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Chatelain: Nebraska's hatred of Oklahoma pushed the Huskers to greatness

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2001 win

Tom Osborne revolutionized the Huskers' offense not once but twice . Why? To beat Oklahoma. Plain and simple. Yes, hatred is fuel. Nebraska in 2021 could use a lot more of it, writes Dirk Chatelain. Above is a picture from Nebraska's 20-10 win over Oklahoma in 2001. 

Growing up in the 1980s, a Nebraska kid recognized two mortal enemies: Russia and Oklahoma, and not necessarily in that order.

Big Eight football wasn’t a “Cold War” confined to Hollywood movies and tropic jungles. The Soviets were half a world away. An abstract foe you observed only on the news — or “Rocky IV.” The Sooners, by contrast, were real. They showed up in our backyard every two years and, more often, our nightmares.

Every Nebraska kid understood that the Big Eight season finale might be the best day of the fall, or the worst. Nothing in between.

I was late to the party, but well-schooled. My first Oklahoma memory was 1987. “Game of the Century II.”

Broderick Thomas

One month before "Game of the Century II," Dirk Chatelain and his brother ran into Broderick Thomas in Lincoln. Nobody, Broderick boasted, has the keys to “our house.”

One month before the No. 1-vs.-No. 2 showdown, my brother and I ran into Broderick Thomas in Lincoln. My brother summoned the courage to ask for the All-America linebacker’s autograph — “Sandman.” How cool is that!

Thomas’ signature hung on our bedroom wall, next to Broderick’s plastic red keys to Memorial Stadium. Nobody, Broderick boasted, has the keys to “our house.”

Deep down, we knew it was a lie. Oklahoma scared the hell out of us, like walking into a cornfield in the middle of the night.

Thirty-plus years later, don’t forget that. Don’t buy the filtered, civilized, revisionist history of OU-NU. I love Barry Switzer now. But back then, he was not a folksy, charismatic swashbuckler. He was a damned outlaw. A dream killer. Evil in the flesh. And his team, with its mohawks, fur coats and Walkmans, made our blood boil.

“We were the good guys; Oklahoma was the bad guys,” quarterback Steve Taylor told me this week. “We were humble, clean, did things the right way. They were in trouble. NCAA violations. Swagger. Cocky.

“Our team reflected Coach (Tom) Osborne. Barry Switzer’s team reflected him. He went out and had a cocktail. Coach Osborne went to church.”

But here’s the important part. Here's the timeless piece of the Sooner-Husker story that I surely didn’t recognize as a kid. Oklahoma made Nebraska! Like an invisible magnet pulling the Huskers toward the best version of themselves.

Hatred is good. Not in marriage or school or business. But in football? Oh, yeah. Hatred keeps you up at night, gnawing at your gut, digging its claws into your fears and insecurities. Hatred lifts you out of bed in June to run stadium steps. Hatred inspires desperation and innovation.

Tom Osborne revolutionized Nebraska’s offense not once (1969) but twice (1980). Why? To beat Oklahoma. Plain and simple.

Yes, hatred is fuel. Nebraska football in 2021 could use a lot more of it.

Breaking hearts

Hatred is born of a broken heart. So often.

Here in Nebraska, we love to reminisce about 1971. But you know what happened in ’72? The Sooners rallied from 14 points down and spoiled Bob Devaney’s final game coaching at Memorial Stadium. Cold-blooded.

In ’73, they shut out Osborne’s first team, 27-0. ’74 and ’75 weren’t much better.

“In the mid-’70s, they were so good on defense it’s scary,” said Guy Ingles, who played on Nebraska’s ’70 team and assisted Osborne through ’79. “Lee Roy Selmon was the best college defensive lineman I have ever seen to this day. He was just hell on wheels. And they had three of ’em!

“I remember looking at (NU offensive tackle) Steve Hoins after one of those games. He looked like he was in shell-shock from mortar fire in Vietnam. He could hardly stand up from the locker room bench. He didn’t have a prayer against Lee Roy Selmon.”

In ’76, with Selmon in the NFL, Nebraska led OU 17-13 with 3:30 left. Switzer called a halfback pass — OU’s first throw of the game! — and gained 47 yards. A few plays later, on third-and-19 at the Husker 34, OU quarterback Dean Blevins threw to Steve Rhodes, who executed a perfect hook and lateral to Elvis Peacock, who raced to the Nebraska 2.

The birth of Sooner Magic.

Ingles was in the Memorial Stadium coaches box, sitting next to NU assistant Warren Powers. “I’ll never forget it,” Ingles said. “He threw his clipboard down on the counter and said, ‘We’re never gonna beat these (expletives).’”

The series followed a pattern. OU dominated Nebraska in Norman and edged the Huskers in Lincoln. It changed in ’78, thanks to six Oklahoma fumbles. Osborne finally beat his nemesis. But after Nebraska lost to Missouri, the Orange Bowl hatched a rematch.

“Tom was livid at the Orange Bowl,” Ingles said. “I never saw him that mad in the 11 years I was around him.”

In ’80, Sooner Magic struck again in the form of a Buster Rhymes 43-yard run in the final minutes. OU scored the game-winner with 56 seconds left.

Osborne began emulating Oklahoma’s option offense — you gotta run the ball in November — and Turner Gill swung the series in Nebraska’s favor from ’81-83. But it didn’t last.

The Sooners stole the ’84 showdown in Memorial Stadium with a fourth-quarter, goal-line stand. They dominated in ’85. Then came ’86. Peak agony.

The Sooners were eight-point favorites on the road. But Nebraska led 17-10 with three minutes left. When NU recovered Jamelle Holieway’s fumble, Memorial Stadium exploded. Fans didn't see the flag. Face mask.

The penalty jump-started a 94-yard Oklahoma drive. With 1:22 left, Keith Jackson ripped the ball away from a Husker defensive back for a game-tying touchdown.

At least Nebraska would get a tie, right? Nope.

The Huskers went three and out and punted. With 18 seconds left, on third-and-12, Holieway fired for Jackson down the sideline. He made a spectacular one-handed, 41-yard catch over Broderick Thomas. Final score: Oklahoma 20, Nebraska 17.

“Nebraska believed we'd do it,” Switzer said afterward, “and we did.”

Frustration mounts

Six months later, Steve Taylor couldn’t bite his tongue. In May 1987, the Husker quarterback popped off on OU.

"The basketball team has beaten Oklahoma," Taylor said. "The baseball team has beaten Oklahoma. The volleyball team has beaten Oklahoma. Why can't we beat Oklahoma?

"That's what we're known for is football, and we can't even beat Oklahoma. We're going to get it right, though. I can't wait.

"I hate Oklahoma.”

Sam McKewon, Evan Bland and Jimmy Watkins look at the contrasting realities of the past Nebraska vs Oklahoma rivalry and the current state of both programs. The crew also pick out their Mt. Rushmore of Husker rivals.

From 450 miles apart, they eyed each other throughout 1987, comparing scores and statistics.

Entering the “Game of the Century II,” Oklahoma ranked No. 1 in defense and No. 2 in offense. Nebraska was first in offense and eighth in defense. But injuries sidelined OU’s starting quarterback and fullback.

"The flat-out truth is, Oklahoma can't play with us,” Taylor said in early November ’87. “They are not good enough. Let me tell you, it might not even be close.”

Said Broderick Thomas: "They're always saying that Nebraska can't win the big one. Stick around."

"Every time someone brings up the subject of Oklahoma, I begin to sweat. My temperature begins to flare. It's showtime. It'll be like an 18-wheeler and a car colliding. It'll be something like unreal.”

What happened in the first OU-NU game I ever watched live? The Sooners rallied from a 7-0 halftime deficit and outgained the Huskers 444-235.

Said OU's Keith Jackson: ”We didn't need a key to get in their house. We busted the damn door down."

1987 game

The 1987 Nebraska-Oklahoma game was another heartbreaker for the Huskers, who lost their fourth straight to the Sooners. But that loss motivated NU to get revenge the next season with a 7-3 win in Norman. 

The loss even broke Osborne’s spirit. Switzer had beaten him 12 times, and OU trailed eight times in the second half.

“Switzer obviously is a better coach than I am,” Osborne said. “That goes without saying. He's outcoached me year after year, so we'll go along with that. We did the best we could. I can't get a brain transplant. Maybe I need one. But I'm stuck with what I've got.”

Does that sound like the man we’d identify 10 years later as the greatest coach of his generation?

That’s what Oklahoma did to Tom Osborne.

Pushed to get better

Of course, Oklahoma did something else to Tom Osborne. It drove him to keep going.

In ’88, Nebraska traveled to rainy Norman and toppled the Sooners, 7-3. Seniors Taylor and Thomas finally got their revenge.

“They said when they beat us at our house two years in a row that they had the keys to our house,” Sandman said. “Well, we came and got those keys and we're taking them back home.”

That was the last meeting between Osborne and Switzer. The following summer, coincidentally as communism crumbled in Eastern Europe, Switzer resigned amid a flurry of scandals.

Osborne, Switzer

“Switzer obviously is a better coach than I am,” Tom Osborne said after the Nebraska-Oklahoma game in 1987. “That goes without saying. He's outcoached me year after year, so we'll go along with that. We did the best we could. I can't get a brain transplant. Maybe I need one. But I'm stuck with what I've got." Above, former head coaches Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer visit before the Huskers' and Sooners' game in 2001.

You might argue that OU’s turmoil opened the door to Nebraska’s glory years. Or you might claim that facing Switzer all those years — forging the will to win — prepared Osborne’s program for three national championships.

Most likely, it’s both.

“I’m a historian,” said Barrett Ruud, the former Husker linebacker turned assistant coach. “I love it. I’m a rivalry guy. ... I think it makes a huge deal for programs. It’s obviously big during the week, but honestly I think it’s bigger the other 51 weeks.”

The other 51 weeks.

See, that was Oklahoma’s real value to Nebraska. The Sooners inspired the Huskers to persevere and experiment and grow. Why? They couldn’t bear the thought of losing again.

“Every day, every practice, you geared up to get better and better to get ready for the big game,” Taylor said.

Over the past 20 years, Nebraska had bigger problems than finding a nemesis. But when the Oklahoma (and Colorado) rivalries eroded, the competitive juices didn’t flow quite the same in Lincoln. The Huskers could’ve used a rival to boil their blood. To pull them toward the best version of themselves.

That's why we love Switzer and Oklahoma now, even if we hated them then. Because we see the value.

Hatred doesn’t lead to happiness. But in college football, it can produce greatness.

“I’m older and wiser now,” Taylor said. “It really wasn’t hate. I tell my daughter, hate never gets you anywhere.

“But, yeah, I still don’t like the colors of Oklahoma. Won’t wear anything close to it. Still don’t know what the hell a Boomer Sooner is. When that carriage rolled over, I didn’t have any empathy for them.

“It wasn’t hate. But it was a strong dislike. No doubt. No doubt. And maybe we wanted to wear Walkmans and Coach Osborne wouldn’t let us.”


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