I wrote after the spring game that Nebraska’s “Big Red Revival” felt more like a reimagining. I still believe that. Reimagining is a better word in my mind because it’s big enough to include old and new ideas. It’s not a straight throwback. Scott Frost’s time at Oregon, during a key stretch when the Ducks were on the cutting edge of college football, will be hugely influential on how the Huskers play come September.
And Frost’s time at Nebraska will be, too. We continue to see nods to Nebraska’s past. Some can’t be missed, others are more subtle.
I’m interested in the latter category right now, which is to say: I see a lot more of old-school Herbie Husker of late.
As far as I know, overall-clad Herbie isn’t making any sort of official comeback. New-school Herbie –– the one who does look more like a famer of today, though I’ve always maintained he’s missing a cell-phone-in-holster clipped to his belt to complete the look –– is still the guy.
But Herbie seems to be making a de facto comeback. And, as someone who has always been partial to that version, that’s good enough for me.
Back in 2008 I was typing things on the internet and sort of hoping people read them but more just enjoying the freedom to write with no restrictions. I had a blog that was mostly about sports and as a Nebraskan living far from home, writing about Nebraska football became a way to shorten that distance.
So I would write things like this, spurred by the appearance of old-school Herbie in a teaser for EA Sports’ college football video game that year:
As best I can remember, my maternal grandfather wore overalls every day of his life minus weddings and funerals. Nobody does that now, but that's the point. Overalls are a functional garment. The opposite of fashion. They represent a disregard for things not directly related to work and, if I'm not mistaken, wasn't that the ideal that was used to define the great Cornhusker teams of the past?
It wasn't change itself that caused the Pederson Empire to crumble, it was that the changes went all the way to the bedrock of Nebraska football. I'll admit that the new, forearm-tastic Herbie was better than no Herbie at all but modern updates are a very difficult thing when you're dealing with a source of passion for so many people. Yes, phone-holster Herbie is a more-palatable, less-hokey edition of Nebraska’s beloved mascot and he achieves that without putting on airs. It's not like they put him in a three-piece suit.
But those overalls –– and the ear of corn they carried –– still have meaning. While a simple red shirt and jeans better represent the way Nebraskans look now, the overalls better represent the way Nebraskans view themselves as industrious, simple people.
I don’t pull that out of the dusty archives because I particularly like it as a piece of writing. I tend to dislike about everything I write as soon as it’s finished. (Actually, as I’m writing it, too, but I guess that’s a me thing. Writing is fun!) I pull it out because I think it’s still a plausible theory for explaining the appeal of old-school Herbie for a generation of Nebraska fans. It isn’t the hair or eye color. It’s not the belly.
It’s the overalls. That’s the visual representation of what’s really going on here –– nostalgia for Nebraska’s best era –– because overalls, while still just as functional, have become a nostalgic garment.
But that wouldn't have been the case when Herbie was created in 1974 by Lubbock, Texas, cartoonist Dirk West ahead of that year’s Cotton Bowl. (Trivia: Four years later West was elected mayor of Lubbock, but I don’t think he ran on having created Herbie, by then an official mascot at Nebraska.) New Herbie took over in 2003, ending a 29-season run during which old-school Herbie saw the Huskers win 295 games with the best winning percentage in the country.
Which brings me to Scott Frost’s head. If you’ve seen it this summer it is most often covered in an old-school Herbie hat.
Here it is in Alliance:
Fun and exciting late afternoon with Scott Frost, Matt Davison, and Bill Moos here in Alliance… pic.twitter.com/L7xjY8xYEF
— Cathe McCaffrey (@cathegregg) June 12, 2018
And here it is at Friday Night Lights:
What’s interesting about that hat is that it is not a hat you simply go down to the equipment room and get. It’s not an Adidas hat. That hat was chosen, procured by someone somewhere. That says something. And even if Frost might contend he’s simply wearing it because he likes it, that says something as well.
It’s not the only example of a visual throwback.
Last time I was up in the football offices, in April, it was the old, overalled Herbie that glowed from the screens behind the front desk, a fact that I should perhaps be more ashamed to admit that I noticed right away. (I have an eye for overalls.) The university brought back the script-Huskers logo a few years ago and we’ve seen it used often on the basketball side, but it’s becoming impossible to miss on the football coaches’ gear now, too, another nod to the 1990s.
That’s probably just fine by most Nebraska fans, but it does set up an interesting potential conflict as well.
Frost’s time at Oregon was highlighted by the Ducks’ highlighter-yellow uniforms. And green and black and steel and white and chrome and blacker black and whiter white uniforms, too. At this point it’s impossible to separate Oregon football from the still occasionally contentious issue, those less so lately, of a wide-spanning wardrobe. It was a marketing ploy that worked perfectly, and the rest of college football has gotten onboard.
Including UCF. It was clearly a priority for Frost when he took the job in Orlando. He called on his friend Phil Knight (thanks, time in Oregon) to have Nike refresh the Knights’ look. Just a few months after accepting the job, UCF had new uniforms that included three different helmet options. (The Knights added a fourth for 2017.)
“This is the first design, and I’m sure these uniforms we’re wearing this year will make it to next year. I don’t think they will make it much farther than that,” Frost said then. “I want to keep moving the ball down the field with our uniforms and I think we will come up with some new things down the road.”
Nebraska, however, is not that kind of school. People hold the uniform dear. You want to see controversy? Mention before a road game that the Huskers have opted for white pants instead of the customary red. I think it looks great, but have learned I’m in the minority there. Looking great comes second to looking like Nebraska for many. Husker fans seem to have made peace with the occasional alternate uniform, but even Athletic Director Bill Moss –– not the newest guy in Lincoln, but still relatively new –– doesn’t want to see it go much beyond that.
And that sets up the tiny bit of conflict here. I assume Frost would be interested in multiple alternate uniforms based on past preferences, yet he’s at a school, one of a handful in the country, where such a move would be met with more resistance than at most places.
So what do you do? If it were me, I’d Occam’s razor that thing. The simple solution, if Frost sees value in having more than a one-game alternate, is to give those potentially resistant to such a move something they probably already like.
You put old-school Herbie on the helmet. White shell, gray facemask, beautiful blue overalls right there on the side of that thing. Then you get Adidas to come up with some retro-inspired design. Maybe bring back the N on the sleeve from the early 1980s. Maybe bring back the great script-like numbers from the Devaney era. Maybe do both and make it a throwback mashup. If Adidas writes good enough jersey jabber referencing history and tradition to tell a story (but, really, just sell the thing) it’ll work.
At least that’s what I’d do, but I am not an unbiased narrator. I’m already in the bag for overalls, but I don’t appear to be alone.
And that’s why this still feels like a reimagining to me rather than a revival or rebuild or any other re- word I’m forgetting. There are going to be new ideas and there are going to be some old ideas.
I say let overalls be the fabric that ties them together. It seems like Frost is already on board.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.