A true blue Husker?
For years now, I have billed myself—borrowing from the University of Nebraska’s fight song—as “a true blue Husker.” However, in the wake of the Huskers’ thoroughly disappointing 2015 season, followed by an everyone-gets-a-trophy bowl invite and an “oops, how’d that happen?” win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl, I was criticized for some of my criticism of the program. One person even said I should change my Twitter handle from @atruebluehusker because it didn’t fit me. That, of course, irked me and I probably snapped off some smart-aleck reply about switching it to “a blue, blue Husker” (to the tune of Elvis’s “Blue Christmas”) as that would be more apropos.
But his remark got me to thinking, and in fact, I’ve been thinking all offseason. Do I need to drop the moniker? Should I switch my handle? Must I turn in my fan card?
I’ve been a diehard Husker backer since I was young, since just before the Huskers became a powerhouse in the mid-’90s. (If I had to pinpoint the moment my fandom crossed into zeal, I’d say it was right around the time Calvin Jones dashed across the soggy Memorial Stadium AstroTurf—almost as fast as the oranges did—to complete the day-after-Thanksgiving comeback against Oklahoma in ’91.) I am, as the Apostle Paul might write, “A Husker of Huskers.” I bleed red. (That line works much better for fans of blue- or green-clad teams.) I’ve cried over losses. I’ve taken criticism of Tom Osborne personally. I still wonder if the ’94 Orange Bowl officials were on the take, still smirk when I think of an exhausted Warren Sapp stalking off the field or of Spurrier’s Gators getting “clobbered” by the best team of all time, still think Travis Ochs should have been arrested for attempting to decapitate Eric Crouch, and still have a burr under my saddle when it comes to Texas and the Big XII. I still grin when I think of Touchdown Tommie or the “Heart & Soul” of the ’97 champs (who would have worn down that Michigan defense and everybody knows it). It still stings to realize Kansas once scored 76 points on us (and could have had more) and I’m still miffed that Texas and Colt McCoy got an extra second. In 2001, I jumped for joy during “Black 41 Flash Reverse Pass” and a month later threw my red #7 jersey across the room about the time Chris Brown scored his 19th touchdown of Black Friday. I rallied later that afternoon to blog (was it called blogging back then?) about how I’d still sooner be a Husker than a Buffalo—or a fan of any other team. I’ve seen three Husker games live (’97 Oklahoma, ’00 Colorado, and ’13 Purdue) and each is a cherished memory, special in its own way. I’ve rejoiced over great comebacks and heart-stopping wins and had to restrain myself from breaking the TV because of horrendous officiating or lousy breaks (or “What in the Sam Hill were you thinking!?!?!” coaching decisions). I’ve celebrated national titles and dominance, and hung in there during rebuilding years and ugly losses. One could say that I’ve stuck with Husker football “in all kinds of weather.” That may not separate me from many of you, and that’s sort of where I’m headed with this. I am a typical, crazy, passionate, sometimes demanding, generally classy Husker fan.
Or am I?
You see, things have changed in recent years. I was neither a Bo-liever or a Bo-leaver. I leaned more toward the former, arguing that, despite the obvious faults and flaws, Pelini had at least established a consistent baseline for the program, and things could be worse (see 2015). At the same time, I was growing more and more infuriated watching mediocre Wisconsin teams amass eleventy bajillion points and yards against us. Hanging out in the middle of the conference with Minnesota and Northwestern is not my idea of a good time, nor is it where the Huskers belong. Clearly, something had to be done. And so, while I disagreed with the decision to fire Bo and was, like many of you, somewhat surprised by the hiring of Mike Riley, I thought maybe change could be a good thing. I figured the odds were about fifty-fifty whether the program would improve or decline under Riley, but I gave him and the powers that be in Lincoln the benefit of the doubt. I got on board and, once again, bought in.
I’ve been buying a lot. I bought in back in 2003, when Frank (after a 7-9 stretch over the end of the 2001 campaign and the dreadful 2002 season) revamped his coaching staff. I bought in again in 2005, when he of whom we do not speak (having dragged the program through the mud) started to see a resurgence. The 2005 whipping of Colorado is still one of my favorite post-Thanksgiving memories. I bought in throughout 2006, when the Huskers were close but couldn’t get over the hump. I bought in to start 2007, then saw the program plummet to unheard of depths. Unfathomable depths. Unacceptable depths. I bought in yet again when Dr. Tom returned, canning Calla—er, you know who and bringing with him Bo Pelini (I’d have opted for Turner Gill or Ron Brown myself). I kept buying in—at the end of Bo’s first nine-win (and four-loss) team, after the comeback in the rain at Mizzou, after beating Oklahoma to turn around a sinking 2009 season. And I pushed all my chips in after the Huskers nearly knocked off Texas in 2009, and didn’t sell my stock when they again came close to winning a conference title in 2010. I bought in at signs of progress in the Big Ten. I was fully invested when the Huskers were one win over a so-so Badger team from a trip to the Rose Bowl, only to lose by 8,000 points. I picked up my jaw and bought in again (somehow) throughout the highs and lows of 2013, and remember thinking that Ameer Abdullah, Ron Kellogg III, and Jordan Westerkamp’s heroics against Northwestern might have saved Pelini’s job and the future of Nebraska football. Well, for a year. When the players backed Pelini after the Iowa meltdown at the end of that year and responded by beating Georgia in the bowl game, I bought in once more. I really thought they had started to turn a corner in 2014, and—yep, you guessed it—bought in. Even in Pelini’s final game, his team showed pluck rallying from 17 down to win at Iowa, and I held out hope until news came that he’d been fired.
With no return on investment to speak of in the last decade, I was cautiously optimistic on Riley, even after heartbreaking losses to BYU and Miami. I gave him and the team a pass, figuring they were still working out kinks. The near collapse against Southern Miss, the strategy-absent hiccup against Illinois, and the gut-wrenching loss to Wisconsin all hurt, but I managed to hang onto my Husker stock (barely). I had serious doubts and misgivings, but I was rewarded for my loyalty with a great win at Minnesota. But when the Huskers gagged against Northwestern, and then played the most awful game in program history at Purdue (to call what they did “playing” is an insult to quadriplegic infants everywhere) I finally sold my stock. All of it. I gave up. Because all of our corner turning was nothing more than spinning around in circles, in a vortex, like dirty water swirling down the drain.
And what happened next? Nebraska beat Michigan State. Pushed Iowa. Accidentally won a bowl game they never should have been in. To watch the coaches and players, you’d think they were a top 10 team, not a floundering, fumbling, forlorn bunch that couldn’t get out of their own way half the time, much less beat a reasonably competent team. And now, all I hear is unbridled optimism. The Huskers are ranked according to some pre-season pundits. They’re a playoff dark horse according to others. They’re talking about a conference championship game appearance.
And I refuse to buy any of it. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is FINALLY the time they get over the hump. Maybe after yanking the ball away at the last minute, this time Lucy really is going to hold the football still so Charlie Brown can kick it. (By the way, know what always happens whenever he thinks that?) But like the doubting apostle, “Unless I see. . . I will not believe.” And even then, I’m guessing I’ll still have my doubts. Because you can fool me once—heck, a hundred times. But a hundred and one is one too many. I just can’t commit to a team that has, for years, been prone to lackadaisical, half-hearted, sloppy, uninspired performances over and over again, where every step forward is met with a puke-down-their-jerseys fall backwards. I can’t commit to a coaching staff that can’t tell time, picks starting running backs by playing eeny-meeny-miny-moe, and didn’t discover that repeatedly running the ball against a bad run defense actually works until the thirteenth game of the season, when I’ve been YELLING IT AT THE TV FOR YEARS!!!
If you haven’t noticed, not only am I unwilling to buy in, but I’m also a little bit mad. I’m sick of my once-proud program being a punchline. The Huskers of the ‘90s were different than all the rest because they never suffered those absurd, embarrassing losses that plagued everybody else. The Huskers of the last decade are different than all the rest because they suffer absurd, embarrassing losses far worse than those suffered by anyone else. For crying out loud, there are high school teams that could hold Purdue under 55. There are probably some powder puff teams that could keep the Boilermakers from rolling double nickels. And I don’t really ever want to hear the term Blackshirt used again, because that legacy is dead, buried, rotting in the ground, the tombstone has tipped over, and nobody even mows the overgrown weeds in the cemetery any longer. I can’t tell you how tired I am of hearing players—players I like—talk about how this year’s going to be different, how they’re going to buckle down, how they’re going to work hard and never quit. At least for two weeks until we yawn our way through another homecoming game against a sub-.500 team. Oh, look, Melvin Gordon just scored again while our DBs and LBs played flag football behind him. I can’t take it anymore. My wardrobe is almost exclusively red, and I don’t know what to wear because I’m ashamed to have people know that I cheer for that team. I was actually upset when they beat Michigan State and UCLA last year. It ticked me off to see them celebrating so enthusiastically, expecting me to be proud of them for earning an A after a semester of mailing in exams for Ds (or just not showing up to take the exam at all). That’s not my opinion. That’s a paraphrase of safety (and captain) Nate Gerry, who admitted after the Rutgers game (a pretty ugly win over the only team on earth who might be able to give Purdue a run for its money—a crippled, old-person-with-a-cane’s run, that is) that the team hadn’t until recently bought in. Should have asked me for a loan.
So I ask you, my fellow Husker fans, is my indifference and apathy toward the current program out of line? Is my desire to see them fail, to see the whole rotten stinking bunch (from the quarterback who after three years still chucks YOLO balls to wide-open defenders to the captains that keep committing stupid, selfish penalties to ruin any chance of winning (okay, they’re gone at least) or get suspended for breaking team rules to the coaches who believe the best running game is one where the quarterback runs back seven yards to pass deep against the wind to the players that halfheartedly went through the motions for most of last season, taking the team to the precipice of its worst record since the Eisenhower Administration!) responsible for last season’s debacle cleaned out so we can start anew, a sign of something less than loyalty? Is my unwillingness to go forward with this program’s massive scars actually a reflection of a blemish of my own? Can I no longer call myself a true blue Husker? Am I relegated to the bandwagon?
Or does a true fan have a point of no return, a line in the sand? Can a true fan say there is a certain standard that must be met? It’s not national or even conference titles. It’s simply a semi-respectable team that always plays hard—and I mean everybody, not just the fullback and walk-on defensive lineman (who I love by the way). It’s simply not getting the pants beat off you by mediocre to downright bad teams. It’s acting like you give a hot pile of dog mess when you get boat-raced and it’s having the humility and sense of decorum to not act like you’ve just won a national title when you’ve merely improved your winning percentage to .400!!! And until I get that back—that hard-working, never give-up, occasionally fundamentally sound, cogent-thinking team and program that seems to care half as much as I do—I can find better things to do on a Saturday (like listen to Verne Lundquist shout “Oh my gracious” as Alabama runs roughshod over the competition, sort of like another team in red used to do).
My heart will always quicken when I see the scarlet and cream on the field. My chest will always swell when I hear “Hail, Varsity” or “There is No Place Like Nebraska” on autumn afternoons. My mind will always fondly remember the glory years. I will always love Nebraska football. I just may not love it—may not cheer for it, may not much care what happens to it, may say “meh” more than “Go Big Red” during 2016—as presently constituted. Does that make me a fair-weather fan, or can I still call myself “a true blue Husker”?