Osborne and Moos

According to Tom Shatel, the Big Ten is "Woody and Bo's league, not Barry and Tom."

CHICAGO — It’s still the “Twilight Zone” episode that won’t end.

On Friday, before a packed house in the Chicago Hilton ballroom, Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon emcee Rece Davis introduced the two Big Ten college football legends.

Barry Alvarez.

And Tom Osborne.

As the coaches made their way to the microphones, they showed a video recognizing this year’s 150th anniversary of the first college football game. The video highlighted great Big Ten players and moments.

There were Nile Kinnick and Tom Harmon, then Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler and finally, from 1972 ...

Heeerrre’s Johnny Rodgers.

They showed a clip of Rodgers running against Oklahoma.

My Big Eight heart went all a flutter. And to think, I had to come to Chicago to get that nostalgic rush.

As the video weaved through the ’90s, here came 1995 and the winner of the Heisman — Ohio State’s Eddie George. But no mention of the, ahem, runner-up that year.

That would be Tommie Frazier.

In fact, no mention of the 1994-95 Nebraska teams at all. But the video flashed a shot of Osborne’s last game, that 1998 Orange Bowl night, and finally Eric Crouch winning the Heisman in 2001.

This sort of thing is the strangest part of the Big Ten journey for me, still a stranger in a strange land.

It’s the same feeling when I watch the Big Ten Network show “Big Ten Elite” shows on the 1994 or 1997 Nebraska teams. The Brook Berringer tribute show was terrific. But No. 18 played in the Big Eight, against Colorado and Missouri and Oklahoma.

It’s hard to believe people in the Big Ten want to watch shows about Nebraska history, where the spotlight is on the Orange Bowl and not that other bowl in Pasadena, California.

Then again, my experience has been that folks in the Big Ten don’t think about Nebraska and don’t really care. And, let’s be honest, since joining this old-school fraternity the Huskers have not given anyone any reason to care.

What they’ve seen and heard a lot of is Nebraska firing football coaches and the fans and media talking about glossing right over the Big Ten teams and contending for national titles as soon as the Huskers get their program up to speed. And Nebraskans talking a lot about the ’90s.

And Big Ten folks roll their eyes. Iowa fans seem to get particularly fired up about this.

And then the Big Ten Network keeps propping up those ’90s Huskers memories.

Nebraska’s role in this conference feels a lot like Osborne’s appearance here at the Big Ten luncheon.

Nebraska still seems like a ceremonial member of the Big Ten, almost like a prop. Invite the legendary coach to the lunch. Show the highlights. Big Ten Elite.

There’s truth to that, but truth in this, too: Nebraska has to act like more than a ceremonial team on the field. More on that in a minute.

My sense is that many Nebraskans still aren’t emotionally tied to the Big Ten. I think if you gave them a truth serum, some would say they wanted to go back to the Big Eight/12. Some would talk tough about not wanting to go back to Texas. But Nebraska had an identity there, a history. Nebraska was a big deal.

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NU is just another face in the crowd in the Big Ten, a guy with a cubicle in this large corporation of a conference. Fourteen schools. Expansion to the west and east. Everything focused on that large dividend check each year.

The money’s good. Say that about the Big Ten. The money’s really good.

Money can’t buy you love — or a championship mentality. In a way, Nebraska has more in common with the Southeastern Conference. For all the money in this league, there aren’t many schools making a run at the College Football Playoff. Or even talking about it.

When Nebraskans do, they get the strangest looks around here. Oh, right. Beat Wisconsin first.

Look, there’s a generation of us who yearn for those Big Eight days. Old friends and trips. The past.

We’re not going back. Life moves on. But it’s fair to point out that back in 2010, Nebraska was running from a fractured Big 12. It was running to safety. But it wasn’t necessarily running to the Big Ten.

The Big Ten has been disappointing on some levels, but that goes both ways. Nobody signed up for the addition of Maryland and Rutgers. When NU joined, it was assumed it would play Michigan and Ohio State a bunch. Michigan has been to Lincoln once since 2011.

For me, every Big Ten game is like a nonconference game, and I wonder if I’m alone there. This is Woody’s and Bo’s league, not Tom’s. And always will be.

But will this ever seem like Nebraska’s home? Yes, there’s a way, and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany — the smartest man in every room — understands.

Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos told this story on Friday. When Moos was hired two years ago, one of his first phone calls came from Delany, who offered congratulations and what seemed like an order from the boss.

“We need Nebraska to be Nebraska again,” Delany told Moos. “The Big Ten needs it.”

Bingo. The West Division looks like a good place for Nebraska to grow into a Big Ten team — but only if the Huskers can start delivering some wins. Big wins. And titles.

Titles? As in plural? Here’s where we need to give the Big Ten its due. The league may play boring football, it may be stodgy in its approach, but there are a lot of tough outs in this league. Yes, tougher than any Big Eight or Big 12 road.

It will be interesting how often Nebraska can make it through that road, and quench that insatiable thirst for glory, in this league.

Looking up at Osborne on Friday, I thought back to those early days, in 2010, when Osborne and Joe Paterno appeared at this event. Everything was fresh back then. Nebraska had not yet been introduced to the house of horrors called Camp Randall Stadium.

Has it been a good move? Yes, in two ways. First, the Big 12 was falling apart. Nebraska needed a future. Second, the money and Big Ten credibility for NU academic programs and grants.

Nebraska has competed and won in this league in other sports. But the ultimate success of this move will be written by the football program.

No matter what the Huskers do, this will always seem like an awkward home, a forced situation. Maybe that goes away as we become accustomed to the unbalanced league schedules and eight- to 10-hour drives.

Speaking of the past, I saw a ghost roaming the halls of the Hilton Chicago on Friday. Kevin Weiberg, a former Big 12 commissioner, was here representing the National Football Foundation and the 150th Anniversary.

Weiberg, a Kansas native and K-State grad, was Big 12 commish from 1998-2007. We talked about an idea of his that could have kept Nebraska in the Big 12.

This was back in 2005, when Weiberg wanted to start a Big 12 Network. He said there was pushback from at least five Big 12 members, schools that thought it was too risky and also wanted to maintain their own media rights to start their own individual networks.

“One of those schools was Nebraska,” Weiberg said.

Oh, the irony. The Big 12 Network was voted down. The Big Ten started up its network that year. And Weiberg ended up moving to the Pac-12, which would try to poach six southern Big 12 schools.

That was May-June 2010, when Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman took a phone call from Delany.

I thought about all this as I watched Osborne up on that stage on Friday, celebrating all things Big Ten. It reminded me of the first time I ever saw Osborne, in 1979, at the Big Eight Kickoff Lunch in Kansas City. Osborne had finally beaten Oklahoma the year before. He was the big story that summer. I remember him joking about having to put up with the Big Eight Skywriters.

As the Ohio State and Michigan highlights played behind him, I wondered if Osborne ever misses those Skywriters.

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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