I graduated from Penn State in 1992 with a Turfgrass Science degree. When I first arrived there, I was a Penn State football fan number one, and coincidentally in light of the new rivalry, a Nebraska football fan as well. I'm not sure why. Honestly, I didn't understand the game much at the time, maybe no more than how touchdowns and field goals added up. I do remember being intrigued, even impressed with the idea of nameless jerseys and the implied selfless play. Akin to Joe Paterno's coaching philosophies was my perspective of Nebraska football, and the ideals that the then coach, now AD Tom Osbourne set forth for his team in Lincoln. Both men were iconic, and known for being successful, doing it the right way, using football as a means for developing outstanding individuals prepared for life, football or not.
Tom Osbourne's, and Nebraska's national championships came in the 1990's, '94, '95 and '97 to be exact. 1994 is especially memorable, and controversial for Penn State fans. Regardless, while I was at Penn State, Nebraska was good, but not stellar, as they certainly were starting in the mid 1990's. Much like Penn State, there was more to Nebraska than winning and losing. Possibly the most notable tradition at Nebraska lies in their walk on program, and the fact that much of their success was driven by hard working kids with a dream. They played with heart, alongside very few nationally known recruits. All over Nebraska, high school football players dreamed of Memorial Stadium, wearing red and white, or "black" on the defensive side of the ball, and playing in front of a classy crowd that, win or lose, applauds for their opponents. The walk on program kept that dream alive on 11-man, 8-man and 6-man squads all over the state, in the hearts of kids with talent that didn't qualify for a scholarship, but still had hope. Tradition was rich, and regardless of the outcome on game day, something to be awfully proud of. And, their fans were proud of the way Nebraska did football.
In 1999, I moved my family to western Nebraska from Pennsylvania to work for Cabela's. I'm still here today. Much like the process of understanding Penn State football and its tradition (which started for me my freshman year, fall 1988), I've spent the last 12 years observing the Cornhuskers, and their fans. Wow! Nebraska is a fun state when it comes to college football. If you didn't know, there are no professional sports teams in the state. None. The most exciting second to football in Memorial Stadium is the College World Series in Omaha! Everyone here loves college football, whether you understand how the touchdowns and field goals add up or not, and the state literally shuts down on 12 fall Saturdays. Yards sport red, electric letter Ns, red is most certainly the favored vehicle color, and here at Cabela's, the entire building wears red Nebraska shirts on Friday before a Husker game, except me of course. They're rabid here, in a great way.
Something has changed though. Frank Solich took over as head coach in 1998, shortly after Tom Osborne's incredible 1994 - 1997 run. One could argue that Frank had similar success, winning 58 games to 19 losses before he was fired in 2003. Why? Where were the national championships? After a 10-3 season, Frank was walked out the door because AD Steve Pedersen, and supposedly, the Nebraska nation wasn't happy with his record. Strangely, maybe because of Tom Osborne's success, Nebaska football was now about winning and losing, not about tradition and honor. Tradition was ushered out the door with Frank Solich, as Bill Callahan walked in the door.
Callahan was hired by Pedersen to change things at Nebraska. And that's what he did, including ending the long time walk on tradition, removing pictures of former players from the walls of the football facilities, and forbidding former players access to the football facilities and on-field attendance for Cornhusker games. Nebraska recruiting turned to the flashy 5-star candidates that run fast offenses. As the Nebraska faithful stood in awe, holding on to a flickering hope, they watched as history was erased in favor of something new, something “better”, they were told. And, everything changed, including their success. Callahan posted a 27 - 22 record over the next four seasons, handing Nebrasaka not one, but their first two losing seasons (5-6, 5-7) since 1961. Pederson and Callahan were both released in 2007, as the University recalled Tom Osborne to be their new AD, who then hired Bo Polini to pick up the Nebraska football pieces.
A very good friend of mine, Chuck, stepped into my office a few days ago, and I presented him with my latest complaint over what has happened at Penn State and how it was being handled. He continues to explain to me that what happened at Penn State had to happen, to save its reputation, including the firing of Paterno. And, I look him in the eye and tell him, "You cannot understand how devastating this is to alums and fans. It will never make sense to you." Thinking about that later in the day, I realized that it should have made sense to him because the Nebraska tradition was so similar to Penn State's.
Seconds later, a man I've known only to be a rabid Nebraska football fan said, "I'm apathetic about Nebraska football." I was stunned. If you're not from Nebraska, the weight of that comment will never sink in for you. You have to be here first hand to observe what Nebraska football is in this state, almost its heart and soul for 12 Saturdays out of every year, and in justifiable reality, each of the remaining 353 as well. That, my friends, is a significant change. And suddenly, it made sense to me. Nebraska football had become about winning and losing, and not about its tradition and history. Pedersen and Callahan had succeeded to cap off what possibly began in the late 1990's, when Nebraska was close to invincible. Someone, or many “someones” forgot about the tradition, the pride in the midst of the national championships and decided 10-3 wasn't good enough. When college football is measured by wins and losses, it's shallow, and easy to become apathetic about. I'm still stunned.
I share this with all of you because I fear for our tradition, our pride. Over the years, as I watched fans calling for Paterno's retirement because we weren't winning, I winced. I winced because I've watched Nebraska. I've watched an incredibly fun, incredibly proud, incredibly rich tradition fall to the ground. Tom Osborne hasn't been able to put the pieces back together again, yet. It appears to be a long road. I fear the same is about to happen at Penn State. When we lose, we have pride and tradition. When we win, we have pride and tradition. Our football team does it right, placing the welfare of young men ahead of winning, education ahead of playing football, credit to opposing football teams, good or bad, ahead of arrogance, playing by the rules rather than breaking them to win and employing coaches that lead with dignity and honesty. This is Penn State football. It's what draws our family together in such numbers that bowl committees trip over themselves to invite Penn State.
We're a big family, and I consider it a privilege to be part of it. Let's protect our family values together. As hard as it might be without Joe Paterno at the helm, because if we're truly honest with ourselves, we're here because of his leadership, we must do this. We all love to win, but winning or losing does not undermine what Penn State football is. Let's strive to keep it that way.