What a Difference a Year Makes
This time last year, Husker football fans and the college sporting world were abuzz with anticipation and speculation as to how we would measure up after our highly covered move from the Big Twelve to the Big Ten. The university was praised and cursed both nationally and in the state for making the change. To some, the move was the right move. The Big Ten would be a much better fit for the university. To others, we were nothing more than sellouts, traitors, money hungry, the lowest of the low.
Whatever the view, the wheels of change were clearly in motion and along with them, the eagerness to prove ourselves and reassert dominance on the national level. We had the tools on offense. Our defense was star-studded on every level; they were primed and ready to make a statement. The future was bright.
However, despite all the excitement and optimism, hopes of capturing a Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl in our inaugural season were being tensely subdued. Husker fans seemed content to hold their conversations of such lofty goals to a whisper for fear of the dream vanishing before it even began. This was Nebraska after all, and despite the recent success under Bo Pelini, the dark clouds of the Callahan era still loomed overhead – a constant reminder of the darkest days in the program’s recent past.
The enthusiasm and excitement to get back to football were clearly visible as the summer of 2011 drew to a close. Husker fans seemed to be more eager than normal to get the season underway.
On Saturday, September 3, 2011, the Huskers kicked off the 2011–12 season at home against Tennessee Chattanooga. We were finally back to football. The Huskers cruised through their nonconference schedule, with a much needed win against the University of Washington after being beaten badly by them in the Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl the year before. The Big Red Machine looked primed and ready for conference play after defeating Wyoming 38 -14 in their first game away from Memorial Stadium.
Then, the moment we had all been waiting for – the Big Ten play. Nebraska traveled to Wisconsin on the first Saturday in October to start their grueling conference schedule in Madison, home to arguably the rowdiest fans in the Big Ten. More than 40,000 Husker fans were estimated to have made the trip to Wisconsin to cheer on the Big Red in their inaugural Big Ten matchup, and they had plenty to cheer about.
The Huskers rolled into Madison as the eighth ranked team in the country to take on the number seven Badgers. The tension was high. We were finally going to see how we measured up in our new conference.
But, we stumbled. Martinez threw a career high three interceptions and Russell Wilson and Monte Ball, with the help of their NFL All Pro-sized offensive line sent us back to Lincoln licking our wounds and mending our pride.
Like so many seasons in the recent past, Husker fans and players saw their preseason hopes and dreams of returning to national contention seemingly slip right through their hands. But, we earned our stripes as the best fans in college sports and rallied around our team. And they responded. In one of the more memorable games in Nebraska history,
the Huskers came back from a 21-point second half deficit to overtake Ohio State, which was powered by a potent offensive attack led by freshman standout Braxton Miller. For the first time all season, the Huskers had been tested and responded with ferocity. We flexed our muscles, displayed our grit and showed glimpses of the greatness Nebraska fans had come to expect over the years. For all intents and purposes, we were back on track.
Two weeks later, the Huskers went on to throttle the number nine ranked Michigan State Spartans at home for four quarters, winning 24-9. However, the Huskers had another hiccup the next weekend, losing to an unranked Northwestern team 25-28.
The next weekend was filled with mixed emotions on many levels. National news had spread that Jerry Sandusky, longtime assistant coach at Penn State, had been accused of multiple counts of child sex abuse. The Huskers, led by assistant coach Ron Brown, showed their support for Penn State and a grieving nation by leading an emotional prayer for the victims at midfield prior to kickoff. The Huskers went on to win the game but were beaten badly by Michigan the following week.
The Huskers rounded out their regular season schedule by defeating Iowa at home on Thanksgiving Friday and were selected to play the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on January 2. The Huskers ended up losing the game 30- 13, leaving an even more sour taste in the mouths of fans and players who had such high hopes at the start of the season. Finishing the season at 9-4, the Huskers fell just shy of the expectations for the fourth consecutive year under Head Coach Bo Pelini.
Husker fans enter the 2012–13 season a little more at ease, knowing a little more about what to expect and whom to expect it from. What a difference from last year, when the butterflies, excitement and pressure seemed to bog us down at times. But this is a new year. The young team from a season ago returns many of its key components and fans are already whispering about another shot at a Big Ten title.
No matter how the Huskers fare this year, this season will be marked by another milestone. On Wednesday, September 26, former Nebraska Head Football Coach and current Athletic Director Tom Osborne announced his retirement, effective January 1. As always, Osborne did not make a huge commotion. He didn’t ask for any praise, glory or accolades; he simply strode to the podium and nonchalantly made his announcement. He gave his reasons, clearly and concisely. It was simply time.
As Osborne walks away from the university he loves, it is a bittersweet moment for many Husker fans. For many, Osborne has stood as the face of not only Husker athletics and the university, but for the state as a whole. He is a native son, a hardworking kid from Hastings who loves to fish and who has achieved success in every area he has applied himself. And although his departure will leave a huge void in our university and state, our sentiments can and should be summed up in five simple words: Thank you, Tom, for everything.
See, Osborne has done more for this university than could ever be asked. He answered the bell when we needed him most. He brought us three national championships as our head football coach from 1973 to 1997. He then went on to represent Nebraska’s the third congressional district of the US House of Representatives from 2000 to 2006.
And finally, he came back to the university one last time to serve as the Athletic Director in 2007 to bring the athletic program out of the brink of irrelevance.
When asked why he took the job as athletic director, Tom casually answered, “Because Harvey Perlman asked me to.” But that’s Tom, leaving us to evaluate and write his legacy. His commitment to this state and this university has been unparalleled, and although we say goodbye to a legend this year, we do so with gratitude to a very special man who has set us on the course for a very bright future.
And thus is the cycle, onward towards progress and change. But in Nebraska we cannot look to the future without looking at the past. We have the luxury of being able to look back and smile. We know what we are losing, but we’re thankful for everything we have been given. Who knows what the future will hold? But at Nebraska, we can be excited, knowing full well what a difference a year can make.
By Drew Guiney