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Decade in Review: Defining Nebraska Moments for Hail Varsity Staff

January 01, 2020

As one door closes, another door opens. Or so they say.

In this case, another decade has come and gone. And with the door closing on the 2010s, we can look back at all that has changed for Nebraska athletics over the last decade. It’s been a lot, after all.

With that in mind, we asked the Hail Varsity staff members for their most defining moment of the last decade. What moment in Nebraska history will you look back on over the last decade and never forget? What will stick with you about the 2010s? It didn’t have to be obvious, or specific to one sport. It just had to be defining in whatever context of your choosing.

Here are our answers.

Erin Sorensen: People like to poke fun at me for always having my phone in hand, but I don’t give it much thought when they do. It’s my job to document moments and I’ve been doing so for Hail Varsity since 2012. But on April 6, 2013, I didn’t think to lift my phone and capture what was taking place before me. I instead just stood and watched, smiling from ear to ear. 

That was the day Jack Hoffman ran 69 yards for a touchdown in Nebraska’s spring game. I still smile watching it back. The front flip from wide receiver Taariq Allen into the end zone, the hands extended high in the air from tight end Trey Foster and quarterback Taylor Martinez’s guidance from start to finish are all fun to relive with hindsight.  

It’s even more fun to relive Hoffman’s moment, every step of the way. The Team Jack Foundation was founded in January 2013 by Hoffman’s parents after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. T-shirts and a budding relationship with I-back Rex Burkhead in the summer of 2012 ultimately led to the founding of Team Jack, and all eyes were placed solely on Hoffman and the foundation in April 2013. The foundation has now raised more than $3 million for child brain cancer research and will celebrate its seventh Team Jack Gala this February. 

Hoffman is now 13-years-old. He played center for West Holt Junior High in Atkinson, Neb., this fall, another moment celebrated by everyone watching. 

In that moment on April 6, 2013, I could have never imagined what I was seeing or what that run would mean. It was a defining moment for many—and possibly one of the best of Bo Pelini’s Nebraska career—and it’s one I’ll never forget. Turns out I didn’t need my phone to document this one. I couldn’t forget it if I tried.  

Eric Francis
The NIU football team celebrates its 2017 win over Nebraska on the field of Memorial Stadium.

Derek Peterson: There was a question on social media the other day from a colleague asking what Nebraska football’s record has been since each individual media member joined the beat. Mine is 13-23. Lots of losses. Some to be expected, and some were complete blindsides. There may not have been another singular moment in the last decade with as far-reaching implications as the second loss I covered at Nebraska.  

In 2017, Northern Illinois came into Memorial Stadium, picked off NU quarterback Tanner Lee three times, and left with the first pay-for-play win by a Nebraska opponent in more than a decade. Nebraska’s losing prompted Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst to come down to the postgame media area and reaffirm his faith in head coach Mike Riley. 

But then Eichorst was fired that following Thursday and everything changed. UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said later Eichorst’s termination was already being discussed, but the NIU loss no doubt exacerbated the situation. Riley, despite a recently announced one-year extension, became a lame duck. The consensus seemed to be that he was brought in to be Bo Pelini’s antithesis, a yes-man for Eichorst. Eichorst was a safety net that had just been set ablaze. 

That NIU loss set in motion Scott Frost’s return. It influenced Nebraska’s men’s basketball program, with Bill Moos coming to fill the vacant AD chair and growing at odds with former coach Tim Miles. It delegitimized the Pelini firing, with Eichorst being the man to pull the trigger while saying that he looked at Iowa and felt behind, yet four years later Nebraska was arguably further in the hole. It shook the program, I still think. 

Nebraska is in a better place than it was two years ago, but it feels like the Huskers are still recovering from the blow the Huskies landed. That set the tone for my three years, and it perfectly encapsulated a decade’s worth of shock within the football program. 

Greg Smith: My defining moment for Nebraska this decade is a pretty big one. Nebraska’s decision to join the Big Ten was a major move that changed so many things. We cover Nebraska athletics here, so we rarely mention the academic benefits of joining the conference. Nebraska has improved that side of things since joining the league. We do talk about the financial windfall that came to Nebraska. Honestly, that alone has made it worth it for many observers of Husker athletics. 

None of those important reasons are why this move and the timing of it will always be in my mind. I graduated from Nebraska in 2010 which was the Huskers’ last year in the Big 12. I then moved back home to Chicago after graduating. That’s right, back to Big Ten country. In fact, it’s the heart of Big Ten country since that is where the Big Ten offices and Big Ten Network are located. My then fiancé (and now wife) and I joked that the Huskers were following us and it was great. We came back to Lincoln that inaugural season twice for Husker home games.

In the 2012 season, we took full advantage of being closer to the road venues. We were in the house in Evanston when Nebraska took over Northwestern’s stadium during a comeback win, came back to Lincoln to witness a win over Michigan and saw the Huskers beat Michigan State in East Lansing. 

 Those were three weeks in a row. Three victories. That Northwestern game started a six-game winning streak. That streak ended in the Big Ten Championship which we also attended but like to forget.  

That time in my life was pretty cool becuase I was able to go back home and follow my alma mater very closely. It was also some of my last memories of following Nebraska athletics as a fan. I started covering the team shortly after moving back to Lincoln. My first year on the beat was the 2014 season.  

There are a lot of reasons that the move to the Big Ten is a defining moment. Mine just happened to be a bit different than most. 

Aaron Babcock
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball scores against Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game.

Brandon Vogel: Greg mentioned trying to forget the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game. I was there, too, covering it for Hail Varsity, and I haven’t been able to forget that game in the seven seasons since. 

It still shocks me to remember that Nebraska football entered the conference as the favorite to win the league in 2011. We know those predictions aren’t worth the paper they’re (no longer) printed on, but it was a reflection of the program’s strength at that moment. A title in 2011 didn’t happen, but the 2012 season made it look like things were still on track. The Huskers beat Wisconsin during the regular season, 30-27, a score that didn’t really show how well Nebraska played that day. With Ohio State ineligible for the conference title game, the Huskers’ got a rematch with Wisconsin in Indianapolis; a 7-5 Wisconsin title. Given how the first meeting went, it seemed likely that, after two near misses in the Big 12, Bo Pelini was going to get his first conference title. 

I picked Nebraska to win by three touchdowns. 

Wisconsin led 42-10 at halftime.  

The Huskers have gone 46-43 since that game, including 32-40 against Power 5 teams, 15-36 against teams with a winning record and 1-24 against teams ranked in the final Associated Press poll. Minnesota’s record over that same stretch is 53-36. Northwestern’s is 49-40. 

This past decade of Nebraska football took a sharp turn that night in Indianapolis. The program went from looking like it was close to snapping out of a downturn from the Osborne years to an even greater downturn. That it came against Wisconsin—a program that was at that point still viewed as a sort of franchise location of Nebraska football owing to its origins under Barry Alvarez—has only taken on greater significance since. The Badgers are 6-0 against Nebraska starting with the 2012 title game.  

The ignominy Nebraska experienced in Indy still hasn’t faded. Getting mauled by a relatively middling Wisconsin team was an indication of the cultural hill the Huskers were going to have to climb in the Big Ten. The brand name wasn’t enough. The recruiting edge over much of the Big Ten wasn’t enough. The resources afforded by unassailable tradition weren’t enough. 

At the start of a new decade, the Huskers are still trying to find their way up and over that hill and, while it’s a bit of a downer, that defines the decade for me. 

Jacob Padilla: Nebraska volleyball has had one heck of a decade. In the past 10 years, the Huskers won nearly 84% of their games both in conference play and overall, and they’ve also won over 81% of their NCAA Tournament games including two national championships. 

That first national championship was the turning point of the decade, however. The Huskers went from very good (.802 overall, .810 in conference, .688 in the NCAA Tournament) in the first five years to elite (.869 overall, .860 in Big Ten play, .889 in the postseason) in the second five. 

Nebraska went 23-10 in 2014 with 14 conference wins, the fewest of the decade, but the Huskers did make it to the Sweet 16. 

Hail Varsity
The Hail Varsity cover celebrating the volleyball team’s 2015 national title.

The 2015 season was my first on the Husker volleyball beat. Nebraska went 26-4 overall during the regular season, including 17-3 in the Big Ten, and earned the fourth overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Nebraska took down Harvard, Wichita State, BYU and Washington in the first four rounds, dropping just two sets along the way, in order to advance to the Final Four — which just happened to be in Omaha.  

Nebraska beat Kansas in four sets to earn its ticket to the national championship match where the Huskers swept Texas in front of an NCAA-record crowd of 17,561, most of whom were wearing Husker red. Mikaela Foecke — then a freshman — introduced herself to the volleyball world with 19 kills on .385 hitting, earning her first of two career NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player awards. 

Nebraska made it to the Final Four four straight years, winning it all again in 2017. Foecke went on to become one of the all-time greats in one of the most tradition-rich programs in the sport.  

But it all started with that sweep over Texas in Omaha in 2015. It was the first national championship I’ve ever covered in any sport, and it was one of the defining moments of the decade for Nebraska volleyball. 

Mike Babcock: The news conference after the 2011 Penn State football game was held in a small trailer beneath the Beaver Stadium stands. Bo Pelini talked briefly about the game, which the Huskers won, then spent the rest of the time talking about whether it should’ve been played. The reason? Joe Paterno had been fired over his alleged cover-up of a sex-abuse scandal involving assistant Jerry Sandusky. 

Pelini said the game shouldn’t have been played, and had the decision been his, it wouldn’t have been. But if it hadn’t been played, a reporter said, players with no involvement in the scandal would’ve been penalized. Then it would’ve been a learning experience for them, underscoring how serious the matter was, Pelini said. What had happened was bigger than football.  

As Pelini left the cramped trailer, I said, quietly: “Proud of you Coach.” 

He stepped out of the trailer, accompanied by SID Keith Mann, headed for an interview with the Husker radio network. They were 10 or 15 feet away when I left the trailer, among the last to do so. Pelini stopped, said something to Mann, turned and walked back my way. 

My concern was he hadn’t heard me correctly and was about to unload on me as he had on a reporter following a practice one day—or as he had on Taylor Martinez on the sideline during the Texas A&M game the previous season. I considered stepping back in the trailer. 

“So you think I got it right?” he said, not looking directly at me. 

“I did, Coach.” 

He punched me in the shoulder, not hard, and walked away. 

Regardless of the many issues that eventually would lead to his firing, Pelini is principled. That brief encounter left no doubt in my mind. 

What is your defining moment of Nebraska athletics over the last decade? We’ve love to hear it. You can leave your thoughts in the comments below, or tweet them/leave a comment on Facebook.

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