Steve Smith is an award-winning communications professional who lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is the author of Forever Red: More Confessions of a Cornhusker Fan (September 2015). Follow Steve on Twitter.
It’s almost over. In less than a week, the University of Nebraska football team will emerge from the tunnel—and from a much-needed break—and take to the post-season field of the inelegantly named Foster Farms Bowl. The matchup is with a familiar foe and certainly feels normal enough, since playing in bowl games is what Big Red teams do this time of year. Yet, we know that despite the upcoming four hours or so in California, the event is merely delaying the inevitable: the end of football for another year. Sometime early Sunday morning, a season that hasn’t felt all that right, a season that usually would have ended in November, will finally and officially come to a close.
There’s so little to look forward to until next autumn. Oh, there is Big Red basketball, for better or worse, and early plans to meet up at tailgates at the Red-White Spring Game. The Nebraska volleyball team just won the N.C.A.A. championship, sweeping past Texas to culminate a joyous and wholly unexpected three-week run to the title. It was a great distraction and lifted moods from Scottsbluff to Falls City. But eventually, inevitably, we must begin our annual winter of discontent. Even in the best of football seasons, this happens in Nebraska: We spend more time each calendar year meditating over this team than celebrating its return each fall.
So what’s the final assessment on 2015? Regardless of what happens this week against UCLA, the season will be remembered as a mishmash of frustrations. Can anyone think of another time when so many defeats came, week after week, in such an uncanny array of perplexing finishes—to BYU via a Hail Mary, to Miami in overtime, to Illinois and Wisconsin at the very death? “Seriously,” my friend Matt asked me at the time. “What’s next? A last-second safety? A punt block returned for a touchdown as time expires?”
Fortunately, no. But the team did end up winning only five while losing seven, meaning cynicism and second-guessing presently rule the day. In this first year of the Mike Riley Era—which, if we’re being honest, we knew was going to be a little weird—the Huskers’ struggles fit tidily into a narrative about the evil of firing coaches with winning records. This is what you get, the tale goes, when you entrust the state’s most important treasure to a gentleman who can’t possibly understand Nebraska’s unique football culture (or, at the very least, doesn’t know not to throw a fade pass on fourth and one). This storyline, in fact, was waiting to launch at the first sign of trouble; Brigham Young hadn’t yet left the field after its fluke opening-day victory when a friend angrily declared the next four years would be losing ones. No coincidence that he chose four years for the length of his prognostication: That was Bill Callahan’s exact tenure at Nebraska.
It’s saddening to see ourselves taken in by such a reflexive negativity, because we don’t wear pessimism well. As I discuss in my memoir, Forever Red: More Confessions of a Husker Fan, the Nebraska football culture we wish to perpetuate is one that emits a benevolent serenity. For decades, the team’s stolid systems and processes (and subsequent wins) begat a singular groundedness in its fans, which we hoped inspired affection from other fan bases around the country. It’s an identity that some now fear is slipping away.
Tradition and modernity don’t need to be contradictory or exclusive, though. It’s hard to admit that maybe we’ve never affected things as much as we thought, and that our opinions aren’t built so much on football smarts as intuition and nostalgia. At the end of the day, all we’re left with is gut feelings and hope. And the hope is that Riley’s current renovation project, based on contemporary philosophies, could yet propel our Huskers to the high-rent district of college football. There have been some flashes and promises of what’s possible: NU was the only team that beat high-powered Michigan State this regular season. The Huskers were competitive in every game they played, unlike the demoralizing blowout losses of recent years. Young talent emerged in spots on the roster, while highly anticipated recruits are set to infuse vitality into The New System.
It’s doubtful that Saturday night’s contest, the last undertaking of 2015, will bring a lot of clarity—or comfort to those of us who permit an intercollegiate game to make us feel way too much. So what you do is you turn off the TV at the final gun, offer some good thoughts for the team—hey, through it all you were one of the most resilient bunches I’ve seen, fellas, and there was a greatness in that—and hope for the best. We know (but don’t like to admit) that the team takes this all a lot harder than we do. And we know (but don’t like to admit) that our pain is nothing compared with theirs. In the coming months, we’ll try to keep that in mind while shifting between anticipation and despair. And now, for a while, it’s time for other things, as winter begins in earnest.