Bill Little commentary: Dancing with the stars
Oct. 15, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
LINCOLN, NE - The somewhat curious relationship between Texas and Nebraska, when it comes to sports, has been kind of like one of those popular television shows where a couple of high profile folks get together and dance. And then, they go away.
Long before the two schools met after the creation of the Big 12 Conference, Texas and Nebraska shared a unique kinship. And those who think that this is the first time Nebraska's been rankled at Texas in sports matters need a history lesson.
Fact is, the excellence in football the two schools have enjoyed began with the same guy. His name was D. X. Bible. After his success at Texas A&M in the early 1920s, Bible was hired as the Cornhuskers' head coach in 1929 for the rare sum of $10,000 annually. In eight years his teams posted a record of 50-15-7. They won six conference championships. In the days when an all-American team consisted of eleven players annually, Bible's team had four men so honored. Thirty-five players made all-conference. One of his victories had been a 26-0 win over Texas in Lincoln in 1933--which still stands as the Cornhuskers' only home win against the Longhorns.
Then, following the 1936 season, The University of Texas offered Bible the unheard of sum of $14,000 per year to come to Austin as head football coach and athletics director. When he accepted the job, it was a big deal in Texas where he was making more money that the school president and not much less than the governor. But in the middle of the Great Depression in Nebraska, the move really rattled the coffee cups at the local breakfast spots. It was a heist, they felt, greater than The Great Train Robbery.
"They were furious," recalls Bill Sansing, whom Bible hired as Texas' first Sports Information Director in 1946. "They didn't want him to leave, and they were angry that Texas had paid him 40 percent more than he was making there."
Bible's ten year tenure as Texas' head coach established the Longhorns as a factor on the college football landscape. Despite an economy devastated by the Depression and a country immersed in the ravages of World War II, Bible's teams won 63 games in his ten seasons. He took the Longhorns to their first bowl games and established "The Bible Plan" which placed emphasis on education as well as success on the playing field.
With 200 victories, he was the third-winningest coach in the history of the game when he retired after 33 years as a head coach following the 1946 season. He trailed only Amos Alonzo Stagg, who coached for 57 years, and Pop Warner, who coached for 44 seasons. He is in both Nebraska's Hall of Fame and Texas' Hall of Honor, and was inducted into the National Football Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1951.
A token home-and-home series in 1959 and 1960, and a Cotton Bowl match following the 1973 season marked the only encounters between the two schools in football over the sixty years from the time Bible left until the start of the Big 12. Otherwise, it was out-of-sight, out-of-mind. In fact, when a Nebraska media member called asking about a possible reunion of the 1970 National Championship teams, it took a lot of Lone Star research for folks at Texas to realize that the Cornhuskers had been awarded the AP National Championship trophy after Texas had won the Coaches' UPI Trophy prior to ending their 30-game winning streak with a loss to Notre Dame in the 1971 Cotton Bowl Classic.
What did happen along the way, however, was a love affair for Texas Longhorn baseball with Omaha, the site of the College World Series. As the Longhorns made what seemed to be annual treks to the city on the banks of the Missouri River, Texas fans gained a great appreciation for Nebraska and its people.
In the 1990s, as college football began the first of what would be numerous seismic shifts in conference affiliations, both the Southwest Conference and the Big Eight Conference reached a crisis. An economy once driven by ticket sales and donations now came to rely heavily on the medium of television. And the Southwest Conference and the Big Eight had only about seven percent of America's TV sets each. At that point, the Big Eight didn't even have a regional television package.
Penn State had started the tremors by joining the Big Ten. Arkansas left for the Southeastern Conference, thinking that Texas and maybe Texas A&M wouldn't be far behind. After a summer of courting from other leagues, the issue was settled when the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference both dissolved. The eight members of the Big Eight, and four members of the Southwest--Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor--united under the banner of the Big 12.
When the league was split into two divisions of six teams each, the North--with Nebraska and Colorado as the recognized national powers--was thought to be the stronger of the two. All of that changed, however, when Texas beat Nebraska in the first Big 12 Championship game in 1996, and Texas A&M knocked off nationally ranked No. 2 Kansas State in 1998. From the start, there was a clear difference of opinion on some of the policies that were divergent in the two camps. Ages-old allegiances emerged in league voting, and invariably, it seemed Texas and Nebraska would find themselves on opposite sides of the boardroom.
Still, the tremendous class of the Nebraska fan base was never affected by that. When Texas won that first game in the TWA Dome in St. Louis, respectful Cornhusker fans--who had just seen their hopes of playing for a national championship dashed--congratulated the several hundred Texas fans who had joined them in a full stadium.
In 1998, when Mack Brown's first Longhorn team shocked Nebraska, 20-16, in Lincoln, the fans applauded Ricky Williams' performance and actually began a chant of "Heisman" for him after the game. The next season, a turnover plagued Nebraska team lost a stunner in Austin to Texas, but returned the favor with a dominant win in the Big 12 Championship game. It was in that setting that Mack Brown talked about "the neighborhood" of national football powers. He paid respect to Nebraska as the premier team of the 1990s in this part of America, and said his Longhorns were "just visiting the neighborhood." The goal, he had said, was to buy a house there.
No one could have predicted that the Cornhusker win in that championship game in San Antonio would be the only one for Nebraska in the first ten years of Brown's time at Texas. Then, of course, came the 2009 Big 12 Championship game in Dallas, where Texas' Hunter Lawrence kicked a last second field goal for a 13-12 Longhorn win that sent them to the national championship game in Pasadena.
All of that, of course, sets the scene for what appears to be the last game between the two schools in the foreseeable future. With Nebraska headed to the Big Ten after this season, the likelihood of the two ever meeting again in the regular season seems remote. That, of course, remains to be seen. The two did play in 1933, and again in 1959 and 1960, so one should never say "never."
What we do know is that Memorial Stadium in Lincoln will be filled with a sea of red, and a sea of emotion. It is doubtful that many remember being chapped about Mr. Bible leaving, but the story does set the tone, indicating that frustration goes back a long, long way with a very proud fan base. More prominent, of course, is the desire for revenge for last December, and you can throw in the fact that the Horns have won seven of eight under Brown, and eight of nine in the history of the league.
It is important, though, to let this final dance be a little more than that. These two football giants are two of the winningest programs in the history of the college game. Both schools are steeped in tradition and swelling with pride. The two states patriotically stand for all that is right about America. Somewhere, in the voices of the past, you can hear the ghosts of the game speaking into an old stick microphone and talking about the "color and pageantry" of college football. Yet, this game this day will be decided by the young, who play the game not for history, but because it is a game to be played in their lives, in their time.
Because, in the end, that is what this is really all about.