Posted by Jerry Hinnen
There's no doubting that these are exciting times for Nebraska football. Today's the day they officially join the Big Ten, the day they officially (as our own Dennis Dodd writes) start new rivalries with the likes of Ohio State, Penn State and -- most substantially -- their Great Plains brethren at Iowa. Today's the day they start drawing checks from the Big Ten Network money machine. It's the day that will, in short, define the future of their football program.
But amidst all that excitement, it's also a day which ought to be an occasion to remember the Huskers' past. Because in making the move to the Big Ten, Nebraska is cutting ties with years, decades, even centuries of their gridiron tradition.
Start with the rivalries. Nebraska vs. Kansas was only the longest uninterrupted series in the nation, having been played every year since 1906. The Huskers' and Jayhawks' started their annual grudge match so long ago, Oklahoma didn't even exist--and we're not talking about the Sooners, we're talking about the state.
But even that's not the oldest Nebraska rivalry that will end this season. The Huskers and the Missouri Tigers first met all the way back in 1892 and went on to play each other 102 more times, making it the third-oldest football rivalry west of the Mississippi River.
Because of Nebraska's dominance over both foes -- the Huskers defeated Kansas 36 straight times between 1969 and 2004, and Mizzou 24 straight times from 1979 through 2002 -- neither rivalry ever quite ascended to "classic" status, despite each's longetivity. But that doesn't mean each didn't give us classic moments, like this one you knew was coming:
And even if those series didn't carry as much weight on the gridiron as some others, the same can't be said for the Huskers' showdowns with Oklahoma. The move from the old Big 8 into the Big 12 had already (shortsightedly) brought a halt to the teams' annual meeting after 70-plus years of uninterrupted battles, but the rivalry that gave us the "Game of the Century" still survived as part of the Big 12 scheduling rotation and in the occasional Big 12 championship game. Now? The two schools might meet again in 2020 and 2021, if we're lucky.
Go beyond just rivalries and scheduling, though, and the conference switch also represents a complete cultural realignment for Husker football. Since the very beginning, Nebraska football has associated itself first-and-foremost with other heartland schools; their first conference affiliation came in the Missouri Valley Conference with Iowa-based schools like Drake and Grinnell. When they moved to the Big 8, they did so alongside not just the Jayhawks, Tigers and Sooners but schools like Kansas State and Iowa State as well.
From their location to their "Cornhuskers" nickname to the undying, overwhelming support of the Big Red faithful to their regional and national dominance, Nebraska wasn't just an important part of Great Plains college football; in many ways, the Huskers were Great Plains football.
That's not going away entirely, of course. And the annual matchup with Iowa promises to be a particularly important game from a regional standpoint. But with a schedule dominated by trips to Midwestern-to-the-bone locations like Minneapolis and Chicago, in a conference long identified first-and-foremost with the Rust Belt pillars at Michigan and Ohio State, there's no way Nebraska's identification as the heartland football program won't erode. Those days are done.
That's not to say Nebraska should have turned the Big Ten down, of course. Money talks. Academics talks. The Big 12's Texas obsession most definitely talks. From the Nebraska perspective, there's no way to spin the jump to a more stable, more lucrative conference as anything other than progress.
But progress almost always comes with a price, whether it's Colorado ditching its decades of old Big 8 rivalries to head west, Boise State's leap to the Mountain West finally finishing off the WAC as a meaningful football conference for good, TCU and Utah going their separate ways just when things between them were getting good, or all that Nebraska is giving up in their move to the Big Ten.
Today deserves to be a celebration for the Huskers' future, and for the future of all the teams and conferences who have been officially realigned today. But this is college football, the sport where tradition and history and all those things that are not money matter more than any other. There should be time enough, even today, to mourn the things the great realignment of 2010 has lost us.