(NOTE: This is the sixth chapter in a multi-part series on how the Big Ten Conference divided into two football divisions)
IOWA CITY — There’s a tinge of disappointment in Tom Osborne’s voice when he talks of Nebraska’s exit from the Big 12 Conference last year, maybe in the way one misses a spouse shortly after an ugly divorce.
Nebraska participated in the shotgun marriage between the old Big Eight and the Southwest conferences back in 1996. The disjointed union failed to take root in the old Big Eight’s northern reaches, especially Nebraska.
Osborne, 74, coached the Cornhuskers for 25 years and led the school to 255 wins, 13 conference titles and three national championships. His school’s Big Eight Conference rivalry with Oklahoma ranked among the greats in all sports. But when the Big Eight merged with four Southwest schools — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor — for the 1996 season, the Big 12 split geographically, slicing Nebraska and Oklahoma into North and South divisions. But the real tragedy from Osborne’s eyes was the rivalry he embraced perished with the divisional split.
“(Big Ten Commissioner) Jim (Delany) mentioned it early on, he said so often people are put together in conferences and nobody pays attention to culture,” Osborne said. “And you just kind of assume that everybody operates the same way. It reality it isn’t. The Southwest Conference I’m sure had some difference from the Big Eight. I guess in retrospect, I think probably that was missing when the Big 12 was formed. The main cast seemed to be what the schedules were going to be, I don’t think anybody paid a whole lot of attention to talking about culture, to how things work. I think as a result, there were maybe some things left unanswered.
“We probably could have spent a little bit more time talking about rivalries like Nebraska-Oklahoma. That was split when Oklahoma went to South Division. We no longer had annual rivalry, which made a difference. We never had a forum where it was expressed or discussed.”
Nebraska and Oklahoma completed Big Eight play against one another every year from 1950 through 1995. Seventeen times since 1972 the schools met while both were ranked in the top 10. With the Big 12’s formation, the rivalry game was moved to early November.
Colorado replaced Oklahoma as the Cornhuskers’ season finale, a move that aggravated Nebraska fans. History, tradition and equality merit true rivalry status, not a schedule change. Kansas and Nebraska had played 105 consecutive years but neither school considered the other a pure football rival. For Nebraska fans only one team felt like a rival, and that school was Oklahoma.
In 1996 and 1997, Nebraska pounded Oklahoma a combined 142-28 in those early meetings. Then, after playing one another for 71 straight years, Oklahoma rotated off Nebraska’s schedule.
“We didn’t play Oklahoma for two years,” Osborne said. “Then Colorado jumped into the mix and said, ‘Well, we think Nebraska’s our rival.’ We didn’t necessarily feel that way. But they declared that as a rivalry, and so we started playing Colorado on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
“I’ve thought when Nebraska and Oklahoma no longer playing each other annually — it did change things to some degree. I wouldn’t say that was the major factor in breaking the camel’s back, but it certainly was a consideration. It never quite felt the same to some people in Nebraska. We had wanted to play Oklahoma. We asked to continue to play but when the divisions were set, Oklahoma said they wanted in the Southern Division. Most of their recruiting was in Texas and facing south. They already had Oklahoma-Texas rivalry so they didn’t see fit, at least my impression was they preferred to go the other way.”
Osborne retired as coach in early 1998 after his third national title. He became a Congressmen, then returned to Nebraska as athletics director in 2007. By 2010, Nebraska considered a leap from the Big 12 to the Big Ten.
On June 3, 2010, at Kansas City’s InterContinental hotel, conference rumors consumed the spring Big 12 meetings. Three major conferences — the Big Ten, Southeastern and Pac-10 — all had discussions with different Big 12 schools about potentially joining their leagues. Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe gave each school a one-week window to give the league an unequivocal commitment. Seven days later Nebraska joined the Big Ten, severing all ties with some schools that were forged more than 100 years ago.
But the Big Ten move had its benefits. Osborne liked the athletic and academic structure, and his teams don’t face a weather disadvantage in Big Ten country. He also liked the league’s stability and collegiality and the Big Ten Network's potential.
In short, Osborne believes Nebraska has more in common with Big Ten schools than his old Big 12 counterparts.
“I don’t want to spend a lot time dwelling on what didn’t work,” Osborne said. “There were a lot of good things about the Big 12; there are a lot of good things about Big. 12. I guess our feeling was probably the biggest dividing line was the culture. That’s simply a little nebulous, something that’s hard to define. More in terms of how people operate, what seems to be core values, what binds people together, and what doesn’t bind them together.
“We felt the culture of Big Ten was something that was pretty similar to how we saw things.”
When the Big Ten first held football realignment meetings on Aug. 1 and 2, 2010, Osborne was a vocal onlooker. He had his own scheduling desires, including hopes for annual games against Iowa and Minnesota.
“We made our wishes known, but we were not a voting member,” Osborne said. “It was kind of odd because you’re talking about things that are probably going to affect you for the next 30, 40 years, yet you’re not a voting member. But I would say that the Big Ten is very good in that they did seek our opinion, and we were able to express it. Sometimes they would take a straw vote or something. They said, ‘This is how Nebraska would vote even though the vote doesn’t count.’ But they were good about it.”
The respect for Osborne ran deep among Big Ten administrators. Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, a fellow Hall of Fame coach, played linebacker at Nebraska when Osborne was an assistant coach in the 1960s. Over the years they became close friends.
“Tom didn’t have a vote, but we went to Tom, we asked Tom advance, we asked Tom for his experience when the Big 12 split,” Alvarez said. “Some of the experience he had, you can learn from. We used him as a sounding board.”
“Tom is one of those guys where he doesn’t say a lot but when he speaks, people listen,” Minnesota Athletic Director Joel Maturi said. “There’s a great amount of respect for him as a coach and administrator and certainly he knew his role as the new person on the block. But he shared what he thought was the right thing, not only for his institution, but for the Big Ten. I think whenever he did speak he was listened to and well respected.”
The final divisional alignment allowed Nebraska to play three of the four closest schools geographically each year. Osborne has no issue with the process used to select divisions, and he appreciates the all-for-one attitude in decision-making.
“I felt the general demeanor of everybody in the meetings was amicable and collegial,” Osborne said. “Everybody seemed to want to see the Big Ten do well. I think when I talk about culture, that’s one thing that I’ve noticed is that there’s maybe a little less maneuvering for an advantage. More of an attitude of we’re kind of all in this together. Let’s make sure everybody survives and does well.”COMING MONDAY: Chapter 7: Heavyweight Headache. Michigan and Ohio State, the league’s perennial football giants, became the public storyline when discussions had them splitting into opposite divisions and possibly moving “The Game” into early November.