It is not uncommon [in Nebraska] to see a rugged-looking fellow, who in any other setting wouldn't dream of wearing anything more daring than khaki, in bright red pants. [Red] is not a consensus expression of team spirit. It is a primitive form of biological adaptation. Just as leopards develop spots to blend in with the brush, Nebraskans wear red to blend in with their surroundings.
-Meghan Daum, a writer who had recently moved to Nebraska, on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, July 13, 2001
In the late summer of 1859, John Kendall Gilman and his younger brother, Jeremiah, were headed across Nebraska toward the Rocky Mountains in a wagon filled with goods to sell to miners. The Pike's Peak gold rush was in full boom, and the Gilman brothers were carting whiskey, tools, bullets, clothing, and nearly anything else a miner might spend money on, including one item that would be considered truly luxurious on the frontier: a water pump, made of iron and painted red. Pumps were a rarity; when a person wanted water from a well, a bucket was lowered using a hand-cranked windlass.
A few days' ride west of Fort Kearny, almost to the Colorado border, the axle on the Gilmans' wagon gave out near the bank of the Platte River. The brothers were stuck in the middle of nowhere, but they decided to make the best of it and settle on the very spot where the wagon broke down. They reasoned they could trade with the Sioux and Cheyenne in the area, as well as with emigrants heading west. If the Gilmans were going to stay put, they would need water, so they dug a well and installed the red pump. When they were finished they tied a tin cup to the pump so thirsty sojourners could take a drink. Thereafter the Gilmans built two sod houses and had themselves what pre-Civil War pioneers called a road ranch -- a place to stop and make repairs, trade, buy mules or horses, and, most important, replenish supplies of food and water. The Gilman ranch became a noted landmark on the route to the far West, and the red pump in particular was a welcome sight to the weary. It became part of Nebraska legend.
Just a little over thirty years after the Gilmans set up their ranch -- in 1892 to be precise -- the University of Nebraska chose scarlet and cream as the school colors, thereby ensuring that whether it was the color of a water pump or a football jersey, red would forever by synonymous with Nebraska. At the time, of course, no living soul could envision a day eighty years later when the school's football team, known by then to Nebraskans one and all as Big Red, would be inextricably linked not only with the identity of the state as a whole, but also with the identity of nearly every single one of its citizens.
In 1970, Big Red shared the college football national championship with the University of Texas, and the 1971 Nebraska team looked to be the school's best ever. After a 41-13 drubbing of Oklahoma State in the seventh game of its 1971 season, the University of Nebraska Cornhusker football team was undefeated and, it appeared, unstoppable. The Husker defense had held opponents to a total of 40 points through twenty-eight quarters of play. During those same twenty-eight quarters, Nebraska's offense had scored 277 points. On October 30, Nebraska would face its most difficult game up to that point when it squared off against old rival the University of Colorado, ranked ninth in the country, in the nationally televised game of the week on the ABC network.
The output of the Husker offense was being matched by the farms that inspired the team nickname. The growing season had been a good one, and now, the week of the Colorado game, it was harvest time for corn. Near Bellwood, in Butler County (in the eastern part of Nebraska, as is the state capital of Lincoln, where Big Red plays its home games), brothers Gene and Jack Napler stared out over their 415 acres of irrigated corn. The Napler brothers were anticipating a yield of nearly 150 bushels per acre, but they were preoccupied with the coming game. "We want to be sure and get this harvest over so we can both be down at Lincoln for the Colorado game," said forty-five-year-old Gene. The heavy work during harvest would be done by the brothers' "Grow Big Red" combine. Each of their three trucks (two large ones for transport and one pickup) was red, and each bore a "Go Big Red -- Do It Again" bumper sticker. Gene had missed the Huskers' home game against Minnesota earlier in the season because one of the two brothers had to pick up some cattle. They flipped a coin, and Jack went to Lincoln to see a 35-7 Big Red win. Gene went cattle shopping.
"They kid us down at the elevator about having the fever bad, but they sure are on the lookout for tickets," said Gene. "We listen to the radio every morning to get the Nebraska ratings first and the price of corn second. We know the price of corn will be down because there's too darn much of it this year. But there is only one Nebraska team, and it is number one."
Indeed, the Huskers were the number-one-ranked team in the nation as they prepared to play Colorado, and if victory was to be assured, no detail was too small to overlook. When Colorado requested permission for its mascot, a real live buffalo named Ralphie, to be allowed on the sidelines during the game at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium, Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney said live animal mascots had no place on a football field. The only representation of the mascot allowed would be a fifteen-pound papier-mâché bison head worn by a Colorado coed.
There was no doubt that Martha Hill, the student wearing the papier-mâché head, would be among the most discussed topics before kickoff. For starters, she made it known she planned on wearing brown hot pants and knee-high suede boots as she strutted her stuff before the 67,000 at Memorial Stadium. Women's liberation activists of the day may not have approved of her provocative (if one overlooked the gigantic head of a beast resting on her shoulders) dress, but Hill, a sophomore, was the first woman to be a human mascot at Colorado and said she "liked to be where the action is."
On the Saturdays when Big Red was at home, the action was in Lincoln. In later years, a popular bumper sticker emerged that read MEMORIAL STADIUM: THIRD LARGEST CITY IN NEBRASKA. Only the towns of Omaha and Lincoln offered a greater concentration of people than the football stadium during home games, a fact that was not lost on Ms. Hill, who was a graduate of Lincoln East High School. "I grew up loving football just like all Nebraskans," said Hill, "but I went west because I wanted to meet new people and do new, exciting things. Besides," she said with a wink, "I never could get tickets to the Nebraska games and this was one way to get into Memorial Stadium."
On the same day, October 23, that Nebraska traveled south for its road game against Oklahoma State, the University of Oklahoma Sooners headed north into Kansas for the sixth game of their season. With a 5-0 record, the Sooners were ranked second in the national polls behind Nebraska, and in the minds of many it was difficult to see how any team could be ranked ahead of Oklahoma. The previous year, stuck in a midseason rut, the Sooners had overhauled their offense and installed the triple-option wishbone attack conceived by University of Texas assistant coach Emory Bellard and first used by the Longhorns in 1968.
It was no coincidence that the wishbone was the ultimate running formation and that it was conceived and nurtured and had matured at the University of Texas. Darrell Royal, the Texas head coach who was a star quarterback at Oklahoma and captain of Bud Wilkinson's Sooners in 1949, believed the best way to move the ball was along the ground. "Only three things can happen when you throw the ball," Royal often said, "and two of them are bad." When the wishbone was unveiled at Texas, opposing defenses reeled from the assault. After a tie with Houston to open the 1968 season, Texas lost to Texas Tech the following week, then ran off thirty consecutive victories over three seasons, including the national championship in 1969 and the shared national title with Nebraska in '70.
At 5-0 heading into the Kansas State game, Oklahoma's interpretation of the wishbone was clearly working, but the mind-numbing heights it reached on October 23, 1971, were incomprehensible. In the years to come after that day, when Oklahoma teams coached by Barry Switzer were winning national championships, writers and announcers fell in love with the metaphorical cliché that the Sooner wishbone swept over the opposition like a windblown prairie fire. If ever an offensive performance merited such flowery phrasing, it was the one against Kansas State. Oklahoma did not punt the ball once during the entire game, and scored touchdowns on its first ten possessions. The eleventh possession resulted in a lost fumble, and the twelfth in yet another touchdown. The final score was 75-28.
When Sooner star running back Greg Pruitt left the field near the end of the game, even the most diehard Kansas State fans rose to their feet to applaud what they had witnessed: In just nineteen carries, Pruitt had rushed for 298, breaking by 11 yards the Big Eight one-game record set by Gale Sayers in 1962. All totaled, the Oklahoma wishbone picked up 711 yards on the ground, or 66 yards more than the NCAA record at the time, and 36 first downs. Jack Mildren, the Sooner quarterback, rushed for 156 yards and threw just seven passes, completing four of them for a total of 74 yards. One of those passes was caught by Pruitt, who gained 34 yards on the play. "They are the greatest offensive running team I've ever seen," said Kansas State head coach Vince Gibson after the game. "I've never seen a better football team. Boy, they're great. I don't believe I've ever seen a better back than Greg Pruitt."
The Oklahoma wishbone wasn't so much a fire as it was an avalanche, and Greg Pruitt was not just some flashy running back. He was a superb blocker, a fine receiver, and a smart football player who even played on punt-coverage teams. As Pruitt's fame grew, he took to wearing a particular T-shirt around the Oklahoma campus in Norman. On the front of the white shirt was the word OKLAHOMA and just underneath it was another word: HELLO.
The back of Pruitt's favorite shirt carried a single word: GOODBYE. It was a message to the defenses that Pruitt and the Sooners had yet to face.
When the Associated Press's weekly Top 20 poll was released on October 26, there were five other undefeated teams in the country: Georgia, Penn State, Auburn, Alabama, and Michigan. Nebraska still held the top spot in the poll with 31 first-place votes, but that was four fewer than the previous week. Oklahoma's record-shattering day against Kansas State made voters in the poll think twice about which team was number one, and the Sooners received 21 first-place votes.
For Oklahoma fans, the move toward the top of the national rankings was a welcome relief after several seasons that were, by Sooner standards, dismal. The school's football legacy was such that the feeling around the state was that the Sooners were on the way to restoring order in the football universe. At Nebraska, the football program had been building momentum since Devaney took charge in 1962. Even with the shared national title in 1970, however, Husker fans had yet to reach the point where (as they would in the not-too-distant future) they could view a national championship as a birthright.
With each passing week in 1971, college football aficionados around the country anticipated more and more the inevitable showdown that loomed between the Cornhuskers and the Sooners on November 25, Thanksgiving Day, in Norman, Oklahoma. It would, on every level, be the single most exciting and superbly played game ever in college football.
Copyright © 2004 by Michael Corcoran