LINCOLN — Leave it to Nebraska football’s two biggest enemies over the last 40 years to send a timely reminder that, after a contentious 2020, NU fans needed to hear in 2021.
Red River dance partners Oklahoma and Texas may not land in the SEC for a number of reasons, but Wednesday’s bombshell — starting in the Houston Chronicle and spreading like the smoke of southern barbecue on Twitter — that OU and UT had inquired about joining the conference should make Husker Nation thankful to be rid of their drama.
The Big Ten did not handle things very well last year during the height of the COVID pandemic. Nebraska hasn’t set the league on fire, either — that’s on NU — as league foes look down their nose a bit at their westernmost neighbor.
But the Big Ten is the family that chose Nebraska. It has filled Nebraska’s athletic and academic coffers with money. And as dysfunctional as the league got for a minute last August, it is not led by two self-interested scorpions looking to sting the frog beneath them when the mood strikes.
Oklahoma and Texas can do as they please, and their football programs — OU’s anyway — have earned the right. But they’re why the Big 12 is perpetually unstable. They’re why, 45 days before the season, Iowa State, Kansas State and every other league team is checking its hole card this morning.
The Cyclones are poised for their best season in school history, and as of Thursday, they don’t know if they’ll have a conference home in a few years. If it’s true Iowa State’s Jamie Pollard chose to ignore Nebraska’s overtures for the athletic director job, it’s clear now why NU’s job is better.
Kansas, with basketball, can probably line up a league date — Pac-12 or Big Ten — on short notice. Can anyone else? What separates K-State from Colorado State? I frankly don’t want to know. The Big 12 belongs in college football and college basketball. Nebraska fans I know still like watching it.
It’s just not home anymore. The Big 12 is a perpetually heaving bubble threatening to burst because Oklahoma and Texas — yes, both of them — have big, national appetites. Why the SEC would want UT’s ego — money, I guess — is puzzling to me. If I’m Alabama or LSU, you couldn’t pay me enough. But I can see why the league wants Oklahoma football. And while OU dominates the Big 12, I can see why the Sooners would desire a switch to the SEC.
The SEC has the swagger and ABC/ESPN TV deal Oklahoma wants. When the Sept. 18 OU-NU game — the 50th anniversary of the Game of the Century — got optioned for an 11 a.m. kickoff on Fox, you saw how quickly the Sooner brass reacted in anger. Don’t blame ‘em, either. In the SEC, that game is either a night event or a mid-afternoon kickoff. The SEC makes football its business and consistently protects its prime-time teams.
Oklahoma seems tired of being in a second-tier league. I get it. Nebraska — still good when it left the Big 12 — tired of it in its own way. Too much Texas. Too many games still on pay-per-view late well into the 2000s. The league was seemingly on 37 networks during the Huskers’ last decade in the Big 12, when let’s be clear, the Big 12 was every bit the SEC’s equal in football.
From 2000 through 2009, the Big 12 won two BCS national titles and played in seven title games! That’s when the Big Ten said it would explore conference expansion.
Missouri started moaning about the Big 12 in early 2010, and by summer, Texas — wanting its Longhorn Network and wanting to leverage the future of the league to get it — started sniffing around the Pac-12. You know the story from there.
Nebraska is in the Big Ten precisely because Texas and Oklahoma think they’re better than their league. They did then. They do now. They’re presumptuous, both of how they can move their league mates around a chess board and their attractiveness to the SEC.
And yet NU fans felt a certain pull back toward the league last summer, when the Big 12 played football during COVID — with fans — and the Big Ten initially balked before relenting for a late October start date with zero fans. Nebraska has a populist, football-loving streak that suits the cowboy attitude of the Big 12, and heck yes, it felt strange to be in a league far more cautious than NU’s athletic director and coach preferred.
Those rumblings of departure — or in Desmond Howard’s case, the Big Ten kicking Nebraska out of the league — ended quickly when NU’s brass, President Ted Carter and UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green, pledged a commitment to the Big Ten. They’ve done so repeatedly since then. Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren has a good relationship with both. Nebraska is in this league. Second decade. Accept it, adjust and thrive. Make nice. Really. Put your head down and win some games in a league that hasn’t gotten much return from investing in NU so far.
The old home isn’t home anymore. The Big 12 resembles a business deal where the top two investors keep threatening to bail.
Texas had that MO when it bolted the Southwest Conference for the Big 12, and Oklahoma — a program one must respect for its rigorous commitment to self-interest — had that MO when it bailed on the annual NU-OU game when in the 1990s, Nebraska kept kicking the tar out of the Sooners.
Twenty-six years later, Nebraskans rightfully have a nostalgic fondness for the NU-OU series. For decades, man, it was the best. It was history. Thrills, tears — in ‘86, you bet I shed a few — and wins. Without the Sooners, the Huskers may never have reached the pinnacle of the sport. They needed a rival and had a great one. The best one.
Oklahoma’s still Oklahoma, though. Same program that once ducked out of the annual NU game. Same program that flirted with the Pac-12 in 2010. Same program that responded like this on Wednesday.