The Disillusionment and Nostalgia of a Former Cornhusker Superfan
It’s Saturday in September, a day that for the first forty years of my life meant only one thing: college football. Growing up in Nebraska, Cornhusker football was more than an idle distraction, it was religion. Every year I memorized the entire starting line-up and the quarterbacks and running backs down to the fourth string. Back then with fewer channels seeing a Husker game on TV was a rare thing and I would never dream of missing it no matter what other commitments I had. I remember attending Saturday weddings this time of year and the frantic dash people made to their cars afterward to turn on the radio, desperate to know the score.
The Huskers bound the vast, sparesely populated state together. On game day Memorial Stadium became its third largest city, full of an energy unlike anything else. It was the collective feeling of people who mostly lived at a distance from one another getting together in a crowd, drunk on a sensation they so rarely experienced.
Like every fandom, we had our rituals and our narratives. The biggest story we told ourselves was about our loyalty. Memorial Stadium has sold out its last 382 games, a streak extending all the way back to 1962. We took pride in being an isolated, small state (by population at least) that had a strong sense of community.
While the sellout streak continues, my commitment to the Huskers has not. Younger me would be shocked by this. When I witnessed the undefeated 1987 team lose at home to Oklahoma the car ride home was the two longest hours of my life. When the Huskers finally won the national title after the 1994 season, I was happier than I had been at any moment of my life up to that point.
The seeds of my disenchantment were planted when I was still living and dying with each game. Back in the 1980s, there were some scandals here and there over small stuff like players selling their complimentary tickets, but I figured that was just the NCAA being persnickety. Good old Tom Osborne, who hailed from my hometown, had too strong a moral backbone to condone the kind of crazy stuff that the evil Barry Switzer allowed at Oklahoma. When Oklahoma fired Switzer, it felt like God’s judgement to me.
This all changed during the 1995 season, without a doubt the most successful one in Cornhusker history. Nebraska dominated its way to the national title; no team got within two touchdowns of us. However, it was tainted by some disturbing stories. Star running back Lawrence Phillips, a kind of human battering ram, physically assaulted his ex-girlfriend, pulling her down the stairs by her hair. There were also multiple accusations of assault against lineman Christian Peter.
Osborne suspended Phillips but did not cut him. Later in the season, he was allowed to come back. Nebraska was winning without him, so I told myself that Osborne’s stated reason, that Phillips needed structure and a second chance if he wanted to sort his life out, was honest. In the ensuing years, I would not be so sure. Phillips never got his life sorted out. The woman he abused seemed to be an afterthought.
For years Osborne had been criticized for not winning the title, and many fans thought that he was unwilling to recruit players who might be excellent but not fit Nebraska’s emphasis on character. (After all, we had more academic all-Americans than any other team, another crucial element of the Husker narrative.) I began to wonder if we finally won titles because we were willing to throw our souls into the gutter. It would be easy to blame Osborne for this, but I knew deep down that Husker fans, including myself, had been willing to take a devil’s bargain for glory.
My enthusiasm for college sports really began to dim years later once I became a grad student at a Big Ten school and a university professor at regional state schools and saw how the academic humanities were being starved of resources on the same campuses where giant sports complexes were being built. I still remember working at a university in Michigan where we were told not to penalize students for missing class during a playoff game.
As a younger fan, I found the college sports industrial complex to be a regrettable necessary evil that enabled all the fun stuff. I knew from reading so many articles on the subject that many players weren’t given a proper education, and that they made millions of dollars for schools while not getting paid themselves. Seeing all of these dynamics firsthand as a graduate student and professor made it very hard for me to enjoy things the way I used to. My interest started to drop, and then eventually fall away completely. Nowadays I watch maybe one or two college football games in a season, if that. In the old days, I’d watch more games than that on a typical fall Saturday.
This week's news out of Nebraska only confirms the greed and twisted values of big time college sports. Athletic director Trev Alberts fired coach Scott Frost, buying out his contract for $15 million. If he had waited until October, the payment would only have been half as much, raising accusations of cronyism. Even if Alberts had waited, this would still be a travesty. Those millions of dollars represent stolen wages from players and stolen funds from the university, as far as I am concerned. At any rate, the once mighty Huskers just lost at home to Georgia Southern, the kind of team they would be 63-10 back in the glory days. Not watching Husker games saves me a lot of aggravation.
I cannot totally disconnect myself from Cornhusker football. When I heard Mickey Joseph was taking over as coach, my heart grew. He was the starting quarterback of the 1990 team, back when I lived and breathed Cornhusker football and back when he ran a defiantly anti-passing run option offense. Hearing his name brought out of the past gave me such a sensation of pure sentiment that my mind could not override.
Despite the fact that I think college sports is a blight on our society that undermines the mission of our universities and exploits young people so that a bunch old authoritarian white guys get paid millions of dollars, I can’t completely quit the Huskers. Totally severing my affections would be like cutting off one of my limbs. I moved out of the state almost twenty-five years ago but it never moved out of my heart. If being a Husker fan is part of being tied to Nebraska I can’t quit it completely because I will never stop being a Nebraskan, no matter where I live. As I age, these are the kinds of strange daily moral compromises that I have gotten used to making.
So I will mostly ignore college football, as I have for about the last decade. But every now and then I will watch a quarter or two of a Nebraska game, get irritated by how bad they are playing, then see Coach Joseph on the sideline and remember that glorious September Saturday when I saw him run roughshod over Northern Illinois at Memorial Stadium.