I think these rivalries will happen quite naturally based on a bad officiating call, a great individual performance, an upset, securing a championship. That's really the stuff of memories. Memories translate into traditions.
The last Penn State football game I attended as a student was not a Penn State football game.
Well, on its basest terms, it was, but for every single person in attendance, it was so, so much more.
Two weeks earlier, the Nittany Lions had topped Illinois in an ugly game with as thrilling a conclusion as I've ever seen. In what would be Joe Paterno's final win, the student section banded together, perhaps to distract kicker Derek Dimke, perhaps just to get a better view at his attempt to send the game to overtime. Whatever the cause, the mass migration of thousands of students into the south end zone was a sight to behold, an indelible image from a footnote of a game. As Illinois' last chance clanged off the upright, Beaver Stadium erupted. It was a celebration.
The scene on Curtin Road two weeks later was anything but. In the wake of the grand jury presentment against Jerry Sandusky, and the firing of Joe Paterno, the fact that there was even a football game to play seemed as fatuous as the situation was surreal. Here were 100,000 fans, in equal parts going through the motions, trying to prove to ourselves that this could still be about football, and also showing our support for the players, the coaches, each other. Here were 100,000 Penn Staters in the midst of wondering just what that meant at a time like this, trying to convince ourselves that this was just a game, just business as usual while knowing that the prurient eyes of a nation were upon us. Here were a handful of protesters railing against Joe Paterno, here were fans in shirts and ties and rolled up khakis, here were the rest of us, caught somewhere in between.
And here were a few hundred, maybe thousand, in Cornhusker red, standing out amongst the masses, blued out in support of child abuse awareness.
The fact that it was Nebraska, and not Ohio State, or Michigan, or even Wisconsin or Iowa or Illinois helped to make that Saturday afternoon so special, in no small part because Nebraska fans are themselves a special breed. The quirks of scheduling a team we hadn't played in a decade meant there was no bad blood between us, no lingering resentment, no history of antagonism. Before we knew how important that day would be, and for entirely different reasons, we thought it might be the spark for a Big Ten rivalry both teams would sorely need. If we were right, it became one on accident, a rivalry thrust into being based not on hatred and competition but mutual respect and understanding and appreciation. And it was one we could build on our own, from the ground up. Sure, there have been memorable moments in the series--the McCloskey catch, the 1994 screwjob, the 2002 redemption. But this was a war that would be waged on the football field in the second decade of the 21st century and not upon the battleground of distant, cherished memory.
Penn State and Nebraska don't really compete over recruits, and our alumni bases are so distant that if it weren't for the internet, you could go weeks without seeing a Nebraska fan, and getting to bond with them over what Bo Pelini's done this time to set the college football literati atwitter. And bond with them we most certainly would.
There wasn't a Nebraska fan in the house that day in 2011 who didn't have kind words for Joe Paterno, for the Nittany Lions trying to carry on in his wake, for all of us Penn Staters so hurt and beaten from within and without. The Alabama partisans we'd met earlier in the year were friendly and amiable, too, but theirs was a condescending kindness. The Nebraskans were genuine and earnest and so richly deserving of the title and mantle that they've long been granted as the best fans in the country.
I can't say for sure, but I doubt if it were any fans but Cornhusker fans invading State College that weekend, the catharsis that game started to provide might not have rang so true. That day began the healing process, in earnest, and the fact that we lost, that a furious fourth quarter comeback fell just short, didn't matter. What had mattered was the huddle, pregame, between both teams, a nondenominational interfaith intersquad prayer meeting that took the words of everyone who thought that game never should've been played and from them created the kind of mechanism that college sports was born from. I left after Matt McGloin's final pass fell incomplete and the clock hit all zeroes--I had to sprint next door to the BJC to call the first game of the Pat Chambers era for the student radio station--but I could hear the chants of "We Are...Penn State" ringing out across the parking lots. I wasn't there, but I'd like to think that we gave Nebraska a standing ovation too, as their boys walked off the field.
Oh, and then there were the next two years and the two flat-out great football games--and nothing more, but that's entirely acceptable--that we played.
When Jim Delany made that quote that I began this post with, I have no doubts in my mind that he was talking about the travesty that occurred two Novembers ago in Lincoln. We all remember: with the Lions trailing by 4 in the fourth quarter, and driving, Matt McGloin hooked up with Matt Lehman, who reached out for the end zone, and--clear as day to anyone with an HDTV--crossed the plane with the tip of the football, before colliding with the leg of a Cornhusker defender. It had been ruled a fumble on the field, but everyone, Penn State and Nebraska fans alike, neutral abiters and TV commentators all the same, knew it would be overturned.
And then it wasn't.
We didn't react with much grace after that--I, for one openly wondered whether Tom Osborne had paid off the officiating crew. A local Nebraska newspaper picked that up and linked to it. And then the emails came flooding in. Here's the cool thing, though: they weren't profanity laced screeds wishing for my imminent demise. They were aggrieved, and they were frustrated, and they probably fucking hated me for it, but even then, the Nebraska fans couldn't respond with anger, or fury, or, really, anything but resigned indignation. Write that about Ohio State, and I might have been facing some death threats. Not with Nebraska. Never with Nebraska.
The game last year was another masterpiece: a sloppy, messy, beautiful affair that either team could have won and neither team maybe should have won, and that I've already written about at length. Worse than the fact that Penn State lost, though is that it was a send-off for what might have been a truly incredible rivalry. Some people rail against the Big Ten's additions of Maryland and Rutgers because they don't belong there, geographically and culturally; or that they just don't match up, in football or basketball, to the powers we already have; or that it was just a naked cash grab that represents everything wrong with college sports.
Me? I'm mourning the fact that we'll only get to play Nebraska once in the next six years, because we almost had something beautiful. I guess I'll have to settle for a long-distance mutual admiration.
Hey, it sure beats what we'll have with Rutgers.