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"Football, in its purest form, remains a physical fight. As in any fight, if you don't want to fight, it's impossible to win" is a famous quote by legendary Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bud Wilkinson

This quote is apropos in describing "The Battle of the Big Reds," as Nebraska and Oklahoma were always willing to fight for the victory. Both had tremendous pride and for a generation, this was the top rivalry in the central part of the country. 

“We viewed it as a coaching staff (that) to beat Nebraska is to win the Big Eight Conference championship and have a chance to play for the national championship in the Orange Bowl,” said Hall of Fame Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer. “So the biggest game on our schedule every year is Nebraska at the end of the year. And they had a great program. I think we had great respect for each other."

Hall of Fame Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney echoed similar sentiments from an interview for the documentary, "Battle of the Big Reds," which focused on the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry, "I think this has been a clean hard fought series and I think that is one of the reasons it is one of the outstanding series in the country."

Origins of the Rivalry

Program of the first game of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln versus Oklahoma in 1923

Program of the first game of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln versus Oklahoma in 1923

The series between Nebraska and Oklahoma predates the Big XII conference. It dates back to when Nebraska was a member of the Western Interstate University Football Association (WIUFA) before the turn of the century. The division in the WIUFA Nebraska played in consisted of Kansas University, University of Iowa, and the University of Missouri. 

Oklahoma began playing football in 1895 and was a fledgling program, and began its maturation when Bennie Owen became Sooners coach in 1905 with Oklahoma still an independent. 

The first game between the schools occurred in 1912 where Nebraska hosted Oklahoma in Lincoln and won 13-9. 

The schools wouldn't play again until 1919, and during that time Nebraska along with Missouri, Kansas, Washington University of St. Louis, and Iowa were founding members of the Missouri Valley  Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MVIAA) that would later be the foundation for the Big XII conference. 

Iowa would be part of the MVIAA until 1911, when they joined the Big Ten conference. Between 1907 and 1919, the year the Sooners first application to the MVIAA, the league expanded to add Iowa State, Kansas State, and Drake University. 

The Sooners, under Owen, were starting to mature, and were looking to play in a conference. Oklahoma in its infancy would take on all schools in the Oklahoma Territory and after achieving statehood in 1907, the Sooners looked south for a partner. 

This was the genesis of the Red River Rivalry with Texas, and why now and forever, the two schools will forever be linked. Texas was a key influencer in getting Oklahoma into the Southwest Conference in 1914. The Sooners would play in the Southwest Conference through the 1919 season. Their 1915 team was legendary as it opened the season with four consecutive shutouts, and outscored opponents 248-0. 

They would go unbeaten finishing 10-0, add in a fifth shutout against Arkansas, and a close win against Texas 14-13 in Dallas, it was the momentum Owen needed to finally take his program to the next level.

In 1919, the Sooners and the Huskers met for a second time in Omaha and finished to a 7-7 tie. Oklahoma had finished the previous season undefeated and was looking for different competition with geographical ties, applied for the first time to the MVIAA. 

While Oklahoma was being evaluated, their first application for admission was rejected by the MVIAA due to athletic department mismanagement and other deficiencies. Oklahoma reapplied and remedied all issues and was finally in a conference with Nebraska. 

The two would begin playing on an annual basis, and Nebraska dominated the early part of the series going 15-3-2 against the Sooners.

Tatum's Greatest Gift to Oklahoma

© David Boss-USA TODAY Sports

© David Boss-USA TODAY Sports

After the abrupt resignation of Dewey Luster in 1945, Oklahoma was looking for a coach that was looking to continue the Sooners momentum. Luster finished 27-18-3 record, including the first three game winning streak in their rivalry with Nebraska. 

The OU Board of Regents conducted an exhaustive search for Luster's replacement, one of the candidates the Board interviewed was Paul "Bear" Bryant. Former North Carolina coach Jim Tatum, who coached Iowa Pre Flight in the U.S. Navy during World War II and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, became the frontrunner for the job. But that wasn't necessarily because of any of his own doing.

Tatum brought to the interview a little known assistant named Charles "Bud" Wilkinson, and the Oklahoma Board of Regents were so impressed by Wilkinson they wanted to hire him directly. When the Board discussed the hiring ethics considering Wilkinson performed for Tatum's interview, they decided to hire Tatum knowing Wilkinson would be part of the package. 

While Tatum guided the Sooners to a 27-6 win in Norman for their fourth consecutive win against the Huskers, it was Tatum's slush fund of $125,000 ($1.78 million in 2022 dollars) and paying players bonuses for exceptional play that gave the university some uneasiness. 

Tatum was quickly offered the job at Maryland, and he jumped at the opportunity, eager to take Wilkinson with him. But the Oklahoma Board of Regents was able to convince Wilkinson to stay and the rivalry changed forever with this decision. Under Wilkinson, the Sooners beat the Huskers 12 consecutive times and overall the Sooners would win 16 consecutive matchups in a row, the longest in the series. At the conclusion of the winning streak, Oklahoma would take a three game series lead, and it would never relinquish the series lead back to Nebraska. 

One of the classic matchups during the streak was the 1950 matchup where both teams were ranked for the first time in the rivalry, and featured two fantastic sophomore running backs. Future Heisman Trophy winner Billy Vessels for Oklahoma who rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns and "Mr. Touchdown" Bobby Reynolds ran for 81 yards in the first half, but a costly Reynolds fumble and an avalanche of Sooners scoring in the third quarter gave Oklahoma a 49-35 victory. 

Ahead of their 1959 matchup, Bud Wilkinson was already an immortal in the coaching game. He had a record entering the Nebraska game of 117-11-3, won three national championships, had a record 47 game winning streak, and had a 74 game unbeaten streak in conference play (to put that into perspective Florida State has had the longest winning streak in conference play in the last 30 years and they only won 29 in a row.) And most importantly, they had won 16 in a row against Nebraska. 

Nebraska turned to former Wilkinson assistant Bill Jennings to resurrect their program and his signature moment in happened in Lincoln against the Sooners. Nebraska took advantage of Oklahoma special teams miscues of blocked punt returned for a touchdown, poor punt coverage that included a 61 yard return and Nebraska holding onto a 25-21 lead, it was an end-zone interception by Husker defender Ron Meade to seal the landmark win.

Nebraska's Rebirth to the Game of the Century

© Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

© Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

With Jennings unable to capture the magic from the 1959 upset of Oklahoma and with five consecutive losing seasons, the Huskers were in need of a coach who could transform the program back to being winners. Nebraska Athletic Director Tippy Dye was seeking out a replacement and failed to get any traction with John Ralston, who chose Stanford over Nebraska, and Ray Nagel from Utah, he targeted Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty

Daugherty realized he has something special going on in East Lansing, he extended a personal courtesy to Dye by recommending Wyoming coach Bob Devaney, who coached with Daugherty at Michigan State under Biggie Munn. Devaney turned it down and was convinced the Wyoming job was better than Nebraska. Daugherty persisted it wasn't and if Devaney wanted to realize his dream of winning a national championship, it would be realized in Lincoln and not Laramie. Devaney changed his mind and accepted the position, producing immediate results for the Cornhuskers. 

While guiding the Huskers to four consecutive Top 10 seasons and going to four major bowl games, he had a problem beating Oklahoma as the Sooners would take five of the first seven head to head matchups. As Devaney started to build a program and getting athletes like Johnny "The Jet" Rodgers, Jerry Tagge, Jeff Kinney, Bill Olds, and Woody Cox, Devaney started to have the roster to beat the Sooners and inch closer and closer to a national championship. 

1970 was a landmark year for the Huskers, they defeated the Sooners 28-21 in Lincoln, to mark back-to-back wins against the Sooners for the first time in over a decade. It was good enough for Nebraska to make the Orange Bowl against LSU. During this time and up to 1973, the UPI Coaches Poll would crown their national champion before the bowl games, and the UPI crowned Texas national champion before their bowl game against Notre Dame. 

The Longhorns ended up No. 2 in the AP Poll, which crowned a national champion after the bowl games, and gave Nebraska an opportunity to win an elusive national championship. 

Behind the efforts of Jerry Tagge, Nebraska marched on a near nine minute fourth quarter drive with Tagge scoring from a yard out, put the Huskers up for good 17-12, and were named national champions by the AP. 

The unique part of that 1970 Huskers is Bob Devaney continually rotated quarterbacks through every game of the season between Jerry Tagge and Van Brownson

As the 1971 season was leading up, the Big 8 conference had three really special teams. Nebraska was defending national champions and had their entire core back, Colorado was a team that was deep and talented, and Oklahoma who hired Chuck Fairbanks in 1967, had a squad back that was experienced and poised to compete with Colorado and Nebraska. 

Fairbanks started fast in Norman, winning back to back Big 8 championships in 1967 and 1968 but things seems to cool down in 1969 and through most of 1970, but Fairbanks engineered a 4-1-1 finish for the Sooners, with their only loss to Nebraska and a tie against Alabama. 

Fairbanks had cultivated a great deal of talent both coaching and playing. On the coaching front, Fairbanks had an offensive coordinator who just perfected the wishbone attack in Barry Switzer. Switzer coordinated an offense that averaged 45 points per game, gained 563 yards per game, and set an NCAA record of 472.4 rushing yards per game.  

On offense, the Sooners had All American Greg Pruitt who averaged 8.98 yards per rushing attempt, quarterback Jack Mildren, and All American center Tom Brahaney. As the season progressed, it seemed both teams were on a collision course toward a national championship and each other, and the hype started to become real as the season progressed. Oklahoma in consecutive weeks beat No. 17 Southern Cal, No. 3 Texas, and No. 6 Colorado by a combined score of 126-64. 

Nebraska distinguished itself by the play of Heisman contending wide receiver Johnny Rodgers, with an offense that matured in offensive coordinator Tom Osborne's revamped I-Formation system, and in eight of the Nebraska's first 10 games, they only allowed more than seven points twice and had a three shutouts. 

Sports Illustrated promoted the game on its cover with the headline, "Irresistible Oklahoma Meets Immovable Nebraska."

Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated

Very few times, when we anoint a game the "Game of Century," more often than not the game doesn't live up to the billing. This game is the reason we all buy into the hype, as the heavyweight promotion and heavyweight hype live up to it. 

It was a see-saw battle that had signature moments that included the iconic Johnny Rodgers punt return for a touchdown, and it was an offensive fight, one that "Bear" Bryant commented on the ABC postgame show, "It was probably the greatest offensive football game I've ever seen."

The Cornhuskers 35-31 victory over the Sooners is the biggest win in the rivalry, and still regarded as the greatest game in college football history.

Paul "Bear" Bryant and his Crimson Tide didn't have to wait long to witness first hand that offensive juggernaut as No. 2 Alabama took on No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Cornhuskers played some of their best football of the season and demolished the Crimson Tide 38-6 to be named unanimous national champions of the 1971 season.

Osborne & Switzer