LINCOLN, Neb. — Less than two years into its new digs, Nebraska athletics already feels at home in the Big Ten.
“There’s a comfort level,” said new Nebraska Athletics Director Shawn Eichorst, who replaced the recently retired Tom Osborne last month. “I’ve heard people say it feels like we’ve been in the league for 30 years, although it’s only been a short period of time.”
Nebraska still has four years to become a fully vested Big Ten member. The school’s revenue from league and NCAA sources was $16 million in fiscal year 2012, up from the $12.5 million it earned in its final year in the Big 12, according to figures supplied to The Gazette via state open-records laws. But that’s down from the $25.8 million average that Nebraska’s fellow Big Ten members received in 2012.
Beyond revenue, Eichorst uses the traditional words of “comfort” and “fit” when he describes Nebraska’s transition to Big Ten life. Eichorst, a Wisconsin native and former protege of Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez, calls the kinship between Nebraska and Wisconsin “a compliment to both institutions.”
“The Big Ten is a tremendous brand of high-achieving, academic-driven institutions and always been known for having a great tradition of doing things the right way,” Eichorst said. “That plays in well with what Nebraskans are all about.”
There’s also athletic fit, the real reason Nebraska joined the Big Ten. In the world of college football, Big Red is a blue blood.
Nebraska football needs no introduction despite 11 years and running without a BCS bowl berth. Its reputation gives it the stature of football royalty, a fact not lost upon the Big Ten when it added the Cornhuskers in 2011.
After a decade that consisted of four top-10 football finishes and two BCS bowl berths, Iowa was deemed a worthy season-ending opponent for Nebraska. The duo were stapled to one another on Black Friday with the hope it quickly would grow into a passionate rivalry between the border states. Their football meetings, which also include the Heroes Trophy, have fizzled, and Nebraska has won both. Iowa had a chance to dent — or at least deter — Nebraska’s chances for a division football title last November but lost 13-7 at Kinnick Stadium.
But there’s potential. Last month Eichorst and Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta agreed to co-op their two-year Black Friday experiment into an annual tradition.
“It’s certainly worked very well with Iowa, given that they are our closest Big Ten opponent,” Eichorst said. “So that proximity and the level of competition and the amount of respect we have for Iowa certainly sets up for a good game.”
As for rivalry, Nebraska could strike the first blow at Iowa in basketball. Currently Nebraska (12-14, 3-10 Big Ten) languishes in 11th place, while the Hawkeyes (17-9, 6-7 Big Ten) have NCAA tournament hopes. But the Cornhuskers have ample opportunities to wreak havoc on their eastern neighbors. Saturday, they play in Lincoln. The teams finish the regular season March 9 in Iowa City. They even could open Big Ten tournament play against one another March 14 in Chicago.
“It’s a game that’s (against) our neighbor,” Nebraska Coach Tim Miles said. “Any time you’ve got a neighbor game like this or Minnesota, it feels like a rivalry game. I think it’s really important. We play each other twice here and depending on how the conference seeds go down, we could easily see them in the first game of the conference tournament.
“We could play three times in two and a half, three weeks. So we’re going to see a lot of Iowa. We’re going to hear a lot about the Hawkeyes. It’s an important game.”
It’s also important to the athletes. Three Iowa basketball players hail from the Sioux City metro area, which straddles the Iowa and Nebraska sides of the Missouri River. Iowa freshman point guard Mike Gesell, a South Sioux City, Neb., native, was the two-time Nebraska player of the year and earned two state titles and a runner-up trophy at the school’s Devaney Center.
Gesell downplays his first college trip to Nebraska, but he did so while smiling.
“A lot of my family are coming; a lot of people from my hometown will be there,” Gesell said. “At the same time I’m not really going to get caught up in any of that. Just staying focused and looking to get the ‘W.’”
Nebraska’s historically underachieving basketball program could take a step forward, put the Big Ten on notice and kick-start its border series with Iowa into a rivalry with a win Saturday. Miles is in his first season and dresses only eight scholarship players but the school opens a new $179 million arena next year. Nebraska’s fan base is underrated (top-40 rank in attendance).
“You don’t have to go far to see our athletic department through-and-through is outstanding,” Miles said at Big Ten media day while listing the school’s successful programs. “We need to get men’s basketball up and running where it should be.”
The Cornhuskers have a chance to gain future footing the in rugged Big Ten. That road could lead through Iowa.