Wriiten by best sportswriter in Nebraska, Sam McKewon:
A league that spurns and mocks Nebraska now will fracture soon enough
By Samuel McKewon, Nebraska StatePaper.com
December 02, 2010
Destruction, by Thomas Cole
“There is the moral of all human tales;'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.”-Lord Byron
“Go ahead and sell me out and I'll lay your s*** bare.”-Adele, "Rolling In the Deep"
In his five-piece series entitled “The Course of Empire,” painter Thomas Cole brilliantly evoked the arc of world civilizations as of 1833: The Savage State, a wilderness still untamed; a Pastoral stage that emphasized harmony with nature and simplicity; the Consummation of Empire, which depicted a world government at the height of its powers; Destruction, in which chaos and revolution reaches a fever pitch in pure distress; and Desolation, the ruins that remain after the rubble stops smoldering. Cole saw the cycle as inexorable - he quoted Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgramage" to drive his point home.
It's a basic-but-brilliant guide to how great structures – of bricks, of principles, of people – are built by the ingrained human desire for more, and toppled by the excess of protean ambition that alights on whatever fallen fancy happens to catch man's eye in the moment. For David it was Bathsheba, for Julius Caesar a Rubicon, for Marie Antoinette a necklace, and for the Best and Brightest, a cockeyed fascination with occupying a small nation in Southeast Asia.
For the Big 12 Conference – certainly no empire of Caesar, but packed with its share of Marie Antoinettes – that object of desire appears obvious: An eye toward placating Texas, at all costs. But that is a recent phenomenon, brought to bear only under pressure. Beneath the surface idolatry of league officials is an embedded one that I think has dogged the Big 12 for years: A yearning for legitimacy in a ESPN-run universe that pinches the Midwest on all sides. The Big Ten has more TV sets and revered academic institutions. The Big East has proximity. The ACC has basketball. The Pac-10 has irrelevancy, a hidden, useful virtue. The SEC draws the fascination of those who like their football with a side platter rank corruption, Confederate flags, belles and buttermilk (the drink and otherwise).
What the old Southwest Conference and Big Eight each enjoyed for decades – a homogeneity in values and people, a toughness forged by landscape – fit Steinbeck more than Sportscenter. When the Big 12 formed, it was done by men with an eye to Madison Avenue. To creating a product, a package.
As the league begins to fall apart – beginning what I predict is a five-year descent into Destruction that could alter the course of several academic institutions for years – pay close attention to the school that Big 12 officials and certain media members attack: The one where the journey meant more than the destination. Where football culture preaches More Than Winning. Where, although its citizens – including the current head coach - sometimes screw up, they nevertheless return, almost prodigally, to this central idea: Come together and do it right, and it will work. Nebraska.
In the last four months, critics mocked the program, Bo Pelini, Tom Osborne, the players, the traditions, the history and, most of all, the Husker fans. Most of those taunts and critiques reeked of intellectual dishonesty - worse than ignorance, because it speaks to a willful manipulation of the facts for cheap points. Shots across the bow of NU are inevitably jabs thrown at the fan base because, as the city-slicks in Kansas City and Dallas would say of this state, there's nothing else to do here. Critics took umbrage with Husker fans who travel well, are friendly and take some element of contentment in both qualities. A variety of columns this week – I won't do them justice – were so derivative and reflexive in their teeth-bearing nature that they seemed to convulse from a league-wide knee-jerk delivered out of home office by commissioner Dan Beebe.
Writers juxtaposed Nebraska as it “used to be” with what it's “become,” as if there weren't always stories of doofs and daredevils in every fan base. Radio jocks have slammed NU's move to the Big Ten as a betrayal more than a defection – which it is, borne out of necessity, to avoid the collapse that's to come. Usually foresight is a good thing. But when Nebraska was only one of two schools with any sense of duty to its citizenry – Colorado cleverly maneuvered its way to the new-albeit-shoddy Pac-12 – of course it seemed like arrogance. Especially to the school that specializes in it – Missouri.
You can bet the mark will be on Nebraska's back for several years as it struggles with a laughably hard schedule in the Big Ten. The media is gifted at peddling recycled headlines until a new one comes along. But don't kid yourself: By the time NU is finally settling into the Big Ten's unique culture and values – it won't be an easy transition – you'll see the orphans of the Big 12 – that is, every school left from the Big 12 North, plus Baylor and Texas Tech in the South - scrambling for a foothold in some far-flung, disconnected-to-the-Midwest league. Mizzou might get on in the Big Ten. The others won't.
Why? Because Texas – who I pity more than blame, for what I think is to come for that giant university - has its eye on consummation. It seeks to be a brand unto itself – a Notre Dame, a Harvard – and it wants to use college football's equivalent of petrodollars – TV money – to get there. UT will hang around the Big 12 only long enough to build its own Bevo Network, supplement it with some exclusive deal with the Mouse House and set out into the savage wilderness on its own. It has the money and the vainglorious audacity to try. Ample evidence exists that it's done nothing for Notre Dame, really, other than reinvigorate its critics. But UT is set on creating its own empire, not operating in a decaying one.
Oh, you doubt it? Consider that Texas nearly courted disaster by dragging the Big 12 South – and CU – with it to a Pac-16. It had to be dragged back from the brink by ESPN - which didn't want Fox Sports to gain too much of a foothold in college sports - and Texas A&M, which fancied, if only a little bit, the SEC. The Longhorns are restless. They've fallen in love with themselves and their seeming popularity. They definitively want to leave those North schools behind. Just wait until Texas plays two road games in the pastoral north every year. See how long that lasts for Burnt Orange fans who want to see the world, not just the Little Apple.
In its quest for independence, UT would turn its back on a basic staple of Lone Star wisdom: Stay loyal to your in-state brothers. Texas football – from Class 2A high school games in the desert to the Cowboys in JerryWorld – has a unique identity. The Longhorns would risk breaking with tradition – but I think they'll take the chance.
I have been less critical of Dan Beebe - and his few cronies/toadies - throughout this process for this reason: He's Lee Harvey Oswald, the man with the title of assassin without the trigger to pull. He likes action verbs and colorful nouns; he would have made for a perfectly mediocre sportswriter. As a leader, he's destined to become Ray Handley. Knowing the deep-seated insecurities of Nebraska fans, he'll remain a villain in our folklore, but he's otherwise a footnote. The answer to a trivia question.
There's a difference between concerted, manipulative leadership designed to pervert justice for Nebraska, and the feckless, reactionary kind that Beebe uses. He's not going to set the price on any TV contracts; he'll just be there to announce the number. The “white paper” he sent last spring to Big 12 schools – in an attempt to woo them to stay – was a congenial, back-patting effort at best.
Hell, even after the Big 12 lost two schools, nothing stopped it from pursuing two more. BYU would have listened. TCU, too. What gave? Money, obviously. ESPN wasn't going to throw any more in the pot for 12 teams if the Big 12 reinflated to its moniker. Instead, the league will tout a laughable, murderous round-robin slate that annually robs every school but one – read: Oklahoma or Texas, most years – from any kind useful achievement whatsoever. In Pac-10, Oregon's had the conference crown sewed up for weeks.
In essence, the Big 12 traded in a system that greased the wheels for success for a template that, in theory, will pay off with more TV petrodollars. But what about the gate receipts? Booster donations? When Kansas State or Iowa State pulls its bedraggled carcass into the final game with a 2-9 record, what excitement does that inspire? How many seasons of futility can a program survive? Nothing succeeds – especially in the cash department – like success. Folks – that's why the bowl system still exists. A playoff would rob dozens of programs of the illusion of a postseason bowl. The new Big 12 (10) robs every North team (except perhaps Missouri) of that opportunity – the illusion – of winning a division title.
Remember how ISU, KU, Mizzou and KSU fell into disarray for a quarter-century in the Big Eight while Nebraska and Oklahoma ruled the roost? It's going to happen again. For five years, anyway.
And then what? Texas has the time, the contacts and the audacity to walk. Oklahoma finds a soft place to land, but loses all sense of its connectivity to the Midwest. The orphans go to live at whatever home will take them.
It could have been so different. But years of ingrained jealousy for Nebraska's football program - and disregard for NU's improving academic performance – left the Huskers' neighbors marching to a Texas beat. They still do. And their journalists, lacking any kind of long-term vision, preferring to indulge in solipsistic rants, march right along. A Philistine like Beebe ambles by, soft-peddling threats like “maniacs,” and of course it sells. It fits the mood of the day.
When these institutions face toil and trouble in the next decade – and, by proxy, their writers must again assess the damage - they'll look to Texas, pleading like the man in the painting to a statue that cut off its head to spite its soul. The clouds will swirl and roll in, and crowds will run out to the balconies again to see the show. And there will be a kind of blood that cuts no one visibly but hurts a lot of lives, leaving more uncertain of the future.
In that moment, Nebraska fans will have their true vindication. But I suspect, by then, it'll be bittersweet. The remorse of a divorce that could have been prevented – if not for human nature.