Friday, October 9, 2009

Checking in with the Cornhuskers: My Father's Guilty Pleasure

I went to bed last night with Nebraska down 9-0 in their game with Missouri. It was a sloppy game in bad weather and there was no reason to expect any significant change before the end. Who would have thought the Huskers would score 27 points in the fourth quarter, including 20 in a three-minute span? Final score: 27-12, good guys win.

Why does a kid from Maryland care in the slightest about Nebraska football?

It's a perfectly reasonable question. It's all about family, you see. My father is from Nebraska. The University of Nebraska's Cornhusker football team has what is best described as a religious following within the state. I have relatives who are absolutely bonkers for the Huskers. My grandfather was a season ticket holder.

As explained in a previous post, my father is not much of a sports fan. He and I share many interests: music, Asia and politics among many others. But while many kids grow up watching sports with their dads, my interest developed despite my father's apathy. He might sit and watch for a few minutes with me while passing through the room but for the most part, he really doesn't care. There is one exception: Nebraska football.

Now, he'll claim to not be so interested in the Huskers, either. But I have visions from childhood of my father jumping off the couch with excitement I've rarely seen in other contexts. I think of Nebraska football and I have Proustian memories of my dad's fresh, stove-top popcorn on a late Saturday afternoon in November.

There weren't a lot of Nebraska games carried on the east coast in those days but the annual showdown with Oklahoma was a given. It was, in fact, expected for the two teams to meet late in the season, both undefeated with a conference title and a trip to the Orange Bowl on the line. Their games were just about the best sports theater around.

For decades, Nebraska played a wonderfully entertaining version of option football. Quarterback magicians like Turner Gill, Steve Taylor and Tommie Frazier drove opposing defenses crazy just trying to keep track of the ball. In the mid-90s, they were the dominant team in the country with three national titles in four years. Unfortunately, the team's legendary coach Tom Osborne retired after the last of the three and the team has never been quite the same since. There was a national title run in '01 but Nebraska was stomped hard by Miami in the championship game.

Then, in 2004, a horrible mistake was made. Bill Callahan, the recently fired head coach of the Oakland Raiders, was hired to lead the Huskers. Callahan brought with him the West Coast Offense: a more conventional, NFL style passing offense. The option game was history. The subsequent downturn might have happened anyway but the change in offense led to the Huskers' first losing season in 40 years. Things didn't get much better after that and Callahan was fired in 2007.

Bo Pelini is the current head coach, hired rather than esteemed alum and accomplished coach Turner Gill supposedly because of a greater need on the defensive side of the ball. I must say, the Huskers' defense looked formidable last night, while the offense looked uncertain - quite the opposite of the way things used to be. If it means more wins, I suppose that's a good thing.

I don't watch a lot of college football anymore. I used to be a huge fan but my interest has waned. In large part, it is because my wife truly hates the sport above all others and can barely stand to have it on. While she was the one who encouraged me to join the fantasy league this year and has tolerated the NFL on Sundays, I don't want to push my luck with college games on Saturdays. However, I figure anything that's on after she goes to bed is fair game so last night's game was ideal.

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