LINCOLN — Russell Morgan was 8 years old in 2001. His dad took him to Boulder the day after Thanksgiving to watch the Huskers seal their path to the Big 12 title game, another step toward another national title appearance.
You all know what happened next.
The Huskers were No. 2 in the country. Colorado was No. 14. The Buffs embarrassed the Huskers. Put up more points on the Blackshirts than any other team in history. A 62-36 thrashing.
Morgan left the stadium that night dejected. And as he walked back to the car with his dad to drive back east, he was struck with a snowball. He turned, he remembers, and saw grown men in Colorado jerseys laughing, packing and chucking snow at Husker fans as they left the stadium.
“Grown adult men throwing snowballs and taunting an 8-year-old Husker fan,” Morgan said.
That’s when his hate for Colorado began. And why, after eight years of stewing, Saturday’s matchup against former Big Seven, Big Eight and Big 12 foe Colorado isn’t just another game. Not for Nebraska fans. Not for Colorado fans.
“It’s personal,” Morgan said.
Nebraska’s had many rivals in its history, but maybe none more contentious than Colorado. That rivalry will revamp Saturday, when the Buffaloes return to Lincoln for the first time since 2010. The two schools have played 69 times, the first matchup in 1898. The Huskers dominate the series, winning 49 of the 69 games. Nebraska won 18 straight games in the late 1960s to early 1980s. But Colorado’s wins, though few and far between, have ruined Husker seasons, and their matchups on Black Friday from 1996 to 2010 were often bloodbaths, sometimes swaying appearances in conference title games. Colorado upset unbeaten Nebraska in 1989 and 1990, knocking the Huskers off course for a national title run. Then there was the 2001 game, which some say was the beginning of the downfall of Nebraska football.
Those wins against the Huskers? They’re still famous in Boulder.
Andy Ventura is a 37-year-old Colorado fan who lives in Thornton, Colorado. He’s been to MLB playoff games, dozens of Broncos games, Big 12 title games. Nothing comes close to that 2001 Nebraska-Colorado game, when the Buffs rolled over Eric Crouch and the Huskers.
“For the first time, I saw Nebraska fans leave a game early,” Ventura said. “Nebraska has never been the powerhouse program they were ever since.”
And he loves it.
There’s a mutual distaste between fan bases. For Nebraska, that comes with being treated poorly at Folsom Field in Colorado. For Colorado, it comes from feeling disrespected by the big red powerhouse, and a dislike for Nebraska fan “arrogance.”
Jared Burkey grew up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and remembers hearing stories of ziplock bags full of urine being thrown at Nebraska fans at games in Boulder. Same with batteries and oranges. Colorado was only a four-hour drive to watch the Huskers, as opposed to the eight-hour trek to Lincoln. And even if Nebraska won, the trip to Colorado wasn’t always pretty.
“I love the people and the state of Colorado as long as college football is not involved,” Burkey said. “I don’t hate the Buffs. I have nothing against them. They want to be a thorn, to be an ache, or an agitator. They are not worth time, nor thought.”
Garrett Lee, a Husker fan from Omaha, remembers being 11 and going to Frank Solich’s last game in Boulder in 2003. As he was walking up to the stadium, Colorado fans were lined up on the inside of the stadium fence, yelling and cursing at Nebraska fans as they got their tickets scanned. Some held “help wanted” signs for Solich’s job.
“One guy was wearing a huge ‘F*** Nebraska’ hat, which was also traumatizing as a kid,” Lee said.
Brett Magana is a 23-year-old Colorado fan born in Scottsbluff. He says, yeah, Nebraska fans aren’t treated all that great in Colorado.
“I don’t think it’s a well-kept secret that CU fans can get pretty nasty with opposing team fans if it’s someone that we don’t like or has beat us in important games,” Magana said. “But I think the thing that makes it worse is that we don’t exactly receive that warm welcome that many other fans receive when coming to Lincoln.”
Ventura attended the 1999 game in Boulder and cheered as his Buffs clawed back after falling behind by 24. Colorado ended up losing, just barely, but he remembers the rude comments as he left stadium that day.
“Two years later, justice was served,” Ventura said of the 2001 win.
Magana remembers dodging beer caps thrown at him and his sister walking into a Nebraska game years ago. And then there’s maybe the most famous story of the rivalry, the sign put on Interstate 80 between Boulder and Lincoln in 1990. In 1989, Colorado beat Nebraska 27-21 during an emotional season mourning the death of CU quarterback Sal Aunese. In 1990, a piece of graffiti hung above two lanes of I-80 the week of the Colorado game, reading: Sal is dead, Go Big Red.
“That was in such poor taste,” Magana said.
That phrase has been repeated to Colorado fans for years, even popping up on Twitter this week before Saturday’s game.
Even after Nebraska left for the Big Ten, and after Colorado joined the Pac-12, there’s still been a sense of hate between fans. It’s been dormant, sure, because they don’t play every year like they used to. But this week, animosity has arisen again. Former Colorado coach Bill McCartney spoke to the media on Monday before coach Mike MacIntyre’s press conference and stirred the pot.
“I’d rather be dead than red,” he said to laughs from the CU media. “Seriously, here’s what you’ve got to understand about Nebraska. Here, we’ve got CU, (Colorado State), Air Force and the Broncos. You know what they got? Nothing! Just that team that’s coming. There’s nothing else for them to do. When they get up every day, that’s the only option they have, is to get behind that Big Red thing.
“We’ve got to beat ’em. That’s the only thing they understand. If you beat ’em, they’ll salute. If you don’t, you will hear about it. We don’t want to hear about it, especially from their media. Because they won’t stop.”
Former Husker coaches George Darlington and Charlie McBride at the Big Red Today Breakfast on Thursday even got a little short when asked about Colorado this week. They conjured up fond memories of beating the Buffs, and the losses still stuck with them, too.
“It was illegal to wear red in the Colorado office,” Darlington said. “So that was kind of a strange deal.”
What this week has proved is the feelings haven’t changed. Colorado fans still think Nebraska is entitled, and washed up. Nebraska fans think Colorado is below them.
Or, as Nebraska fan Ben Raun put it: “(Colorado) is like the kid at recess who, on the rare occasion, scores a touchdown, and doesn’t shut his trap about it.”
The one thing the two fan bases can agree on, though, is that the rekindling of this game is a plus. Nebraska’s current team doesn’t have a lot of connections to the rivalries of the past. But the fan bases, they don’t change like the roster and coaching staff. And the hurts of decades past, they stick around.
And hate aside, the game is sort of like catching back up with an old friend.
Well, kind of.
“Let’s be honest,” Ventura said. “NU fans would rather play a real rival like CU than Iowa.”