A moment of silence, please, for the most underrated college football rivalry nobody ever heard of and will never hear about ever again.
Fare thee well, Missouri and Nebraska. Goodbye, Norman Goodman and Jarvis Redwine. Take care, Randy Jostes and Warren Powers. Say it ain’t so, Joe Stewart and Pete Woods. Happy trails, James Wilder and Matt Davison.
Red and black and old gold. Three of my favorite fall colors. I’m going to miss it. Others will, too. Some won’t. Pretty soon nobody will remember it.
That’s because the Big 12 Conference is about to go the way of the St. Louis Sun.
Time out for a personal story. In September 1989, I left the Kansas City Star after 10 years to join a start-up newspaper called the St. Louis Sun. I did it for the adventure. I did it to take a risk. The adventure lasted exactly seven months. On April 25, 1990, my editor trudged up to my desk and announced, “Stop writing. It’s over.’’
“The paper. We’re shutting down operations.’’
I was 31 years old and out of work. But I was glad to see it end. For various reasons, most of them my doing, I was miserable at that place. Combine it with the anxiety of being unemployed, and it’s an experience I choose not to remember. It was the lost year of my life. When someone asks me where I’ve worked, I skip over that time of my life. I never talk about it. It’s locked in my attic.
Which is exactly how I think Nebraskans will treat their time in the Big 12. For various reasons, most of them Nebraska’s doing, there aren’t a lot of keepsake memories from the Big 12 years. For many, the Big 12 was when the Big Eight officially died. Even if the Big 12 survives for years to come, it won’t exist in Nebraska.
Next year at this time, Husker fans will be immersed in Big Ten rivalries and culture. They’ll choose not to recall the Big 12. And soon, all of the old rivals will be locked in an attic scrapbook, never to be opened again. Future generations will never know they existed.
Those of us who lived through Huskers vs. Tigers were better for it.
It may have lacked the regal quality of Oklahoma-Nebraska. But, man, it delivered the goods in its own down-and-dirty way. If the storied exploits and heroes of OU vs. Nebraska belonged in a history book, the lore of the MU-NU series was something you told around a campfire, after the kids went to bed, because of the explicit language and violence.
There was a nasty undertone to this series. There was real, raw emotion there. A hatred that Bill McCartney couldn’t force at Colorado or Kansas State fans couldn’t sustain with their paper taunts. Nebraska never took CU or K-State seriously. It has always taken Missouri seriously. And personally.
The funny thing is, all these years, it’s never earned the official “rival’’ designation. That’s because the teams were rarely on equal footing. Mostly, it’s been a series of memorable moments and upsets. But the two took turns sticking daggers in each other and releasing rivers of venom. It made you wonder what hell’s wrath would be released if they were ever good at the same time.
Heck, even in the lopsided years, these games were bruise conventions and bar-room brawls with chairs and whisky bottles flying.
Why so nasty? Good question. Both sides have their reasons. Here’s my shot: For Missouri, there’s always been some envy and frustration toward NU. The Huskers were the national program that the higher-populated Missouri thought it should be but could never reach. Both were the only Division I football school in the state. But while Nebraskans pulled together, MU was typically ripped apart by the pro sports distractions and St. Louis-KC rivalry that divided boosters.
Meanwhile, Nebraska could go into most Big Eight hamlets, take what it wanted and shake hands with the good people on the way out. Missouri wanted none of that. Missouri hit hard, wouldn’t go down easy and occasionally sucker-punched the Huskers right in the rankings when they least expected it.
This has always been my favorite series. Since I started following it, by accident, in 1975, there have been no shortage of classic plays, memorable games and colorful cheap shots.
In October 1975, I was a high school senior visiting MU and looking at the school paper. The Columbia Missourian chronicled the Huskers’ 30-7 victory the day before and highlighted the “Bummerooski’’ fake punt in which Tony Davis handed the ball between the legs of up man John O’Leary, who ran 40 yards for a touchdown. I’ll never forget the lead in the game story: “Nebraska had a Bummerooski and Missouri had a bummer of a game.’’
The next season, Missouri returned the favor with the “Bomberooski,’’ a 98-yard touchdown pass from Pete Woods to Joe Stewart that led MU to a 34-24 upset of the No. 3-ranked Huskers in Lincoln. How often do you see a 98-yard touchdown pass? In this series, it seemed like par for the course.
In 1978, Missouri was back. My first trip to Lincoln. Gray skies, cold wind, James Wilder and Rick Berns running through the guts of a classic game. Nebraska on its way to giving Tom Osborne his first national title. You know what happened. We don’t need to go there.
Then came 1979. The Tigers were hyped as Big Eight contenders. Nebraska came to Columbia and reminded them who was boss. But a routine Husker win was anything but, thanks to a play on an NU extra point in which MU defensive tackle Norman Goodman was accused of cheap-shotting NU running back Jarvis Redwine by going after his knees while the back was blocking.
This spilled over into the week. MU coach Warren Powers accused Osborne of egging on the controversy. Powers, a former Husker defensive back and assistant coach, referred to Osborne as “that red-headed SOB.’’ Game on. Again.
Remember 1981? I do. I was covering a high school game in Kansas City and kept getting away to watch an unreal scoreless duel between the Huskers and Tigers. MU defensive coordinator Carl Reese hammered sophomore quarterback Turner Gill with blitzes. Missouri receiver George Shorthose was all alone at midfield and dropped a pass that would have scored. NU got the dramatic 6-0 win when fullback Phil Bates bulled into the end zone late. Just great, great stuff.
How about 1982? The fifth-ranked Huskers won 23-19, as Mike Rozier had his gutsiest day running for 139 yards over MU with a hip pointer. But the headline, again, was a “cheap shot’’ when Missouri defensive end (and Omaha native) Randy Jostes pushed Gill down after he had released the ball. Gill was knocked out of the game. Emotions got ugly again, even up in the press box, where the public address man announced it as a “cheap shot.’’ Former Missouri sports information director Bill Callahan — the real Bill Callahan — charged up and scolded the PA guy.
There was 1985, when Nebraska beat an overmatched Woody Widenhofer team 28-20 in Columbia. But it took an NCAA record seven field goals from Dale Klein, a junior walk-on from Seward, Neb.
Remember where you were in 1997? I do. I was standing next to longtime Nebraska writer Mike Babcock behind the far end zone at Faurot Field, watching the greatest upset in Missouri history about to take place, over No. 1 Nebraska. The Huskers were down to their last play. Scott Frost dropped back to pass and threw it toward a pile of hands near the end zone. One hundred yards away, we saw the ball pop up in the air and drop. And then we saw Nebraska players running around celebrating.
After we heard what happened, I turned to Babcock and said, “Who’s Matt Davison?’’
The series would turn toward Missouri. The Tigers gained the upper hand the past 10 years. And soon it was marked by great Missouri skill talent passing and running all over the Big Red. Stuff for the Mizzou photo album.
But then came Ndamukong Suh in the rain last year. And it looked like the series was coming to life again.
Then came the cruel twist of all twists in this rivalry. The Big Ten invited Nebraska to join, not Missouri. The Huskers got what the Tigers coveted. That’s the kind of bitter blast that could really set this series ablaze. If only it weren’t ending.
It will have a fitting ending, with Missouri coming to Lincoln highly ranked and Nebraska trying to grab some last-minute Big 12 glory. But it’s also a melancholy ending.
Maybe not for you. But for those of us who appreciated this work of art lost in college football’s storage room, Missouri-Nebraska ends just as both programs are about to take off, play for big stuff, conference and national title stuff. It’s going away, just as it was about to get really good. Man, that’s a real Bummerooski.
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