Historic OU-NU Rivalry Ending at Final Big 12 Championship Game

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Something will be lost after Nebraska and Oklahoma square off on the football field Saturday night -- something intangible yet dear to the traditionalists who get sentimental about a bygone era when the two teams were titans of the old Big Eight Conference.

To a younger generation of fans and players, the final Big 12championship game will decide which team goes to the Fiesta Bowland which goes to the Alamo or Insight Bowl. They don't, and can't,understand what Nebraska-Oklahoma means to older folks, those whoremember tear-away jerseys and actually watching Johnny Rodgers andGreg Pruitt play live, not on some grainy video.

Rodgers' punt return in the 1971 Game of the Century? That's solast century.

Billy Sims' fumble at the 3-yard line in 1978? The Orange Bowlrematch a few weeks later that Nebraska fans so loathed? All thatSooner Magic? Stoic Tom Osborne and swashbuckling Barry Switzer?

"Back in the day," Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead said,"I guess it was a big-time game."

Yes, it was. The 45-and-older crowd can remember all the classicmoments in the traditional Thanksgiving week games that decided theBig Eight championship all but three seasons between 1970-88. Bothprograms have had down cycles since. Now they meet one more time,not on a cold afternoon in Lincoln or Norman but indoors at thebillion-dollar Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

"It's just fitting it's us two here at the end," Oklahomacoach Bob Stoops said.

Nebraska and Oklahoma have been in the same conference everyyear since 1928, when they and Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State andMissouri joined to form the Big Six. Colorado came along in 1948 tomake it the Big Seven, and Oklahoma State's entry in 1960 createdthe Big Eight.

Next year, Nebraska leaves the Sooners and the rest behind forthe Big Ten. Colorado is going away, too, to join what will be thePacific-12.

"This is it. This is definitely the parting," said the59-year-old Rodgers, his "Johnny the Jet" days well behind him."When the Big Eight was the Big Eight, during our time, it was thetoughest conference in the country."

In 1971, the year before Rodgers won the Heisman Trophy,Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado finished 1-2-3 in the finalAssociated Press poll. National championships often were decided inthe Orange Bowl, back when the Big Eight had an automatic tie-inwith the bowl.

The Big 12 formed in 1996 with the Big Eight and four SouthwestConference members, splitting into North and South divisions. Thedivision alignment more or less ended the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalrysince they played only two times every four years.

The Big 12 has had its moments, with Nebraska, Oklahoma andTexas having won national titles in football. But Switzer said theleague hasn't been as powerful as the old Big Eight, in partbecause of scholarship limitations that led to the dispersal oftalent.

"I know this: Without Nebraska in the league, I just don't knowhow they can sell it anymore," Switzer said. "Losing Nebraska isa hell of a blow."

Switzer said Oklahoma, Texas and possibly Texas A&M are the onlydrawing cards when commissioner Dan Beebe negotiates what hepromises will be a more lucrative television contract in thespring.

"What makes it attractive? All the other schools?" Switzersaid. "You're losing the gem of the North."

Osborne, now Nebraska's athletic director, said the Big 12forced a clash of cultures. From the start, Nebraska believed theBig 12 was too Texas-centric in the way things were run.

Still, Osborne said he never pined for the days of the Big Eight-- "Life goes on," he said -- but he acknowledges he was morecomfortable there.

"It was a pretty high level of competition, and geographically,in terms of culture and attitude, there was a fair amount ofsimilarity," Osborne said. "We were all kind of part of this highplains Midwestern area, so people understood each other prettywell."

Nebraska and Oklahoma dominated, but other teams would throw ascare into them from time to time.

Colorado was no slouch under Eddie Crowder, and Bill McCartneywon a share of the 1990 national championships with Eric Bieniemyand Alfred Williams.

Oklahoma State had Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders, Kansas had

Gale Sayers and Bobby Douglass, Missouri had James Wilder and

Kellen Winslow, Kansas State had Mack Herron and Lynn Dickey, IowaState had Dexter Green and Troy Davis.

"I'm sounding like an old person reminiscing," said the73-year-old Osborne, "but it was a good era in college athleticsbecause your level of athletics were certainly rising. Players werebigger and faster and strength training had kicked in, and so hadoffseason programs."

There was a limit to the number of times a team could appear ontelevision those years. Coaches' salaries weren't outrageous, theyknew each other personally and spent time together out of thecompetitive arena.

"I just don't think the Big 12 ever came close to having thefamily atmosphere we had in the Big Eight," said Jim Walden, aformer Nebraska assistant and Iowa State head coach. "We tended toagree to do things that helped us all."

Nebraska-Oklahoma will fade way, but traditional old-school BigEight/Big 12 rivalries live on, such as Texas-Oklahoma,Kansas-Missouri, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Kansas-Kansas State.

As for Nebraska-Oklahoma, Huskers tight end Kyler Reed said thecoaching staff has made no reference to the history of the programsthis week. What Reed knows about the rivalry -- and he admits it'snot much -- was told to him by his father.

"If you want to look up the history, it's kind of on yourown," Reed said. "I'm sure you can find the game somewhere orwatch highlights of the old games on YouTube."

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