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.
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.
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Adrian Martinez is, in short, one of the most talented quarterbacks to roll through Nebraska in many years. And Scott Frost knows it. Click here to read more.
The heart and soul of Nebraska’s defense, Mohamed Barry is perhaps the Huskers' best leader. The run-stuffing linebacker has lacked an elite defensive line in front of him ... until now. Click here to read more.
One of the most valuable transfers in recent Husker history, Darrion Daniels came to campus ready to work and lead. And, by all accounts, he’s done that, immediately becoming one of the top voices for the Husker defense. Click here to read more.
Few players turn and run the way JD Spielman does, and he’s a good returner, too. His health is paramount, and, like a well-tuned sports car, Spielman can’t get too banged up. Click here to read more.
Lamar Jackson has the frame, the length, the speed and the talent to be one of the Big Ten’s best cornerbacks. One of the nation’s best corners, for that matter. Click here to read more.
Nebraska's Deontai Williams has little fear in run support and he can cover ground quickly in the pass game, as evidenced by two interceptions last season. Click here to read more.
Nebraska running back Maurice Washington’s sheer gifts are offset by off-the-field issues that hindered his progress since high school and could mean he misses some playing time in 2019. When he’s out there, it’s clear: He can play the game at a high level. Click here to read more.
While he didn’t win every one-on-one battle, Dicaprio Bootle's league-leading pass breakup total indicates he’s one of the better field corners in the Big Ten West, and perhaps the league. Click here to read more.
Brenden Jaimes’ most important job is to protect the backside of quarterback Adrian Martinez, and other than a few hiccups, he has done that well. As a junior, he’s likely to be one of the better tackles in the Big Ten. Click here to read more.
Khalil Davis is poised for a breakout senior season. He helps anchor an experienced defensive line that should be — and needs to be — among the Big Ten’s best in 2019. Click here to read more.
Carlos Davis, who has 25 career starts, has long been one of the more respected Blackshirts among teammates, but now he has the experience to reinforce his reputation. Click here to read more.
Dedrick Mills could have a Devine Ozigbo-like impact on Nebraska’s running game with his physical, up-the-middle style. Talent and opportunity appear to be lining up for the rounded back. Click here to read more.
Nebraska's Matt Farniok, the new vocal leader of the offensive line, earned the right to be the one holding others accountable after starting all 12 games at right tackle last season. Click here to read more.
Exactly where JoJo Domann will line up on the field isn’t always obvious. That’s just fine for Nebraska as long as he’s out there. NU’s most versatile defender has his own position name — Cinco. Click here to read more.
The hype is high for Wan'Dale Robinson. And the talent is real. Expect to see him take off right away. Click here to read more.
If the tight end position gets going again at Nebraska, Jack Stoll figures to be a big reason why. While others at his position may have more physical upside or long-term potential, no one offers the same reliability and intangibles. Click here to read more.
Cam Taylor has contributed on all four special teams units and can play safety or nickelback if necessary, as well. The ingredients are there for him to quickly become one of NU’s youngest defensive leaders, if he isn’t already. Click here to read more.
After beginning last season as a backup, Boe Wilson started the last nine games at right guard en route to honorable mention All-Big Ten status. Click here to read more.
Nebraska has had success in the graduate-transfer market under Scott Frost. That trend may continue with Kanawai Noa. Click here to read more.
Perhaps the final piece for Ben Stille is on-field disruption. With a full offseason of strength training, he could be the biggest in-house improvement on the team as a pass rusher and edge setter. Click here to read more.
Here comes Nebraska’s long-term answer at nose tackle. A season to learn under older brother and grad transfer Darrion Daniels won’t hurt for Damion Daniels, and neither will another offseason to build his strength and conditioning. Click here to learn more.
Nebraska's Mike Williams already has the speed, the hands and the understanding of the offense. If he can also be a consistent blocker, his playing time could spike as much as anyone on the team. Click here to read more.
Collin Miller made 17 tackles in 12 games as a reserve. Now, Miller's job is more clearly defined, and whether through ability or attrition, he will get a chance to prove his versatility and the fruits of his hard work. Click here to read more.
For all of Nebraska’s uncertainty at outside linebacker, Tyrin Ferguson represents perhaps the most reliable option when 100 percent. For the senior, though, being at 100 percent isn't always a given. Click here to read more.
Trent Hixson, from Omaha Skutt, got a taste of major college football while appearing in four games last year. Since then, O-line coach Greg Austin describes him as playing with “his hair on fire.” Click here to read more.
In a sense, Dismuke is the last man standing. Now the junior with 44 career tackles in 20 games (one start) is perhaps a favorite to start at safety. Click here to read more.
Nebraska's Kade Warner knows the offense, he blocks consistently, and he doesn’t drop passes. The 20-year-old wideout caught 17 balls for 95 yards in nine games last year. Click here to read more.
Noah Vedral, who followed Scott Frost from UCF, is as versed in the offense as any current Husker. If nothing else, he’s a valuable insurance policy for starter Adrian Martinez. Click here to read more.
Alex Davis played all 12 games last year with four starts. Until now, it’s been more about thinking than reacting for the 23-year-old whom teammates call “Ace.” Click here to read more.
Another offseason of strength training and familiarity with Nebraska's scheme gives Caleb Tannor the potential to become one of the team’s most valuable defenders. Click here to read more.
As a redshirt freshman, Austin Allen caught two passes for 54 total yards. The Aurora product will be in a battle with Kurt Rafdal for the second-string tight end spot behind Jack Stoll. Click here to read more.
Inside linebacker Will Honas only appeared in four games last season and racked up 15 tackles, including one for loss. This season he'll have beat out three others for that starting position. Click here to read more.
Miles Jones will line up all over the field. Nebraska’s thin at running back, so there’s a good chance he’ll get a decent load of carries. Click here to read more.
With how often Nebraska will rotate defensive linemen, sophomore Deontre Thomas will see the field as long as he’s healthy. And he may finally be able to contribute to a pass rush with his size and speed off the ball. Click here to read more.
There’s plenty of opportunity for Jaron Woodyard to make an imprint in his senior year. The junior college transfer still presents an opportunity to take the top off a defense, but only if he can find his way onto the field. Click here to read more.
Should he prove he can block and become a consistent option for Adrian Martinez, Andre Hunt could easily become Nebraska's third starting wide receiver. Click here to read more.
Noa Pola-Gates may need to pack on some weight this summer and fall to have a chance at playing right away, but the ceiling for the No. 2 player from the state of Arizona is high. Click here to read more.
The comparison to Dave Rimington by Scott Frost isn’t rubbing away anytime soon for Cameron Jurgens. He has a chance to start in on that legacy this year as the odds-on favorite to be Nebraska’s starting center. Click here to read more.
Kurt Rafdal averaged 16.8 yards per catch, fantastic for a tight end, particularly for a freshman. He gives Adrian Martinez a red-zone option should the NU receiving corps take a while to come along this season. Click here to read more.
Nebraska has struggled to keep linemen healthy the past few years, and if one goes down, Christian Gaylord could take over on either side if needed. Click here to read more.
Though young, Braxton Clark is a tall corner who will fit behind Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle. Click here to read more.
Matt Sichterman is a former three-star recruit from Cincinnati. He has put on weight and could move inside to a guard spot if necessary. Click here to read more.
You could argue the position group with the most question marks is running back, making Rahmir Johnson’s presence even more important. He ran for more than 2,300 yards as a senior in high school. Click here to read more.
Barret Pickering was money at the end of last season. As a true freshman, he nailed his final 10 field-goal attempts, including three in the snow against Michigan State for a 9-6 upset win. Click here to read more.
Nebraska's Joseph Johnson wears weight on his frame well after a redshirt season, and now he’s needed at inside linebacker, which has a firm alpha in Mohamed Barry and a lot of questions otherwise. Click here to read more.
Watching the tape of Quinton Newsome at safety is like watching a natural at the position. His ceiling as a safety is as high as that of Deontai Williams — who’s bound for a special 2019 himself. Click here to read more.
Isaac Armstrong averaged 43.6 yards per punt — ninth-highest in Husker history — and pinned the opponent inside its own 20 nine times. He can be a weapon for the Huskers this fall. Click here to read more.
The younger brother of starting right tackle Matt Farniok, Will is shorter but possesses many of the same qualities as Matt. Tough, athletic, plays to the whistle. Click here to read more.
In the right situations, Katerian LeGrone can be the kind of big-play guy Cethan Carter used to be for the Huskers. Click here to read more.
Honorable mention: QB Andrew Bunch, RB Wyatt Mazour, P William Pryzstup, DB Jeramiah Stovall, LS Chase Urbach, ILB Jackson Hannah, WR Jamie Nance, WR Darien Chase, QB Luke McCaffrey, DE Chris Walker. Click here for more on the Huskers that received honorable mention.