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view of nebraska football stadium looking through one end zone at game with no fans
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska Considered Ducking Oklahoma, A Sad Moment for a Proud Program that Won’t Soon be Forgotten

March 13, 2021

Six hours and four minutes. Probably some seconds change. That’s the curious part. 

Make no bones about it, Friday was a shameful day for the Nebraska football program and its most prideful supporters. 

Fifty years ago, the defending national champion and top-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers went to Norman, Oklahoma, and beat the No. 2 ranked Oklahoma Sooners 35-31 in a game that has since lived on as “The Game of the Century.” 

In 2012, to commemorate that game, former Athletic Director Tom Osborne and OU AD Joe Castiglione announced a home-and-home series. In the years since its announcement, Nebraska and Oklahoma fans alike have patiently waited for the reunion of old Big Eight rivals. 

That Nebraska thought for a moment it could back out of the game is the clearest illustration yet of how far the program has fallen from its glory years. 

Nebraska can logically rationalize wanting a road game removed and a home game added to its schedule all it wants. 

The Huskers lost about $14 million off each home game played in 2020 without fans (four games), Nebraska’s Athletic Director, Bill Moos, told me in December. The program is expecting a smaller conference payout than normal and a revenue hit of about $40 million. The local economy lives off Husker home games in the fall. 

All that is well and good. “We’re thinking of the businesses,” Nebraska can say. And it did say it. 

“Due to the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to Husker athletics and the local community, our administration did explore the possibility of adding an eighth home game this fall,” athletic director Bill Moos said in a statement released Friday at 3:01 p.m. CT. “That option would have helped us mitigate cost-cutting measures and provide a much-needed boost to our local economy.”

All of that makes logical, business sense. 

But as much as college football has become a business, it is still at its core built on competition. Backing out of this game and replacing it with Old Dominion or some MAC nobody, something Nebraska reportedly attempted to do, flies in the face of everything coach Scott Frost says his program is built on and everything the championship program Frost knew before represented. 

Stadium’s Brett McMurphy reported at 8:57 a.m. Friday morning Nebraska was looking to “get out” of playing the Sooners in Norman on Sept. 18. Shortly after, requests for comment were made to a Nebraska spokesperson and Nebraska’s athletic director. Neither were returned. 

Castiglione released a statement at 10:55 a.m. that read, in part, “We fully intend and expect to play the game as it is scheduled.” Shortly after that, Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley told media members his team “can’t wait to play (the game) here in September.” 

It’s important to note neither directly denied the report. But Oklahoma got to the podium first. 

Perhaps someone with the Sooners was McMurphy’s source, hopeful that public pressure on Nebraska would keep the game in place after Nebraska broached the idea of nixing it. Oklahoma’s home schedule this season features Western Carolina, West Virginia, TCU, Texas Tech, and Iowa State. Expect Oklahoma wasn’t keen on giving this game up, as it represents their highest-profile opportunity to sell tickets. 

Nebraska isn’t the only program that lost money during the pandemic. 

But here it was, caught with egg on its face. Nebraska took a 9 a.m. report and waited until Friday News Dump time to respond to it. 

What happened inside Memorial Stadium during those six hours and four minutes between report and acknowledgment? The longer Nebraska kept silent, the worse it got. If NU was caught off guard, it has people within the athletic department specifically employed to put out these kinds of fires, and people around to explain how to avoid them in the first place. Perhaps listen to them.

We know one thing that happened: NU worked up a graphic it tweeted and then quickly deleted, an iPhone lock screen that featured a text message notification reading “You seriously backing out of this game????” below a calendar notification reminding of the game time and location. The tweet said “new phone who dis.”

Really?  A moment of either cowardice or drastic miscalculation pawned off as a playful joke?

Once more, and in a completely avoidable fashion, Nebraska was ridiculed by the college football public. NU was even called pathetic by Golf Digest. Golf Digest! College football outlets lined up to fire off shots. 

Higher-ups can claim they don’t care about such things, or that any press is good press, but being the laughing stock of the college football world time after time isn’t the same as being relevant. Ask Kansas.

In fact, maybe do give Kansas a call. They’re trying to get out of a game, too. Maybe they can give pointers for next time.

This won’t be a blunder soon forgotten. Nor should it.

Expect Oklahoma to be even more motivated once the Huskers come to town. Maybe Lincoln Riley leaves his star quarterback in the whole game and guns to put 70 on Frost. “Yeah, you should have tried harder to get out of this.” No one will blame Riley. Some national folks might cheer him on.

Because there’s no possible way Nebraska proceeds with plans to move this game without the go-ahead of the Husker head coach. If Frost was on board with replacing a likely top-five opponent with an Old Dominion, what does that say about his confidence in his team? He’s told his friends this offseason he’s as optimistic about this team as ever. Which is it? 

A year ago, Frost said Nebraska would play anyone anywhere. While that was a far different situation, it was in keeping with his public persona. 

When he arrived in Lincoln, Frost made clear that his program would be built on a catchy motto: “A desire to excel and no fear of failure.” 

Ducking the Sooners fails horribly to live up to that motto. If Frost really wanted to play the game, he would have shut down any idea to remove it, and that would have been that.

Everything since this regime’s arrival has been bravado dialed to the max. The Big Ten’s best coaches were running scared, opponents should get Nebraska now because the getting wouldn’t be so easy later. 

Nebraska was never going to be able to justify moving a tough matchup off its schedule because that schedule is already tough enough. Don’t like playing in one of the best conferences in football? Don’t be in it. After the complaining done when last year’s revised schedule was announced, Nebraska has asked for a break one too many times.

If I was a player, I’d be upset. They’re competitive. They want to play this game. Nebraska sells its recruits on coming to Lincoln and playing in big games against marquee opponents. The guys in Nebraska’s locker room embrace that when they sign on the dotted line. And yet they’re going to be dragged regardless, through no fault of their own.

If I was a ticket-holder, I’d feel betrayed. Or taken advantage of. If a cupcake eighth home game is more important than a rival I’ve waited to see again for a decade, my support and loyalty isn’t valued, my pocketbook is.

Surely there are other cost-saving measures to take before arriving at “well what if we backed out of a contract?” If you’re paying a million-dollar buyout to not play one game, and then whatever the pay-for-play deal would be for the new game, is the extra $11 million in revenue—or whatever it would be—a sweet enough pot to justify the black mark left on the program? If you’re that strapped for cash, perhaps breaking ground on a nine-figure football facility can wait.

And that’s not to mention this is a program that has twice lost pay-for-play home games in the last four years.

Imagine if Shawn Eichorst was the one who tried to pull the plug on this game. People would shrug off the financial piece and call for his immediate removal. 

The best don’t become the best by taking shortcuts. 

Akron or Old Dominion in September don’t get this program where it says it belongs. 

“If we’re going to start getting our reputation back, we’ve got to start beating and playing the best,” 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers told the AP’s Eric Olson. “What are we going to play? Division II schools or something.”

Ask any rational Nebraska fan what they expect from that Sept. 18 matchup. I imagine few will tell you “Nebraska wins.” I can get myself to a place where if X, Y, and Z happens, Nebraska can remain competitive and give itself a chance, but the expectation is simply that—keep it competitive. 

Getting beaten by Oklahoma doesn’t do nearly as much damage as taking yourself out of the fight altogether. 

In the grand scheme of things, leaks perhaps saved Nebraska even more embarrassment. The game will be played. Is that what Nebraska’s higher-ups truly want, though? Or were they just boxed in by the Sooners and a fanbase they need to keep happy? Was this all just one giant miscalculation?

What a mess.

And it just sat there for six hours and four minutes.

If Nebraska truly wants to honor that 1971 classic and the championship-caliber teams that came for years after it, it needs to live up to the example they set, not remind everyone they’re just another relic of the past.

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