming a fan of the local college team because that's what we did in Nebraska. It didn't work out that way, though. Being a Gopher football fan isn't easy. It's something you explain away, like you have to explain befriending a serial killer or why you own 100 cats. Otherwise people look at you as if you're goofy, something I wasn't accustomed to. Ask a guy wearing a Gopher shirt about the football team and he's more likely to say "I'm a Gopher Hockey fan" or "Someone gave me this shirt", then look at your shoes and slink away.
The height of my Gopher fandom came when I was a Minnesota season ticket holder for three years (1992-94). It was during the Jim Wacker era in the early 1990s. Wacker coached from 1992-96, compiling a record of 16-39 (8-32 in the Big Ten). His two best seasons were 4-7 records in 1993 and 1996. He brought an explosive offense, but his teams (like so many Gopher teams over the years) couldn't play defense to save their lives.
At that time in my life I was working an incredible amount of hours. There were some months in which I was literally working 20 hours a day, working as a consultant during the day, and writing and editing a Novell book by night. I would go the games in a near drug-induced state because of the lack of sleep, have a beer, and turn into a screaming maniac.
We dropped our Minnesota season tickets after the third year. It wasn't because Minnesota wasn't winning. It was because I was tired of the Gopher fans around me telling me to sit down and shut up. We were surrounded by mostly older people, who were waiting for the return of Bennie Bierman or Murray Warmath and they were not to be disturbed, thank you.
Still, it was a good experience. My Gopher football experience taught me to appreciate Husker football, to be thankful for nine wins a season, in way that nothing else could have. You had to learn to appreciate the little things. Against Illinois in 1993, I started screaming that we were going to win because we were making our extra points. As the game went on, other fans started picking up on that, and the game ended with the Gophers making a chip shot field goal to win 59-56. At that time it was the first time anyone had scored 56 points and lost. We left the stadium elated but completely exhausted from all the scoring.
You also had to deal with heartbreaking loss. In 2003, my wife and I decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary by going to the Minnesota-Michigan game. It was a great experience, for a while. The place was packed and the Gophers lead 28-7 going into the fourth quarter when the unthinkable happened and the Wolverines rallied to score 31 points in the fourth quarter to win 38-35. Watching quarterback John Navarre rumble down the field for a 36-yard touchdown running no faster than I could was like being on the other end of Tommie Frazier's immortal run through the Gator defense, except that Navarre's run took about five minutes. I can still see him plodding along, the look of horror on everyone's faces around me.
Through all of that, I've remained a Minnesota Gopher football fan. I can't help it. Like I said earlier, I thought that was what you were supposed to do when you're in a new place - become a fan of the local team. You can tell I'm a Gopher fan because I'm still trying to explain it.
The key to my Big Ten fandom is that I've been on the shit end of the stick over that 20-year time frame. Other Big Ten fans have treated me like they would any other Gopher fan and it is that treatment that's shaped my view of the Big Ten.
So, from the shit end of the stick, here's the rest of the Big Ten and how I see them.
Indiana - much like the Gophers, they don't have football fans. If they do, they apologize for it, and then they make up for it in basketball. Going to a Minnesota-Indiana game at Williams Arena (THE BARN!) and screaming at Bobby Knight was always a great experience that made up for any shortcomings in football games.
Illinois - much like Indiana there aren't a plethora of Illini football fans, at least that I've met. I wonder if it's because they never leave Illinois, either being too poor to travel, not wanting to make the effort or having too many other things to do. I suspect they'll be reasonable, if I ever meet one.
Northwestern fans are smarter than you, always, in everything. They look at sports fans the way entomologists look at bugs, curious about their behavior, especially how they communicate in groups. In 2000, Northwestern beat Minnesota on the last play of a game on a 45-yard Hail Mary. Before the pass was thrown, Wildcat quarterback Zak Kustok pulled out a slide rule, calculated the required trajectory, and then heaved the ball. At the other end, a Wildcat receiver used his slide rule to calculate the required force to perfectly tip the ball to trailing receiver Sam Simmons for the winning touchdown. That, in a play, is Northwestern.
Purdue fans have this strange love/hate relationship with their football team. It's not like Colorado - that they ignore them when they're bad - it's that they're angry their football team isn't consistently better, but they won't admit it to anyone else and if you try to talk to them about it you might find yourself dealing with an adult having a tantrum and screaming about past great quarterbacks.
Michigan fans - they mostly treated me like I was some scrappy little brother, ruffle my hair, laugh, and say "Maybe next year you'll be big enough", even though we both knew they were lying. They weren't too bad about it and I've never felt bad about them.
Michigan State - in a sentence they are too filled with an inferiority complex about Michigan to worry about being nasty to Gopher fans. They tend to take on the psychotic nature of their football team, mostly manic-depressive. Try to catch them when they're manic, though. It's way more fun, especially if you're sadistic. "This won't last long", you can tell them and then watch the smile drain away from their face and you know they're thinking of Michigan again.
Penn State - they were new to the conference in the early 90s, and they had an inferiority complex. Not like Michigan State's though, it was a feeling like they weren't sure they belonged. Penn State fans aren't nasty to Gopher fans. Over the years Penn State has suffered some debilitating upset losses to Minnesota, and from this Nebraskans must take a lesson. This is not the old Big Eight, nor is it the Big 12 North - expect that from time to time, some lousy Big Ten team is going to pull an upset you didn't see coming.
Wisconsin - they come over to Minnesota and take over the stadium. Not being a native I do not have the same anger that they feel towards Badger fans. I always enjoy the Wisconsin fans, probably because of the sheer amount of beer they drink, although it might have been because they're always happy, which is what happens when you lose for a long, long time then finally start winning (perhaps had Kansas State fans partook in more beer and brats, they, too would have found happiness).
Ohio State - their fans are unbearable. They walk the earth (if you can call it that since their feet never touch the ground) without ever getting dirty, barely recognizing the existence of other human beings as anything other than servants, little people who could get them a beer, park their cars, or shine their shoes but mostly be sure not to touch them.
The worst? Iowegians. Like Wisconsinites they take over Minnesota's stadium. Then they pretend that Iowa has something on Minnesota and by that I mean more than football, like Iowa is the greatest state ever, that hog farms don't smell bad and that Hayden Fry could create world peace if only people would listen. If there's one thing that Minnesotans and Nebraskans will always have in common it's hating those sunsabitches from Iowa.
If I got too much crap from other Big Ten fans, I'd just tell them I was a Nebraskan, and then I'd start talking about the Huskers. They'd mostly shut up unless they were from Iowa. Iowegians would shift their anger towards Nebraska and an entirely new argument would spring forth.
If you Husker fans think you're waiting for the season to start with breathless anticipation, you have nothing on me. I am a Big Ten fan and I have been for over 20 years. It's like I've been waiting for Nebraska to join the Big Ten all that time.
This time it's different, and although the experience is not shiny and new, it presents a new perspective.
This time I won't be on the shit end of the stick. I won't be partaking in this happy-time "We're so glad you're here" bullshit like so many other Husker fans.
No, my hatred is strong. Payback is coming, sunsabitches, and for me, it's coming with a vengeance, and as far as I'm concerned you got 20 years to pay.