Waiting for the game was like waiting for Christmas itself. We woke up on Monday, pinched ourselves, and counted only three more days. On Tuesday, two more days. And then an interminable Wednesday, the clock using a walker to drag itself around. Finally, it arrived: Thanksgiving Day, 1971. The Nebraska Cornhuskers would play the Oklahoma Sooners. “The Game of the Century,” the TV was saying, but even a 16-year-old recoiled from the hype. More than a quarter of the century remained to be played out. But it was a huge game. When the Cornhuskers won in thrilling fashion, yet again retaining their number-one ranking, we experienced euphoria in equal measure to the pre-game anxiety, waking Friday, pinching ourselves, and counting the first day since the great victory, and the second, and third, eager to return Monday to school and talk about Johnny Rodgers’s Etch-a-Sketch punt return and share the feeling that we Nebraskans were finally important.
It had never occurred to me that someone would write a book about all this, but my friend Budd recently passed along Michael Corcoran’s “The Game of the Century: Nebraska vs. Oklahoma in College Football’s Ultimate Battle,” published by Simon & Schuster in 2004. I could hardly wait to dip into a slick writer’s treatment of the subject. The opening chapters’ pace is excellent as Corcoran summarizes how Bob Devaney bounced around in Michigan high schools and was almost resigned to a mediocre life as a school administrator when Michigan State’s football staff solicited his services. (It isn’t explained the Spartans had won the 1952 national title and the program was a fecund producer of coaches.) Eight years later, Devaney brought his quips, garrulity, and football savvy to Lincoln.
My view of Oklahoma’s coaches had always been predictably dim, but Corcoran changes all that through his humane portrayals of the likable and accomplished Bud Wilkinson, the beleaguered but determined Chuck Fairbanks, and of course Barry Switzer, who was touched by tragedy. Something the three coaches shared in common, incidentally, was an excellent command of English. (Wilkinson had a master’s degree in literature and liked to sit down at the organ.) After a season of listening to Michigan’s Rich Rodriguez mangle his cases, a yearning arises.
The narrative builds momentum. It is clear why the looming game would be so important. But at an early point in the book I found myself beginning to chafe at some of Corcoran’s contrivances. Before 10 pages pass, the work is already creaking under the strain of the clichéd theme which asserts that football naturally flourished in a state inhabited by people of “pioneer stock,” to whom no game could seem too violent because life was so hard. (Through the rickety sides of a corn crib, do I hear the wind soughing?) Having grown up in Omaha and benefited from such advances as Cinerama, a sprayer attachment at the kitchen faucet, and daily radio serenades from Charlie Graham Buick (“That’s why Omaha-town is Buick-town, they’re all driving Buicks, best car around”), well, my pioneer stock had become diluted, I guess, and I really didn’t see it in my parents, either. Admittedly, Corcoran applies his asseveration to the much earlier era that produced song lyrics like these:
Where the girls are the fairest,
The boys are the squarest,
Of any old school that I knew.
But following his line of reasoning too closely would produce shock that, in 1952, for example, it was possible to drive an automobile from Florence, at Omaha’s northern edge, over to Iowa by crossing
a toll bridge over the Missouri River. (Why would anyone have wanted to go to Iowa, especially if paying a toll?) Or that the Nebraska Capitol, completed in 1932, is a modern masterpiece. It’s possible to lean too hard and long on the rickety fence that surrounds the state’s pioneer history. While also leaning a bit too often on sportswriters’ shopworn phrases like “particularly stellar,” Corcoran still manages to generate the anticipation of a thrilling climax to his tale. Here, I was disappointed. Note to journalism students across the land: it’s sometimes possible to do too much interviewing. Corcoran lets his tape recorder take over the story in the last 20 pages. It’s no longer a book but instead an ESPN retrospective, with each principal taking his turn in the spotlight. All the tension fizzles out as oral history intercedes. The author’s abdication is hard to figure out. It’s like giving up command of your cruise liner too early to the harbor pilot and being dashed against the rocks: hardly a salutary end to the journey.
Anyone who faults that metaphor, pointing out my landlubbing origins, is hereby referred to Corcoran’s line about Bob Devaney, who “looked more like a man who would give you an easy smile as he pushed his cap back slightly on his head and said he was sorry but your radiator was shot and that it’d be a day or two before the parts came in to fix it.” Hmmm. Maybe Corcoran knows something I don’t, but even in jalopies like those the Okies drove to California, the repair of radiators’ brass tubes and tanks just required a flushing out and bit of brazing before you were on your way. Which formula could be applied to “The Game of the Century,” as well.