I attended Nebraska from 2006 to 2010 and it was during those four years I fell in love with the state and the school, an experienced share by many of my fellow alumni. A love of college football followed and to this day I look forward to Fall Saturdays and fourteen hours of games.
But sometimes, particularly recently, I've felt like a Walmart Wolverine with regards to my Nebraska fandom.
For many native Nebraskans and fans over the age of 20, fall Saturdays in the 1990s meant watching or listening to the Nebraska Cornhuskers play. There were an awful lot of victories in those days and things were generally great, as I understand it. I do not doubt that there was a similar amount of complaining. Our knowledge isn't passive. Dr. Osborne probably owes his longevity to the fact that the fanbase didn't have 24 hours of ESPN or wide-spread broadband internet access.
As many of our regulars would know, I am not a lifelong Nebraska Cornhusker. In fact, prior to 2002, my only knowledge of the great state of Nebraska was where it was on a map, that the capital was Lincoln and that the Kansas-Nebraska act was one of the build-ups to the Civil War. (I was a little fuzzy on whether indoor plumbing had made it across the Missouri River.)
My fall Saturdays in the 1990s were spent as a wing defender for a different kind of football. Or lost in the wilds of eastern Virginia. Or building gigantic Lego cities. Or outdoors, running around. No American football, really. I think I actually got a football once for Christmas and I had no idea why. It wasn't my sport.
(Sure, there was Navy football but that the first Saturday in December. One day a year, Go Navy, Beat Army.)
But there was no Nebraska. My dad tells me he remembers many of the Nebraska-Oklahoma tilts and mourns its loss after the emergence of the Big 12. But I can honestly say I have no real memory of college football from before 2003. Everything I know now has been learned since.
You may remember the fall of 2003. The firing of Solich. The seven week search. Mediocrity. Bill Callahan.
This was also the year I moved to Nebraska. This was my introduction to Nebraska football. Statistically and culturally the WORST period in Nebraska Cornhusker history, at least since Bob Devaney was knocking back whiskies as coach. (Can't really comment before that.)
We won't discuss the intervening three years as high school is basically the worst thing in the world, but I should note that I still didn't reallllllly follow Nebraska football. I knew what was happening but swimming had captured my interest and weekends were spent either working or resting.
In 2006, I chose to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln over Oklahoma State. (If you've ever been to Stillwater, you'll understand why.) Bill Callahan was the head coach at Nebraska when I enrolled in 2006.
I didn't get excited when Tom Osborne was hired in 2008 because it was Tom Osborne. I got excited because Callahan was gone. Or, more specifically, Cosgrove's defense was gone. (I've always had a soft spot for defense.)
Dr. Tom Osborne does not have the same mystique as he has earned from many a Nebraska fan. I should note here that I respect the heck out of Dr. Osborne - his 25 or so years at Nebraska are second to none and his work off the field for the state of Nebraska and her citizens is something to be applauded. But at that time, I didn't think he would magically cure everything. Not hiring Paul Johnson made me sort of sad. While in the end, I think that decision has played out in Nebraska's favor, I was not a "Bo-liever". Paul Johnson had built Navy. NAVY. And beaten Notre Dame.
In the intervening five years, we've seen the rise and enlargement of the Southern mystique in football. And yet in that time, under Pelini, Nebraska continues to win. Maybe not prettily, maybe not as frequently as we'd like, but Nebraska has been winning at one of the more consistent clips in the country. To find teams winning as often as Nebraska, you have to look at Boise State or national title contenders Georgia and Alabama.
This is what I see when I look at Nebraska. I don't see a comparison against Osborne's twenty five years or the magical run in the 1990s. I see Bill Callahan and then Bo Pelini. I see Nebraska against teams in the 2000s and 2010s, not the 1990s. But I suspect I'm in the minority here, for better or for worse.
Has Pelini won a championship? No. And that's certainly a valid criticism. But only one team of one-hundred-thirty Football Bowl Subdivision can win the mythical national title awarded by the Bowl Championship Series. Only one team in twelve can win a conference title. And Nebraska has been painstakingly close (and won in 2009 against the so-called #2 team in the country) but has come up short.
I see this as a combination of Pelini's youth and inexperience, Nebraska's inherent challenges, the damage Callahan did to the program, the rise of the mid-majors as viable routes to the NFL and of course the South's recent domination of mindshare.
When I see that and then see that Nebraska's teams under Pelini are graduating players, keeping grades up, staying out of trouble and still winning at a nice clip, I can't get behind the fan angst. Is it frustrating? Sure. But I'd rather Nebraska find a way to win the "right" way.
Wouldn't it be great if Nebraska won without being a mercenary? Isn't that what Nebraska is about?
But perhaps I'm wrong? Maybe I'm looking at things wrong? Is romanticism dead?
After all, I have no emotional attachment to Tom Osborne's run at Nebraska, barely know Bob Devaney, couldn't name a coach from before that, don't know the roster of the 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers and don't know all the words to "There is No Place Like Nebraska". I didn't grow up on Nebraska football, never dreamed about being a walk-on and don't think Eric Crouch is the greatest since sliced bread.
Am I not emotionally invested enough to really assess Nebraska's program, as it stands? Does my lack of experience with a truly dominating Nebraska team mean I'm willing to accept "mediocrity"? Is it mediocrity that I'm accepting? What is mediocrity in college football?
Am I wrong to be okay with nine wins a season while being more than happy willing to accept more? Am I wrong to look at the rest of college football and realize that a consistent nine wins might be the way Nebraska has to rebuild? That we can't all be Oregons or Alabamas?
That sometimes doing things right takes time, especially when you took a disastrous shortcut ten years ago?
Am I a "fake-ass" Cornhusker*? What am I missing?
Let me know your thoughts below.
This piece represents my views and understandings. Any mistakes are mine and I apologize profusely.
* No one has actually called me this, so let's get that out of the way.
[Ed. Note: The purpose of this article is not to call out any one opinion but rather to provide a frame of reference likely not observed or experienced by all fans. This is my experience as a Nebraska fan and I'm sure yours is different. My goal is to challenge you to understand that while we are all Nebraska fans, we all observe the sport different and from different point of views. My observations over the last few weeks would suggest that some of us have forgotten that.]