IOWA CITY — Big Ten officials re-evaluated Nebraska’s Black Friday relationship with Iowa over the summer and came to a simple conclusion: it’s working.
“When you do schedules, you sort of look at all options on the table,” said Mark Rudner, the Big Ten’s senior associate commissioner for television administration and its scheduling chief. “But this one just seems to resonate with the fan bases of both institutions, and we didn’t see any need for making a shift just for the sake of making a shift.”
This fall the league extended the post-Thanksgiving border series through 2019. It’s a tradition for Nebraska and provides national visibility for Iowa on ABC. The Cornhuskers have owned Black Friday since 1990 with old Big Eight and Big 12 battles against Oklahoma and Colorado. When Nebraska joined the Big Ten, the league scheduled Iowa for its 2011 and 2012 season finales. Team and league officials agreed to move the game from Saturday to Black Friday for a two-year period.
Last summer, Rudner told The Gazette he looked at altering the season finales both schools.
“There are four institutions — Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska — which when you start to sketch out schedules, all those games among the four of them make a lot of sense,” Rudner said. “Iowa-Nebraska made sense, but so could have Iowa-Minnesota. For the longest time they played the last game of the season. These are great games. The fan base loves them. They’re very dramatic.”
Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta was apprehensive about extending the Friday series beyond the initial two years. He received mixed feedback from his fan base but agreed to the Friday extensions through 2017 and then 2019.
“We think it’s a good series, we being both Nebraska and Iowa,” Barta said. “We like what we have. It’s been a positive relationship.
“We’re all going to want to do what’s best for the conference. Who can predict, will there be more than just a couple of games on that Friday going forward? I don’t know. But I know through ’19 we’re going to be playing Nebraska.”
While Black Friday games are relatively new to Iowa, safety Tanner Miller was thrilled it became reality. Both his father, Brian, and his uncle, Kevin, lettered at Nebraska in the late 1980s. Miller moved to Kalona, Iowa from Nebraska in eighth grade.
“Because I know the history of what Nebraska football has been like — probably not a lot of other guys on this team understand that — for me it means a little bit more,” Miller said. “Watching them play Oklahoma, watching them play Colorado on all those years on the Friday, that was the thing to do. For me to be able to get a chance to play in that game on that day, it means a lot to me.
“I couldn’t have scripted it any better myself. To be able to go back to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln and play my last regular-season game there, that’s a dream come true.”
There is speculation that the Big Ten built in a potential Black Friday flip earlier than 2020. In both 2018 and 2019, Iowa plays Minnesota and Wisconsin faces Nebraska on the same date. That could set up unlikely — but clean — scheduling switches.
“I don’t see us doing that,” Rudner said. “We haven’t started working on 2020 and beyond. If it’s working, why change it? I can’t say with 100 percent certainty, but I’d be surprised if we did something different.”
Iowa and Nebraska compete for the Heroes Trophy and honor a citizen hero from each state. But the series has yet to blossom into a rivalry. The two Black Friday games have fizzled with Nebraska winning the inaugural 20-7 and beating a 4-8 Iowa team 13-7 last year. The consensus opinion is that Iowa needs a win to add value to both Black Friday and the series.
“I’d like to get in the win column, but it’s a great opportunity,” Barta said of the exposure. “Before I got into this business, I can recall on Fridays, going through with your family experiencing Thanksgiving, enjoying Thanksgiving and then just sitting around watching football. I think there’s a lot of that with families. So I think you have a great captive audience for people who enjoy college football. That’s a big part of it.
“I think because of the fact that it’s a border state gives it a little bit extra appeal.”