Last Sunday, I turned on the television. Every single station was focused on one thing: Scott Frost. But, it was about more than a new coach. It was about the return of one of our own — the natural and long-awaited heir to the gritty, consistent, hard-won success Husker fans remember from the coach Devaney and Osborne era.
As the Cornhuskers struggled this season, I had colleagues inquire about Nebraska’s situation. They weren’t gloating; it was more of a friendly curiosity about what was happening to the Huskers. Football means something to America. And an epic program like Nebraska means something even more. As I said to one national media outlet, “America needs Nebraska to win.” It is about respect for the Cornhuskers and their culture of excellence. It’s about our big, corn-fed linemen, our hard-nosed backs and our tradition of receivers who actually block. We help give America a sense that guts and determination, tradition and honor, still matter.
Forever etched in my mind is the scene from the 1984 Nebraska-Miami national championship game at the Orange Bowl. Nebraska scored a late touchdown and is down by one. Since we were undefeated and ranked No. 1 going into the game — while Miami had a previous loss — Nebraska wins the national championship with a tie. No doubt about it. The camera then pans to coach Tom Osborne. Without hesitation, two fingers go into the air and we go for the win. You know the rest — we came up short. But something else was won, something deeper. To quote Teddy Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
There truly is something special about Cornhusker football, its fans and its connection to the perennial values we identify as “Nebraskan.” Although not immune to the coarsening of culture, Husker fans have been historically famous for their humble, civil and gracious attitude toward opposing teams. They stand and clap for opposing players when they leave the field. It’s the Nebraska way of saying that we believe in the ideals of good sportsmanship, perseverance and generosity of spirit — things that transcend winning and losing. These ideals are not incidental to our gridiron glory, they are the cornerstone of it.
Nebraska football also includes a belief in the underdog and the authentic amateur. Nebraska’s walk-on program is the heart of the matter. Some of the hardest-working, hardest-hitting Nebraska players in history were never recruited by any school. There were often young men from outstate farming and ranching families who dreamed their entire lives of playing for the vaunted Huskers. They walked on, showed true grit, and ended up starting.
This season I sat next to Ms. Louise. She is 95, twice widowed, and has had the same seats for 30 years. She carried both team rosters in her pocket, and is very quick with pointed analysis. “Frosty the Throwman” — the prodigal son who left Wood River for Stanford only to come back and lead the Huskers to the mountain top in the last game of Osborne’s career — has returned. I think Ms. Louise will be happy. Go Big Red.