Memorial Stadium (Lincoln, NE)

The University of Nebraska in Lincoln has 18,955 undergraduate students. Memorial Stadium seats more than 80,000 fans on a Cornhuskers football gameday.

Hail Varsity is the fight song. The grand entrance to Memorial Stadium is called the Tunnel Walk. And the Blackshirts? Those are the practice jerseys awarded to the first-team defense.

There are five national titles and three Heisman winners and enough All-America offensive linemen to fill an Omaha steakhouse.

But none of these things encapsulate Nebraska, which officially joined the Big Ten Conference on Friday.

To understand Husker football, pick any map dot between the Missouri River and the panhandle. Walk through town on gameday. Witness the red. And after kickoff, witness the empty streets.

How did a state of 1.8 million people become a major player in college athletics? How did it produce one of the top football programs in America?

Unity of purpose. A shared obsession to win. Everybody all in, all the time.

This is Nebraska’s edge.

This is how the Huskers pay for some of the nation’s best facilities — anybody with a 401K wants his name on the donor wall.

This is how the Huskers score Sun Belt recruits — their jaws drop when they see 80,000 show up for a spring game.

This is how the Huskers built a football empire — in-state walk-ons provided depth that no rival could match.

Memorial Stadium has sold out every home Saturday since 1962. But Huskers football isn’t just a weekend distraction. It’s the only nationally known sport we have.

It’s Priority No. 1, a critical piece of the state’s identity.

You saw it in 2000, when No. 1 Nebraska dueled Notre Dame in South Bend. Except it wasn’t really a Notre Dame home game, because Irish fans sold their tickets. By kickoff, Nebraska fans occupied half the stadium. Paul Hornung watched from the press box, irate.

You saw it in 2006, when ESPN put all its promotional power into the “all-time greatest college football playoff.” The big-name analysts gathered as fan voting determined winners in each round. As Nebraska’s best teams (1971, ’83 and ’95) kept winning, Kirk Herbstreit lost his cool, repeatedly suggesting sabotage.

“If I see one more red ‘N’ in the next vote,” Herbstreit said at one point, “I’m boycotting this thing.”

Sorry, Kirk, that red “N” is branded in citizens’ souls.

This devotion will impress you initially, Badgers fans. And annoy you eventually ... about the time you hear “Goooooo Biiiiiiiig Reeeeeed” in your quaint Madison restaurant for the eighth time. Soon you’ll wonder if these people own an article of clothing without a red “N.”

Nebraska never has been all about football, though.

Fans here will expect to compete for Big Ten championships in several sports, most notably volleyball (remember John Cook?), baseball and track and field.

Men’s basketball? Not so much. Huskers hoops is just trying to make the field of 68; it hasn’t happened since 1998. (If you have any tips for overcoming decades of hoops horror, Badgers fans, send your ideas to Doc Sadler).

In those sports, struggles are sad, but no cause for panic. Those sports don’t contribute millions to the state’s economy each year. Those programs aren’t the reason Jim Delany wanted Nebraska.

Why did Nebraska want the Big Ten? This is a point of contentious debate in Big 12 country.

Critics say Nebraska never got over the fact it couldn’t beat Texas. Nebraskans say the move was about conference stability, academic prestige and TV dollars.

But there’s something deeper. Something more cultural.

The past decade exposed a divide between Nebraska and the Big 12.

Huskers football lost its way in 2002, ending a streak of 33 consecutive seasons with at least nine wins. Suddenly programs such as Kansas State and Missouri beat their chests and claimed superiority. Who wouldn’t want to kick the bully while he’s down? In their eyes, Nebraska was a has-been, no longer worthy of reverence.

In Nebraska’s eyes, those teams were front-runners, devoid of the longevity that defines greatness. There was a sense that these Big 12 peers — bandwagon football fans for 100 years — didn’t appreciate Nebraska anymore.

Fans here never really got over it, even when Tom Osborne and Bo Pelini replaced Steve Pederson, Bill Callahan and Kevin Cosgrove (the fired athletic director, head coach and defensive coordinator received lifetime banishments). Even when Big Red started winning again.

In the Big Ten, Nebraska hopes it can shed the demons of the past decade and rediscover its own greatness.

More than that, Nebraska hopes to belong somewhere again. To find institutions that value what Nebraska values. To find people who know what it’s like to celebrate championships, and to ache for days after defeat.

Nebraska will impress you. And Nebraska will annoy you.

But if you care about college football — not just on gameday, but on every other day of the year — a mutual respect will develop, laying the foundation for a thrilling rivalry.

Oct. 1 is only the first chapter.


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