50 years later, the Game of the Century resonates as Nebraska, Oklahoma rekindle faded rivalry
They’ll play a game Saturday morning in which the home team is a 22-point favorite. The game was deemed so non-competitive that the visiting team tried to cancel it a scant six months ago.
Forget about the label once affixed to the most notable game in this rivalry’s history: Game of the Century. Nebraska-Oklahoma is not even the game of the day headed into Week 3 of the 2021 college football season.
The rivalry is a shell of its former self, the threads of history yanked apart by time and conference realignment. A rivalry that used to measure itself against any Iron Bowl or Ten-Year War you can name has dimmed, but it is not … quite … gone.
Look into the 70-year-old eyes of Johnny Rodgers. Saturday marks the 50th anniversary the Game of the Century, which ended with No. 1 Nebraska on top of No. 2 Oklahoma, 35-31, on Thanksgiving Day 1971.
That’s why Rodgers is in Norman, Oklahoma, this week to relive and celebrate and hug. The Cornhuskers’ legendary wingback from the early 1970s loves a reunion, and in this series, Saturday’s is one of the biggest.
The anticipated blowout still means something if only because there are still two Big Reds out there who used to hate each other.
“I don’t know if I’m the one to say this,” began Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, the man who oversaw the program’s migration to the SEC this summer. “History and tradition, sometimes that gets kicked to the curb. Sometimes, it’s only about the moment.”
Nebraska and Oklahoma used to fight bitterly for turf and Orange Bowls in the old Big Eight. They haven’t met since 2010 when the Sooners squeezed out a 23-20 win in the Big 12 Championship Game. Two years later, the Huskers were in the Big Ten. Sometime in the next four years, Oklahoma is expected to start play in the SEC.
So yeah, it’s a lot about the moment.
But half a century ago, Rodgers might have made the biggest play in the biggest game that featured nine touchdowns, 829 combined yards and went down to the final minutes. It was Rodgers’ 72-yard punt return in the first quarter that may have been the difference in Nebraska’s victory.
“Time went by past,” he said. “We really did think we had something special with Nebraska and Oklahoma at that time. It was the biggest game we had ever played in and people had ever seen.”
Shake hands with Castiglione. As a 14-year-old in South Florida, he remembers watching the Game of the Century at his grandmother’s house. Back then, a 23-inch black-and-white television was considered a big screen.
“That was my first real recollection watching at Oklahoma football game,” Castiglione said. “That’s when I became familiar with Oklahoma. It was that game.”
When he was introduced as OU’s 11th athletic director in 1998, Castiglione noted in his introduction that number matched the uniform of Jack Mildren, Oklahoma’s quarterback in the Game of the Century.
When it was revealed Nebraska coach Scott Frost had tried to drop Oklahoma earlier this year for Old Dominion or New Mexico State to pick up an easy win, Castiglione’s jaw dropped.
“Disappointed wasn’t the right word,” he said. “It was surreal. It didn’t make any sense.”
You don’t play catch with fine china. You don’t wear white to a mud fight.
Nebraska-Oklahoma is a jewel that shouldn’t be scratched. At least not the one that shone so brightly for decades before the annual meetings stopped more than a decade ago.
Have a drink with Barry Switzer. Sports Illustrated legends Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake certainly did that week. That’s one of Switzer’s fondest memories from the Game of the Century: going out on the town.
As for the actual game, Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator that day still laments not getting the ball more to halfback Greg Pruitt, a two-time All-American. Switzer went on to win three national championships in 16 seasons at OU’s head coach, but call him this week, and it’s what didn’t happen that Thanksgiving Day a half a century ago that still bothers him.
“Tracks meets every week,” Switzer recalled of the Sooners rushing offense that still holds the single-season record at 472 yards per game. “That will never be broken. Just think about that: 472 yards per game.”
On that raw, 47-degree day, the halfback who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting after averaging 9 yards per carry that season, contributed only 53 yards on 10 rushes.
“I was a young offensive coordinator. I probably should have made sure Greg Pruitt carried it 25 times,” Switzer said.
There were no other goats that day, only G.O.A.T.S. Nebraska’s offensive coordinator, Tom Osborne, had two national championships on his resume before he replaced Bob Devaney — the beloved Bobfather — as coach in 1973.
Huskers middle guard Rich Glover posted a defensive performance for the ages: 22 tackles going against All-America center Tom Brahaney, who went on to play nine NFL seasons.
Nebraska I-back Jeff Kinney etched himself into program history with 171 yards and four touchdowns. Halfway through the first quarter, Mildren was playing with his jersey halfway ripped off. The future lieutenant governor of the state carried it 31 times for 130 yards, accounting for four touchdowns himself.
“It was probably the greatest offensive football game I’ve ever seen,” Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who already had four national championships to his name, said on ABC’s postgame show.
Bear would bear witness. Nebraska went on to thrash Alabama 38-6 in the Orange Bowl to clinch a second consecutive national title.
The Game of the Century was that big, that shocking, that amazing. Kinney scored the game-winning touchdown with 98 seconds left. Rodgers kept the winning drive alive catching a third-and-8 pass from Jerry Tagge, inches from the ground, at Oklahoma’s 35.
“Our rule was, if you touch, you can catch it,” said Rodgers, who won the 1972 Heisman. “I caught it.”
Look it up; the grainy footage is still there. Over the five decades since, the “Game of the Century” label has been tossed around like loose change. But Saturday’s anniversary reminds there is still only one. The nation’s No. 1 offense (Oklahoma) went up against the nation’s No. 1 defense (Nebraska).
Fifty-five million people watched on ABC, the largest college football audience at that time. The telecast was laden with car commercials, not too much different than today. The first ad was for Brylcreem. (Ask your grandfather.)
Two ABC broadcasters referred to Oklahoma’s Owen Field as “Owen Stadium.” Analyst Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma’s legendary former coach, was prescient. He broke down Nebraska’s I-formation offense noting it sometimes shifted into “the spread.” The graphic showed a four-receiver set that is all too familiar in 2021.
The wishbone, used by Oklahoma, was still new, adopted by coach Chuck Fairbanks at the urging of Switzer.
“We’d have been that good in 1970 if Chuck had let me go to it in the spring,” Switzer said. “It was something about copying Texas. If it works, who gives a shit?”
You could set your football clock to Nebraska-Oklahoma. They played 86 times, every year from 1921 to 2010. It was a time when coaches were gods, not living trust funds. Osborne used to make filibustering a fine science, going down the entire roster in preseason pressers so he wouldn’t have to answer questions.
That was the polar opposite of Switzer, who once held court with writers at Kansas City’s Union Station the night before the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game. His wingman that night was a fur-coat wearing Tony Casillas, a defensive tackle who won championships playing for Switzer at Oklahoma and with the Dallas Cowboys.
There was the 1987 game referred to as “Game of the Century II”. No. 1 Oklahoma beat No. 2 Nebraska, 17-7, eventually losing the national championship to Miami in the Orange Bowl. There was the 2001 game when Eric Crouch pretty much won the Heisman in October. Nebraska’s quarterback caught a 63-yard touchdown pass.
Osborne became the Nebraska AD, then a U.S. Senator. He was the impetus behind the Texas-loathing move to the Big Ten. How has that one worked out?
Nebraska has lost its way outside the Big 12.
Five decades ago, the Big Eight was the nation’s strongest conference, and it wasn’t close. The league finished the season with teams ranked No. 1 (Nebraska), No. 2 (Oklahoma) and No. 3 (Colorado). The Thanksgiving Day game marked only the fifth such No. 1 vs. No. 2 game ever. That’s routine these days given the BCS and College Football Playoff.
“… it is impossible to stir the pages of history and find one in which both teams performed so reputably for so long throughout the day,” Jenkins wrote in his game account the next week. He was right.
The stakes were so high, Nebraska brought its own consumables to Oklahoma just to avoid food poisoning.
“We don’t want to take any chances on anything,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers claimed to have never fair caught a kick or punt. He certainly didn’t in this game, returning the opening kickoff from 6 yards deep in the end zone. On punts, Rodgers theorized, defenses would trade a 15-yard personal foul by hitting him early rather than risk a long return.
“Fifteen yards was a smaller number than what I would have gotten had I returned it,” Rodgers said.
It was a different TV age. In those days, only a handful of games were aired. Cable TV was still about nine years away. Nebraska-Oklahoma was followed by Georgia-Georgia Tech at night. The Heisman was awarded at halftime of the latter game. Two days later, it was Army-Navy and Auburn-Alabama. That was it.
Saturday’s game will be part of the typical 12-hour blizzard of televised matchups. By the end of the day and the anticipated Oklahoma rout, history may be but a footnote.
Ten years ago, when Nebraska was making its way from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, Oklahoma’s Castiglione wanted to grab a piece of that history. He approached Osborne, then Nebraska AD, with a proposition: Let’s play again.
It turned out the first opening for both teams was Saturday, 50 years after the Game of the Century. The Cornhuskers will get a return game in Lincoln, Nebraska, next year.
But on Friday night, they will laugh, drink, shake hands and talk about history that still should be talked about five decades later.