Rivalries are developed over time. They are not designated.
That was the substance of the Nebraska-Oklahoma football rivalry. The schools played every season except two from 1921 through 1997.
They didn’t meet in 1926 or 1927, despite being among 10 members of the Missouri Valley Conference—a story worth a short detour here.
Nebraska scheduled a game against Oklahoma at Omaha in 1919, part of a double-header with Creighton, which played Marquette. Oklahoma wasn’t yet a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, which had passed a rule requiring members to play home games on campus sites.
Because Nebraska violated the rule, it had been forced from the conference and played as an independent in the 1919 and 1920 seasons—when Kansas was the only MVC school to schedule the Huskers. Anyway, Oklahoma replaced Nebraska in the conference in 1920.
Nebraska regained MVC membership in 1921, and the two schools were then members of the same conference until the Huskers moved to the Big Ten in 2011.
The teams are scheduled to play home-and-home in 2021–22.
The Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry has a long history; the Sooners dominated much of the modern era after the Huskers had the upper hand in the early years. Still, Nebraska only trails the all-time series 38-45-3, losing six of the last eight after winning nine of the previous 10.
Among the most memorable victories in Husker history are the 25-21 upset on Halloween in 1959 in Lincoln, ending Oklahoma’s 74-game conference unbeaten streak—and a 16-game losing streak to the Sooners—and the 35-31 “Game of the Century” thriller on Thanksgiving Day in 1971 at Norman.
Many Husker fans can quote Lyell Bremser from that day: “Holy moly, man, woman and child did that put ‘em in the aisles. Johnny ‘The Jet’ Rodgers tore ‘em loose from their shoes.”
And, of course, Oklahoma had its “Sooner Magic” in games against the Huskers.
It should be noted, of course, that Oklahoma also has an in-state rivalry with Oklahoma State, the “Bedlam” series, and probably its biggest, and most bitter, rivalry against Texas. So when Big 12 play began in 1996 and Nebraska and Oklahoma were in different divisions, and because of that wouldn’t play every season, it was a blow to the Huskers but not the Sooners.
Still, I’d guess for most Husker fans of a certain age, Oklahoma was Nebraska’s traditional rival. It certainly was from my point of view, and there wasn’t much bitterness to it.
Coach Barry Switzer was comfortable enough to walk on to then-Athletic Director Bob Devaney’s Friday television show in Lincoln and hand him tacos, signifying the Sun Bowl bid that would go to the loser of the next day’s game between Nebraska and his Sooners.
Oklahoma would win 21-17 and earn an Orange Bowl bid.
And Tom Osborne was saddened to some degree that his 250th coaching victory had come by such a lopsided score (69-7) against Oklahoma in 1997—the Sooners then coached by John Blake.
Bill McCartney designated Nebraska as Colorado’s rival when he went to Boulder in 1982, allegedly going so far as to prohibit athletic department staff from driving red vehicles.
And when newspaper reporters from Nebraska drove to Boulder to cover games, they were well-served to rent vehicles with license plates from states other than Nebraska.
Colorado students and fans were typically less than cordial. Two sections of students at Folsom Field were cleared in the fourth quarter of the Nebraska game in 2005—a 30-3 Husker victory—because they were throwing debris, including water bottles, onto the field.
Husker fans, as well as Osborne, were reluctant to acknowledge the rivalry. Nebraska had won 14 in a row in the series and 19 of the previous 20 when McCartney arrived. After some early frustration, however, he briefly capitalized on the designated rivalry to earn a national championship in 1990.
With the creation of the Big 12, which put Colorado in the same division and made that game the last of the regular season, the “Black Friday” game, what had been designated evolved into a real rivalry. It had a history, though dominated by Nebraska, which still holds a 49-20-2 advantage.
Despite the fact there’s history going back to 1891, Nebraska-Iowa is still a designated rivalry. And the teams won’t play on Black Friday in 2020-21—Minnesota will be the Huskers’ opponent. In the future, however, it could evolve, as Scott Frost said at Monday’s news conference.
“I think if it hasn’t caught on, it will,” he said.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.