The Nebraska Cornhuskers used to win the Big Eight football title and get to the Orange Bowl pretty regularly. The Cornhuskers first appeared in the Miami classic in 1955, the year of my birth, losing to fourteenth-rated Duke, 34-7. Returning twice in the 1960s, they had a win over Auburn and a loss to Alabama. Then, in the 28-year period that started in 1971, the road between Nebraska and Florida was traveled 14 times. During that same epoch, the Cornhuskers also played five Fiesta Bowls, three Sugar Bowls, and one Cotton Bowl when it still counted as a biggie. People in my home state got used to planning for an early winter vacation, and Miami was the preferred destination.
Miami was a hell of a long way off to us kids who grew up secure in our provincialism. Omaha seemed like the true center of the United States. I couldn’t figure out why the evening news programs like the NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report,” which aired from 1956 to 1970, concentrated so much on what happened in Washington and New York. So what if Chet Huntley’s anchor desk was in New York and David Brinkley sat his bum down in Washington for each broadcast? Omaha had big companies and important things going on. The Union Pacific railroad was headquartered there, and of course Mutual of Omaha sponsored the weekly “Wild Kingdom” program from 1963 onward, challenging a boy like me to calculate the logistics of getting Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler from our city on the Mighty Mo—the Missouri River—to the Serengeti Plain of Africa on a weekly basis. Did I say there were large undertakings? The reeking Omaha stockyards were vast. It frankly shocked and disappointed me to learn Chicago had stockyards as well. Everything Omaha did, Chicago had to copy or steal. The Chicago Bears had the greatest running back in the National Football League, Gale Sayers, who just happened to have grown up in Omaha. It’s a good thing no one confused me with the information that Marlin Perkins had been director of Chicago’s Lincoln Park zoo.
On top of all this other stuff was Omaha’s importance in the Cold War. Just south of the city, which is situated near the geographic center of the country and therefore at a point far away from Russian missiles, Offutt Air Force Base was home of the Strategic Air Command, where all-out nuclear war could be directed from a bunker. We were used to looking at B-52s rumbling overhead as they approached the base. Later, the 747s of the airborne command center joined the procession. And an allied country occasionally contributed an exotic aircraft like the otherworldly delta-winged British Vulcan bomber. It instilled the belief that Omaha’s real significance far exceeded anything the modest metropolitan population of 400,000 would suggest.
And then the Cornhuskers won their national titles in 1970 and 1971. The four previous champs had been Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, and Texas. It must be remembered that throughout the 1960s, the slogan on our license plates boasted “The Beef State.” A head count barely produced 1.5 million Nebraskans. Omaha and Lincoln accounted for about one-third of the state’s population. The next largest city was Grand Island, with something like 35,000 people. The teeming Memorial Stadium game-day crowd of fans clad in scarlet and cream more than doubled that total. I remember my surprise upon learning the small cities in the population range of 15,000 to 25,000 like Columbus, North Platte, Hastings, Fremont, and Norfolk (which we pronounced NOR-fork), indeed, these cities had their own daily newspapers. It seemed like a waste of time when they could have just read the World-Herald, along with us Omahans, and found everything they needed to know. Anyhow, nothing besides natural-born killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate had ever happened outstate (and their murder spree was a kind of national champion of its own, unlike anything previously, at least outside of gangland). How could a state with just three congressional districts come away with the national football title? We must have been naturally superior.
With its national championships, Nebraska not only joined the ranks of elite programs from huge states, we kicked their asses. Orange Bowl appearances in 1971, 1972, and 1973 resulted in three victories. We squeaked past LSU, 17-12, in that first one. But the next year’s game against Bear Bryant’s houndstooth hat was a 38-6 blowout. And the next year provided the utmost gratification for someone who loathed, detested, and reviled all the claptrap about Notre Dame. Quarterback Tom Clements led the Fighting Irish, but the Cornhuskers’ David Humm only needed to rely on Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, who jittered and juked for three rushing touchdowns, tossed a 52-yard pass to Frosty Anderson for six more points, and later received a 50-yard TD lob from his lefty QB. The Irish trailed 40-0 after three quarters, when the Cornhuskers’ scrubs went in and surrendered six points. As a footnote to all this, I should include that the vacation and victory destination for 1974 was the Cotton Bowl, where we defeated Texas, 19-3.
As I say, we Nebraskans were becoming aristocrats of football and had begun to take for granted a nice excursion, at least to Dallas or New Orleans if not to semitropical Miami. But then Coach Bob Devaney retired, handing off the Cornhuskers to Tom Osborne, and it was a while before he could beat Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners in the Big Eight. After a few tries, we did manage to drop the Sooners in 1978, the reward being a league title and, alas, a rematch with them New Year’s Day in Miami. (Oklahoma won by a touchdown.) Our next Orange Bowl, in 1982, was the first of another skein of three appearances, which culminated in the unforgettable loss to the Miami Hurricanes, 31-30, when our two-point conversion attempt failed with 48 seconds remaining and the ’Canes spoiled our undefeated season and claimed the national title.
A couple of years later, in the autumn of 1986, my parents, who were lifelong Nebraskans, startled everybody by announcing they were moving to the Tampa Bay area. They were in their mid-50s, so this wasn’t retirement. My father just wanted a change. He had once mentioned his dream of puttering up and down the Gulf coast of Florida in a boat. They made their plans accordingly.
Not too long before they loaded the truck and headed off, my younger sister, Julie, then 24 years old, called up to say she had decided to go along with them to Florida.
“I wonder what I should do about the two-hundred-and-seventy-five dollar red-leather outfit I put on layaway,” she said.
Hearing this from her made me cringe. Not only did I happen to know, through our mother, that Julie’s credit cards were maxed out, but there was also the delicate consideration of whether such a costume was in exquisitely good taste. The owners of the shop probably had my sister specifically in mind when they acquired such a clamorous item of apparel for their inventory.
“You can take it off layaway, can’t you?” I asked.
“Oh, I definitely plan to buy it.”
“Yeah, for the football games.”
“How many Nebraska football games will you go to in Tampa?”
“I could wear it to the Orange Bowl.”
Maybe she should also have picked out a space suit in case NASA invited her along on the shuttle. The Cornhuskers next appeared in the Orange Bowl in 1989. My sister had initially gone to work at Hooters, but as our brother Dan subtly expressed it, “I think she put on a little weight and they had to let her go.” If she kept the red leather outfit and was still able to wriggle into it, good times lay ahead: during a seven-year stretch of the 1990s, the Cornhuskers qualified for the Orange Bowl six times, winning three of those games and bringing two more national championship trophies back to Lincoln. The year they weren’t in Miami, they claimed yet another national title at the Fiesta Bowl, hammering Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators, 62-24, and reinforcing lessons about the essentiality of Nebraska to a new generation of youngsters from Omaha to Benkelman.