Shatel: Husker fans didn't like 'rivalry' with Colorado, but they loved to hate Buffaloes

Former Colorado coach Bill McCartney was an ace recruiter, a football evangelist with a knack for the impromptu revival meeting. He knew how to whip up the crowd for the big one.

It was in the summer of 2010 in an airport hotel in Dallas when a couple of writers from Nebraska and Colorado said so long.

This was at the Big 12 media days, the last for CU and NU, who were heading their separate ways after the season. The Colorado scribe and I talked old memories — some good, some bad, some ugly. And then he had a question.

“Will Nebraska fans miss (playing) Colorado?” he asked.

“Nope,” I said. “Not at all.”

“Really?” said the Colorado scribe, with a sad expression that I’ve never forgotten.

Really.

Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts

Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.

The Huskers and Buffs meet again Saturday in a nonconference game at Memorial Stadium. While I can’t speak for all Nebraska fans, the sense I get is that this is not a celebration.

That will happen in a few years, when NU and Oklahoma reunite, and there will be dinners and speakers and old games shown on big screens and stories told for weeks beforehand and maybe a few nostalgic tears shed.

This week feels more like indigestion, mixed with some dread. Like your not-so-favorite uncle is coming to dinner, armed with old rude jokes and insults, and you have to get through it.

To say this was not a rivalry is not accurate. For at least a decade, or more, Nebraska-Colorado brought out emotions of a rivalry. Games were hard fought. Nasty. And that was just in the parking lot.

It was The Uncomfortable Rivalry. The Forced Rivalry. A Gimmick Rivalry.

Memories of Oklahoma make Nebraska fans smile, even the losses. Memories of Bill McCartney and Colorado make you cringe.

It was one thing for McCartney to put a target on Nebraska as a “rivalry,” and ban the color red from the CU building and all that. It was the other stuff that got really weird.

It was the Denver talk radio shows and sports columnists talking and writing how Nebraskans didn’t wear shoes or have indoor plumbing. Saying Nebraska’s cheerleaders were cows.

These were grown men doing this. Really.

The mean spirit stuff went over the top, spilled into the parking lots and stands in Boulder and was returned on occasion by Nebraska fans, including one infamous, classless retort that I won’t mention.

Colorado vs. Nebraska was not college football’s finest moment. It brought out the worst in a lot of folks. Do these things happen with Ohio State and Michigan, with Oklahoma and Texas? Yes.

But CU and NU was none of those. It was a kid on the playground going up to the big kid and calling him names and insults, getting beat up most of the time, and coming back next year and doing it again.

I always understood why McCartney did it. What I’ve never known is, why Nebraska? Why not make Oklahoma the rival? At the time, in the mid-80s, OU was just as big a target as Nebraska.

Was it something personal? Something Tom Osborne said or did to McCartney?

“I really don’t think it was a personal thing,” Osborne said this week. “I don’t think he was mad at me.

“I knew Bill when he was an assistant at Michigan. When he started out at Colorado (1982), we talked quite a bit. Then when the so-called rivalry became heated, not so much. But it was cordial.

“He came out of the Michigan-Ohio State thing. Sometimes people that come out of one of those rivalries think they have to have a rival.”

That was indeed McCartney’s thinking. But why Nebraska? BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo, who was McCartney’s offensive coordinator at Colorado from 1982 through 1990, says Mac never said.

“I wanted him to pick Kansas State,” said DiNardo, laughing. “Why Nebraska and not Oklahoma? I don’t know. Border state, maybe. Respect for Tom Osborne, maybe.

“He liked Tom. Honestly, I didn’t think it was a good strategy, but I was like 28 years old. Nebraska recruited Colorado pretty heavily.”

Dave Plati, who has been Colorado’s sports information director for 35 years, shared this on Facebook: “He picked Nebraska because he saw the (Folsom Field) stadium close to 50-50 between CU and NU fans and … NU never had NCAA violations and ran a clean program.”

“Basically,” Plati wrote, “he emulated NU and set the goal that if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”

So this was intended to be a compliment. But it didn’t take long to turn into one big insult.

McCartney didn’t hold back, occasionally stoking the fire with taunts. On and on it went. There were some great games in this series after 1988. But with CU-NU, it was never about the football. It was about the hate.

Even Wednesday, while appearing at Colorado’s weekly press conference, the 77-year-old McCartney dusted off an old, “Rather be dead than red” slogan, fresh out of 1986. He talked about how there’s nothing to do in Nebraska.

It was a tired lounge act then and it remains so. But it served a purpose. There was a method to all this madness, the hate and nasty stuff.

McCartney was an ace recruiter, a football evangelist with a knack for the impromptu revival meeting. He knew how to whip up the crowd for the big one. That’s sort of what he was doing Wednesday.

He needed it back in the mid-80s. Colorado was a Big Eight threat under coaches Eddie Crowder and Bill Mallory — rising up to No. 3 in the nation in 1971 — but things went south under Chuck Fairbanks in 1979. McCartney picked up those pieces in 1982.

He could recruit but he needed help. He needed a rallying point for the Denver sports fan and media. He needed to be on the radar in a pro sports market obsessed with the NFL Broncos.

The way to do that is win. Until then, a way to do it is create a story where there isn’t one, create a campaign or a cause at a time when Colorado wore blue and gold and was next to Kansas State at the bottom of the Big Eight.

I’ve always thought McCartney was a bit lost in the history of college coaches. Bill Snyder is rightfully credited with the greatest turnaround of all time. But when McCartney took over in 1982, he finished last in the Big Eight. He inherited a mess.

Nine years later, he won the national championship.

Part of that was a recruiting pipeline in Texas and California, part was going to a flex-bone offense. But a lot of credit goes to the focus on chasing — then beating — Nebraska.

It was a brilliant plan. It worked — to a point.

Colorado won Big Eight titles in 1989 and 1990 and tied NU for a third in 1991. There was the split national title with Georgia Tech. By 1992, McCartney had built a national contender. The Buffs were the real deal.

But after the fourth-quarter comeback win in the cold rain in Lincoln in 1990, the Buffs didn’t beat Nebraska again until the infamous 2001 rout in Boulder.

I know Osborne revamped his defense and recruiting to chase Miami and Florida State. But I’ve always wondered if Colorado lit a fire underneath Osborne.

The legend said no, the other day. Osborne has always treated CU like another game, in part because they were, but Osborne knew he was getting underneath McCartney’s skin. That was always his way of playing that game.

Nebraska players — and fans — will tell you those games meant everything. They’d refuse to call Colorado a rival, but there was an extra something going on there.

Nowhere did it come out like Halloween 1992. The noise from that 52-7 win at Memorial Stadium is still legendary. That was a message game: The Huskers took back the Big Eight for good, winning the last five titles, until it morphed into the Big 12 in 1996.

McCartney retired after the 1994 season, when his best CU team lost to a Nebraska team without Tommie Frazier. Did the Husker obsession became too much?

“It worked,” DiNardo said. “I can make the case at times it was a distraction.

“I did a little bit of that when I went to Vanderbilt, but I got away from it because it could be a distraction from games where you match up. I know Gary Barnett took it with him to Northwestern, he made Iowa their rival.

“It was at times a distraction, where that game was so important that you’d get beat by Kansas State.”

The classic scene, and perhaps a defining moment, of this forced rivalry came in 1995 at Folsom Field. NU took its No. 2 ranking to play the No. 7 Buffs.

First-year CU coach Rick Neuheisel had his team enter the stadium through the tunnels in the stands, running down the steps through the student sections and onto the field. Meanwhile, a huge Samoan stood under the scoreboard and pounded a giant drum. The words “War Time” flashed on the giant video board. The crowd roared.

Then on the first play from scrimmage, freshman running back Ahman Green took a pitch from Frazier, darted around the left corner and scored untouched.

Later, asked about the CU theatrics, Osborne said he was told about it and purposely kept his team in the locker room. He said he told the team, “If they do that, they don’t think they can win.”

That line explains the Colorado-Nebraska “rivalry” better than anything.

There are so many things about CU I do miss. That gorgeous stadium next to the Flatirons. The Pearl Street mall, the Harvest House hotel, lots of good people who love college football.

But all the years of childish taunts and attacks and playground humor and all the nasty stuff that came to define this series and rear their ugly head this week?

Not really.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.