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Minnesota Football: Gopher fans bask in bright future as Husker fans cling to past

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Postgame reactions from both sides paint an interesting picture of perceptions

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In his last game as head coach at Nebraska, Bo Pelini capped a nine-win regular season with a 37-34 come-from-behind overtime victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes on Black Friday.

That was all then Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst needed to see.

Pelini was fired two days later, and Eichorst took the opportunity to fire a shot across the bow of Iowa in explaining why he decided the Huskers needed a change in leadership after seven consecutive nine-win seasons under Pelini:

“Our kids showed great character and resiliency in a tough environment, so it did play a factor,” Eichorst said. “But in the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was.”

Since that Black Friday matchup in 2014, Iowa is 4-0 against Nebraska, and they’ve outscored the Cornhuskers 155-72 in those four games. From a broader perspective, the Hawkeyes have gone 37-16 from 2015-18, whereas the Huskers hold a record of 23-27 over that same span.

What does any of this have to do with Minnesota?

Well, after the Golden Gophers’ 34-7 rout of Nebraska on Saturday, I noticed a trend among some of the more vocal Husker fans on Twitter. They were embarrassed, but not simply because their team had been blown out. They were embarrassed to be blown out by Minnesota.

To understand where they are coming from, we have to turn back to the clock to 1997. That was head coach Tom Osborne’s last year as head coach at Nebraska, and it was also the year of the Cornhuskers’ last national championship. Under Osborne, the Huskers had amassed three national championships, 14 conference championships, and 25 consecutive Top 25 finishes. This is the standard to which Nebraska fans hold the program, even today, more than 20 years later.

Times have changed. Unfortunately, Nebraska fans have not, which is why they turn up their noses at programs like Minnesota that they perceive to be inferior.

But what I find interesting is that, historically, each program has dominated the other over one long stretch. The Huskers’ run was simply more recent. Minnesota was 29-6-2 against Nebraska between 1900 and 1960, before head coach Bob Devaney took over at Nebraska and revived the football program, returning them to national prominence. The Huskers proceeded to reel off 16 consecutive wins over the Gophers sporadically across the next 50 years, before Minnesota was able to snap that losing streak in 2013 under Jerry Kill.

Since becoming a member of the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska is 5-4 against Minnesota, including the Gophers’ most recent victory. You’d think that would have earned Minnesota a modicum of respect among Nebraska fans, but from their point of view, that record says more about Nebraska than it does Minnesota. They don’t see strength from the Gophers. They see weakness in the Huskers. Because in their minds, Nebraska is a program that should be competing alongside Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin. They believe their rightful spot is among the elite of the Big Ten, not rolling around in the mud with Iowa and Minnesota.

This has made me appreciate Gopher fans more, to be honest. Never is an opponent taken for granted. No lead is ever safe. I won’t say that we don’t complain about ugly wins over what we perceive to be lesser programs, but we’ve lost enough of those games to appreciate that 1-0, in the end, is a hell of a lot better than 0-1. Yes, this mindset is rooted in past trauma and it can certainly make for frustrating discourse at times, but I’ll take the cautious optimism and nervous hand-wringing over a holier than thou attitude any day.

What I think most Gopher fans understand better than some Husker fans is that college football is cyclical. No one is waxing poetic about the Gophers’ national championships, because times have changed and this is not that same program. (And honestly, I don’t know how many current Gopher fans were alive to see those championships.) But P.J. Fleck is trying to build a program at Minnesota, not re-create an old one. Leave the past where it belongs.

My unsolicited word of advice to Nebraska fans: Respect your opponents, no matter how you feel about the logo on their helmet. There is no such thing as college football royalty. Your place among the Big Ten elite is not assured. You’re going to have to claw your way to the top, but you’re never going to climb the ladder if you refuse to accept which rung you’re on.