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Do Northwestern and Nebraska share a rivalry?

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A look at the history of the Northwestern-Nebraska 'rivalry'

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Let's start by acknowledging that anyone who thinks they know, with absolute certainty, the answer to this question is wrong. There's no rivalry police out there punishing some schools and distributing certification badges to others. Whether Northwestern and Nebraska are rivals is entirely up to one's interpretation. Some see two programs that have played nothing but entertaining football games over the past three years and are convinced that constitutes a rivalry. Others contend that more is needed to meet the threshold - history, tradition, the involvement of multiple teams, whatever.

Where do you stand on the matter? Do you refuse to even entertain the thought that Northwestern and Nebraska are or could ever be rivals? Or is your application of the term more liberal, with the belief that the two schools are, indeed, rivals? Semi-rivals? If you're still undecided, here's hoping the following analysis provides some clarification. There are several dimensions to the Northwestern-Nebraska relationship that need be examined.

Football

The record shows that Northwestern and Nebraska first played in football in 1902, at Antelope Field in Lincoln, Neb. The Wildcats, under Charles M. Hollister, lost 12-0. But the score is hardly the most interesting thing about that game. Nebraska was known for playing a rough style, and Hollister reportedly complained that Wildcats players were being mistreated and kicked in the face after plays. Now, the Huskers were a powerhouse; they went 10-0 that season, shutting out every opponent. When you're that good, and it's two years after the turn of the 19th century, you can get away with a lot of stuff. But, kicking downed players in the face is crossing the line, no?

Northwestern's players were being kicked in the face by Nebraska players during the game.

Nebraska's coach at the time, Walter C. Booth, charged that the officiating was unfair. The Huskers were called for 11 penalties, seven of them for holding, causing the "surrender of the oval" in opponent's territory, which "precluded any possibility of piling up a score." This was the last game of the year for Nebraska. The win, with the Huskers' "own goal lines still uncrossed," meant their perfect season was completed "in a blaze of glory." Booth commended Northwestern for its effort. "Nebraska did not play her game to-day, but Northwestern put up such a surprising front that a big score was out of the question," he said afterward, according to the Minneapolis Journal.

(If you're curious, Nebraska adopted "Cornhuskers" in 1900; the school's nicknames before that included Old Gold Knights, Antelopes, Rattlesnake Boys and the Bugeaters).

Almost 30 years later (1931), Northwestern and Nebraska met again in a game that "marked the renewal of grid relations between the two schools after a lapse of nearly thirty years." The Wildcats, taking advantage of the Huskers' apparent "stage fright," scored three touchdowns in the first 15 minutes and grinded out a 19-7 win at Dyche Stadium (Evanston, Ill.) Prominent Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone was in attendance. In 1974, Nebraska reasserted control over the series with a 49-7 bludgeoning in Lincoln. The Huskers recorded 563 yards of total offense and 30 first downs to Northwestern's 181 and 11, respectively, and Monte Anthony set a modern-day program record for freshmen with 111 rushing yards.

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(Northwestern University archives)

The teams' final pre-Big Ten meeting was even less competitive. In the 2000 Alamo Bowl at the Alamodome (San Antonio, Texas), Nebraska obliterated Northwestern, 66-17. Quarterback Eric Crouch rushed for 90 yards and passed for 91, and Nebraska tied an NCAA Bowl record with 31 points in the second quarter. In the days leading up to the game, Northwestern players had made public their desire to square off against the nation's top rushing attack, according to the Omaha World-Herald. That struck a raw nerve with the Huskers, who came into the game, according to former Northwestern coach Randy Walker, "like a team with something to prove."

"These guys were disrespecting us all week," All-American center Dominic Raiola said after the game, according to the World-Herald. "They showed us no respect, and we came out here tonight to show them that the Big 12 is a dominant conference. We wanted to shove it down their throats, and that's what we did.

"They tried to keep up with us, but they couldn't. I don't think they deserve to be Big Ten champions. I have no respect for them."

"I don't think they deserve to be Big Ten champions. I have no respect for them."

Northwestern and Nebraska didn't play often before the latter joined the Big Ten in 2011, but when they did, things got heated. Kicking players in the face, demanding more respect from your opponent - it's compelling stuff. Their recent games have been even more interesting. We'll go through them quickly. In 2011, with Dan Persa forced to the sideline due to a shoulder injury, Kain Colter rushed for two touchdowns and hit Jeremy Ebert on an 81-yard score to lead Northwestern to a stunning upset of the No. 8 Cornhuskers in Lincoln. The win proved critical for Northwestern, as the Wildcats finished the season with the minimum six wins required for bowl eligibility.

One year later, with Northwestern having compiled a 6-1 record, a sea of red invaded Ryan Field for the second iteration of Northwestern-Nebraska in Big Ten play. This time, Nebraska prevailed thanks in large part to more than 400 yards of total offense and three touchdowns from quarterback Taylor Martinez. Still, Northwestern could have won this one (even though Nebraska dominated statistically; the Huskers amassed 543 yards of total offense to Northwestern's 301). The Wildcats led by 12 points in the fourth quarter and Jeff Budzien pushed a would-be game-winning, 53-yard field goal inches right in the final minute. It was Budzien's only miss of the season. Tough loss.

And then there was the 2013 meeting, the ending of which you probably described to your non-Northwestern friends as "The Most Northwestern way ever to lose a football game." That's about right. For a team that really could have used an emotional lift after three close (Ohio State, Minnesota and Iowa) and one demoralizing (Wisconsin) loss, the Nebraska game was brutal. It was at this point of this season, if it hadn't happened already, that a lot of Northwestern fans, resigned to the fact the Wildcats weren't making a bowl game, began turning to fatalism to explain away their anguish. Of course we lost that game like that. It just wasn't meant to be. Can we just pretend this season never happened?

All of which was music to Nebraska fans' ears, if they even bothered to listen. As painful as that final game was for Northwestern fans (and several players), no one - whichever team they support - would argue that it wasn't captivating, exhilarating, awesome in an objective, Yo-I'm-totally-going-to-watch-that-whenever-BTN-replays-it sense. It's become a trend, Northwestern and Nebraska waging edge-of-your-seat thrill rides. In football, at least, Northwestern vs. Nebraska has become appointment viewing for Big Ten fans. The kind of game you make plans for months in advance, the kind you want rivals to play.

Basketball

I won't drag you through a game-by-game breakdown in this section. Just know that neither program has ever been particularly good, with Nebraska reaching the NCAA Tournament in March for the first time since 1998 and Northwestern never qualifying, period. The Huskers have reached the NCAAs on six previous occasions (1986, '91, '92, '93, '94, '98), yet they've never advanced past the opening round. In '91, after earning a No. 3 seed, Nebraska was upended by No. 14 seed Xavier. Maybe worse: Three years later, the Huskers fell to Ivy League foe and No. 11 seed Penn. Other losses include to Western Kentucky ('86) and New Mexico State ('93).

Seven bids without a win is rough, but it's nothing compared to the hardship Wildcats fans have endured over several decades. Still, Northwestern and Nebraska's shared NCAA Tournament futility shouldn't foster hatred between the two programs. Why would it? If anything, it makes their fan bases sympathetic to one another, if only a little bit. Northwestern's basketball team has long been viewed as a creampuff in the Big Ten, with numerous sub-3-conference-win finishes to show for it. Nebraska assumed bottom-feeder status when it joined the conference in 2011, losing a combined 27 games over its first two years in the league.

Things turned for the better in 2013-14. Roughly four months after coach Tim Miles took the podium at Big Ten basketball media day in late October and said, "I see we're picked 12th out of 12 again. And it's not just by you guys. I see it's by everybody," the Huskers pulled off a massive, resume-boosting upset of No. 9 Wisconsin inside a packed Pinnacle Bank Arena. Seeing Nebraska's players celebrate their selection into the tourney field a couple of weeks later may have irked some Northwestern fans. Yet even if there was some jealousy last March, it would be a huge leap to suggest Wildcats hoops fans hate Nebraska hoops fans.

No one wants to be known as the worst team in its conference. So if Nebraska basketball continues to trend upward, and Northwestern plateaus or slips, perhaps that'll be grounds for genuine hardwood-inspired hate. But for now, Nebrasketball is a clever a nickname we can all get behind, Northwestern hasn't won a meaningful game ever, Tim Miles is too energetic and self-effacing to hate, Chris Collins hasn't been on the job long enough for people to form strong opinions about him, and the Big Ten basketball tournament is not getting moved to Omaha. Let's move on.

Academics

Northwestern has ranked among the nation's top programs in Academic Progress Rate and Graduation Success Rate across multiple sports. The football program has been particularly impressive, when compared to those at other schools renowned for their academic rigor (including one on Northwestern's schedule last year and this year). Early last season, when Northwestern was ranked No. 16 in the country, before all the national fans and media stopped paying attention, one Forbes writer was so moved by the Wildcats' ability to succeed on the field and in the classroom, he wrote an article titled "Northwestern Football: 16th-Ranked On Field, Top-Ranked In Classroom. How Do Those Cats Do It?"

There were other interesting features that drew attention to the Wildcats' academics. All of them drove home one basic point: Northwestern's football players are dedicated to their studies and (most of the time) pretty good at football. Whatever your stance on the debate over the relationship between sports and higher education, Northwestern football players' balance of academic and athletic pursuits is regarded favorably by outsiders. All the awards give the athletic department reasons to write glowing press releases, conference commissioners talk optimistically about reinforcing said ‘balance,' and there are heralded recruits attracted to the prospect of getting an education from a top-12 ranked university while playing major conference football.

How do Nebraska's academics compare to Northwestern's? The Huskers have earned national recognition for their work in the classroom. And here's an excerpt from a recent athletic department release describing another academic achievement for Nebraska's athletes. "Nebraska's rich tradition of academic excellence is solidified on the national level through the University's dominance of the CoSIDA/Capital One Academic All-American awards. University of Nebraska student-athletes from all teams and all sports combined far outdistance any other school in the country. Nebraska has a nation-leading total of 314 CoSIDA/Capital One Academic All-Americans." (bold mine)

Whatever that means, it sounds impressive. What more Big Ten football fans seem to point out when discussing Nebraska's academics, though, is the fact that the school was kicked out of the Association of American Universities (and that two of the conference's schools, Michigan and Wisconsin, voted to oust Nebraska from the association). That didn't please commissioner Jim Delany. Here's Delany describing the importance of AAU status a few years ago at the annual Big Ten spring meetings. "AAU membership is a part of who we are. It's an important part of who we are." Said Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman, "I suppose it will be, in the short-term, an embarrassment."

So, when you talk about Nebraska not being part of the AAU and then read stuff like this and this about Northwestern ... I'll let you decide what it means for the rivalry-or-not discussion. It should be pointed out that Northwestern fans have resorted to academic snobbery to deflect attention from their struggles on the field; Nebraska's football historically has been good enough to speak for itself. Wildcats supporters sneering at opposing teams with chants of "safety school"  and "That's alright, that's okay, you'll be working for us someday!" sticks out. There's also the key jingle tradition, which shouldn't be a thing.

NU vs. NU

This is a contentious issue. Nebraska and Northwestern both lay claim to the two-letter designation. Which program owns it? Let's lay out the arguments. Nebraska says it should be referred to as NU because it's a national powerhouse with a massive army of fans that has earned the right to call their program whatever it wants. It doesn't matter that their school is known as the "University of Nebraska-Lincoln." Plus, "Nebraska U" is part of the fight song. Northwestern says is should be called NU because Northwestern is one word and anyone who uses NW or N'Western is uninformed or lazy. Get on board, ESPN. Plus, "Go U - NU" is a chant Wildcats fans like to use, which means something, I suppose.

I have a feeling this debate won't be settled for a long time, or maybe ever. College football fans are an argumentative lot. They defend their teams in any and all controversies - from recruiting scandals to poor officiating and everything in between - sometimes to a fault. Even stuff as seemingly inconsequential as which program can rightfully claim a two-letter abbreviation makes for great debate. That's not to suggest either side is right or wrong in asserting ownership of NU. Just that neither Northwestern or Nebraska fans are likely to say, "Ok, fine. We give up. You get to be called NU, end of story. We'll go by something else." Both sides appear to be dug in, holding firm to the belief that their program is the real NU.

This mini dispute will continue to be annoying - not just for Northwestern and Nebraska fans, but for fans of other Big Ten programs - as long as these two programs are in the same conference. Perhaps (presidents) Harvey Perlman and Morty should get together and settle this once and for all. In the meantime, we can acknowledge that Northwestern and Nebraska fans' mutual distaste for each other's use of NU has created some tension. They take this stuff seriously. As they should.

***

On October 18, a horde of Nebraska fans - many of whom, according to Pat Fitzgerald, should be "excited to see Chicago" - will visit Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., for what we all expect to be another entertaining game. That's homecoming weekend. There will be a lot of Northwestern fans and alumni there. BTN is airing the game in primetime. The game will take on added importance if both teams have fared well up to that point; at least four wins over six previous games would be nice. In a wide open Big Ten West, who knows, maybe this game will have conference championship implications. It's not out of the question. It might even feel like a meeting between two rivals.

But in this author's humble opinion, this is not a rivalry. Not yet and maybe not ever. One didn't need to run down the above categories to make that determination. Most rivalries are based on history and tradition and obscure trophies. Michigan and Ohio State have hated each other for decades. Wisconsin and Minnesota have been playing forever. Northwestern and Nebraska have belonged to the same conference for only three seasons. The two programs have played exciting football games, but there's a long way to go before we can make the leap from "I'm excited for the Nebraska/Northwestern game" to "I hate Nebraska/Northwestern, that team is despicable."

Also, if there are Northwestern fans who fancy their favorite team Nebraska's rival, consider the other side of the equation. Nebraska is/was part of other rivalries. Further, there is a group of Nebraska fans, from what I can tell, that won't dignify Northwestern with the label of "rival." The logic there, I think, is that doing so would be a knock on Nebraska's reputation - a commentary on its fall from the elite echelon of college football - because recognizing a team as your rival somehow legitimates that team as your equal. This comes from poster Blue Howl, in a recent thread on the Huskermax message board. "If Northwestern becomes our rival, we have completely lost all relevance."

Some of the elements of a rivalry are in place for Northwestern and Nebraska. The NU-NU debate. Those close, exciting football games in recent years. Both basketball programs trying to avoid being known as the worst in the Big Ten. The primary color of one school representing royalty, while that of the other, in some contexts, is associated with war? I don't know. Perhaps one day Northwestern and Nebraska will be known as fierce Big Ten competitors who play intense, high-stakes games, with fans sulking/rejoicing over their outcomes. True rivals. But let's allow this to develop for a few more years (decades?) before applying the label. That might be a conservative timeline, though.

I mean, everyone knows Nebraska is a boring place.