LINCOLN, Neb. — The Nebraska-Colorado game in recent years has more often foretold the fate of soon-to-be-fired coaches than determined Big 12 North supremacy.
Yet this rivalry — contrived or not — still is a Thanksgiving week staple, and all signs point to it remaining one well into the future.
The Big 12 North champion Cornhuskers (8-3, 5-2 Big 12) and Buffaloes (3-8, 2-5) will meet in their 14th straight day-after-Thanksgiving game in Boulder on Friday. The story line this time revolves around whether Dan Hawkins will still be Colorado’s coach on Saturday.
In 2003, Nebraska fired Frank Solich the day after he beat the Buffs, and in 2007 the Huskers canned Bill Callahan 12 hours after a loss to CU.
Not since 2001 has Nebraska-Colorado truly decided the division champion. Four times, including this year, one or the other team came into the game having already clinched the North. Colorado twice backed into the division title after beating the Huskers and having things break their way in other games.
Nebraska leads the series 47-18-2 and have won nine of the last 13 meetings.
Second-year Nebraska coach Bo Pelini can’t say exactly why the game is considered a rivalry.
“I judge that from the fans,” Pelini said. “I haven’t been a part of this program for a real long time. I know this is a game special to our fans, and it’s special to the Colorado fans.”
The Big 12 schedule pits Nebraska against Colorado during Thanksgiving week through 2015. Big 12 senior associate commissioner Tim Allen said he believes the game will keep its place on the calendar when scheduling beyond 2015 is discussed within the next year.
Allen said the matchup remains appealing to television partner ABC-ESPN even though the stakes haven’t been high in recent years.
“We believe Nebraska and Colorado will return to where they were years ago,” Allen said.
Colorado used to play Nebraska in late October or early November but replaced Oklahoma as the Huskers’ final regular-season opponent in 1996, when the Big 12 began play.
There have been some great games. Nebraska’s five wins from 1996-2000 were decided by a total of 15 points.
But the series bears little resemblance to those Nebraska-Oklahoma Thanksgiving week classics that almost always decided Big Eight championships and often had a bearing on who played for the national title.
Longtime fans will remember that the Nebraska-Colorado rivalry was borne not from a history of great games but from CU coach Bill McCartney’s mandate that his team must have a red-letter game each year. The Huskers, longtime powers from the bordering state to the east, were his choice in 1982 as he began to build a program that had hit hard times under Chuck Fairbanks.
Nebraska, McCartney told anyone who would listen, was the evil empire. He went so far as to forbid players and staff from wearing red.
Tom Osborne, Nebraska’s coach at the time, never acknowledged Colorado as a true rival, something Colorado fans and media considered a slight.
The current players know only that Nebraska-Colorado is somehow a special game.
“Even if they were 8-3 or 3-8, they’re always going to throw everything at us,” Nebraska center Jacob Hickman said. “They’re going to do whatever they can to beat Nebraska. I would expect nothing less from them.”
Whether the game keeps its place in the Friday afternoon time slot is subject to change. That decision is made on a year-to-year basis in June, Allen said.
Pelini said it’s fine with him if the game continues to be played on a Friday.
“Who am I to buck tradition?” he said. “We get a good national audience watching the football game, and I always enjoy that because it’s good for our program at this point.”
Osborne, now the Nebraska athletic director, said he likes playing the day after Thanksgiving because the game is televised on a day when not a lot of people are working.
Asked if he believes the opponent should remain Colorado, he said: “As far as being married to that, no. But if the TV people want to keep Colorado-Nebraska, you have to listen.”
Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn was with the Buffs’ basketball team in Hawaii and not available for questions.
Buffs quarterback Tyler Hansen said Nebraska-Colorado has developed into a holiday tradition worth preserving.
“When I was young and into football, the day after Thanksgiving, you don’t want to watch those parades, the cartoons, so you flip the channels and see this game is on,” he said. “You may not have an affiliation with it, but you’ll watch it because it’s on. Most of the nation will do that. It means a lot.”
Nebraska tight end Mike McNeill said he knows that Colorado is a rival and that the games are hard-hitting.
He wasn’t quite sure, however, why the game seems to get more buildup than some others the Huskers play against Big 12 North opponents.
“I really have nothing against those guys,” he said.