IOWA CITY — Football programs at Iowa and Nebraska played side-by-side in different conferences for more than 100 years, ignoring each other with indifference and slight disdain.
That changed in 2011 when Nebraska joined the Big Ten. The league super-glued the programs together as potential rivals. Big Ten officials placed the teams in the same division, scheduled them to end their seasons against one another and later co-opted Nebraska’s Black Friday football tradition. The schools even agreed to begin a traveling trophy, and nicknamed the event “The Heroes Game.”
Players from both teams understand the game’s significance. But just one game into their annual status as Legends Division competitors, any “rivalry” talk is premature.
“I think we’re just playing each other and one day it will be a rivalry,” Nebraska linebacker Will Compton said this summer at Big Ten media days. “But I think it’s cool with the whole Heroes Game and the trophy. There’s a little bit more at stake with a trophy and everything. This year we’re going to want to bring it back. It’s going to be our first time defending it so we’ll want to bring it back so that’ll be anticipated and there will incentive with that. But it’s felt like a forced rivalry so far.”
Nebraska has played five other schools — Kansas, Iowa State, Missouri, Kansas State and Oklahoma — at least 86 times . The Cornhuskers’ Thanksgiving weekend games against Oklahoma were legendary. Nebraska began its annual Black Friday tradition in 1990 against Oklahoma. Then when the Big Eight morphed into the Big 12, the Cornhuskers faced Colorado on that day from 1996 through 2010.
Likewise, Iowa has longstanding rivalries of its own. Iowa plays Minnesota annually for the Floyd of Rosedale trophy. The Hawkeyes have a rugged in-state battle with Iowa State, and they faced Wisconsin 72 times over a 74-year period from 1937 through the divisional split in 2011. Each of those games are important to Iowa’s players and fan base as well.
Last year’s inaugural “Heroes Game” featured a muted, almost sterile atmosphere in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers won 20-7 but there was no rush to claim the trophy. Likewise, Iowa players treated the game as a typical loss.
“The players on these teams haven’t played against each other so it wasn’t like an Iowa-Iowa State thing where we know their players and they know us,” Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde said. “So it’s not like we want to go out and kill them.
“I think it’s more of a we’ve got to go out there and beat them, but it was the first time playing against them so it was kind of a weird feeling. I think maybe the fans blew it up more than what it was. But obviously it’s a rivalry game so you’ve got to go out there and play their best.”
But what happens to the potential rivalry if Iowa should lose again? Former Nebraska football coach and outgoing athletics director Tom Osborne showed some disdain for playing Colorado on Thanksgiving weekend, telling The Gazette last year, “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.”
If Iowa loses this week, Hyde doesn’t believe it would demote the Iowa program into second-tier status in Nebraska’s eyes.
“We’ll go in there, and we’ll be ready to compete,” Hyde said. “If we were to get a loss this year, I don’t think that’s a consideration at all. It just means that they beat us two years in a row. I know that as being in this program, we’ve had some really good teams and we’ve had some down years. I don’t think we’ll be considered a lesser opponent or anything like that.”