Big time college football is something that I never quite had the passion for compared to many of my friends and colleagues. In terms of interest and coverage, it falls way down the list of my favorites.
Yet obviously I am in the minority here, because you could argue that it is among the top five sporting spectacles in America. Part of the reason for that is that I grew up in New York, where college football is pretty much non existent, and pro football rules. Another reason is that I didn’t have the same college experience like many people — going to a Penn State or Michigan or even the University of Maryland, where Division I football was played and was such a major event on campus.
After a checkered college career, I wound up at the University of Scranton, and they didn’t even field a Division III football team there (however, while I was there, they went to two men’s basketball Division III final fours and won the national championship once). My professional experience, too, has been limited to a handful of Maryland games, and the NCAA championship game between Florida State and Virginia Tech — my first trip to New Orleans, for which I am forever grateful.
But I really haven’t been exposed to the true college footbal experience. Over the weekend, I was in Nebraska, and got the full treatment as a spectator, going to Lincoln to watch the Nebraska Cornhuskers. I get it now. I missed out. Before I get to it, the highlight of the experience was watching Larry the Cable Guys throw hot dogs out to the crowd from his private box on top of the stadium. Turns out Larry is is from Pawnee City, Nebraska, and is a huge Cornhusker fan.
Nebraska is a particularly intense experience, because Cornhusker football is the biggest thing in the state, and remains so, despite their recent fall from grace under the disasterous reign of coach Bill Callahan (one of the few triggers to get people in Nebraska to actually curse). Memorial Stadium was sold out Saturday for a game against San Jose State, and if you want to watch Cornhusker football on television there, you have to pay for it — yes, pay-per-view for the likes of San Jose State.
There is very little, if any, NFL presence anywhere to be seen. On Sundays, a small percentage of fans may break out their Kansas City Chiefs jerseys, but for the most part, if the NFL lived or died based on merchandising here, it would be broke. I went to a Fairbury High School football game Friday night, and didn’t see one kid in the stands wearing an NFL jersey. On Saturday in Lincolin, It is all Nebraska, all red — believe me, they do “paint the town red” for games, and I was ridiculed for not at least wearing something red. I did offer to open a vein.
Nebraska ranks as one of the richest college football traditions in the country, and they proudly market that tradition, with a museum inside the stadium featuring links to that glorious past — including the “Heisman Room.” Inside, you can watch a short film of Nebraska’s three Heisman trophy winners — Johnny Rodgers (I grew up watching him play on Saturday afternoons on television), Mike Rozier and Eric Crouch. It is interesting that none of these players went on to have any sort of pro football career.
There was two familiar names on the Nebraska roster — Ty Steinkuhler is a senior linebacker for the Cornhuskers, and Baker Steinkuhler an offensive lineman — the sons of one of the legendary names in Nebraska football history, Dean Steinkuhler, the Nebraska offensive line stud and Outland Trophy winner for the country’s outstanding offensive lineman in 1983. Another familiar name I heard while in Lincoln was a surprising one — Jason Peter. I heard him doing commercials on the radio and co-hosting the post-game radio show, which was surprising, and he was really quite good. The last time I heard about Jason Peter, a former standout defensive tackle at Nebraska, he was a drugged up mess. Apparently, he has turned his life around, chronicling it in a book that just came out called “Hero of the Underground: My Journey Down To Heroin & Back.” He has apparently made enough amends to be welcomed back into the Cornhusker family fold.
Nebraska has a long way to go (5-7 record last year) to get back to the glory of three national championships in the 1990s. Under Callahan and athletic director Steve Pederson, the program went downhill, and the pair alienated much of the Cornhusker community by cutting ties with the school’s proud football past. Pederson was fired in 2007, and the school brought back its savior — former coach Tom Osborne, who led them to the three nationals championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997 — to run the athletic program. Osborne had retired from Nebraska after the 1997 season, and spent three terms in Congress, but lost in a bid to become governor, which is stunning to me, since he is considered a God here (there is a statue of Osborne outside Memorial Stadium).
Osborne fired Callahan and brought back Bo Pellini, a former defensive coordinator there under the hand-picked successor to Osborne, Frank Solich. Pelini has some work to do — Nebraska is 2-0 so far this year, but they were outplayed by San Jose State and led just 14-12 going into the fourth quarter before the Cornhuskers broke it open and came away with a 35-12 win. But Cornhusker fans, who felt alienated under the Pedeson-Callahan regime, believe in Osborne. They need to believe, because Nebraska football is its biggest institution. Last Saturday, Memorial Stadium was the third largest city in the state, and I was a citizen.
A few leftover bytes: I have to give a plug to the Capri Motel in Fairbury — a great deal for $30 a night. You have to love a motel that has a sign like this in the rooms : “Please do not use towels for cares, shoes, guns, etc. — ask for rags as the front desk.” Also, as I was driving out here and approaching Marysville, Kansas, I kept seeing a sign of someone riding a horse on every billboard. I figured, great, they have a track there, I can get some betting in. Turns out Marysville is where the Pony Express Highway started, therefore the horse and rider logo. So I stopped at the post office and played a trifecta. On the drive out, I listened to several sports talk radio shows at different points inthe trip. This was on Thursday, before the Redskins 16-7 loss to the Giants Thursday night. I was amazed that several talk show hosts in different cities picked the Redskins with the four-point spread or picked the Redskins outright to win. It shows that even with the internet and ESPN and all the information at anyone’s fingertips anywhere in the country, unless you are close to the action, you don’t always get an accurate picture. You had to be sorely misinformed to think the Redskins were going to beat the Giants.