For a perfect example of how too much money can corrupt a sport, it’d be hard to top the ending of the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry. Casting aside 98 years of blood, grit, and history for the sake of a bigger TV contract, it’s a testament to what men who care for nothing but the bottom line can do to “fix” something that wasn’t broken.
From its humble beginnings in 1912 to its inglorious ending in 2010, there were few if any rivalries with greater intensity than the one between Husker and Sooner. 18 times in 39 years they met while both were in the top 10. 8 times they met while both were in the top 5. Twice they met while ranked 1-2. And once, in 1971, they met in what was immodestly but truthfully called the “Game of the Century”. Never were two better teams ever to meet with so much history behind them and so much at stake.
To take measure of just how good these two teams were that year, consider what the poor Colorado Buffalos must have felt like. Against 10 opponents, they posted 10 wins by a combined score of 344 to 144. Against the Sooners and the Huskers, they were horsewhipped by a total margin of 7 touchdowns and a field goal. 17 of the 22 players on the All-Big Eight team were sporting one red jersey or the other. You can see why 55 million fans were glued to their televisions as the two behemoths squared off in Norman for all of the marbles.
And the game itself more than lived up to its billing. Beginning with Johnny Rodgers’ 72-yard punt return for a touchdown after the first stalled Sooners’ offensive series, the Huskers raced out to a pair of 11-point leads, only to see Oklahoma come roaring back each time with a pair of unanswered touchdowns to reclaim the advantage. But with but two minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Rodgers broke loose with a 33-yard pass reception to the Sooners’ 15 yard line, and after four carries by tailback Jeff Kinney, the Huskers had the final say of the afternoon.
Following this once in a lifetime matchup, both teams went on to play in major bowl games on New Years’ Day. Ironically, by drawing Alabama and Auburn, the two Big Eight powers got to play the contestants in the “other” big Thanksgiving game, with unbeaten Nebraska and Alabama going to the Orange Bowl and once-beaten Oklahoma and Auburn meeting in the Sugar Bowl. Not only did both Big Eight teams win handily, but in the final poll of the season the third best Big Eight team (those poor Colorado Buffalos) wound up as #3 in the nation.
This was the first and likely last time any conference has accomplished such a feat, and it was only fitting that to top if off, The Sporting News named the 1971 Husker Eleven as the greatest college football team of the 20th century. Few in the Cornhusker State would dispute it.
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