Bob Devaney, the rumpled little Irishman who turned Nebraska into a football powerhouse during his 11 years as coach here, was explaining the success of the program to a visitor today.
"Look around this state," he said, waving a hand around his plush office. "This state doesn't have much of a climate. It doesn't have any beautiful mountains or lakes. It doesn't have any industry.
"What does it have? It has some cattle, some corn and this football team. This football team gives the people of this state something to hang their hat on. It's their identity, simple as that."
In a state where the population is barely more than 1.5 million; where there are no pro teams and where football is next to Godliness, Nebraska football is all that matters. It matters, as Cornhusker players will point out, 12 months a year.
But this week it matters a little more. This is Oklahoma week. Around here, Oklahoma week is THE week.
"It's because every year for as long as any of us can remember the Oklahoma game has decided the season," defensive end and cocaptain Lawrence Cole said. "Something's always at stake."
On paper there will be nothing more at stake Saturday in Norman than most any other year when these two teams meet: the Big Eight title, a trip to the Orange Bowl and pretensions for a possible national championship.
But at Nebraska, from Coach Tom Osborne to the lowest freshman player, something more is at stake: Saturday represents an opportunity to step out from beneath a lengthy shadow that was followed Osborne since he succeeded Devaney in 1973, a shadow which has also followed those who play here.
In 1970 and '71 Devaney's Cornhuskers were the national champions. In '71 they won that accolade by beating Oklahoma, 35-31, in what was billed then, and is still considered around here, the "Game of the Century."
"All you ever hear about from the first day you step on campus is the '71 team," star running back Jarvis Redwine said. "People are starting to compare this team with that team now. That's the biggest compliment we've been paid."
This team is 10-0 and ranked second and third in the polls. But Osborne knows as well as anybody that those 10 wins won't mean very much without number 11 on Saturday.
"I'd like to say that this is the best team we've had since I became head coach," he said today. "But I don't think I can do that until we've played Oklahoma. That's usually the yardstick by which our teams are judged."
Osborne makes that statement almost wistfully, his voice -- as it always is -- soft, his tone almost resigned to the idea. Few coaches with Osborne's record (65-16-2 and a .795 percentage) have faced the type of pressure from alumni and fans he has.
The reason: he's 1-6 against Oklahoma and Sooner Coach Barry Switzer. "A lot of people in this state don't realize how hard it is to stay at the level we've been at, especially with the new recruiting rules," Osborne said. "We've lost to Oklahoma during a time when they were the best team, talentwise, in the country, year in, year out. There was nothing I could do about the pressure except keep working hard and trying to recruit better players."
Osborne did one more thing. Last fall, after finally beating the Sooners, 17-14, to end a six-game losing streak against Oklahoma, Osborne began looking into the possibility of taking the Colorado Job.
"Right then I think a lot of people realized they wouldn't want to have to face him on the field," starting quarterback Jeff Quinn said. "All of a sudden people liked Tom Osborne a lot more than in the past."
"They had taken Tom for granted," Devaney added. "When they realized he might leave, they began thinking about the kind of job he's done here. We've been in the Top 10 and gone to a bowl every year Tom's been coach."
True. But the Cornhuskers have never won a national title, have never finished in the nation's top five, in fact. And, they never have gone undefeated. Osborne knows he can shed a lot of stigmas with a win Saturday.
"I'm aware of all that and I know it would be important to the whole program to win and then to go on and win the Orange Bowl," he said. "But right now, I don't have time to worry about things like that. I'm just trying to get in some good practice this week."
Practice sessions have not been helped by the fact that America's heartland has been hit by a storm out of the Rockies the last 48 hours that has dropped rain, sleet, a little snow and winds of up to 35 miles and hour on Lincoln. Still, the Huskers practiced hard the last two days, seemingly unaffected by the subfreezing temperatures of the depressing gloom hanging over the stadium.
"It's Oklahmoa week," Cole said simply. "We're not paying any attention to weather."
Around here, or so it seems, few people pay attention to anything that isn't Nebraska football. The local paper comes out each morning with a "Go Big Red" sticker plastered to the front of it. When one local reporter was asked if the five stories on Nebraska football in the paper each day were a product of this being Oklahoma week, he shrugged and said, "That's the way we do it every week."
It is no exaggeration to say they play basketball here to keep people busy between fall football. Saturday scrimmages draw over 20,000 people during the spring. Most major college coaches have a weekly TV show. Osborne has two; one of his assistants has one and Devaney has one. Memorial Stadium has 76,000 seats -- Devaney is still getting letters from people complaining they can't get tickets.
The Nebraska football press guide has 296 pages. By comparison, Maryland's has 72.
"Every kid who grows up in this state dreams about playing Nebraska football," starting center Kelly Saalfield said. "Nebraska football is put on such a pedestal in this state it's unbelievable. You know about it by the time you're four of five.
"That's why so many people come here as walk-ons. Starting or even playing isn't necessarily that important. Just to be able to go home and say you're a part of Nebraska football is what counts. Around here, the team managers are big heros when they go back to their home towns."
Saalfield is a prime example of why many people around the country feel Nebraska has it made. A two-year starter, an almost certain pro draftee, Saalfield came here as a walk-on. He is one of seven walk-ons who will start Saturday, a figure which stays about the same year in and year out.
"It's just that a lot of people in this state would rather come here and pay their way for a couple of years than go somewhere else and play on scholarship," Saalfield said.
All-America tailback I. M. Hipp, who has played sparingly this season, was a walk-on. The man who has taken his job (a 977-yard rusher in seven games) Redwine, a Californian, transferred from Oregon State as a walk-on a year ago.
"The thing is, it would be almost impossible for Tom not to succeed here," said one Nebraska official. "He's got everything a coach could want -- money, facilities, reputation. They've never said no to him on anything."
In spite of this and in spite of never having won fewer than nine games in a season, Osborne readily concedes that he feels pressure constantly. After Nebraska beat Iowa State, 34-3, last Saturday, he noted that people had been upset when the Huskers just squeezed by Kansas State and Missouri the previous two weeks.
"It's nice to be back after two straight losses," he said with a rare smile.
Osborne, a Ph.D., is about 42; doesn't reveal his actual age. He has been at Nebraska as a part-time professor and coach, then fulltime assistant coach and finally head coach, since 1962.
He is very conscious of Devaney's shadow, "Because of Bob's choosing me for this job people were bound to compare us," he said. "And because Bob's record was what it was, especially the last few years, most comparisons were likely to be unfavorable."
But now, thanks to finally beating Oklahoma last year and thanks to the Colorado incident, Osborne has a newfound sense of security. That is why most people around here laugh when the rumor is floated that he will take the LSU job next season.
"I doubt if I'll leave here until they throw me out feet first," Osborne said. "And around here, that could happen."
It could happen because adulation and pressure go hand-in-hand -- especially out this way where a winning football team gives people something to talk about during the cold, wet winters.
At a school where most of the football players graduate -- the team's academic advisor is a former nun -- Osborne and Devaney know that a B+ football season is considered a failure. The players know it, too.
"People expect Nebraska football to be the best every year. This year, for the first time in a while, we've got a chance to live up to everyone's expectations. We can make people forget a lot of things by winning Saturday," Quinn said.
Although these two schools have played since 1912, this is very much a rivalry of the '60s and '70s, a rivalry built because the games have meant so much to the final outcome of the season.
Nebraska and Oklahoma aren't even neighboring states. Oklahoma's biggest rival traditionally is Texas. But one of these schools has at least shared the Big Eight title every year since 1961. The two schools have won 198 games between them the last 10 years.That's what makes the rivalry so intense.
"We know," said Cole, "that every year when Nebraska and Oklahoma line up, the whole country is watching."